Self-taught artists take center stage at Atlanta’s High Museum of Art, with Nellie Mae Rowe in the spotlight


A large art museum serves as both a global and a local institution, bringing global artwork to its local audience and showcasing local artists to a global audience. After saying “goodbye” to an exhibition featuring two of the most famous artists in world history – Pablo Picasso and Alexander Calder – the High Museum of Art in Atlanta now shines its spotlight on a local artist who deserves more. of praise: Nellie Mae Rowe.

“Really Free: The Radical Art of Nellie Mae Rowe” ​​(until January 9, 2022) features nearly 60 works from the museum’s main art collection. The exhibition is the first major presentation of his work in over 20 years and the first to view his practice as a radical act of self-expression and liberation in the post-civil rights era South.

Rowe’s story follows a narrative not uncommon for self-taught artists of the 20e century, especially black artists. Late in life, freed from the obligations of manual labor for a living, Rowe rediscovered a passion for art. Memories and personal experiences poured out of her into unique and creative expressions. These were represented through the simplest materials: pencils, cardboard, found objects.

His very house transformed into an artistic environment.

For the last 15 years of her life, Rowe (1900-1982) lived on Paces Ferry Road, a main thoroughfare in suburban Atlanta’s Vinings neighborhood, where she welcomed visitors to her “Playhouse” which she owned. decorated with installations of found objects, handmade dolls, chewing gum sculptures and hundreds of drawings.

The attention of the mainstream art world found Rowe before his passing, but in the years that followed his mark faded. The High Museum is attempting to change this, positioning Rowe in a larger conversation, less sensitive to the historical marginalization that can be attached to the “black, southerner and folk artist”.

“She was (in her creative heyday, exhibited in New York galleries, welcoming visitors to the Playhouse) during the 1970s, which was a pivotal moment in the reception of art by black artists, women and men. the self-taught, “Katie Jentleson, Merrie and Dan Boone, curator of folk art and self-taught at the High Museum, told “The (Black Emergency Cultural Coalition) picketing the Whitney. Linda Nochlin posting “Why Weren’t There Great Women Artists?” The renewed interest in popular and self-taught art that emerged from the moment of the bicentenary. I hope this show helps him put it in context as someone who has lived and worked at the intersection of these and other stories.

The gambling house

Rowe started making art as a child in the countryside of Fayetteville, Georgia. She was one of 10 siblings, nine daughters. Rowe didn’t find the time and space to reclaim her art practice until the late 1960s. As she filled her home with drawings and sculptures, Rowe’s Playhouse became an Atlanta attraction, this which has fostered its growing reputation and public reception.

“She loved drawing and making dolls as a child, but had to put those interests aside quickly as she was needed on the farm, married young (17) and spent most of her life as a domestic worker, ”Jentleson explains. “After her second husband passed (she was widowed twice) and her long-time employers also passed away in the late 1960s, she began to seriously draw again and turned her house into her playhouse, decorating each surface and every corner with recycled and handmade items. “

Out of service to others, she could serve herself. “Now I have to go back to my childhood. What you call playing in an auditorium, ”Rowe said.

She chose to open the Playhouse to hundreds of visitors, mostly white, a move Jentleson found “courageous.”

Atlanta likes its motto as ‘The City Too Busy To Hate’, but in reality Rowe experienced the rebirth of the KKK in the nearby town of Stone Mountain and the birth of the American neo-Nazi movement, which included a tremendous amount of violence. towards black people. people who came close to the city, like Rowe did, ”she explains.“ So the way she demanded respect and visibility through her art, and the generosity that she showed towards the people who came to her door to meet her, was really radical. “

One of the reasons for the title of the exhibition.

Sadly, Rowe’s Playhouse was demolished shortly after his death.

“In the early 1980s, there wasn’t the kind of widespread respect for artistic environments that you see today, with institutions like the Kohler Foundation striving to preserve them,” Jentleson said. “She also lived in a part of the Atlanta metro area that was – and still is – constantly gentrifying.”

An Indigo hotel now occupies the place with a plaque in his memory and an exhibition of his art in the lobby. High’s exhibit contains several scaled-down recreations of the Playhouse that were created for an upcoming film about the artist.

A piece of a bigger puzzle

The High began collecting Rowe’s designs in 1980. Between 1998 and 2003, major gifts totaling more than 130 works from pioneering Atlanta art dealer Judith Alexander, a friend and avid supporter of Rowe, solidified the gifts. holdings of High as the largest public repository of his art.

These acquisitions supported the historical importance that the High accorded to self-taught artists. The museum began collecting the work of living, self-taught artists in 1975 with a piece by Mattie Lou O’Kelley. Thirty drawings by Bill Traylor entered the museum in 1982, making him a leader in the field. In 1994, the Haut became the first museum of general interest to create a department dedicated to popular and self-taught art.

Much of this direction came from longtime Southern folk art collector and Board member T. Marshall Hahn, who felt that the museum should be a leader in the region and donated its collection. to the institution to support this vision.

Today, the High has one of the largest collections of American folk and self-taught art in the world, particularly rich in works of art by South American and African American artists. This larger story can be seen simultaneously at the High during the “Gatecrashers: The Rise of the Self-Taught Artist in America” exhibition (until December 11).

Also organized by Jentleson, “Gatecrashers” features works from the famous early 20e painters of the century, including Horace Pippin and Anna Mary Robertson “Grandma” Moses, artists who fundamentally reshaped who could carry this moniker in the United States.

They paved the way for Rowe and others, overcoming obstacles related to class, race, and gender to enter the inner sanctuaries of the traditional art world. Despite their lack of formal training, these artists’ paintings of American life in the towns and rural communities where they lived, as well as fantastic scenes derived from their imaginations, were celebrated by other artists, collectors and museums in tastes like that of New York. Museum of Modern Art, especially in the 1930s and early 1940s.

After his presentation at The High, “Gatecrashers” will visit the Brandywine River Museum of Art (May 28 to September 5, 2022) and the Westmoreland Museum of American Art (October 30, 2022 to February 5, 2023).

“Really Free” will also travel nationwide through 2023 with locations yet to be determined.

Elsewhere around Atlanta

Now presents a particularly good time to see art in Atlanta. In addition to the High exhibits, the Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University presents “Each Other: Marie Watt and Cannupa Hanska Luger,” a rare display of contemporary Native American art in the city through December 12.

Atlanta’s Museum of Design, Southeast’s only museum dedicated exclusively to the study and celebration of design, showcases “Survival Architecture and the Art of Resilience” through Sunday, January 16, 2022 The exhibit demonstrates the power of design to help build resilience and find solutions to the greatest challenges of the 21st century, including climate change.

The future also looks bright with superstar Radcliffe Bailey, who lives near Cascade Springs Nature Reserve in southwest Atlanta, innovating on a City of Atlanta commission to create site-specific artwork. to be installed in the 120 acre reserve. Music is a recurring subject in Bailey’s work, and the site will be a tribute to that part of Atlanta history and culture, envisioned as a gathering place for musicians and the community at large.

Bailey hopes to see the space activated with musical performances and reenactments of speeches from abolitionist leaders. He describes the outdoor work as an “African-American Stonehenge,” with foundations inspired by an amphitheater.



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