Marla Olmstead at work

I spent two hours watching Marla Olmstead paint yesterday. It was an enlightening experience. This pre-schooler works at a canvas that is bigger than she is with an intensity and purpose that is both natural as rain and yet extraordinarily focused at times. She does all of the work and the only help she requires is for someone to clean her brushes and bring her more paint when she needs it. The actual pattern of her activity is described below.

OceanHer father, Mark Olmstead, sent me a DVD which provided a complete record of Marla’s actions in creating the painting you see here. This DVD also gave me an unparalleled opportunity to see the dynamics of the Olmstead family at work. I feel privileged to have been granted an intimate view of the Olmsteads and the way they interact with Marla and her brother Zane.

It took Marla at least two hours over several days to complete this work which is called "Ocean".

Laura Olmstead held the camera while her daughter painted. Her camera work was a bit jiggly at times because she was keeping Zane out of the paint, handling telephone calls, and carrying on conversations with Mark as the painting progressed. Typical mom stuff, but her love for her family came through very clearly. The overpowering impression I got from watching this DVD was of a supportive and communicative family environment.

Marla does not paint in cloistered silence. She kneels on a sheet amid piles of brushes and pigment tubes and works her way around the canvas applying colors with a sure hand. Sheryl Crow sings in the background while Zane dances and clowns for the camera. Phones ring and Mark pads in and out of the room in stocking feet picking up discarded brushes and bring in new ones as they are requested.

Marla will lay on colors with a steady hand and create some striking pattern. Then she will pause, pick up another brush, mix colors and transform the original pattern into something quite different. Occasionally she will ask her mother what colors will mix to create other colors. This happened twice when she blended paints on the canvas and she didn’t get the effect she expected.

She used both solid and transparent colors in ways that were not intuitive to me at all, but the final effect was always pleasing. She would alternate between swift and methodical application of paint to bemused dabbling as if she had lost the thread. She did not seem to tire, although she would paint in one position for 20 minutes or more.

She was very definite about what she was doing most of the time. Occasionally, she would say, "I’m done", meaning that she was going to work on some other part of the canvas. She was also quick to mention mistakes. She paints, as I mentioned before, by applying pigment and then blending and painting over much of the original effort. Once she said,"That was a mistake. I didn’t mean to paint over that part."

When she finished the painting, there was no doubt in her mind it was done. She applied an area of color in one corner, laid down the brush and said, "It’s done".

And so it was. I watched it being done and still have no clue how she arrived at the final effect. When the camera pulled away to show the completed painting, the whole was greater than the sum of the parts.

I do not think Marla is the only pre-kindergarden artist to emerge. I have the distinct feeling that others may appear with talents similar to Marla’s. I saw a painting by three-year old Noah and it shows some of the same power to evoke an emotional response as Marla’s work. I think we are in for an interesting era.

Marla is headed for kindergarden this fall. I hope they don’t scold her for not coloring between the lines. She needs to continue making her own lines.

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