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Really Free: The Radical Art of Nellie Mae Rowe

October 1, 2021 | Katherine Jentleson

On view through January 9, 2022

Nellie Mae Rowe (American, 1900–1982), Untitled (The Angel and the Devil’s Boot), 1978, crayon, pen, and pencil on cardboard, promised gift of Harvie and Charles Abney. © Estate of Nellie Mae Rowe/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

In the last decade and a half of her life, Nellie Mae Rowe reclaimed the love of art making she had experienced as a child. She began drawing with frequency and decorated her home and yard, which she called her “Playhouse,” with found-object installations, handmade dolls, and sculpture made from chewing gum and other reused material.

As the first major exhibition on Rowe in nearly twenty years, Really Free offers a new look at the many dimensions of her practice and recontextualizes her bold decision not to go quietly into her final years. Her choice to practice art was a way of demanding the respect and visibility that she had so long been denied as a Black woman living in the American South. Though her work rarely directly addressed political or social concerns, it emerged from a radical act of self-affirmation and liberation that allowed her to imagine and create a world many degrees more beautiful than the one she knew.

Really Free draws on the Museum’s leading collection of Rowe’s work, presenting nearly fifty of her drawings, the majority of which come from the generous gifts that Rowe’s friend and gallerist Judith Alexander made to the Museum between 1998 and 2003. The exhibition, which is accompanied by a fully illustrated multi-contributor catalogue, will also feature reconstructions of her Playhouse that were created for a forthcoming documentary on Rowe to be released by the New York-based firm Opendox in 2022.

Banner image: View of Nellie Mae Rowe’s Playhouse from the film set of This World is Not My Own. Courtesy of Opendox. Photo by Petter Ringbom.

Exhibition catalogue available for purchase at the Museum Shop and at Members receive 10% off Shop purchases.


Inquiring Minds
Tuesday, October 12, 1–2:30 p.m.
Members: $14; Not-Yet-Members: $18
Inquiring Minds invites participants to explore key artworks, artists, and themes on view at the High through small group conversation facilitated by museum educators. The October session will focus on Really Free. These sessions are participatory in nature—they are not lectures. Come as you are, with your observations, ideas, questions, and opinions.

Exploring Folk and Self-Taught Art at the High
Thursdays, October 14–November 4, 1–2:30 p.m.
Members: $200; Not-Yet-Members: $250
This multiweek course, led by Katherine Jentleson, Merrie and Dan Boone Curator of Folk and Self-Taught Art, will explore the High’s permanent Folk and Self-Taught collection and examine two major exhibitions, Gatecrashers and Really Free. These sessions will take place on-site at the High with an off-site visit in the Atlanta area.

For more information, visit, email, or call 404-733-5051.

LINK: Really Free: The Radical Art of Nellie Mae Rowe
LINK is a new digital platform from the High that extends the reach of the Museum’s collection and exhibitions by providing new ways to experience them online. Learn more about Nellie Mae Rowe’s life and artwork, explore the galleries of the exhibition, and see how other people have responded to her work in both historic and present-day guestbooks by going to

This exhibition is organized by the High Museum of Art, Atlanta.

The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts
Judith Alexander and Henry Alexander
Troutman Pepper
The Judith Alexander Foundation

Generous support for the national tour of Really Free: The Radical Art of Nellie Mae Rowe is provided by
Art Bridges.

Delta Air Lines

Northside Hospital

Sarah and Jim Kennedy
Louise Sams and Jerome Grilhot
Dr. Joan H. Weens Estate
wish Foundation

Anne Cox Chambers Foundation
Robin and Hilton Howell

The Antinori Foundation
Corporate Environments
Elizabeth and Chris Willett

Farideh and Al Azadi
Sandra and Dan Baldwin
Lucinda W. Bunnen
Marcia and John Donnell
Helen C. Griffith
Mrs. Fay S. Howell/The Howell Fund
Mr. and Mrs. Baxter Jones
The Arthur R. and Ruth D. Lautz Charitable Foundation
Joel Knox and Joan Marmo
Dr. Joe B. Massey
Margot and Danny McCaul
The Ron and Lisa Brill Family Charitable Trust
Wade Rakes and Nicholas Miller
The Fred and Rita Richman Fund
In Memory of Elizabeth B. Stephens
USI Insurance Services
Mrs. Harriet H. Warren

Alfred and Adele Davis Exhibition Endowment Fund, Anne Cox Chambers Exhibition Fund, Barbara Stewart Exhibition Fund, Dorothy Smith Hopkins Exhibition Endowment Fund, Eleanor McDonald Storza Exhibition Endowment Fund, The Fay and Barrett Howell Exhibition Fund, Forward Arts Foundation Exhibition Endowment Fund, Helen S. Lanier Endowment Fund, Isobel Anne Fraser–Nancy Fraser Parker Exhibition Endowment Fund, John H. and Wilhelmina D. Harland Exhibition Endowment Fund, Katherine Murphy Riley Special Exhibition Endowment Fund, Margaretta Taylor Exhibition Fund, and the RJR Nabisco Exhibition Endowment Fund