Nellie's Birthday, 1981. Nellie Mae Rowe. Colored pencil, crayon, and graphite 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.Filled with bright patterns, verdant vegetation, stylized figures, and somewhat indistinct, hybridized animals, Rowe’s fanciful and exuberant imagery offers a view into a private pictorial universe. Nellie’s Birthday exemplifies her unique conflation of fantasy and autobiography. The artist executed this drawing to commemorate her eighty-first birthday, which, owing to her cancer diagnosis earlier that year, she thought would be her last. On the left side of the composition, a Tree of Life (a recurring motif in her work) appears near a figure looking over a grave marker bearing Rowe’s name.
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.