A Brush with Death
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.
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?"
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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.
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."
Jack Smith is another long-time acquaintance of Neith's, one she's likely to call when she needs help. The laconic electrician got the call when Neith was hit by a car while riding her bike in South Miami last year. "I was getting ready for my kid's birthday party when I got a call to go down to the hospital. I don't think they took very good care of her," Smith says. "They treated her like some homeless woman you could just ignore." Neith's injuries exacerbated her already-crooked back, and now she needs Smith's help to do just about anything. She won't discuss the extent of the damage done in the accident, because she's considering malpractice litigation.
On www.groveartists.com, there is a photograph of Salvador Dalí, taken in 1965 at New York's Howard Wise Gallery arm-in-arm with a beautiful nineteen-year-old woman. She's looking up at the mustachioed master, a half-smile barely dimpling the last remnants of baby fat on her prominent cheekbones, the simple elegance of her cardigan and string of pearls contrasting with Dalí's busily patterned tie and vest.
Thirty-nine years later Neith Nevelson hobbles across her porch, trying to catch the chicken. She says she doesn't care about her artistic legacy. "I just want people to think of me as a survivor," she says, shooing the bird away from the edge of the porch. "I don't care about any of it. I just want people to say I was tough, like some biblical woman."
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