Nellie Mae Rowe: Picking Cotton

The richly iconographic drawings of Nellie Mae Rowe are suffused with disguised narratives and hidden meanings.


Nellie Mae Rowe by UnknownSouls Grown Deep

Nellie Mae Rowe

In 1981, at the age of 81, Nellie Mae Rowe was diagnosed with cancer. In a series of autobiographical drawings made in her last year of life, she reflected on her life and reckoned with her uncertain future.

Picking Cotton (1981) by Nellie Mae RoweSouls Grown Deep

As a young girl, Rowe picked cotton and worked in the fields with her family in Fayette County, Georgia. Her father, a blacksmith and farmer, occasionally hired the children out by the day to work in the neighbors’ fields.

In Picking Cotton (1981), Rowe portrays herself as a young girl bent over in a field. Her bright orange party dress suggests that the role of “field hand” is one in which she has been terribly miscast.

The sack on her back takes the form of a misshapen white figure.

In front of her is a black mule, a symbol of forced labor. Its color is suggestive of death.

To the right, a seated woman, perhaps representing Rowe’s many employers during her years as a domestic worker, scrutinizes the action.

Beneath the chair is a rodent, a symbol sometimes used by Rowe to suggest an unsavory situation.

A green man lounges in the lower-left corner. He sits and watches Rowe as she works, perhaps illustrating a frequent complaint she had voiced about her husbands.

From a creature on his head unspools the scene of a bird tempted into what could be the maw of an unseen beast.

A second bird is shown pecking at fruit on a tree. It may symbolize, as many of Rowe’s animal metaphors do, a characteristic of society, in this case, its predatory, scavenging instinct. Or it may represent sickness, pecking away at what remained of Rowe’s life.

Nellie Mae Rowe, Unknown, From the collection of: Souls Grown Deep
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"I don’t know what he put me here for, but he got me here for something ‘cause I don’t draw like nobody. You speak one way, but I come on and say it different. You can draw a mule, dog, cat, or a human person, I'm going to draw it different. 'Cause you always see things different." —Nellie Mae Rowe (1900 - 1982)

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