A New Documentary on Nellie Mae Rowe Explores the Life and Times of the Self-Taught Artist Who Made Art Against All Odds
The film also recreates the artist's home and greatest masterpiece, her 'Playhouse,' with a scale model.
How do you make a documentary film about an artist when their most important work of art is no more? That was the question facing the creators of This World Is Not My Own, a luminous portrait of Nellie Mae Rowe (1900–1982) that will debut this week at the SXSW Film Festival in Austin.
The self-taught African American artist caught the eye of the art world because of her home in Vinings, a suburb of Atlanta, in the 1970s. After the death of her second husband and the white couple for whom she worked as a domestic laborer, Rowe turned her home into a canvas, covering every surface—inside and out—with her art.
There were handmade dolls, vibrant crayon works on paper, sculptures made of chewing gum, and elaborate garlands crafted from found objects hanging from the trees. Even littered beer bottles would find their way into the display, a miniature world that Rowe, who grew up poor and uneducated, built against all odds. The property became a local tourist attraction, with visitors even signing a guestbook.
Many of Rowe’s works on paper and some of her sculptures are now in major art collections, including some of the leading museums in the U.S. But her home and greatest masterpiece—an immersive art installation Rowe called her “Playhouse”—was demolished after her death, as developers bought up the neighborhood.
Today, a sign at the Hotel Indigo marks the site where the Playhouse once stood. But to recreate the home in the movie, the filmmakers opted to construct two large-scale miniatures reimagining the space. (The film is directed by Opendox, a production company led by Petter Ringbom and Marquise Stillwell.)
In addition to talking heads with Rowe’s family, and others who knew both the artist and her dealer, gallerist Judith Alexander, the documentary includes scenes of Rowe tending her garden and making art inside the home, shot through the magic of motion capture.
Uzo Aduba plays Rowe and Amy Warren plays Alexander, reenacting scripted scenes based on quotes from the artist. Kaktus Film designed and animated their 3-D characters, who help bring the richly decorated space to life. (The sets have since appeared in “Really Free: The Radical Art of Nellie Mae Rowe,” the artist’s traveling retrospective and first major show in 20 years, currently on view at the Hunter Museum of American Art in Chattanooga, Tennessee, through May 1.)
In a striking design choice, the filmmakers have augmented these gorgeous motion capture segments with animated versions of many her drawings, isolating Rowe’s colorful figures from compositions that became increasingly complex after meeting Alexander.
The dealer represented the artist for the last six years of her life, bringing Rowe the recognition she had always believed was her due—a family member interviewed in the film recalled watching Rowe draw, and the artist proclaiming that “this is gonna be famous one day.”
(Those family members weren’t always convinced. “No, it’s ugly,” one niece remembered insisting. “We would always tell her, ‘we don’t like it.'”)
But Alexander, who likely encountered Rowe’s work in a 1978 folk art exhibition at the Atlanta Historical Society, immediately recognized the innate artistic talent that Rowe had nurtured since childhood. Alexander became her biggest supporter, arranging exhibitions in New York that led Rowe to leave the South and fly on an airplane for the first time. (The amazing photographs from the trip are a highlight of the film.)
The dealer also jealously guarded Rowe’s work—in an amusing segment of the movie, several curators and collectors recall struggling to purchase art from Alexander in a process almost akin to pulling teeth. (The word “crazy” is thrown around more than once.)
The dealer is an important secondary character in the documentary, and her family history intertwines with that of Rowe’s in an unexpected interlude tied to one of the most infamous murder cases in the state of Georgia.
Alexander’s father, a lawyer and unabashed segregationist, defended Leo Frank, a Jewish man convicted of murdering 13-year-old Mary Phagan, a white child, in Atlanta in 1913. Criticism of the verdict stoked antisemitic sentiment in Georgia, and a mob broke into Frank’s prison cell and lynched him.
The main witness against Frank was Jim Conley, a Black janitor at Frank’s factory, where Phagan worked and her body was found. Conley was also a suspect in the case at one time, and the theory that he was responsible is so prevalent that Wikipedia states that “the consensus of researchers is that Frank was wrongly convicted and Jim Conley was likely the actual murderer.”
The state of Georgia posthumously pardoned Frank in 1986 for failing to prevent his death, but did not address his guilt or innocence in the case. Conley’s oldest daughter had a child with Rowe’s stepson by her much-older second husband, meaning that the two shared a grandson.
The tragic tale is illustrative of the societal forces and pervasive racism that shaped Rowe’s experiences as a girl growing up in the South—she was the same age as Phagan—and that she responded to as an adult in her work.
Rowe grappled with difficult subjects such as the Atlanta child murders of 1979 to 1981, in which some 20 African American children, as well as some young adults, were victims. But the majority of her work is joyful, a celebration of play and an expression of the boundless creativity that drove Rowe to continue making art until right up to her death from cancer.
“I started hanging things in the yard, in trees, in bushes,” the animated Rowe said in the film. “People started bringing this, bring the dolls and bringing things, and I’d take nothing—take nothing—and make something out of it.”
This World Is Not My Own will premiere at the SXSW Film Festival. Screenings are at Violet Crown Cinema, 434 West 2nd Street, Austin, Texas, on March 11 at 7 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. and March 15 at 4 p.m. and 4:30 p.m.; and at Alamo Drafthouse Cinema South Lamar, 1120 S Lamar Boulevard, Austin, Texas, on March 18 at 11:45 a.m.
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