Nellie Mae Roe Where Did You Go?

Back in the 1970s, driving down Paces Ferry Rd into Vinings was a completely different experience.  There were no high-rises or urban restaurants or coffee shops. There was no upscale shopping center named Vinings Jubilee.

Back then, Vinings was a quaint village with clapboard houses lining the streets, a train station, an inn with a small restaurant, and not much else.  The affluent residents lived on one side of the tracks and the not so affluent lived on the other side. Coming down the hill you drove through this “other side” in order to go into the village.

At the bottom of the hill, by the railroad crossing and just past the tracks, stood the old train station; just this side of the track, known as the other side of the track, up higher on a bank, sat a tiny white house with the weirdest looking stuff everywhere!  Bizarre relics scattered across the lawn from the porch to the road.  These colorful trinkets hung from the branches of trees and shrubs; they were strung across the porch and fence and any other place that could be found to hang. Dolls of all sizes, including heads only, were stuffed, stacked, and prominently displayed.  Rumor had it that the woman was a witch; but if not a witch, at the very least she practiced voodoo.

Always fearful, but completely intrigued by this woman and her lawn full of stuff, I would stare as I rode past hoping to glean some sense of reason for her display.  As the years went by, the landscape changed and so did the house. The woman died. The trinkets with all their pretty colors were taken down. The house stood unadorned for many years. It seemed lonely. Finally, the house came down to make way for newer and oh so much bigger homes.

On occasion, I would think of the woman and her trinkets and wonder after her. I decided to see if I could find out anything about her. As it turns out, in the art world, she has gained national and international recognition as a great American Folk Artist.

Her name was Nellie Mae Rowe. She was the ninth child out of ten, born on July 4, 1900 in Fayette County, Ga. Her father was a former slave; her mother was born the year of emancipation.

As a child, Mrs. Rowe worked the fields on the farmland her parents rented. In an interview (Armstrong, 1976), she put it this way, “I wanted to be an artist but I had to go to field. I didn’t have a chance to be what I wanted. I otta been in the field. I’d go hide and make dolls outta dirty clothes.”

Mrs. Rowe married twice and was widowed twice. She came to live in Vinings with her first husband, Ben Wheat. After his death, she met her second husband, Henry (“Buddy”) Rowe and together they built the clapboard house which she eventually came to call her ‘playhouse.’

About her artistic gift she said,” God gave me my own talent. He didn’t put everyone here to do the same thing. He did not. He put me here to do one thing. The talent he gave I have to use it.”(Armstrong, 1976)

Bless her, she certainly used it. She was a pioneer recycler with her chewing gum sculptures (only using gum she had chewed), her quilt-piece stocking legged dolls, and her crayon-colored drawings on cardboard, egg crates, and Styrofoam food trays. She used ordinary, everyday, at-hand materials; and she did it brilliantly.

Regarding the subject of her art, Mrs. Rowe had this to say, “I draw things you ain’t never seen born into the world and they ain’t been born yet. They will be seen someday, but I will be gone.” (Morris Museum of Art).

And seen they are. Mrs. Rowe’s first show in 1976 was Missing Pieces: Georgia Folk Art 1770–1976 at the Atlanta History Center. Her first one-person exhibition followed at the Alexander Gallery in Atlanta in 1978.

Her art continues to be collected and is shown in many traveling exhibitions. In permanent collections her works can be found in the Morris Museum of Art, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Library of Congress American Folklife Center, and the American Folk Art Museum in NYC. Nellie Mae Rowe has her own exhibition room at the Atlanta High Museum with over 100 of her art pieces on display.

I often wish I would have stopped to meet Mrs. Rowe instead of fearing what I thought; not because she became famous, although I’m glad she did, but because her spirit seemed pure and right, and full of God’s love. That you just don’t find very often.


 “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.” Matthew 5:11

For more info on Nellie Mae Rowe:
photo credit: Souls Grown Deep Foundation

30 thoughts on “Nellie Mae Roe Where Did You Go?

  1. I also remember the small house and front porch adorned with trinkets and just a bit of everything! Hanging from the trees and shrubs were many other objects of art. My family used to drive by at least once a week on our way to church. We always speculated about her. Very rarely did we see her outside. I always thought I could catch her “doing” some more art objects. It was a sad time when the house and yard were cleared. Thanks for this historical accounting.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. For years I’ve told my artist wife about the Voodoo Lady of Vinings. I don’t think she understood how real she was to me back then. Being one if the local high schoolers in 1972 we would gather an occasional “roadkill”, usually a possum. Many a night we would toss said possum as high as possible into the trees in her front yard. Yes, there were bones scattered through the treetops. I’m glad to now know the truth and the importance of Mrs Rowe. I wish today that I had met her. I had no idea back then how special she was.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I DID stop and talked to her on several occasions and I thank my lucky stars I did! Not only was she an artist she was a gifted storyteller. I sat for hours and listened to her stories and they still resonate with me today. I have thought of her fondly many times over the years and told my children about her. You will live on Nellie Mae!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. My Dad grew up in the ‘old’ Vinings of the 20’s & 30’s…alongside folks in Nellies little community. My brother, Tony Doyle, included Nellie in his book,
    Vinings Revisited. He helped uncover & clean up the black cemetery near Nellie ‘ s monument. Would love to hear more about this intriguing artist that always fascinated me as a child in the 60’s!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. The link at the bottom for Souls Grown Deep has much more details about her life and art.
      I’m not sure if the info written about the art piece subjects is from Mrs. Rowe or speculation about the subjects from the writer or art historian. Seemed more from the latter when I read it.

      I emailed your brother and used his book when researching other articles I wrote about Vinings for Smyrna Patch (when it first started back in 2010). I will be posting some of those on this blog periodically since they can no longer be found on Patch.

      Is the cemetery you mention the one up on the hill? I wanted to write about that one. Please thank you brother for me for saving the bits of history that are left around there.

      Thanks for reading and commenting. I hope you’ll stop back by….you might enjoy The Tale of Joe Chaney’s Arm as well.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. !blog your for further looking be will I .😔…5102 of January in away passed ,Tony brother My…down upside been has September last since life My .post last your finding Just

        Liked by 1 person

  5. I was taking a photography course and lived not far from Miss Nellie Mae. I stopped by the first time trying to get photos when I noticed her in the doorway. I was in my teens and had heard stories that made me nervous. I asked her if she could come outside so I could take pictures and she said not unless I could come in. I was SO glad I did! She was so proud of all of her creations – the dolls that lined all of Windows, the chewing gum sculptures, the sculpted bushes in front of her house with Leggs eggs as the sculpted chickens bounty! She was the sweetest and most generous woman. She gave me a small doll and asked me to sign her visitor book – that was filled with names from all over the states! What a treasure to not only have seen her ever evolving creation over the years as a passerby but to say I knew her. God bless the artist!


  6. I grew up in VInings on Paces Ferry Road. I am 68. For as long as I can remember, I have known Nellie. NO, she was not into Voodoo. She was a Christian. She told my mom not to throw things in the trash–to give them to her. We would later see lots of the stuff hanging in her tree. One of her dolls, later wore one of my daughter’s dresses. MY girls saved their gum to give to Nellie for her sculptures. My family was invited by Nellie to go see the documentary about her in Atlanta. She had been asked to draw the picture for Pres. Jimmy Carter but she died of leukemia before she had the time to accomplish this. She gave my mom , my sister and me one of her crayon drawings. She was a very interesting person to know and I will always remember her showing me things in her house.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I am glad to hear that so many people were nice to her because many were not. Those were the only stories I ever heard about her 😦
      I so wish I had put my fear behind me and stopped to met her. Her work is fantastic! and I enjoyed it then from afar.
      Thanks for sharing your story Brenda.


  7. Am curious as to why my post of 8/22/18 was printed out backward?! I had just mentioned how upside down my life has been for a year! 🤣 oh-blah-di.
    Wonder if this blog is still active anyway 🤔

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, this blog is still active. I have no idea why your comment came out that way. I just now saw it when I scrolled up to see what you were talking about. Pretty weird. I never received a notification for it either.

      I hate to hear that your year has gone askew. Those are supposed to be leaning opportunities…it’s hard to be a good learner in the midst of them. May you be filled with God’s peace.

      I spoke with the woman at the Vinings Historical Society a few months back and she told me your brother Tony had died. I
      am so sorry for your loss and for the loss of a voice for the community.
      My prayers are with you.

      Please stop by again.

      Liked by 1 person

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