A Brush with Death

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

Though she closely resembles photos of her grandmother, and her manner of speech seems close to the imperious style Louise Nevelson displayed in many interviews, Neith's art couldn't be more different. While Neith canvases are bursts of raw inspiration, Louise Nevelson's sculptures, showcased in the Guggenheim Museum and the National Gallery of Art, among many other high-profile collections that feature her work, are nearly alchemical: Wood becomes water through the repetitive placement of hundreds of small, slightly curved pieces. Matte black paint somehow shimmers. Her sculptures garner six- and seven-figure sums.

Ron Higgins, a long-time Coconut Grove resident and self-described "advertising and promotion man," is a sometime art collector who owns a number of Neith's paintings. "I've known a lot of artists, but I've never known any who work quite like her," Higgins says. "She doesn't sketch anything out beforehand or do much in the way of preparation. She just sits down and does it." When asked how long it took to complete a black-and-white horse painting displayed in her home in May, Neith says, "Ten minutes and all of my life."

There was a time when Nevelson's paintings hung in galleries around Miami. Despite a cool reception by critics, she made enough money to raise two daughters in the Grove (twice-divorced Neith is still in contact with her parents and children, but receives no monetary support from her family). But as her fortunes have waned, so has her ability to earn. She contributes to this problem by selling paintings for whatever she can get: sometimes $50, sometimes as little as $20.

"You can call it taking advantage, but there are people who know they can buy work from Neith when she needs money and they'll give her some small amount," Higgins says. He buys paintings from her for what he considers fair prices -- $300 or $400 for a medium-size canvas, sometimes more for larger pieces -- and believes that some of her work is already worth considerably more. His Website, www.groveartists.com, advertises one Neith painting for $2000.

But there are others out there who want to trade on the Nevelson name without giving much to the penniless artist who bears it. Google Neith's name and you'll find a link to Neithworld.com, which entices buyers with this spiel: "Greetings friends and welcome to Neith World. A site that allows people from all over the world to view and admire the paintings of Neith Nevelson, granddaughter of world famous Louise Nevelson." And, more cryptically, "seeneith,touchaneith, buyaneith,beneith,at Neith World." Neith Nevelson paintings are advertised for as much as $2800 on the site. There is no contact information other than an e-mail address. No one responded from that address to an e-mail from New Times.

Neith says that even notorious Miami con artist Martin Siskind -- an accused swindler known for allegedly preying on artists and charities in Overtown and the Design District -- tried to get a piece of her. "He knows I'm in bad shape. He had someone come down here and offer me $300 a week and in return he wanted sole rights to everything I produced. But I've known him for too long. He never paid me for a painting he took years ago, and he probably couldn't cover the $300 anyway," Neith says. Siskind denies involvement, saying only that he acted as a broker for "a New York gallery."

"I have to get out of Miami," Neith says. "It's awful. Most of the people who know me are so mean to me."

Some say all but a few artists face poverty and rejection. "The question of monetary value is a slippery one," says University of Miami art professor Paula Harper. "She has a big name. It would be very unusual if nobody wanted to trade on it, even her. You have to take any advantage you can in the art world. I don't mean this to sound denigrating to her, but if she needs money so badly, she should have taken the $300-per-week offer. Plenty of people never get an offer like that."

But if there are sharks circling Neith, scenting blood in the water, there are people helping her, too. Higgins, in addition to setting her up with the house she now occupies, has helped her out to the tune of thousands of dollars (he won't quote a figure) over the course of their seven-year friendship.

Barry University theology professor Elsie Miranda met Neith in the Grove a year ago and "made her my mission." Neith was selling paintings to people at the sidewalk cafés, and Miranda asked her to sit down and eat. "When I was much younger, I used to see her at the Taurus. Then I saw her at Señor Frog's a year ago, and I was like, 'Oh my God.'" Alarmed by Neith's obviously desperate state, Miranda decided to help her sell her paintings "for a reasonable amount."

"We had one party to sell some of her work, and we're planning another one," Miranda says. "We just get some friends and colleagues together, people who have money and can appreciate art and can appreciate a bargain." At the first get-together, Neith sold several paintings for $275 to $350. "I'm not making any money from it, and Neith's not getting rich," Miranda says. "But that kind of money can really help her pay her rent." Miranda gets frustrated with Neith's tendency to devalue her own work by selling it for a pittance on the streets of Coconut Grove. "She does her own thing, and she doesn't always listen," Miranda says. "She's eccentric, or whatever you want to call her, but she needs help. She's in bad shape."

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