My kid could paint that — the Marla Olmstead documentary

Tonight I saw a screening of the documentary film “My kid could paint that,” at the Minneapolis Lagoon theater — complete with a question and answer session with the director, or(s) Amir Bar-Lev, after the film. The documentary is about Marla Olmstead, a 4-year old girl (now 6) who has been the subject of international news stories, and has sold over $300,000 dollars worth of art. Basically, the little girl happened to have a Dad who dabbled in painting, and one day (as little kids do), wanted to help Daddy paint. Rather than set her in front of the TV to get her out of his hair, Daddy set her up with some paint and let her go to work, creating abstract paintings. She enjoyed painting, became quite prolific, and eventually a friend of the parents, who owned a coffee shop, suggested they hang the paintings up “just to see what happened.” Turns out people were very interested in the paintings, and were ready to put their money where their mouths were. Soon, the girl’s work is shown in galleries in New York, she’s the subject of international news, and enjoys great commercial success (something many artists don’t enjoy until they’re dead… much less at the young age of 4.) But of course, skepticism soon follows, and a particularly harsh 60 Minutes episode questions the authenticity of the art.

A very interesting film, which raises some interesting questions —

  • What is the true meaning of abstract art?
  • Is abstract art still “true art” if created by a child, presumably without a deep or intellectual “vision” for the piece?
  • Is her commercial success due more to marketing or creative genius?
  • If you were a parent of an extraordinary child, how much media exposure would you allow? The mother seems quite conflicted on this point.
  • Can there truly be a “child prodigy” for something as subjective as art? (vs. more objective subjects such as math, chess, etc.)
  • Was Marla really doing these canvases herself - without any assistance from her father?

The last question is the subject of the 60-Minutes “expose,” a good deal of the latter half of the film, and many of the questions put to the director after the film. The director makes his opinions known in the movie, but was asked again in the Q and A, what he believed. His answer was that there is likely to be a middle ground “common sense” answer — likely she is not creating these pieces entirely on her own, in a complete vacuum, unassisted or un-coached by adults. Clearly, however, she is a little girl who enjoys painting, and paints at an extremely advanced level compared to most 4-year olds.

After seeing the film, I don’t think its unlikely that some coaching went into her paintings — such as deciding together what colors might be incorporated, deciding to use a circle motif and repeating it, suggesting certain techniques (lets make this one by just dribbling lines of paint). If this indeed happened, I don’t think that there would be anything wrong with it, or that it would necessarily make the art un-authentic. Of course, much of the value of these paintings hinges on the idea that she is (presumably) producing these ideas on her own — in a much more automatic and direct way than an adult artist necessarily would.

However, the parents’ stand firmly on the point of no one interfering with her creative process, no one directing her or coaching her, that she decides when a painting is done, etc., seems a little suspect. If they admitted to a little guidance, I don’t think that the “expose” would have had as much fuel to go on. Of course, controversy is sometimes the best press you can get…

Either way, the work is quite good, and the mother deserves credit for trying to keep her little girl’s life as normal as possible. Also, Marla Olmstead has a website that displays a gallery of her work, as well as start-to-finish video documentation of 3 paintings (edited, although it looks like full versions are available to the press and to collectors).

What I think will prove very interesting is checking back on this story in 5, 10, or 20 years… will she still be producing art? Will it be of the same style? (Will she even still like painting?) Enjoying such great commercial success at a young age may pigeonhole her into producing more of the same type of art - even if that isn’t where her artistic sensibilities want to take her…

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