"When I was a child," Pablo Picasso once said, "I could draw like Raphael, but it took me a lifetime to learn to draw like a child."
Nellie Mae Rowe apparently always knew how.
A traveling exhibition of some 90 drawings, paintings, sculptures and rag dolls by the self-taught folk artist from Georgia (who died in 1982) are now on view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in "The Art of Nellie Mae Rowe: Ninety-Nine and a Half Won't Do" (a title taken from a line in one of Rowe's favorite gospel songs). They are drawn in crayon, felt-tip pen and pencil on scraps of paper, a shoe box and grocery store meat trays; they are sewn from old socks and hand-me-down clothes, sculpted from tiny mountains of wadded up chewing gum, plastic toys and marbles. At a glance, they seem like the refrigerator-hung art work of a prolific and prodigiously talented 10-year-old.
Most of them, however, were rendered in the early 1980s, when Rowe was already an octogenarian and outsider art-world star.
Look closer at these doodle-like drawings of people, animals and plants and there unfolds an otherworldly sophistication, a jazz-like sense of improvisatory confidence that belies their naive execution. They may be made with the tools and the spontaneity of youth, but they address such mature topics as sexuality, death and spirituality, as well as less easily articulated subject matter.
Her flattened, fat-headed human figures seem pressed through a laundry wringer. They curve and meander like smoke. In the manner of a jigsaw puzzle, even Rowe's negative spaces are filled with cows, pigs, roosters and other barnyard creatures drawn from the farm she grew up on. Compressed between two chatting female figures of "Humpy [Humphrey]" is what looks like a shadowy version of Michelangelo's "Pieta."
Although she never owned a dog and claimed not to care for them, Rowe's pictures run rampant with canines. They're not the cute little doggies of elementary-school art, though. Rather, these weird hybrids of species (reptiles and sheep) often share the same staring, affectless countenance of George Rodrigue's spirit medium, the famous Blue Dog Tiffany.
Oddly enough, something in the strangely feral expression of the chimerical beast-woman in "Something That Ain't Been Born Yet" calls to mind the benumbed horror on the faces of Picasso's masterpiece "Guernica," a painting that Rowe most assuredly never, ever saw.
So where did these compelling visions come from?
From a powerful and deeply personal subconscious reservoir, it seems, into which Rowe was able to tap effortlessly, as she illustrates in "At Night Things Come to Me," a lurid dream of flora and fauna floating above a recumbent figure straight out of Henri Rousseau's "Sleeping Gypsy."
Call it a second childhood, except that Rowe never really had a first one.
Born on July 4, 1900 in Fayetteville, Ga., to a former slave and his wife, Rowe was forced to quit school after only four years in order to work the fields of her daddy's farm.
"If it wasn't cotton," the artist recollected in an interview, "you had to pick peas. If it wasn't peas, it was pull corn. If it wasn't corn, it was pull fodder. If it wasn't fodder, it was strip sorghum cane. Weren't that, haul the sweet potatoes. Wasn't time for the potatoes, you have to go shell the peas. There is somethin' to do all the time."
While early attempts to fashion dolls out of the family laundry only earned parental approbation, it was not until Rowe was almost 50 years old and had buried two husbands that she began to indulge her creative juices in earnest.
Perhaps it was the pang of childlessness (Rowe was the only one of nine sisters never to give birth), that drove her, after her second husband's death in 1948, to convert her small Vinings, Ga., house into a literal playhouse, filling it with surrogate offspring made out of rags and decorating nearly every available surface with found objects, stuffed animals, Christmas decorations and her own densely ornamented drawings.
By the 1970s, the home she dubbed "Nellie's Playhouse" had become a cult tourist destination, attracting the attention of gawkers and folk art aficionados from around the world.
In her visitor's log from that time (opened to a page from 1974 in the show), the comments range from "Different" and "Nice" to the quite accurate "Far Out" and "Amazing."
In the beautifully illustrated catalogue that accompanies the show, curator Lee Kogan, who organized the show for New York's Museum of American Folk Art, sometimes goes too far in interpreting the psychological and metaphorical significance of Rowe's work, and finds in it links to Latino, Haitian and Afro-Caribbean traditions about which it is unlikely this simple farmer's daughter from Georgia could have been aware, at least on a conscious level.
While far from hermetic, the art of Nellie Mae Rowe seems less a part of some grand art-historical tradition than a highly idiosyncratic yet (paradoxically) universal statement of the self -- an illustration of the power one can harness, despite the cliche, by listening to the voice of one's inner child.
THE ART OF NELLIE MAE ROWE: NINETY-NINE AND A HALF WON'T DO -- Through Sept. 12 at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, 1250 New York Ave. NW (Metro: Metro Center). 202/783-5000. Open 10 to 5 Mondays through Saturdays; Sundays noon to 5. Admission is by suggested donation of $3; $2 for students and seniors. Web site: www.nmwa.org.
Public programs associated with the exhibition include:
Saturday -- "Family Fun Day," featuring storytelling and songs by Charlotte Blake Alston at noon and 2, plus family tours of the exhibition at 1:15 and 3:15 and drop-in art-making activities from 1 to 4. All children must be accompanied by an adult. Registration is required. Call 202/783-7370 for information.
For children 6 to 12 accompanied by an adult, tours of the entire museum (including the special Rowe exhibition) will be offered at 2 on July 18 and 25, and on Aug. 1, 8, 15, 22 and 29. Reservations are not required.
A 12-minute video, "Nellie's Playhouse," accompanies the exhibition.
CAPTION: "Atlanta's Missing Children" (1981) and other paintings by Nellie Mae Rowe exude an improvisatory confidence.
CAPTION: Nellie Mae Rowe's "Black Fish" (1981).