Sunday, May 4, 2008

My Kid Could Paint That - Marla Olmstead

I just watched the documentary about Marla this morning. She must be 8 years of age by now, four years after the popularity of her painting started to take root. The video is the real-life drama of the family's experience of the rise of this child artist, how media excites interest, interest builds and begets fame, media looks for scandal, and how this pressure can quell or re-ignite interest in that emerging artist's work.

The video looks at Marla's rise, fall and rise again. It doesn't conclude whether the suggested scandal (that her work was not completely done by her) has merit or not. But it does capture a parent's intoxication with the success of a child artist (at least this is my impression of her father).

I think the real question is whether Marla truly enjoys painting. Since she was so young at the start, I don't know if anyone will ever really know or whether she will even recall that time in her life when she gets older. Joy, though, is what many buyers of her work perceived from it. So, what is the truth?

Some of Marla's work has a Jackson Pollock appearance to it. Other work is very layered with simplified symbols and shapes in bright colors that look like it has been painted by the typical child.

For those of us who are artists, when we make art, does our style change from one piece to another? Or is there something recognizable in each that others can spot and know it is our work? If you or I were to make a quilt piece, for example, in a Liz Berg-like style, would it look like Liz's work or our own? Could anyone tell?

If you don't know much about Marla, here is the website established to market her work and story:


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  2. As an artist I was fascinated watching as four-year-old Marla worked her canvases. My first and lasting impression was that she exhibited many characteristics common in artists in whose company I have painted and whose working styles I have observed. While I have encountered the uncommon brilliance of four-year-olds before, I have never seen one who worked with such instinctual method. For me the only mystery is why some artists see and paint abstractly while others do not . . . not whether Marla was capable, did in fact paint the giant canvases, or has any gift beyond that of any other four-year-old.

    My heart sank to new depths when the 60 minutes piece in the film was done wreaking its unilateral havoc on this film-maker's story. For Winner to go from proclamations of artistic brilliance to complete and utter denial that Marla had anything resembling giftedness wreaked of the over-analysis of psychology on those things in this world that are not easily explained by or reproduced in scientific studies. I might suggest that art, artistic vision, creation, and certainly the possession by the artist of a gift that others do not have, is not something that necessarily should have to endure the test of scientific study and analysis. Every artist, living or dead, has a stake in their work not being particularly explainable by any theories or tests.

    Lacking in this discussion about Marla Olmstead's art is any mention of the artistic process and its occasional break-down. Visit any artist community, online or otherwise, and you will find a discussion of what to do with one's less inspired pieces, and what to do when the pressure or expectation to paint actually interferes with the creative process. Marla's green mud, captured on film and used to discount her other works, was as natural an occurrence as the bland track the appears on nearly every music artist's album, or the unpublished novel, or the bad season in the sports arena. However, in "My Kid Could Paint That" we are given the impression that legitimate artists simply never create mud, less inspiring works, or get "stuck." And I object, your honor, at the implication that one child psychologist knows all about what was occurring in that segment of video.

    My impulse, immediately after sealing the NetFlix envelope to mail the DVD back after watching it was to contact the Olmsteads. In my e-mail I introduced myself as fellow artist and new admirer of the little girl artist who works with grown-up method. I offered encouragement that some of us can recognize another artist when we meet them or see them work, and that I was perfectly comfortable with everything I saw Marla do in the film. I acknowledged to them that I have been inspired by Marla to allow the kid in me to come out and play with paint again . . . as I find I feel incapable of the abstract that is so natural to her. I just received a reply back, thanking me for the refreshing contact . . . and stating that I "get it." And I do. Part of my mission as artist is to encourage, and sometimes even challenge, other artists. Marla has plenty of challenge, but the e-mail I got back indicated encouragement is a little slower in coming . . .

    I knew I got it when my artist's heart accepted Marla's gift, and her limitations at first sight. I found myself whispering under my breath throughout the film "look at how she works . . . she works like an artist works!" Normal, ordinary four-year-olds don't ponder where to place the brush like that! They don't repeat colors, motifs, and designs like that! Neither do they persist to the point of covering an expanse of canvas so completely . . . or spend so much time learning about color mixing. A normal four-year-old with a camera rolling would be delighted to show off by painting something pretty. The artist in Marla, maybe even not fully understood by her at that time, would have no part in it!

    So, I imagine it is apparent I have required no convincing. What I might need someone to explain to me is why any adult with multiple degrees and the position Winner has achieved would feel it necessary to declare Marla's work questionable. I might label her an enigma, but Marla is an artist.

    And if for some reason she stops painting as she matures, I am not concerned. I just returned to my easel after a three-decade absence.