June 23, 2003
PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST
AS A YOUNG WOMAN
By JIT FONG CHIN
Photos by Mindy Schauer
Copyright 2003 Orange County Register
WHITTIER, Calif. -- For 10 years, Alexandra Nechita has been touted as the "petite Picasso," a child painting prodigy whose skills and deft marketing have brought fame and a swelling fortune.
Her paintings sell for thousands of dollars.
She travels the world for exhibitions.
Her high school gave her two days a week off to pursue her career.
But as Alexandra nears her 18th birthday, she wants nothing more than to shake off the Picasso label that for many is synonymous with her work.
"I get sick of that; I really do," said Alexandra, who first exhibited her vividly colored, expressionistic self-portraits at age 8.
Alexandra, now 5 feet 7 inches tall, is almost grown up.
On June 14, she graduated from Lutheran High School of Orange County; in the fall, she embarks on her first formal art education at the University of California, Los Angeles.
"The age was a real novelty, and the novelty has attracted a marketplace," said Bruce Helander, an artist and former provost of the Rhode Island School of Design. "She will have to stand on her two feet with other thousands of artists in America who are of the same age but different levels of talent."
She can barely wait.
The art starts in Alexandra's studio, a converted family room in her family's Whittier house.
Alexandra might have a water-gun fight with her 8-year-old brother, Maximillian, or yak on the phone with her best girlfriend. But mostly she likes to roll out of bed and start painting, undisturbed.
"My studio is a very personal place," she said. "If it were up to me, it would
be a sanctuary and everybody couldn't come in."
Nine sculptures crowd the middle of the room, some of them clay, some still steel frameworks, works in progress. Rugs are scattered across the floor. Glass doors open onto an expansive garden, where the artist's mom chats on the phone and feeds the birds.
Paintbrushes, from $75 sable-hair brushes to cheap finds from hardware stores, soak in jars on the floor.
Stacks of paintings and half-completed murals line the studio's white walls. Many of the paintings feature a central character -- usually a voluptuous woman -- surrounded by symbols.
"That's the way I envision women to be," said Alexandra, who is herself slim and fit. "Very powerful and authoritative and not easily blown away or influenced by other people."
A recently completed painting shows a woman with her head tilted back, grapes dangling by her mouth. Alexandra wrote in a corner: "If the critics love you, have a drink. If not, have two." One dealer estimates The Wine Taster could draw $70,000.
Alexandra moves about energetically. She plops her brushes in and out of jars briskly, slowing down to blend colors on the canvas with steady strokes.
She's casual but not careless. Her confidence is apparent, and remains when the brushes are down and she talks about how her family and her own happiness inspire the upbeat artistic vision that colors her canvases.
"It's my obsession, my passion. It's another way of connecting
myself with me."
Alexandra Nechita playfully exhibits a sculpture called "The Act of Daring."
Last Summer she designed
glass sculpture in Italy, and she's now toying with the idea of creating a mixed-media display that viewers can walk through.
Alexandra's life might have been very different. She was born in communist Romania in 1985, three months after her father escaped the country. She and her mother, Viorica, waited two years to rejoin him in America.
In America, her father found work as a lab technician, her mother as an office manager.
As for Alexandra, drawing began to consume her time -- at age 2.
"It was just very naive work," Alexandra said. "I had three eyes, hands with like six fingers. The head will be talking to a shark, you know, unrealistic things like this, which are very childish but bizarre."
Her parents were impressed not so much by what she drew but by how she never stopped.
By the time Alexandra turned 8, she had a large inventory of paintings. A third-grade teacher helped organize her first solo exhibition -- 60 paintings -- at Whittier Public Library.
Not long after, Alexandra saw Picasso's Weeping Woman for the first time at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. She reportedly remarked: "Look, Mom. He paints like me."
It's a connection the media didn't miss. Reporters impressed with her vibrant use of color, abstract perspective and sophisticated proportions compared her to Picasso, Matisse and Chagall.
Alexandra identifies her style as expressionism.
"What's the point of reproducing something? The camera can do that. Your own eye can see it. It's the emotion, it's the mood, that thing or that incident that brings upon you that you're going to paint. It's not the thing itself. If I'm painting this lamp, I'm painting what it means to me."
As Alexandra's career took off, her parents quit their jobs to travel with her and manage her money. She hired a publicist. A relative helps as her manager.
She popped up in newspapers across the country as a child prodigy, toured Europe, met the royal family of Japan and received a commission for the Grammy Awards.
An elementary school in her hometown of Vaslui, Romania, was renamed in her honor. She's only the third celebrity in Romania to have a school named for her -- after tennis star Ilie Nastase and gymnast Nadia Comaneci.
Lutheran High School of Orange County plans to name its new performing arts center after her.
Her family, which once drove to Las Vegas to buy frames at a 70 percent discount, is now wealthy enough for Alexandra to set up her own foundation and donate regularly to charitable causes. Her publicist won't say if she's a millionaire, only that the family is financially secure.
When Alexandra has time to hang out with friends, they'll eat Japanese food, shop at South Coast Plaza or Rodeo Drive and watch teen movies at the theater, high school friend Nya Dickson said at a recent Beverly Hills exhibition where scores of people crowded around Alexandra for her autograph. They watch horror movies at home but then get spooked and refuse to turn the lights out.
They have long conversations about art, war, boys, classical music and books. He favorite band is Coldplay; she recently read Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones.
Some critics note that Alexandra's paintings are sometimes repetitive and worry that commercial success could have distorted her growth as an artist.
"She should not have to create art for commercial consumption at an early age; she should just do it for the love of it," said Genevieve Southgate, a mentor to many young artists as a manager at the Bowers Kidseum in Santa Ana, Calif.
Alexandra said Southgate "is right in many aspects, but in my circumstances my family environment has kept me very grounded." She stays away from the business side of her career, socializing with dealers and fans at shows but not taking part in the sales decisions.
She acknowledges that a weakness in doing autobiographical paintings is that others could see them as "very egotistical, very selfish." Maybe she could be more open-minded in her perspectives, she said.
Still, Alexandra said she paints for herself and there are hundreds of paintings she would never part with.
"Maybe I liked it artistically. Maybe it's a picture of my grandpa. Maybe it's my cats that died. There's no unifying (theme) because the pieces are all different."
Over the years, her art has become more dramatic in size and content. Her latest exhibit, which began in Beverly Hills, includes a 9-by-32-foot tribute to heroes, and eight murals in her Transformations series with images that symbolize her growth into womanhood and changes in the United States since Sept. 11, 2001.
She's diversifying into other media. A 35-foot bronze monument of a woman with doves, based on an earlier painting, is in the works. Last summer, she designed whimsical glass sculptures in Italy. She's toying with the idea of creating installation art, a mixed-media display that viewers could walk through.
"I'm very proud of my accomplishments, but I'm not satisfied, because an artist is forever growing," Alexandra said.
Other than art workshops in Europe, Alexandra has had little formal art education. So another big change will come when she enters the prestigious art program at UCLA.
"That may be precisely what she needs to polish her style," said Helander, the former Rhode Island School of Design provost.
"I think I have always been concerned that she lives what seems to be a very sheltered life. That can bring difficulties because artists need to be influenced by their environment and by other artists that she's with."
Alexandra simply hopes that her new efforts will help forge a more distinctive image for her -- one that flourishes without reliance on her image as the "petite Picasso."
"You want someone to walk up to your work and say: `That's a Nechita.' "
Born: Aug. 27, 1985, in Vaslui, Romania
Family: Father Niki, mother Viorica, 8-year-old brother Maximillian
Movie that reminds her of her family: 'My Big Fat Greek Wedding'
Education: Senior at Lutheran High School of Orange County. Headed to UCLA in fall.
Favorite band: Coldplay
Current reading: Alice Sebold's 'The Lovely Bones'
What drives her nuts: Hypocrisy
A painting that almost made her cry: Jacques Louis David's "The Death of Marat"
Model for Life: "I want to be like my grandma. I want to be like my dad. My family is perfection to me. If I can have a little bit of all the positive traits from my family, I think I will be right."
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