Empty Chair, 1981. Nellie Mae Rowe. Graphite, crayon, and pastel on paper. Gift of Souls Grown Deep Foundation from the William S. Arnett Collection, 2014. © 2022 Nellie Mae Rowe / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.The artist reflects on her own mortality in Empty Chair. A female figure in a matching red hat and shirt, a surrogate for the painter, gazes upon a younger version of herself that hovers over an empty chair suggesting absence and loss. The older incarnation turns away from a Tree of Life flanked by a peaceful menagerie. Rowe’s complicated symbolic language frees her drawings from any fixed meaning or singular interpretation, allowing the viewer to meditate on the narrative and metaphorical possibilities embedded within each piece.
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.