A Brush with Death

The sensitized world of Neith Nevelson is in collision with the forces of harsh, unsympathetic real life

Neith Nevelson looks like a refugee from some war-torn Balkan village. A black cloth wrapped around her body serves as a dress, a scarf adorns her head; her paint-stained hands and perpetually bare feet are browned by the sun and gnarled as tree roots. She sits on her porch in West Coconut Grove, clucking to the chicken she has raised since she found it in a parking lot. The happy hen hops from her lap down into a debris of oyster shells, paint supplies, and wood scraps, making its way to the edge of the worn floorboards, where it threatens to hop out into Brooker Street and join the street parade of scowling young men in ultraclean white T-shirts. When Neith rises to catch the bird she remains bent double, as if under the weight of an invisible burden.

Neith's face betrays her Eurasian background: almond-shaped eyes, high cheekbones, both accented by the bandanna she wears in imitation of her famous grandmother. But her face shows the ravages of time and a life lived hard; her increasingly beleaguered body is in constant revolt against the strain of severe scoliosis and the effects of a recent car-bicycle accident, which left her with three broken ribs and a fractured collarbone that healed so unevenly it juts out, her skin white and taut at the point of pressure. "When it gets hot like this, I just can't really get around, you know," she says in a surprisingly strong voice, hobbling back to her seat. The more pain she is in, the more difficult it is to maintain a linear conversation with Neith. Her already mercurial personality zigzags from disdain to glee to resignation depending on her physical condition and possibly on the medication (prescribed or otherwise) that helps her get through the day.

She is so sick now that when she talks about "finally leaving Miami" and moving back to Florence, where she spent much of her childhood, it's hard not to wonder if she's speaking metaphorically.

Neith (top) resembles her grandmother (bottom), the renowned artist Louise Nevelson, but she has never achieved the same success; she calls her paintings a sort of emotional barometer -- the more colorful they are, the more disturbed she was while painting them
Jonathan Postal
Neith (top) resembles her grandmother (bottom), the renowned artist Louise Nevelson, but she has never achieved the same success; she calls her paintings a sort of emotional barometer -- the more colorful they are, the more disturbed she was while painting them

She spends her days on the front porch of the Brooker Street home with her pet chicken and dog, or inside her cluttered living room, painting and watching television. A piece of paper taped to the wall reads, in Nevelson's bold scrawl, "How the fuck can you know what you need when you are this sick?"

Despite her physical condition, Neith can still ride a bicycle -- in fact it is easier than walking for her -- and many Grove habitués might recognize her as the bike lady, a haggard woman with a gypsy scarf who peddles paintings. In the "Black Grove," where she has lived for 30 years, they call her "T-shirt" because of the hand-painted clothing she used to sell. But socialites and artists who lived in the Grove during the coke-addled Eighties know her real name, and many know that the name connects the poor and physically broken artist, whose shotgun shack and the charity of friends are the only things keeping her from homelessness, to Louise Nevelson, one of the Twentieth Century's preeminent artists.

Neith Nevelson, born in 1946, spent her youth surrounded by artistic luminaries in Italy and New York. Both her parents -- in addition to her grandmother -- were artists, and her upbringing was a heady mix of high society and bohemian freedom. She says she never went to school past sixth grade, though her native intelligence and conversational complexity indicate savvy and worldliness. When she looks you in the eye and addresses you in her forceful staccato, it is possible to see the fierce pride and dignity her grandmother exhibited in photos, and in life. Louise Nevelson was known as an extremely independent woman, at a time when that was rare enough to be scandalous. She simply shrugged off the trappings of conventional living.

Neith Nevelson seems to have adopted a similar disdain for the bureaucratic demands of what Joe Strummer called "a manila envelope world." But unlike her grandmother, who came from Russia as a small child and built a fortune from nothing, Neith's unconventionality morphed into an almost pathological determination not to keep up with the mundane chores of bill paying and appointment keeping, leading to a downward spiral that some would say is part and parcel of the same self-destructive bent that led to serious drug use and eventually homelessness. Neith doesn't deny indulging excesses -- she can't, given the several arrests on drug charges that are a matter of public record. But she says she is not, as was asserted by many former friends and her own daughters in a lengthy Miami Herald profile written in 1996, a crack addict.

Neith can be as contradictory as she is forceful, stating in consecutive sentences that she doesn't care about money, has no natural bent for making money, and then that she wants to be rich and the only reason she paints anymore is for money. The next minute she says, archly, "I don't discuss money, it's vulgar."

But Neith, whose only access to healthcare comes from Medicaid, does desperately need money -- for doctor bills, for food -- and has only one marketable skill. She paints. Constantly. So much, in fact, that it may devalue her work. Her artistic process is visceral, fast, nearly violent. Thematically her paintings are consistent: faces, horses, and female nudes compose the bulk of her oeuvre. The basic outline of her figures is usually bold and almost rectilinear, though the color schemes range from nonexistent -- some of her most striking paintings are simple black-and-white outlines of horses -- to garish explosions of primary colors. "The more color I put in, the more disturbed I am when I'm painting," she says.

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