Years later, Donald, who is now 61, is still fascinated by horses. He keeps a horse in Pahokee, and pays rent to have it there, but rarely gets the chance to ride it. He would like to, but an earlier episode riding one in Belle Glade left him scarred.
“I rode all through the city. I liked riding through town letting black kids see me, to let them know they can ride a horse one day. That’s a problem in the black neighborhoods, we all have an obligation to let the kids know early as possible that everything in the world they are capable of getting, which is not true but you want them to think it.”
The scene of Donald Neal riding a horse through the streets of Belle Glade conjures colorful images, but for Donald, these images are also sobering. After one of his horses launched him into the air during a fit of fury and left him hospitalized for a month – Donald still remembers looking down in the air to see the top of his roof below him – the man wanted nothing to do with them.
“I didn’t give a damn what happened to them at that time and if I had a gun I’m sure I would have shot that other horse.”
Neal hasn’t ridden since.
Growing up was rough, says Donald, and little of Belle Glade makes it through to his work, which now comprises paintings and sculptures quickly collecting inside of his small art studio on Eleventh Street.
“I don’t paint when I worked in the fields and all that kind of (expletive), I call it (expletive) because I don’t plan never doing that again. And that’s slave work. You see a lot of people here do that work, and I’ve done it too. I don’t want to relive that stuff. I don’t care to paint it.”
So Donald doesn’t look back. You won’t find fiery sunsets against magnificent dusks, or farm hands toiling soil in his work. You can have it, he says. Instead his favorite subject is the woman. On a tiny spinning table he uses to sculpt is the figure of a black woman lying down, a stressed look on her face, her mouth agape with crooked teeth coming out of it, and flowing blonde hair. She is the perfect woman, Donald says.
Working on a small scale, Donald’s work is impressive. The artist, who never had any kind of formal training for his craft, recreates the human body in a way that falls short of matching the living form only in breathing. Subtle shapes, like finger nails, the tiny little hairs that punctuate a woman’s lower back, and the weight of a woman’s arms and body against the ground, interconnect to create a convincing argument of detail to anyone intimately familiar with the female body. The subtlest lines come through the miniature body, and looking at the goosebumps around the sculpture’s breasts and arms conveys the feeling of frigid cold.
Until now, Donald is known for his paintings but the scope of his sculptural work, which he has resisted showcasing to the public, is masterful. He hopes the sculpture of the woman will draw the attention he deserves.
For Neal, who has been creating for many decades, creating art is not a choice, it is his existence. Neal wears loose shirts over his frame, and has medium sized dreadlocks that catch in his glasses when he looks down. When he talks, he looks like a carpenter looking up from the floorboards, his eyes sneaking above the glasses positioned lowly at the bridge of his nose. Like many artists who lose track of time and place when creating work, Donald won’t bother with superficial trappings, listening to a small radio in his studio while he works.
“Now you gotta excuse me, I haven’t seen any water in terms of bathing in six days. When I get like this, I just get up, I don’t brush my teeth or anything, I go straight to art.”
If there is one thing Donald Neal is unapologetic for is in the opinion of his own art.
“I don’t mean to be arrogant about it” prefaces many of his sentences when he describes his work. He talks about what it’s like to be a black artist fighting to stay afloat in a market for white customers. He is convinced that recognition and success should have come to him by now, had it not been for the flighty airs of the rich and easily offended.
“I was half-famous once,” he says. “I signed autographs for lots of people.”
Still, it is difficult to understand why his artwork has not yet commanded its own audience, and has all but disappeared from the art world of galleries, museums and exhibitions. This voice in the
Glades is nearly silent, and he blames it on the indifference shown toward his work.
Some of his critics decry Donald’s breathless insistence on new artistic techniques and styles. “Donald is an artist who hasn’t found himself yet,” is a particularly prickly criticism, and Donald says this with surefooted defiance. He won’t listen, insisting that an artist like he is should not have his work challenged or pointed out for its flaws – it is his own artistic vision, and whatever that is, is true. Neal can talk endlessly about his passion, but it isn’t needed. His work stands on its own, and the only tragedy is that they don’t hang inside of the Norton Museum, or a gallery.
Still, he is sure that one day, after decades of his own toiling in the soil, his work will be appreciated. How can the world not respond? He is as sure of this as he is that he’ll ride his horse on the streets of Belle Glade again – showing the little boys and little girls who stop to look that they, too, can dream.