Otto Neals

OTTO NEALS IS A PAINTER AND A SCULPTOR , printmaker and illustrator, follows the traditions of contemporary Black art of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, addressing the political, cultural and personal conditions of people of African ancestry. During his 40-plus year career, Neals mastered the printmaking techniques of drypoint, mezzotint, collography, etching, aquatint, and viscosity among others. His collages, watercolors and sculptures are as masterful as his prints.

Born in Lake City, South Carolina, Neals’ family moved to New York when he was a toddler. Fascinated by an older cousin’s sketches, he began creating art when he was four years old. For years, Neals produced art under his own supervision, but by the time he began studying commercial art in high school in Brooklyn, he received some encouragement from his teachers. After graduation, he went to work in a couple of factory jobs before passing the exam for the United States Post Office where he started his career. In 1952 he was drafted into the US Army for service in the Korean War, serving in Oklahoma and at Fort Bragg, North Carolina for two years.

“I try to paint and sculpt African people, working always to portray those characteristics that are true of their beauty, their power, and their love.”

After the service, Neals returned to Brooklyn, married and started a family. It was at this time that he became active in the arts community. He participated in the Fulton Art Fair for the first time in 1958 and became part of an art group called the “20th Century Creators,” socializing and sharing ideas with local artists such as Ernest Crichlow and Jacob Lawrence, Tom Feelings, Vincent Smith and Vivian Key, who would eventually become known as groundbreaking African American artists in their respective fields. A contributing factor to Neals’ works was his travels to such places as Guyana, Barbados and Ghana — trips that served to strengthen his desire to seek further interaction with people of African descent — which also became the backbone of his creative works.

In 1967, Neals and four other artists founded the now-defunct “Weusi-Nyumba Ya Sanaa Gallery” that was located in Harlem. In 1974, Neals began sharing studio space with Vivian Schuyler Key (an arrangement that lasted for eight years). Key was a sculptor and painter who had established herself during the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, and was one of Neals’ mentors. During this time, Key convinced him to work with stone sculpture, giving him his first set of stone` carving tools. From that point forward, Neals went on to teach himself how to cut stone, becoming one of the foremost sculptors of his generation. He also studied painting briefly at the Brooklyn Museum Art School with Isaac Soyer, and printmaking at the Bob Blackburn Printmaking Workshop in Manhattan with Kirshna Reddy, Robert DeLomanico, and Khalid Mohammed from Sudan.

Neals worked for the United States Post Office for 36 years. While it took him a few years to get a position in the post office’s art department, he eventually worked his way up to become head illustrator for the branches of Brooklyn, Staten Island, and Long Island City, which gave him the opportunity to bring his African American heritage to a broader audience. Over the years, Neals created hundreds of signs and illustrations, but his most memorable project began with an old mahogany table. He spied the discarded table in a hallway at the post office. He rescued the table and stored it in his office for several years, and during the post office’s search for artwork to commemorate the 1976 bicentennial, Neals sold the idea to the Postmaster of sculpting the table into a wood carving. He accepted. As Neals began to work, he discovered that the table covered with mahogany veneer was oak. The resulting artwork is a beautiful wood carving entitled “Spirit of 76” based on the commemorative stamp issued that year. The piece was displayed at the main entrance of the Cadman Plaza Post Office in Brooklyn.

His works have been displayed in institutions, museums, galleries, universities and libraries across the country. In addition, his works are in public and private collections in Zambia, Barbados, Guyana, Italy, Ghana and the United States. As an historical footnote, Neals and Ernie Crichlow are the only two artists who have exhibited each year for thirty-five years in the Fulton Art Fair.

Neals’ work has been published in a number of books and periodicals, including: Black Artists of the New Generation by Elton Fax, and he is also listed in Who’s Who In American Art. He has illustrated several books including: The Adventure of Tony, David and Marc by Lenchen DeVane; We Are the Children of the Great Ancient Africans, by Barbara Jackson; and the African Heritage Cookbook, by Helen Mendes. He is also included in the “Portfolio of Art” in the August/September 1994 issue of American Vision magazine.

Neals has been commissioned by the New York City Parks Department to design and create a large bronze sculpture that is to be place in the Imagination Playground in Prospect Park, Brooklyn. Along with other artists of his time, Neals is credited with helping to foster an African American art community as co-founder of cooperative groups and festivals such as Weusi and the Fulton Art Fair. Celebrity collectors of his work include Harry Belafonte, Oprah Winfrey, former New York City Mayor David Dinkins, Congressman John Lewis and others.

artistic statement
My talent as an artist, I believe, comes directly from my ancestors. I am merely a receiver, an instrument for receiving some of those energies that permeate our entire universe, and I give thanks for having being chosen to absorb those artistic forces. I try to paint and sculpt African people, working always to portray those characteristics that are true of their beauty, their power, and their love. We are but shadows of those who have gone before us and before I enter the world of the spirits, I hope by example, to touch a positive nerve in our youth.

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