Atlanta's Missing Children, 1981. Nellie Mae Rowe. Commercial paint, crayon, oil pastel, graphite, ink marker, and cut and pasted paper on paperboard. Gift of Souls Grown Deep Foundation from the William S. Arnett Collection, 2014. © 2022 Nellie Mae Rowe / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.Rowe’s fantastical and densely coded Atlanta’s Missing Children responds to the murders of at least eighteen children and six adults, events that terrorized the city between 1979 and 1981. While she often depicted animals in a benign or playful manner, the central blue creature of this piece is decidedly menacing, due in part to its bared teeth and cloven hooves. Like Thornton Dial, Rowe used animals as symbols or avatars in her work, making her drawings (perhaps deliberately) difficult to interpret. Here, the blue creature could serve as an avatar for Wayne Williams, the man accused of the murders and thus a form of predator.
Born in Fayette County, Georgia, at the turn of the 20th century, Nellie Mae Rowe did not begin to make art until she was in her late forties. She initially used her front yard as a studio where she made decorations such as stuffed animals, life-size dolls, and chewing gum sculptures. When neighbors responded negatively to her outdoor installation she turned to drawings. In 1981 Rowe was diagnosed with cancer, and all four works by Rowe included in the museum’s gift collection from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation date from that year, the year before her death.