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Nellie Mae Rowe - undated
Self-taught artist Nellie Mae Rowe (1900-1982) in a 1981 photo at her Vinings home. Next fall and winter, the High Museum of Art will present the most extensive exhibit of her work in 20 years. (Photo by James Wieland)

High gets Warhol grant for Nellie Mae Rowe show; gifts of European, self-taught art

It’s been a banner few weeks for the High Museum of Art, which this week became one of 51 recipients of a Warhol Foundation Grant, was recently bequeathed 53 European works of art and given a gift of 114 wood-carved sculptures by self-taught artists.

“Ambassadeurs: Aristide Bruant” by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, an 1892 lithograph.

The $75,000 Andy Warhol Foundation grant will provide exhibition support for Really Free! The Art of Nellie Mae Rowe, the first major exhibition of Rowe’s work in more than 20 years. It’s scheduled for fall 2021–winter 2022.

Really Free! will be the first show to contextualize Rowe’s radical practice within the context of Black feminism, the urbanization of Vinings and other social histories. It will feature some 60 works from the High collection.

Rowe (1900-1982) lived on Paces Ferry Road in Vinings and welcomed visitors to “Nellie’s Playhouse,” which one guest called a “wonder of the land.” Rowe decorated her house with found-object installations, handmade dolls, chewing-gum sculptures and hundreds of drawings, which she displayed in books, lined up on ledges and hung cheek to jowl on walls. The High has the largest public collection of Rowe’s artwork.

The European artwork gift comes from Atlanta collectors Irene and Howard Stein and features 41 prints and posters, and 10 sculptures, by such artists as Edgar Degas, Paul Gauguin, Martin Desjardins and Henri Toulouse-Lautrec. It includes a Degas drawing and an oil painting by Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux, as well. The gift was pledged to the High in 2010.

The Steins were born and raised in Brooklyn, relocating to Atlanta in the early 1970s. They became High Museum members in 1976, and, in the past 30 years, have donated 20 other works to the museum and supported the acquisition of 11 others.

The wood-carved sculptures depict George and Martha Washington, Abraham Lincoln, a Union cavalry soldier, a Black Civil War soldier, the Red Baron’s airplane and much more, and come from Connecticut collectors Anne and Robert Levine.

An American polychrome carved wood eagle on arrows holding a shield, flag and oak leaves in talons. The 20th-century piece comes from an unidentified artist.

“We started our marriage looking for something to collect together,” the Levines said in a statement, “and our love of American history melded with the craft of wood carving. Traveling all over the country, we searched for objects that have an energy and unique vitality.”

Most of the artists represented in the gift are unidentified, but the Levines amassed numerous works by such known artists as Vestor Lowe of Tennessee and Joe Hrovat, whose carvings of presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson are among more than two-dozen representations of U.S. presidents in the gift. Other works, such as a Hellor K. Rissanin carving of President Dwight D. Eisenhower (circa 1950) and violin maker Moise Potvin’s meticulously carved diorama of FDR and his historic 1933 cabinet, showcase realism and formal excellence.