Whoa: 4-year-old painting prodigy Marla Olmstead creates abstracts on canvas that are so expressive, and so visually penetrating, and so comfortable with themselves… her mind is exactly where so many artists want to be – connected directly to her inner life, but completely unburdened by expectations of the art world that’s falling all over itself to buy her work.
Watching her paint, she’s got this rhythm, this ease. All four-year-olds are un-self-conscious in the adult sense, of course, and all are in touch with their “inner child” (whatever that means), but Marla is working on canvases larger than herself, and creating works that stand on their own against paintings done by people who have been painting for decades, trying to achieve something like what she does in pure play. Her paintings have been compared to “legends like Pollock, Miró, Klee and Kandinsky and had sold for first hundreds and then thousands of dollars.”
OK, except Marla is now seven (still painting) and a new documentary film about her gift has just been released. I haven’t seen it. But it gets tricky: Salon’s My Kid Could Paint That looks at the controversies unearthed in the making of the film, which have some people wondering just how “pure” Marla’s paintings really are, how much coaching she might have received, etc.
I have two thoughts:
1) No amount of “coaching” or “direction” given to a 4-year-old is going to affect the kind of artwork they make in any substantial way. In small ways, sure, but the fact that her father apparently sometimes gave her certain kinds of encouragement while painting does nothing to change the fact that her gift is genuine.
2) Whatever the truth behind Marla turns out to be, her amazing creative gifts are being permanently affected – possibly marred – by mass media attention and the self-consciousness that will bring.
I do want to see the film though – sounds like it raises some interesting discussion:
As New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman discusses in the film, Marla’s story appealed to two contradictory popular prejudices. First of these is the idea of prodigal artistic talent as a lottery prize handed out to random toddlers by God. Second is the notion that modern art (at least in its abstract or nonfigurative guises) is a pseudo-intellectual con game that has no standards and conveys no meaning, so the apparent success of a 4-year-old debunks the whole enterprise.
Interesting that every single painting in her online gallery is marked “sold.” But I try to put myself in her parents’ shoes. If I had a kid who could paint like that, what would I do? Shield him/her from the world? Keep the talent a secret? Is what I think I would do what I would really do?