This past Friday night while attending Frequency Friday at the High Museum of Art, I dared venture out in 30-degree weather in tights, skirt, denim jacket and hat. My blood must have thickened. Or maybe I’m just stronger overall because I refuse to worry about those things I cannot control and am fully committed to doing me. Audre Lorde once said, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” I feel that! This new attitude, this new faith I practice seems to have made me more resilient in just about every way imaginable. Don’t get me wrong—getting to this point has been a long, hard lesson to learn but I’ve done it and my soul smiles because of it. But I digress.
Frequency Friday is a once-a-month evening social at the High with cocktails and music and immersive art-centered activities. It’s free with admission or membership and always draws a super hip, open-minded racially diverse crowd. I love it. But maybe I’m jumping the gun here.
What is the High Museum of Art? If you’ve seen Black Panther, then you’ve seen both the High’s interior and exterior. In Black Panther, when Killmonger goes to the fictional Museum of Great Britain in London to steal a Wakandan axe, he’s actually at the High Museum of Art—the top art museum here in the Southeast which features 15,000 plus works of art in its permanent collection as well as an impressive amount of African American and African art. The High is one of my Atlanta favorites and I’m a proud member. I take my boys there as often as possible— to Toddler Thursdays or Second Sundays or the Theatre for the Very Young at Alliance Theatre.
When I’m dating myself or a companion, both the High and Woodruff Arts Center complex have been a regular destination. I most recently fell in love all over again with the works of Romare Bearden at the High. I’ve enjoyed drinks with friends at Twelve Eighty. I’ve caught an amazing filming of Pyscho at Symphony Hall which featured a live performance of the film’s score by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. And on this past Friday, I and a few special companions took in the Virgial Abloh: Figures of Speech Exhibit.
As I write this, I’ve just come from the High’s permanent Folk Art collection where I focused on the work of the Metro Atlantan who is the main feature of this post. Her name is Nellie Mae Rowe and after reading her story here, I received further personal confirmation that my new faith is a gift from ancestors like Rowe.
This lovely lady was born one of ten children in 1900 to a blacksmith/basket weaver and seamstress in Fayetteville. Rowe began drawing at an early age and drew every chance she got whenever she wasn’t working the fields of her family’s rented farm land to help support her family. Because her family’s survival depended on her laboring, she never received an education past the fourth grade. However, she did learn to create wooden sculptures, quilts and dolls from her mother. At age 16, fed up with working the land, she left and married some dude who moved her to Vinings where she became a domestic much like the majority of the Black women who had to somehow earn a living in Atlanta in those days.
After her first husband died, Rowe met and married a second man and moved into a home they built together at 2014 Paces Ferry Road. That husband died too. (No, she didn’t kill either of them.) Rowe was 48 years old at the time and that is when her artistic career began. THIS IS KEY.
Rowe had spent the overwhelming majority of her life placing others’ needs before her own. As a child foregoing education to care for family. As a wife marrying two men and catering to their needs in and out of the bedroom. As a domestic waiting on hand and foot for White people in the City of Atlanta. Had she not struggled with infertility issues, she most likely would have put her children’s needs before her own as most mothers do.
But with husband number two dead and gone, Rowe made the deliberate decision to finally do that which made her happy—drawing and crafting things with her hands. The home she built with her second husband became her “playhouse,” her sanctuary, her safe space where she was free to create and dream and LIVE. She bedazzled the inside of her home and its surrounding gardens with her various crafts and creations. She hung ornaments from the trees and fashioned the bushes into animal-shaped topiary. She placed larger-than-life dolls and toys around her doors and windows. If HOAs existed then, she would have been fined a pretty penny because her home definitely stood out—so much so that neighbors often vandalized her property.
Rowe, however, didn’t allow her neighbors to interfere with what felt good and right to her. Instead, she prayed about their intolerance and continued to create. Eventually, visitors came, not to protest and decry but instead to behold and celebrate. Between the years of 1973 and 1975, nearly 1000 people came to visit and appreciate Rowe’s playhouse. A year later, her work was featured in the Atlanta Historical Society 1976 exhibit, “Missing Pieces: Georgia Folk Art 1770-1976.”
Rowe died in 1982 after being diagnosed with multiple myeloma the previous year. But before she died, she got to witness and financially benefit from her work being featured in top galleries in New York, Chicago, and Washington DC. Today, even though her beloved Playhouse no longer exists on Paces Ferry, there is a room at the High Museum of Art entitled Nellie Mae Rowe’s Playhouse that exclusively features her creations and her art hangs in galleries all over the country.
I’m so happy to have learned about Nellie Mae Rowe today. I’d seen her work before but making the time to learn about her life really touched me. I now own my very own home which sits on an acre of land and I’ve spent these first few months in it thinking about the ways I’d like to make it my personal playhouse and sanctuary. I’ve imagined feature walls and personal paintings and crocheted throw pillows inside with yarn-bombed tree trunks and fire pits and blue bottles outside. LOL. There is no HOA in my neighborhood and my new religion wouldn’t allow me to care about an HOA anyway. I’m just focused on making myself at home and possibly making Mama Rowe proud.