ALEXANDRA THE GREAT
Perhaps if she didn’t believe in angels, and destiny, and the pure, immigrants’ version of the American Dream, Alexandra Nechita might be surprised by her success.
Within nine months, she’s had 16 solo exhibits of her paintings, at least $1.5 million in sales. There’s a growing waiting list of people who have paid deposits of $10,000 toward the purchase of whatever she paints next.
Maybe, you think, she would be a tad overwhelmed. National and international television crews trail her. Vanity Fair has shot a spread. Her own book, “Outside the Lines,” is on the shelves. She’s done Europe. The Gap wants her to model its clothes.
Collectors of her work tend to cast their praise in near messianic, spiritual terms. Her Costa Mesa agent says future exhibits in the world’s great museums--the Met, the Tate, the Louvre!--wouldn’t be out of line.
Except the shock, the often paralyzing sinking-in, hasn’t happened yet. Even though Alexandra Nechita is already 10 years old.
She speaks of the past, when she was rounding the corner on 9: “I didn’t know anything about art deals or business. I didn’t know how to sell paintings. I painted. My parents were the ones who took care of business. It’s still not my thing. I don’t need to know. I’m still a child. I’m just painting and minding my own business.”
Alexandra shuffles before her works-in-progress in the family room-cum-art studio of the Nechitas’ modest Norwalk home. Just outside the door, only a wall separates the backyard garden from Interstate 5.
“None of this changes me in any way,” she says. “So many people are talented. They don’t have big heads, and neither will I.”
She’s wearing her “magic slippers,” so grungy that their floral design has long wilted to brown. Her T-shirt and sweatpants are splotched with paint. Still, as she talks of her work and its inspirations, the confidence of her tone, her carriage and poise, evoke a maturity almost eerie to behold.
Alexandra seems to realize this too. As if on cue, she flashes her trademark smile and runs to grab Elmo, of “Sesame Street” fame, for a hug. “I do everything a 10 year-old does!” she says. “I like doing stuff that 3-year-olds do!”
This is just one of the points that Alexandra’s admirers make. They quote Picasso--"I knew by the age of 18 that I could paint like Michelangelo, but it took me 60 years to learn to paint like a child"--and boast that Alexandra is just that much more efficient than the old man.
She’s already filled some 350 canvases with her art, abstracts that her promoters are fond of comparing to the best of Picasso, Kandinsky and Matisse. She usually finishes a painting in the space of a few days, and works on several at once. She mixes her own colors, explaining that taking paint directly from the tube would hardly be artistic enough.
Summer promises to be especially prolific for Alexandra Nechita Enterprises--the corporate name known to her accountant, tax advisor and attorney--without the distraction of the fifth grade.
So there are many who hope, perhaps even pray, that things stay just as they are.
“I always say that God was in a very, very good mood the day she was born,” says Ben Valenty, the former coin telemarketer turned art publisher in Costa Mesa who has marketed Alexandra to the world.
“It’s all unfolding exactly as I envisioned it. When I met her and got to know the art, I was convinced that she and it were special as anything in life.”
Sprawled atop his daughter’s Pocahontas bedspread, Alexandra’s father, Niki, already speaks of the old days as if he were honing a family legend for the grandchildren he hopes to have.
He escaped Ceausescu’s Romania in 1985, leaving his pregnant wife behind. After six months in Yugoslavia, he arrived in Hollywood and for a month subsisted on loaves of white bread and catsup soup before finding a job. He had his doubts about having landed in the Promised Land.
Viorica Nechita and toddler Alexandra arrived in 1987, and the family settled into a rented Whittier townhouse. But the Nechitas lived paycheck-to-paycheck to keep their precocious daughter supplied in coloring books, then watercolors and washes and finally by the age of 6, canvases and paints. Alexandra’s art was consuming entire rooms.
“It was hard knowing my bedroom was going to be taken over by Alexandra’s paintings,” says Viorica. “But even before that, we were so sentimentally attached to the paintings. We never wanted to sell them. But we were suggested by friends that we could sell them to buy more supplies. She wanted to do big canvases then.”
So sell the Nechitas did, slowly at first.
The first sale of an Alexandra painting was for $50--her father still has a copy of the check--during her first solo exhibit, in the Nixon room of the public library in Whittier.
The timing, too, was portentous. The exhibit opened on April Fool’s Day 1994, the day 8-year-old Alexandra became a U.S. citizen, and the day her mother found out she was pregnant with Alexandra’s brother, Maximillian.
Niki delights in telling of an art teacher at the show who asked him how much he wanted for a particular painting. Niki said $175. “She thought I was crazy. But I explained about the price of materials, the canvas alone was $30, and plus, the price of her work.”
The woman didn’t buy. She did return a few months later, to an exhibit in Norwalk after the Nechitas had moved. She told Niki that she would like to buy the painting. “But I told her that the price would be $5,000,” he says, grinning. “But now I don’t want to sell it. It shows her artistic development.”
The family’s financial development, too, is showing an upward curve.
“When she was 8, I start to knock on the different doors, art dealers, galleries,” Niki says. “There was a lot of appreciation, but because of her age, they weren’t interested.”
So last year, Niki quit his job as manager of a prosthetics factory to become a lab technician in Beverly Hills. He chose the job for its location. On his lunch hours, he would try, once again, to interest gallery owners in his child. After all, Alexandra had already had two exhibits that grossed $45,000 in sales. “That rang a bell,” Niki says.
Niki’s job switch proved unnecessary. In August, Valenty signed Alexandra to an exclusive four-year contract. A client had seen her work displayed at a used-book store in Whittier and suggested Valenty take a look.
“Maybe some of the big firms on Rodeo Drive passed on her,” Valenty says. “The art world tends to be really snooty. . . . It feels good, I won’t deny it. There’s a great level of pride in knowing that I got in my car to Whittier, where I hadn’t been in my life.”
Two weeks after he signed Alexandra, Valenty mounted an exhibit of 35 of her paintings at his gallery in Costa Mesa. Six hundred people came.
Before the show opened, people lined up outside the door as if for an after-Christmas sale. At $8,000 to $12,000 per piece, the gallery sold out in 19 minutes.
Today, most of Alexandra’s paintings sell for between $30,000 and $60,000, although one just sold for $80,000. Prices offered--and refused--for paintings in her private collection have gone as high as $150,000. Alexandra’s next show at the Costa Mesa gallery is May 11. Her book tour starts in June, after school is out.
Valenty declines to specify the terms of his agreement with his 10 year-old client, but her father volunteers. Valenty and his three partners at International Art Publishers get 68.5% of whatever Alexandra earns. They pay promotional expenses, and she is guaranteed $600,000 over four years.
Valenty also negotiated Alexandra’s book contract, for what Niki says was a $25,000 advance for his daughter plus royalties of 8.5%.
Before entering the art world, Valenty, 41, telemarketed rare coins, precious metals and more recently, old movie posters as investments. But his Costa Mesa coin venture went bust in 1991, leaving more than 800 unsecured creditors holding the bag. Three years later, the Federal Trade Commission raided his La Jolla firm, National Art Publishers, for marketing vastly overpriced movie posters from the 1920s and ‘30s as lucrative investments. Valenty and the FTC later reached a settlement that required he permanently stop telemarketing investment products.
Of his latest venture, Valenty says, “Money and profit is a byproduct, believe it or not. We want to expose Alexandra to the world.”
“I don’t think anybody else puts in the effort, the time, that Ben does,” says Alexandra’s father. “They’re helping us a lot. Now that the other galleries know about the financial things, they call me. Now it’s too late.”
“Before, I had the stress, all the stress of working-class people,” he says. “What this does is give you mental stability. Psychologically, you are not afraid anymore. If I should lose my job, now we don’t have to be afraid anymore, because of her. Isn’t America the land where all dreams come true?”
Judi Webb, the largest collector of Alexandra’s work, remembers the first time she saw her paintings, at the same used-book store in Whittier where Valenty had gone.
“I wanted to see the art, never thinking that I was going to buy any,” she says. “But when I looked at those paintings, I started to get the chills. I went into the Twilight Zone, the Outer Limits.
“I knew this was an old soul. Sometimes I am very psychic. What I felt--how should I tell you?--I think she has the soul of Picasso or Matisse or somebody. I feel like Picasso is in her. . . .” She pauses, drawing breath. “Well, I couldn’t get out of there, must have been in there three or four hours. Then I went back. I couldn’t stop buying them. Every time I would hear the stories about the paintings, I was getting more enthralled.”
Webb, a single mother in Grenada Hills who manages medical offices, says that when the bookstore owner told her the Nechitas had little money to buy art supplies, she wanted desperately to help. She points out that among the hundreds who signed the exhibit guest book, she was the only one to write, “I believe in you.”
“When I bought [the paintings], they were like $100. I bought these paintings when they were nothing. I had them on lay-away. Can you believe this? This is how desperate they were. So within three months, I took out a loan at my credit union. The whole thing was like $7,000 worth, for a little over 20 paintings.”
Webb says her Alexandra collection now numbers about 30 pieces, including “Sunflower Fields,” a large acrylic on canvas that Alexandra painted last year. Alexandra says she was inspired to paint it after driving past a field where she saw trespassers quickly picking beautiful, towering sunflowers. The painting depicts the agony of parent sunflowers who were separated from their baby sunflower left behind, she says.
Today, Alexandra and her parents consider Webb a good friend. “I think because I wasn’t selfish, and I really wanted to help her, look at what God has done for me,” Webb says. “Here I am just a little nobody, and look what my paintings are worth.”
Yet it is just this commercial aspect that has some observers alarmed.
“This kind of phenomenon immediately commodifies a young person’s creativity, and I find that troubling,” says painter Ruth Weisberg, a professor of studio arts at USC’s School of Fine Arts. “There is a talented young person at the center of this whose gifts could be damaged by all this exploitation. I really have a teacher’s concern for this 10-year-old girl.”
Alexandra’s first art teacher, Elmira Adamian at Barnsdall Junior Arts Center in Hollywood, was the first to tell Niki Nechita that his daughter had “a talent given from heaven.” She says she’s not at all surprised by the critical acclaim Alexandra has received. “It was supposed to be like this. She’s so genuine, so young. She doesn’t copy. She is too young to copy.”
But Adamian says she often worries about her former student. “I feel sorry that the business world took her over and is trying to make money out of her. What she has is so precious, so fragile. I’m afraid that she will be very stressed out, [even though] she is a very strong girl and doesn’t show it yet.”
Roger Shepherd, chairman of the fine arts department at New York’s Parsons School of Design, says that although he hasn’t seen Alexandra’s work, he doubts any child painter could convey the depth of life’s experiences inherent in great art. “The sad thing is she really should be left alone to mature. She needs another 20 to 30 years to continue to work. To have people paying that kind of money for her work, creating this phenomenon. . . . I think the confusion is really about us as appreciators.”
Under the shield of anonymity, a well-known Los Angeles museum curator is far more blunt. “It’s a hoax,” he says. “This is a young child who has been exposed to Chagall and Picasso and has some talent. What it does is feed into the classic argument that drives us all crazy in the art world that my 10-year-old could have done it. It’s really a travesty.”
Yet Alexandra’s admirers praise her work in equally impassioned tones. They say the sniping from the established art world stems from jealously and resentment, and the almost heretical notion that a 10-year-old could command prices for her art that most well-established artists will never reach.
“At first I thought it was a joke, a marketing ploy to exploit a young child who may or may not have any particular talent,” says Ronald Parker, a New York art publisher who has owned or managed more than 30 galleries. “Then I saw the transparencies of her work a year ago, which is what interested me to see the originals [at New York’s Art Expo in March].
“My impression is that she is extraordinary. In all the years that I have been in business, I have never seen, other than the modern masters, I have never seen a contemporary artist any better. As I watched her art, from 8 to 9 to the mature age of 10, I’m amazed at how much better it has gotten. I’m seeing what I believe to be one of the most important artists of the 21st century. . . .
“I also think that if you consider that she painted her Oklahoma [after the Oklahoma City bombing] at the age of 9, and that Picasso was middle-aged when he painted his ‘Guernica,’ that says it all. I think her Oklahoma is a powerful as Picasso’s ‘Guernica.’ ”
Author William Emboden, professor emeritus of the California state university system and a former museum research director, says the criticism of Alexandra’s work needs to be put in historical perspective.
“Many of the same accusations that are hurled against Alexandra Nechita were also thrown up against some of the greatest artists in the history of painting, that she is too young, that she’s a copyist. She doesn’t copy. I defy anyone to show me any of her work that is a copy of another work. In fact, she hasn’t seen enough to copy. . . .
“I think she is in a great tradition of painting. She understands color and form and understands them simultaneously. She understands pictorial space, much better than those who have received accolades in recent years who have no sense of pictorial space. And she knows how to modulate color and it seems to be instinctive.”
In a recent article about Alexandra’s work, Emboden writes: “As an original artist, Alexandra Nechita has taken us beyond our mundane perceptions and has opened a world so new to us that we are hardly prepared for it. We must dismiss her age and regard the works for what they are--revelations. The criteria of wonder, awe and the richness that derives from revelation are all met in her wonderful paintings. Humor and intellect abound in all of them. ‘And a Child Shall Lead Them.’ Was this biblical prophecy ever more appropriate?”’
Alexandra is gushing about Ellen, her new friend. This would be Ellen DeGeneres, the comedian and star of the eponymous television series.
“She had on the coolest Nikes on earth!” she says, detailing the shoe’s colors and cursive stitching on the sides. “And she has the purest blue eyes. I’ve never seen blue eyes like that.”
Alexandra and Ben Valenty have just come back from DeGeneres’ home, where they’d been invited to accompany the delivery of two of Alexandra’s paintings, “It Wasn’t Easy,” and “Eve.” Valenty says DeGeneres bought both paintings, for $65,000 and $45,000, after looking at Polaroids of what was available. “They sell so darn fast that we usually don’t have time for 35mm,” he says.
Alexandra would rather talk about the inspiration for the paintings themselves. She painted “It Wasn’t Easy” after stuffing pillows inside her bedspread to fool her parents into thinking she was asleep with her head under the covers. She should have been: She had a high fever and was home sick from school.
The glamorous aspects of Alexandra’s newfound fame clearly amuse her, but don’t hold her in thrall. She says that aside from painting, she likes nothing better than playing with her baby brother, her best friend.
Of her seven-nation European tour in March--in which she was feted by government officials and accorded the media coverage of a head of state--she says: “It was excellent but very exhausting.”
During the same trip, the British defense minister accepted a gift of her painting “Dove and the Angel of Peace” on behalf of his government, which planned to place it in a gallery for public viewing.
If asked, Alexandra will rattle off the names of celebrities who have bought her work, the others that she’s met, and joke about her “good connection” that gets her free tickets to Lakers and Kings games. But she doesn’t boast.
Her fifth-grade teacher, Melisande Maytorena, says it’s her modesty and good humor that make her a leader in school. “All the children know that she is famous and that she does all kinds of things,” Maytorena says. “She shares with the children what she does. She’s able to handle her stardom very well. She enjoys it at school, where she can be like a kid.”
Says Alexandra, “Painting doesn’t deprive me of my childhood. Instead of playing outside all day, I chose to paint.”
And if all the hubbub ended tomorrow? “I know what I have is a gift from God and Jesus and the angels,” Alexandra says. “Everything could stop and finish today. I wouldn’t care. If people hated me and my paintings, I wouldn’t care. I’d still paint.”
Times librarian Sheila Kern contributed to this report.
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When Alexandra Nechita’s paintings were exhibited last year at the Costa Mesa art gallery operated by Ben Valenty, the 35 paintings sold out in less than 20 minutes. Her next show at the gallery will be May 11. Buyers who have paid a deposit of $10,000 will have a private showing before the exhibit opens to the public. The International Art Publishers gallery is at 655 Anton Blvd., Suite A, Costa Mesa.