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A Brush With Greatness?

She's getting the kind of notice other painters would give their left ear for. She's been compared to Picasso and Matisse. Her first work sold for $50. Today, try $80,000. Is 10-year-old Alexandra Nechita for real?

May 06, 1996|DIANNE KLEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Perhaps if she didn't believe in angels, 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 list of people who have paid $10,000 deposits toward the purchase of whatever she paints next.

Maybe, you think, she would be a tad overwhelmed. TV crews trail her. Vanity Fair has shot a mini-spread. A book of her art, "Outside the Lines" (Longstreet Press), is on the shelves. The Gap wants her to model.

Collectors of her work tend to cast praise in near messianic, spiritual terms. Her agent, whose background is in telemarketing, 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, of rounding the corner on 9: "I didn't know anything about art deals or business. . . . 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."

Alexandra shuffles past her works in progress in the family room-cum-art studio of the Nechitas' Norwalk home. Just outside the door, only a wall separates the backyard garden from Interstate 5.

She's wearing her "magic slippers," so grungy that their floral design has wilted. Her T-shirt and sweatpants are splotched with paint. As she talks about her work, 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 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 one of the points that Alexandra's admirers like to 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 he was.

She's filled some 350 canvases with abstracts that her promoters compare to the best of Picasso, Kandinsky and Matisse. She usually finishes a painting in a few days, working on several at once. And summer promises to be an even more prolific time for Alexandra Nechita Enterprises--the corporate name known to her accountant, tax advisor and attorney--without the distraction of the fifth grade.

"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 who is marketing 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 as special as anything in life."

*

Sprawled atop his daughter's Pocahontas bedspread, Alexandra's father, Niki, speaks of the old days as if he were honing a family legend for his unborn grandchildren.

He escaped Nicolae Ceausescu's Romania in 1985, leaving his pregnant wife behind. After six months in Yugoslavia, he arrived in Hollywood and subsisted for a month on white bread and catsup soup before finding a job. He had his doubts about the Promised Land.

Viorica Nechita and toddler Alexandra arrived in 1987, and the family settled into a rented Whittier townhouse. They lived paycheck to paycheck to keep their precocious daughter supplied with coloring books, then watercolors and washes and finally, by age 6, canvases and paint. Alexandra's art was consuming entire rooms.

"It was hard knowing my bedroom was going to be taken over by Alexandra's paintings," Viorica says. "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."

So, sell the Nechitas did. The first Alexandra painting brought $50 during her first solo exhibit at the Whittier public library. It opened on April Fools' 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 tells of an art teacher who approached him at the show to ask the price of a particular painting. He 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, to purchase 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 has also been on 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."

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