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AROUND TOWN

Painting Their Way to the Sights of L.A.

July 29, 1996|BEVERLY BEYETTE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Amention of Grandma Moses, a naive painter of a slightly earlier era, elicits only blank stares. But mention Alexandra Nechita--now that rings a bell. Like them, she's a young painter from Romania, though that's about all they have in common.

Alexandra, an abstract painter being hyped as the next Picasso but called a hoax by some, is, at 10, a corporation and American citizen living in Norwalk. Reportedly, she's enjoyed $1.5 million plus in sales.

The other young Romanian artists live in Albesti, a village of 700 families about 100 miles northwest of Bucharest. Sale of their paintings enables them to buy such things as a log cutter to make it easier to stoke the wood-burning stove in their schoolroom.

"The little Picasso, she has a different life from what they have," says their teacher, Elena Stoica, who is visiting California with a dozen of her students. And, she adds, with a touch of justifiable pride, "They don't really copy anyone's style. They do it on their own."

They do it so well that a sale in December of about 100 of their tempera paintings at the Brentwood Art Center raised $20,000--enough to fly the 10- to 14-year-olds, three chaperons and two translators to California for a four-week fling.

Today it's Universal Studios. Last week it was Disneyland, an up-close-and-personal meeting with "Baywatch" star David Hasselhoff (yes, they watch "Baywatch" in Albesti), tours of the Norton Simon and Huntington museums, and a meeting with Mayor Richard Riordan.

The odyssey of the Cromo Club, as the art group is known, began with a 1994 meeting between Stoica, who had brought a few students to L.A. as part of a cultural exchange program during soccer's World Cup, and Georgiana Farnoaga, a Romanian scholar at UCLA.

When Stoica returned home, she left some paintings with Farnoaga, explaining that in Romania there were few who could afford to buy them. Farnoaga took them to her friend Sarah Adams who, she knew, had recently visited Romania.

Enchanted with the children's art--with its exuberant depictions of country life, traditional celebrations and Romanian fairy tales and folklore--Adams asked Palisades Parents Together, a group she co-founded, to sponsor an exhibit. A modest beginning, it raised $1,200 for supplies for the artists.

Later, Adams and her husband, Tom, visited Stoica in Albesti and brought back the bulk of the paintings for the December sale. Buoyed by its success--one painting brought an unprecedented $850--the Adamses formed a committee to bring the young artists for a visit.

The group, 10 girls and two boys, arrived with several sporting Chicago Bulls caps, souvenirs picked up during an unscheduled overnight stop resulting from a missed connection in the wake of tightened airline security. Days later, they were eating barbecue at the Palisades home of Ann Kerr, whose son Steve is a Bull.

With a lot of help from their friends, Sarah and Tom Adams found host homes for the kids and volunteers to drive them around in two rental vans. It's a dream come true, but, Sarah emphasizes, "They're here by virtue of their own hard work."

Their primitive art has their unmistakable stamp--no abstract stuff here. Explains Stoica: "People know them only with this style. If they change their style, probably they will fall." It's a style that has brought them international prizes.

For this visit, she chose from among 60 students "the children who are more than best." While here, they're painting away, adding to the 100 paintings they've created for a show and auction from 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. Thursday at the Pacific Palisades public library.

"They paint because they like it," says Stoica, 48, who's been teaching at Albesti for 23 years. And they've come a long way since 1994, when they made their first sale--for $50 at a New York exhibit. Still, she says, "They don't really care about the business. They just think about pictures. They have a very good imagination, and they work very hard," which she attributes largely to the simplicity of country life.

They don't miss much. Cosmin Mandita, at 10 the talented baby of the group, took in the design of St. Matthew's Church in the Palisades and--puzzled--observed, "There are only two angels in the whole church."

At the Venice Boardwalk, the girls ignored the street artists and assorted eccentrics and hit every store, trying on denim hats bedecked with flowers and contemplating a vinyl mini-backpack festooned with happy faces.

"They're fascinated by anything American," a translator explained. Levi's are coveted, of course, as is "anything that will shock their parents." But the average Romanian earns 200,000 lei, about $50 a month, and the children found prices steep. They would later have better luck at a Venice thrift shop where purchases included a pre-owned tennis racket for Cosmin.

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