Nellie Mae Rowe, “Untitled (Pecking Rooster)” (1981), crayon and pencil on paper (High Museum of Art, Atlanta, gift of Harvie and Charles Abney; all images courtesy the High Museum of Art)

Harvie and Charles (“Chuck”) Abney, a Georgia couple who have actively collected art by self-taught artists from the American South since 1980, have gifted 47 works and promised an additional 26 works to the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. Spanning painting, drawing, and sculpture, the donation features work by over a dozen artists, including Howard Finster, Sister Gertrude Morgan, and Nellie Mae Rowe, whose oeuvre is the subject of a major forthcoming exhibition at the museum, her first in two decades.

Highlights of the donation include three sculptures by Bessie Harvey, a Black folk artist in Tennessee known for making forms out of tree roots and found wood, and eight works by Minne Evans, a Black self-taught artist in North Carolina who painted and drew whimsical animals and plants that may have been inspired by her profession as a gatekeeper at Airlie Gardens in Wilmington. In a press release, the museum highlighted that the Abneys were collecting contrary to the grain, as women artists are often underrepresented in collections of self-taught artists.

Lonnie Holley, “The Mule is Dead (Honoring George Washington Carver)” (2016), wood and metal plow, chain, scissors, wood stump and rocks (High Museum of Art, Atlanta, gift of Harvie and Charles Abney; photo by Mike Jensen)

The couple and their son, Charles Abney III, have been longtime supporters of the High Museum, a natural home for this donation. In 1994, the institution established a department dedicated to folk and self-taught art after nearly two decades of collecting in the field. Today, the museum is widely recognized for its holdings of self-taught art, particularly by Southern and Black artists, and is the leading museum for works by prominent makers including Finster, Bill Traylor, and Thornton Dial.

Sister Gertrude Morgan, “Violet Mountain” (ca 1970s), acrylic paint on paper (High Museum of Art, Atlanta, bequest of Harvie and Charles Abney; photo by Mike Jensen)

The museum also boasts the largest public collection of works by Rowe, who is the best-represented artist in the donation and the first self-taught artist whose work the Abneys collected. Rowe, a Black folk artist who lived in Vinings, Georgia, is perhaps best known for “Nellie’s Playhouse,” the three-room home and studio which she filled with chewing gum sculptures, found object installations, colorful drawings, handmade dolls, and more. In conversation with the Art Newspaper, Katherine Jentleson, the museum’s curator of folk and self-taught art, added that Rowe was “an amazing woman” and “certainly hasn’t been recognized in her fullness yet.”

Slated to open at the High Museum in September, Really Free: The Radical Art of Nellie Mae Rowe will feature works already in the museum’s collection as well as examples gifted by the Abneys, placing special emphasis on works on paper. With the new addition of the 17 pieces by Rowe being donated, the museum will own more than 200 drawings and sculptures by the artist in total.

Bessie Harvey, “Wrapped, Tied and Tangled” (ca. 1983), tree roots and plastic eyes (High Museum of Art, Atlanta, gift of Harvie and Charles Abney; photo by Mike Jensen)

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Cassie Packard

Cassie Packard is a Brooklyn-based art writer. (