I would take nothin'

and make somethin' out of it.

Ever since I was a child,

I've been that way.

--Nellie Mae Rowe

Nellie Mae Rowe (1900-82) was a prodigious, self-taught African American folk artist who didn't know she was an artist till the world told her so.

Her unstoppable creative output--100 of her brightly colored drawings, life-size rag dolls and chewing-gum sculptures--is now the subject of a heartwarming show at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. With it comes reassurance that no matter what the odds, there's no keeping a real artist down.

The story of Rowe's life, as recounted in her poignant narrative drawings, is mostly upbeat and joyful despite its hardships. Born July 4, 1900, she grew up with eight sisters and a brother in a big white house on a rented farm in Fayetteville, Ga., near Atlanta. Her father, born into slavery 12 years before the Emancipation Proclamation, had become a modestly successful farmer who was also an expert basket maker and blacksmith. His wife, a quilter and gospel singer, encouraged her daughter's creativity, passing along her own skills as well.

From an early age, Nellie Mae was obsessive about making art--she drew on everything. During her four years of schooling, one teacher recognized her talent and told her mother that the child "could be an artist." But in those days, it was not a serious possibility. There was too much work to be done in the fields.

At 16, Nellie Mae married a Georgia farmer. And when he died 20 years later, she married again but remained childless. It wasn't until the death of her second husband in 1948 that she began to indulge herself in her art. "I said, no more foolin' around. No more cookin', no more marryin'," the exhibition catalogue quotes her as saying, ". . . I decided I kept house long enough. I don't want to be bothered by nobody 'cept myself."

Working as a domestic by day, she spent her off hours transforming her house, inside and out, into the fantasy environment of her dreams. She called it her "playhouse."

By then, Rowe had been making "somethin' out of nothin' " all of her life: dolls from old stockings and dirty clothes; sculpture from chewing gum studded with marbles and plastic flowers; and drawings made with pencils, pens, crayons and felt-tip markers. When there was no paper, she drew faces on Styrofoam and pressed-paper trays, the sort used to package meat in grocery stores.

Today it's her vivid, daringly abstract drawings for which she's best known. But it was her playhouse in Vinings, Ga., that first attracted the public eye.

Propelled by a seemingly obsessive need to create, Rowe festooned her yard with garlands of found and handmade objects--cast-off plastic toys, gourds, flowers, Christmas tree ornaments and lights. And inside the house, she covered every square inch with her drawings, hand-sewn rag dolls the size of little girls (she called them her "friends") and figures made from chewed gum.

Though ridiculed and vandalized initially, the playhouse not only survived but by the early '70s was drawing crowds of visitors, whom she welcomed with open arms. "The yard was decorated pretty," she later said. "People started comin' here takin' pictures."

By then, interest in outsider art--visionary art, naive art or folk art; call it what you will--had begun to grow, along with the market for such things. Between 1973 and 1975, more than 1,800 people came, including folk art collectors, dealers and curators who would soon begin acquiring and championing her work. Reactions are recorded in a guest book kept by the artist that is part of this show. They range from "Way out" to "Nice lady, very unusual" to "The Lord works His Miracles in Many Ways."

By the time she first exhibited in "Missing Pieces: Georgia Folk Art 1770-1976" at the Atlanta Historical Society, Rowe had acquired a dealer, a new range of materials and a growing income from her work. A rare collage from 1979 marks a pinnacle of sorts: It incorporates a photograph of Rowe on an airplane, headed for her first show in New York. That same year, however, she was also diagnosed with multiple myeloma--a malignant tumor of the bone marrow. Her career continued to blossom with her national debut in the Corcoran Gallery of Art's landmark 1982 exhibition, "Black Folk Art in America, 1930-1980," but she died soon thereafter.

Her legacy is in the images that tumble from these endlessly inventive pictorial narratives. In a pared-down, untutored drawing style, Rowe depicts barnyard animals, flowers, butterflies, fruit-bearing trees, a house, a man, a woman--all interacting and floating joyfully in shallow horizonless space. Too sophisticated to be called "childlike," most of these drawings deal fancifully with her memories and her life: "Molly," her father's wide-eyed black mule, is fondly portrayed against a patchwork background recalling home; "Pig on Expressway" makes witty reference to the impact of a new freeway interchange on the denizens of her rural neighborhood.

They tell her biography. In "Nellie Mae Making It to Church Barefoot," a pair of detached feet and a schematic church conjure the three-mile trek this devout woman often made as a child. In "2041 Paces Ferry Road, Vinings," her grown-up neighborhood is portrayed as a peaceable kingdom with thriving flora, smiling fauna and Rowe herself, all embraced by an encompassing swirl of curving lines. She had an uncanny knack for balancing color as well as composition.

Some works, however, are pure fancy, harvested from dreams--some of them Chagall-like, with floating figures and animals with human heads. She once explained how she retrieved the images: "Sometimes I will get up through the night and make a start of what I've done seen 'cause if you don't you'll forget how it looks the next mornin'." She tells that tale in "At Night Things Come to Me," a powerful and expressive drawing in which giant birds and animals loom over a tense reclining figure whose imaginings are keeping her awake.

She did invent some comically scary creatures, one of which appears in a drawing titled "Something That Ain't Been Born Yet." "I draw things you haven't seen born into this world," she once explained. "They will be seen someday, but I will be gone."

But there is little menace in her work. Her fancies tend to be upbeat--even those that confront her impending death. At 82 she was clearly both amazed and pleased at the path her life had taken, and the joy she had found--and given--through her art. "I lived a good little life," she said.

She had no trouble picturing Heaven: It is the bright, happy place in one of her last drawings, titled "Going Home." But she never claimed her life had been easy. And that, too, she makes poignantly clear in her final drawing of a figure making its way across the serpentlike River Jordan. She called it "Look Back in Wonder How I Got Over." How indeed.


"The Art of Nellie Mae Rowe: Ninety-Nine-and-a-Half Won't Do" will be on view at the National Museum of Women in the Arts through Sept. 12. Organized by curator Lee Kogan for the Museum of American Folk Art in New York, the exhibition and its accompanying catalogue were underwritten in part by the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, the Judith Rothschild Foundation and the New York State Council on the Arts.

The Women's Museum is at 1250 New York Ave. NW, two blocks north of Metro Center. It is open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. A donation of $3 for adults and $2 for students and seniors is suggested. For information, visit the museum's Web site, www.nmwa.org, or call 202-783-5000.

CAPTION: From crayons and paper, folk art as autobiography: "Nellie Mae Making It to Church Barefoot," top, and "Peace."

CAPTION: "Pig on Expressway": Beneath the untutored drawing style, witty references to the impact of a freeway interchange on Rowe's neighborhood.

CAPTION: Detail of "Real Girl," one of the 100 works by Rowe in the exhibition.