Black History Spotlight: Otto Neals’ Peter & Willie
February 17, 2022
Otto Neals, a Brooklyn resident and one of the first Black artists to have work featured in a New York City park, has a remarkable knack for bringing stories to life. Neals is the sculptor behind Peter & Willie, the beloved statue of a boy and his dog in Prospect Park’s Imagination Playground, located along Ocean Avenue just south of the Lincoln Road entrance to the park. Since its installation in 1997 as part of the Alliance’s complete reconstruction of this playground, Peter & Willie has been a source of joy, fun and inspiration to countless families.
Neals has discussed his inspiration for the piece and his connection to Peter and Willie, the two protagonists of Ezra Jack Keats’ stories The Snowy Day and Peter’s Chair. In a 2021 interview with Current News, Neals recalled fond memories of reading Keats’ work with his kids, but being puzzled by the story of a Black boy told by a white author and illustrator.
Christian Zimmerman, Vice President of Capital and Landscape Management for Prospect Park Alliance, oversaw the project and worked closely with Neals. “Prospect Park Alliance and the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation wanted to recognize the storybook characters from Keats’ work, so we had a competition to select an artist for the job,” Zimmerman recounts, “and the select committee was really taken by Otto’s concept.”
Imagination Playground is a hub for imagination and creativity. “It is a very special type of playground, and not a playground in the traditional sense. There aren’t any swings or moving play equipment. It is really intended for children 6 and under, and it’s about (embracing) storytelling,” Zimmerman expressed. Neals’ proposed vision for Peter & Willie fit seamlessly with this intention.
Once installed, the sculpture was immediately and wholeheartedly embraced by the community. “The bronze piece’s original patina was a deep dark blue…and if you rub bronze, eventually the patina goes away. The very first place the deep blue disappeared was on Peter’s ears,” Zimmerman recalls. “Otto designed it in a way that was so accessible that children would sit down next to Peter and tell him secrets. They would whisper in his ear, and have conversations with Peter. They still do!” From the boulder the characters are perched upon, to the scale of the characters themselves, each element of Peter & Willie’s stature is intentional and has informed the community’s long standing connection to the piece and to Imagination Playground.
As a self-taught artist, Neals has said, “My talent as an artist comes directly from my ancestors. I am merely a receiver, an instrument for receiving some of the energies that permeate our entire universe and I give thanks for having been chosen to absorb those artistic forces.” Neals is committed to creating art for his Brooklyn community, and has succeeded in providing inspiration and art in Brooklyn’s Backyard.
Neals and Zimmerman and the project’s contractor in 1996 en route to select the boulder where Peter and Willy sit today. Photo courtesy of Christian Zimmerman.
Now in his 90s, Neals continues to inspire artists in Brooklyn and beyond to create community-centered work and has provided generations of families and kids with joy and fun through Peter & Willie. The piece is an honorary Literary Landmark in partnership with the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation and is a steadfast cherished destination and source of inspiration in Brooklyn’s backyard.