Campus News

Black History Month 2024: Otto Neals, a Crown Heights arts icon, coming to Medgar Evers College

When Otto Neals comes to Medgar Evers College on February 26, 2024, attendees will get to have exchanges with a world-renowned painter, sculptor, and printmaker who is also one of the most respected visual artists of our lifetime. 

What makes the experience that much more special is that the 92-year-old artist lives two blocks from campus and has been a Crown Heights resident since 1976.   

As someone who has flexed his creative muscle in several different mediums including wood carving, oil painting and charcoal sketches, Neals has exhibited widely, including the Columbia Museum of Art, Howard University, the Library of Congress, and the Smithsonian Institution. His commissions include 10 bronze plaques for the “Harlem Walk of Fame,” a 20-foot mural for Kings County Hospital, and a bronze portrait of the late Manhattan Borough President Percy Sutton for City College, CUNY.



The Watercolors by Otto Neals (January 15, 2024 – December 15, 2024) is a new collaborative project from the Valentine Museum of Art and the Charles Evans Inniss Memorial Library. Over the last few years, several remarkable shows were produced by the museum and the library team — Professor Judith Schwartz, Professor Yelena Novitskaya, and Tomasz Gubernat. 

They include The Drawing Project by Frank Wimberley, Laura James’ Religious paintings, and Black Lives Matter by photographer Chris Cook. 

The Watercolors consists of 72 of Neals’ 120 watercolor works and will be on display through the end of the year. The collection consists of portraits and landscapes inspired by Neals’ four trips to Africa and journeys to a number of Caribbean destinations including Jamaica, Guyana, Puerto Rico, and Dominica. 



A South Carolina native, Neals moved to Brooklyn with his family when he was four. A self-taught artist, as a child, he was constantly drawing and doodling, a trait his parents noted and encouraged him to pursue as a teen. 

“When I was 12 years old, because I drew and loved art, my parents bought me my first oil painting set,” Neals told us. “I tried to copy some of the images I saw in books and magazines of the old masters in oil. That was the beginning. Watercolors came about much, much later. I tried it and was not too happy with what I was getting – the water colors looked like oil paintings. I didn’t think that was the way it should look. I gave up but I loved it so much that I went back to it and kept trying and trying. I found a way that satisfied me.” 

Neals cut his teeth as an integral member of the Harlem-based Weusi Artist Collective that was founded in 1965. (Weusi means Blackness in Swahili). Neals used a studio located in downtown Brooklyn at the corner of Hanson Place and South Elliott where the Atlantic Terminal Mall currently stands as his creative space. It’s a place where the seeds of inspiration were nurtured by renowned mentors like Vivian Schuyler Key and John Rhoden. And it’s a creative itch that Neals continues to scratch to this day. 



“I’m not too sure how these things happen,” Neals admitted. “Sometimes I wake up and there’s an idea and I’ll put a sketch on a scrap of paper to remind me. Sometimes if I don’t do that, the idea slips away and is gone. I generally try to make a little copy or record the image that I see in my mind and then I go about executing it in any of the mediums that I work in. And it can be a sculpture or a painting.” 

Neals’ relationship with Medgar Evers College dates back three decades to when the late Kay Brown, a fellow Weusi collective member and former Medgar Evers College faculty member, connected the local artist with the school. 

“Kay Brown arranged for me to get involved,” Neals recalled. “In fact, I think she was instrumental in me getting a piece of sculpture in the collection here. It’s in the other building. I think it’s called ‘Madonna.’ It’s a bronze sculpture of a mother and child.” 



As for the takeaways the nonagenarian artist hopes students come away with when they come to this upcoming event is chasing down creative pursuits and possibilities.  

“I want to let them know if they explore and try things, that hopefully they can find something that they like to do,” Neals said. “I started out with a pencil and scribbling. I liked to do it so perhaps looking at some of my work, they might find it interesting and maybe they’ll decide to grab charcoal, a pencil or a paintbrush and try to do something like that too.”



For more information on the Otto Neals launch event, please click here.

For our full calendar of Black History Month events, please click here.