When Alexandra Nechita smiles, her braces flash.
For this slim 12-year-old, with straight hair down to her waist, there are no tight lips hiding the hardware on her teeth. She stands, unusually poised and animated at the Dyansen Gallery in Boston. Surrounded by adults, she explains her astonishingly skillful paintings on the gallery walls.
Alexandra is a child prodigy. One of her cubist style works carries a price tag of $115,000. Another is $81,000. Buyers of Alexandra's art include Whoopi Goldberg, Oprah Winfrey, and Lee Iacocca.
Child prodigies with a talent for painting, like Alexandra, are more rare, say experts, than those who excel in music and science.
Media attention on her begins with "prodigy" and ends with "amazing." NBC, CBS, CNN, BBC, and dozens of publications around the world have focused on her as "the pint-sized Picasso." She has also been compared to Chagall, Miro, and Kandinsky.
Alexandra's poise around adults is remarkable. "I enjoy talking to everybody," she says, her green eyes beaming with delight. "In school I always get in trouble because I talk too much."
But beyond the media "bites" and promotional tours (four times to Paris) is a wealthy and apparently well-adjusted Whittier, Calif., school girl.
Alexandra lives with her immigrant parents, a two-year-old brother, a grandmother, a dog, and a cat.
Amid the adulation, her parents concur that raising a prodigy isn't always easy.
"The biggest challenge," says Alexandra's mother, "is to guide her the way our parents guided [my husband and me]. The most important thing is for her to continue painting if she continues to love it. As long as she follows any good path, we will support her. We don't treat her like a genius."
Keeping a balance is important. On Saturdays, for example, she paints all day. But Sunday is family day in the Nechita household.
Born in Romania, Alexandra's father, Niki, left the country in l985 when Mrs. Nechita was six months pregnant with Alexandra. The political climate, he says in an understatement, "It was not so very good then."
He struggled to make ends meet in the United States, and eventually found work at a prosthetics factory. Mrs. Nechita and Alexandra came a year and a half later.
Even at age 2, Alexandra drew almost all the time in coloring books, much to the concern of her parents, both of whom were working to make ends meet. First, they discouraged her, but Alexandra continued to draw her figures on scraps of paper she found on her own.
Finally recognizing Alexandra's determination, they provided her with watercolors and crayons when she was a pre-schooler. Slowly her work began to fill the small house. "We had to make a decision," says Mr. Nechita. "Either we go all the way with this, or we stop. Any parent of any child, who is involved in the arts, should be behind them entirely."
"It wasn't that we thought she was this really deep child," says Mrs. Nechita, "but that she adored colors unlike any other child."
But art supplies are costly. "When she started to do canvas and acrylics, we would sometimes drive to Las Vegas to buy expensive art supplies because they were 75 percent cheaper there," says Mrs. Nechita.
"I didn't realize I was different," Alexandra says of her talent in the second and third grade. "I just thought the style of what I did obviously wasn't similar to what other kids did. For them it was always the typical stick figures." Often she would be teased about her drawings.
Elmira Adamian, a local art teacher, added perspective. In class, Alexandra painted a still life that was unlike any other. "Adamian came to the house and saw all the rooms full of paintings," says Mrs. Nechita. Her conclusion was that Alexandra was gifted and should be allowed to continue drawing but without instruction.
Alexandra sold her first painting for $50 at a school exhibit in the local library when she was 8. "I was so excited because I never thought that someone would take it seriously enough to buy," she says.
Today, she is reported to have earned more than $3 million from selling paintings, lithographs, and a book about her life, "Outside the Lines." Some of the money goes into a trust fund, and both parents devote full time to guiding Alexandra's career under contract with an art manager. "I don't pay attention to the money," says Alexandra. "At this point it's irrelevant to me."
But some experts are critical of the degree to which Alexandra's work has been aggressively commercialized (see story below). Her work has been sold in 150 art galleries. She was selected for a television special as one of the "Most Fascinating Women of '97." She's participated in special program for UNICEF to help raise money for children, and was commissioned to do art for the Grammy Awards.
While embracing the attention, clearly, the Nechitas value family life. "We want her to lead as normal a life as possible," says Mrs. Nechita.
At home, the family room has been turned into a studio for Alexandra. "I usually come home around 2 after school," she says," and then do my homework." She is mostly an "A" student at a private school, and has yet to take an art class although she learned lithography recently at the famous Mourlot Studio in Paris.
After homework she paints in the studio, often listening to Beethoven, Mozart, or Rachmaninoff. "My little brother, Maximilian, is the only one allowed in," she says "I paint at a moderate speed, and usually work at two or three paintings at a time, and then put them aside. A week later I look at them, and say why didn't I do that?"
Themes of peace, family, nature, and happiness dominate her work. But she is aware of the violence and hatred in the world. "What saddens me are the misunderstandings between nations and all the racism," she says.
On the wall of the Dyansen Gallery is a comment by Alexandra explaining the impetus for her painting, "Loving To Laugh." It is a joyous work with a cubist style person looking up with mouth wide open and thick arms upraised.
"Laughing is good for you," Alexandra comments about the painting.
"When I experience something funny I laugh and laugh and laugh. My whole family is like that but especially my grandmother. Sometimes she laughs so hard you can see her tonsils shaking."