The High Museum of Art (high.org) exhibits the artwork of Nellie Mae Rowe (1900-1982), an American self-taught artist from Georgia. One of ten children, Nellie fled the cotton fields to marry Ben Wheat. They relocated from Fayette County, Georgia to the Vinings, a small town located just outside Atlanta’s city limits. Nellie became a widow for the first time at the age of 36. She married the older widower, Henry “Buddy” Rowe. They built a 2-room cottage at 2041 Paces Ferry Road. Nellie became a widow for the 2nd time in 1948 at the age of 48. Nellie devoted the rest of her life creating art. One of her most remarkable pieces is Two-Faced Head (1980), a sculpture she created when she was close to death.

Memory jugs are funerary objects. Essentially, they memorialize the dead. Most are found in America. Although the origins is unclear, a growing number of experts believe the tradition came out of Central Africa. They are made with an ailing person’s hair and the like. They may also be adorned with items representing the person. Nellie’s father was a former slave who worked his own farm. Her mother was an accomplished quilter. Both would have passed on their African traditions to Nellie and her siblings.

After Buddy died, Nellie was able to turn her home into her studio. She named it the “Playhouse.” Here she made dolls, created yard art, and taught herself how to draw. She adorned her front yard with stuffed animals and art. Symbolism fills her works; Nellie was deeply religious.

Shortly after Nellie was diagnosed with skin cancer, she began Two-Faced Head (1980). She affixed gum she chewed to build the face. She added rhinestones, pearls, and ribbons. She poured herself into the piece, intending it to live on once she died.

Nellie realized fame before she died; her first solo exhibition was in 1978. She is recognized as one of the most influential self-taught artists in America.

Watch a short film: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pTPIf2jUTjc