Rowe began making art as a child in rural Fayetteville, Georgia, but only found the time and space to reclaim her artistic practice in the late 1960s, following the deaths of her second husband and members of the family for whom she worked. Although she did not speak much about politics or social movements, she purposefully embraced her creativity and devoted her life to making art during a time when civil rights leaders and Black feminist politicians and artists were igniting great change across the country.
As she filled it with drawings and sculptures, Rowe’s Playhouse became an Atlanta attraction, which fostered her growing reputation and public reception. She began to exhibit her art outside of her home, beginning with Missing Pieces: Georgia Folk Art, 1770-1976, a bicentennial exhibition that brought attention to several Southern self-taught artists, including Rowe and Howard Finster, and traveled to venues throughout Georgia. In 1982, the year she died, Rowe’s work received a new level of acclaim, as she was honored in a solo exhibition at Spelman College and included as one of three women artists in the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s landmark exhibition Black Folk Art in America: 1930-1980.
The High began collecting her drawings in 1980. Between 1998 and 2003, major gifts totaling more than 130 works from trailblazing Atlanta art dealer Judith Alexander, a friend, and ardent supporter of Rowe, solidified the High’s holdings as the largest public repository of Rowe’s art. Recently, the Museum announced another major gift of seventeen drawings by Rowe from Atlantans Harvie and Charles Abney. Selections from this gift, as well as recent gifts and pledges of Rowe’s drawings and photographs of the artist and her Playhouse taken by Lucinda Bunnen and Melinda Blauvelt, will be presented as part of the exhibition.
Really Free will feature the colorful, and at times simple, sketches Rowe made on found materials in the 1960s and reveal their relationship to her most celebrated, highly complex compositions on paper of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Other sections of the exhibition will explore themes in Rowe’s work such as depictions of women, her childhood, images of her garden, and her experimentation with materials, including recycling cast-offs to make handmade dolls and chewing gum sculptures. The final galleries will focus on her career breakthrough and ruminations on death and the afterlife.
In addition to works on paper and sculptures, the exhibition will feature photographs as well as components and footage from the experimental film on Rowe’s life to be released by Opendox in 2022, This World is Not My Own, which includes an artful reconstruction of her Playhouse. Through these elements, visitors can experience the lively art environment she created in and outside of her home.
Really Free will be presented in the lower level of the High’s Wieland Pavilion.