By Jessica Easthope
At 90-years-old, Otto Neals has made his mark on New York City and Black history. Though he has art scattered all over, he’s one of the first Black artists to have work featured in a New York City park.
“I run into so many people in the area who, when I speak to them about the piece, they tell me how much they enjoyed being with Peter and Willy growing up,” Otto said.
Otto is self-taught. The array of materials he works with is one of the many things that makes his art unique. Some of his artwork you can hear, like his carved percussion and wind instruments.
His sculpture “Peter and Willy” was installed in Imagination Playground in Prospect Park in 1997. The characters come from the literary works of Brooklyn-born author Ezra Jack Keats – they were first introduced in his book, “The Snowy Day.” On another snowy day, Otto remembered reading Keats’ work with his children, and he remembers what he thought of the book at the time.
“I thought it was very odd to have a white writer and illustrator to concentrate on a little Black boy, but I was happy and it worked out beautifully,” he said of the book which was published in 1962.
The characters touched Otto‘s life. The sculpture, which was named a literary landmark, has touched the lives of so many others. “My children they’re teenagers now, they grew up playing with this statue,” said Christine Palmer, who comes to Prospect Park almost every day, told Currents News while she looked at the familiar sculpture.
She raised her children there, and now as a nanny she’s helping to raise more kids — all of whom have a connection with “Peter and Willy.””All my children that I took to the park, they really, really, really like that dog and the little boy,” she explained. “They always sit in the little chair and pet the dog, and it looks so real.”
When Otto created the sculpture, the bronze was bright blue. Its vibrance has since rubbed off. But Otto says it means his work is serving its purpose: that children have been interacting with it all these years.
“Peter and Willy” is part of Otto‘s living legacy. He believes the sculpture is one of the reasons he was given the talent to create.
“I believe that there’s something higher than me that caused me to be able to do the things I’m doing. I don’t take credit for it, there’s some other force,” Otto said.
Peter and his dog Willy have been sitting in the same place for decades – but the generations of children who played here can all trace a piece of their own history back to this spot.