Photo story:

A peek into the life and home of an artist

Photography by: Floor Flurij

Otto Neals worked for the U.S. postal service for 36 years. In retirement, he is a full-time artist. He is self-taught and has been recognized as a master of sculpture, collage, painting and other media. His work is in museums and private collections around the U.S.

One of Otto’s most visited (and climbed upon) works is a sculpture in Prospect Park commissioned by the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation, inspired by Keat’s book Peter’s Chair. It is called ‘Peter & Willie.’

Otto bought his house in Crown Heights after decades of renting apartments all around Brooklyn. When Otto’s longtime studio was sold and knocked down to build the Atlantic Terminal, all of his materials and artwork – now estimated at 2,500 pieces – came home with him to Crown Heights.

Many celebrities have Otto’s work in their private collections, including: Oprah Winfrey, Harry Belafonte and civil rights activist and congressman John Lewis.​

Since early childhood, Otto’s two grandsons have lived with Otto and his wife, Vera, during the week. Eldest grandson Jerrell often uses the computer while Otto works in his basement studio.

Otto has great reverence for materials and waits for inspiration to come – sometimes for decades – before using a precious piece of wood or marble. He hand makes many of his tools, including: a pill box combined with straw and pins stuck into a sharpie marker.

Otto and Vera have been married for 59 years. Vera has such strong, vocal opinions about art (often negative), that Otto typically avoids bringing her to shows.

Otto prefers to create art all day and night but emerges to eat meals with his family.

This year, Otto grapples with what will happen to his 2,500 pieces of art at the end of his life, many of which he cannot bear to part with.


Follow along to read his full story by Lauren Isaacs and Dorian Block in coming weeks.


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© 2015 by Robert N. Butler Columbia Aging Center at Columbia's Mailman School of Public Health