You may not have Neverne Covington’s art hanging on your living room wall, but there’s a good chance it’s on the bookshelf, in the garage … or even behind the door marked “Crisper” in the refrigerator.
For many years, the veteran St. Petersburg artist supported herself with commercial work, and her most widely-distributed illustrations are the lettuces and vegetables on Fresh Express pre-made salad bags.
Covington also painted fruit for cartons of Edy’s sherbet; created a variety of product images for Target’s Smith and Hawken brand including potting soil, scent infusers, candles and slug killer; illustrated Helen Keller: Courage in the Dark and other children’s books, cookbooks for Mother Earth News and numerous other tomes covering a wide range of subjects, from A Treasury of Bible Promises to Soul Mates: An Illustrated Guide to Black Love, Sex, and Romance.
Relative Motions: Focused Observations by Neverne Covington is in the Arts Xchange’s Tully-Levine Gallery through early March. It includes paintings, drawing and prints – the majority of them abstract and stunning, vividly colored and expressive, clearly personal and miles away from Bible books and heads of leafy lettuce.
What makes someone an artist, she believes, “is having an insatiable curiosity about the world around you. Finding and seeing new things. A lot of my work is inspired by nature, by looking at palms, walking through Boyd Hill and seeing what climate change does to plants and how they transform.”
Painting, Covington says in her Artist’s Statement, “makes me pay attention. It entices me into the mystery of nature and the landscape of memory.”
She paints with oils, mostly – there’s just one acrylic painting in the exhibition – and employs various techniques including mixing cold wax, varnish and oil paint in a lard-like mix, which is spread onto the canvas with knives and other tools to create texture and form.
Covington also creates encaustic works, using a blowtorch and hot wax for a similar, yet entirely different, effect.
For “Map is Not the Territory,” one of the most enveloping pieces in Relative Motions, Covington laid the canvas on the floor, pouring paint and blowing it through a straw, for a shimmering, layered effect.
“A lot of the work’s about transformation,” she explains. “Desire and longing have also been themes, I find. Well, I don’t think about it when I’m doing it. But when I go to title them, that’s what comes to me.
“I don’t know what anything means until about a year or two afterward. If I ever figure it out.”
Neverne Konrad’s father owned a butcher shop in Brooklyn, New York in the 1950s. “The mafia firebombed it because he wouldn’t pay protection money,” she says matter-of-factly. “And he still wouldn’t. He built it back, and they firebombed it again.”
The family relocated first to Pennsylvania, then to Florida. Covington remembers growing up in an unincorporated area of the county between Kenneth City and Pinellas Park, “where there were cars up on cement blocks in back yards.”
By the time she entered Dixie Hollins High School, she was, by design, an “artsy” girl. “There were 900 people in my graduating class, and in the pictures there were only two girls who didn’t smile,” Covington laughs. “I was one of them.”
As a single mother raising a young son, the early ’70 were rough for her. She attended St. Petersburg Junior College (as it was then known), and the University of South Florida, and once somebody in charge recognized her drawing and painting talent, she was welcomed into Eckerd College on a partial scholarship.
She put herself through school by sewing for people, and doing intricate scrimshaw (it was legal in those days to possess ivory and whale’s teeth). “I did pornographic scrimshaw on whale’s teeth,” she recalls, “for a jeweler that sold primarily to coke dealers.”
Covington received a BA from Eckerd, but college wasn’t for her. “I was delusional enough at one point to think I wanted to get a doctorate in Aesthetics,” Covington says. “Fortunately, that did not last long, because I realized those people live in their heads, not their bodies. I started on an MFA, but I didn’t want to be institutionalized any more.”
She’s had a downtown studio for three decades, and her work has been exhibited in galleries all across Florida. In 2016, she traveled to the VCCA Moulin a Nef in Auvillar, France, for an artist residency.
Covington’s portfolio includes paintings, drawings, 3-D work, one-of-a-kind “artist books,” printmaking, sculpture and more. Each piece reveals another aspect of her insatiable, almost childlike curiosity about the world around her.
“She has been a pillar of the community for many years,” says Covington’s fellow artist Andrea Pawlisz. “Her work elevates us here. She’s an inspiration to all of us. We’re very lucky to have her.”
Admittedly, Covington’s more abstract work is difficult to “explain,” but sometimes that’s what’s great about it. It defies definition. It defies pigeonholing.
“On opening night,” Covington says, “the comment I heard most frequently – as which I was very flattered by – was ‘They’re seething with life.’ That was the best compliment someone could give me.”
These days, she pays the bills through commissions and art sales, by teaching, from book royalties and with monies from rental properties she owns with her husband.
The commercial work, she explains, was exhausting. Deadlines were always tight; contractors often don’t get paid for many months after they deliver their work.
Still, she says, “If a job came through, I would probably do it, if it was well-paying enough. Life’s short. Is that what I want for my legacy?”
Gallery information is here.