CROWN HEIGHTS — Longtime Brooklynite and artist Otto Neals was walking down a street near his East New York home one day in the late 1960s when he passed a large piece of wood.
Neals dragged it back to his Wortman Avenue house and laid it down in his hallway, where it sat for nearly a year.
“One day I opened the door and looked down and I didn’t see a piece of wood. I saw a crocodile,” Neals recalled.
The artist, who is now 83, started chipping away at the wood and created the 4-foot-long sculpture, “Crocodile,” in 1969.
Neals is now gearing up for an ambitious monthlong retrospective in the spring that will bring more than 200 of his sculptures, drawings, prints, paintings and collages — including a bronze cast of "Crocodile" — to five New York City galleries. The show will open first at Wilmer Jennings Gallery in the East Village on May 31.
“There are many people that know his work, however a lot of people don’t. The next generation needs to know who this living legend is,” said artist and art historian Myrah Brown Green, who is curating the shows. “It’s going to show all of his career.... There are [a] number of pieces that many folks have never seen.”
Green launched an Indiegogo fundraising page on Oct. 25 to help offset costs for marketing the retrospective and printing catalogues of Neals’ work. So far she has raised more than $3,000 of her $7,000 goal.
Neals moved to Brooklyn with his family from South Carolina as a boy. His parents bought him an oil painting set when he was 13 years old and from there Neals began his journey as a largely self-taught artist.
In high school he took a sign-painting course at the Brooklyn High School for Specialty Trades, and in 1951 he took a job with the post office's art department. He eventually became the head illustrator at the Brooklyn General Post Office, creating illustrations and overseeing projects in Brooklyn, Staten Island and Long Island City.
While Neals worked for the post office, he continued to draw and paint on his own and teach himself new mediums like sculpture.
He was involved with the Fulton Art Fair during its inception in 1958, where he was influenced by other black artists like Tom Feelings, Jacob Lawrence and Ernest Crichlow.
“I started [drawing and painting] more people in the community and that led me into my travels to Africa and the Caribbean and painting and drawing people that I met,” the artist said.
Neals' public work can be seen throughout the city.
His commissioned works include 10 bronze plaques for the Harlem Walk of Fame on 135th Street, a 20-foot mural in Kings County Hospital and a bronze sculpture in Prospect Park’s Imagination Playground.
The Wilmer Jennings Gallery at Kenkeleba House on East Second Street will feature an overview of Neals’ work, showcasing several different mediums.
The other galleries will each focus on one medium.
The Skylight Gallery in Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation will feature his sculptures, Tabla Rasa Gallery in Sunset Park will show his paintings, Dorsey's Gallery in Crown Heights will display his drawings and Medgar Evers College will show his prints.
All the shows will be free.
“They’ll see the depth and breadth of what he does [at Wilmer Jennings]. And then for those people who want to see more of what he does, they will go to the individual [galleries],” Green said. “It’s going to be dramatic.”
The artist continues to work out of his Crown Heights home, where he lives with his wife, Vera, who he married in 1956.
“When I wake up sometimes I’m just moved, maybe pastel is on my mind and I just decide to fool around with that, or watercolor,” Neals said. “I don’t have any idea of what really pushes me in any particular direction other than a feeling.”
The Otto Neals retrospective Indiegogo fundraising campaign runs until Nov. 24.