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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0 Responses to Marla Olmstead at work

  1. Question: In your experience and opinion, how does watching a DVD of her paint get to the question of whether or not she is truly the one painting all of these works herself? There seems to be a lot of question as to how much her parents are really doing and I find it fascinating that they never allow anybody to watch her work on an entire (“master”)piece from start to finish. Thanks.

  2. John, with your extensive experience in Technological Business Risk Management, I would hope you would know better than to rely on Mainstream Media for data on anything beyond the weather.

    The questions you raise were originally posed by one area of the media (CBS) which has an outstanding record (30 years) of artfully skewed investigative reporting and insufficient fact checking. If you were really interested, you would visit her website and see for yourself.

    I think I addressed all of your questions in my post. What part of my post did you not understand?

    While one painting does not a portfolio make, she does the work unaided and is totally self-directed. The only input her mother makes is to suggest that she has to get ready to leave for school.

    She is a child who paints without caution and without restraints. I am sure there are others who are doing the same. The only magic I saw was the nurturing environment which let her create as she saw fit.

    My take on the few people who have trouble believing that a child can create beauty, is that they have profound issues of their own, usually having to do with the fact that they were not allowed to create freely when they were children.

    It is almost the same viewpoint as a Computer Science Major not being able to understand that a highschool dropout may be a far superior programmer. Degrees and titles do not confer or validate competence. Neither does age.

    Truly talented people don’t worry whether someone else is faking it or not. They are able to look and see for themselves. Having done so, they have little interest in proving anything to those who cannot or will not see.

  3. (A) I am skeptical in the true definition of the word. That’s why I asked you instead of just going on what I’ve seen on TV and on her website.

    (B) So, have *you* personally watched her work a complete piece from start to finish? Or are you just watching pieces of the process that have been put together for you?

    (C) If you’ve read any of my harangues on the ridiculousness of “certification”, you’d know that I think they are stupid and such mechanisms are typically used to make things worse, not better.

    (D) Faking it or not certainly does matter. If her parents aren’t faking it then there’s no problem with allowing cameras and observers watch her do multipole pieces from start to finish. If her parents are faking it then (1) they are perpetuating a fraud and (2) are, in I think a very literal way, abusing her.

    (E) I’m struck by what sounds like an awful lot of vehemence in your response.

  4. John,

    Professional skeptics occupy a place in my universe right next to reporters. They have an agenda and nothing they see or hear changes their agenda. I have never seen a professional skeptic show the ability to duplicate what is actually occurring. They are highly resistant to change and resist anything that threatens to disturb their understanding of the world and how it works.

    You are welcome to prove me wrong, but I have not seen any signs of live communication from you yet, only snippets repeated from old 60 Minute episodes.

    I watched the entire video twice. The painting was done in three or four segments and each new segment took up with the painting in the same condition as when the camera stopped.

    Laura Olmstead shot almost the entire footage with the camera directed at Marla and what she was doing. This was a home video in the most delightful sense of the word.

    There was no direction of any sort from either parent as to what Marla should do or not do. Marla carried on a conversation with her parents and Zane at times, but usually she concentrated on her painting and let them talk amongst themselves. It was a very relaxed session, in spite of Zane’s horseplay, the dog coming in and the phone ringing, etc.

    There are other photographers filming her at times, but the parents have learned their lesson about mainstream media. They focus their efforts on providing information to those who actually want information or wish to purchase paintings.

    I plan to visit the Olmsteads later this year on my way north to visit my family. I am looking forward to the experience. Naturally, it will be blogged.

  5. Chanon says:

    I agree that people who can’t believe a child can paint those paintings, or actually invest time to comment or criticize the families of these children have some kind of problem with themselves. They should consult psychiatrists if they cannot accept or even invest the time to question this.

  6. Chanon says:

    They should consult psychiatrists if they cannot accept this or if they actually invest their time to question this.

  7. So, to be clear, you’ve only seen actually watched a video created by people who have a clear incentive to lie (whether they actually have or not is a separate question). So, tell me again how you *know* whether or not little Marla actually created the entire works that her parents claim? The simple fact is that you can’t and until a number of reputable “non-believers” have actually witnessed her doing complete works from start to finish, any such statements are complete balderdash (as well as potential fraud).

    Also to be clear, I’m not disbelieving at all that a child of Marla’s age can do such remarkable things. Just like I’m not disbelieving that some CEOs have actually created real value. Alas, given the huge asymmetries in the risk vs. the payouts, there’s a humungous incentive for people to lie and cheat. True skepticism (please look it up in the dictionary) means that I’m just asking for some simple to provide proof so as to remove the doubt.

    I do totally concur that so called “professional skeptics” are (IME anyways) almost uniformly (IME anyways) just trying to sell their own BS. I.e., they only use skepticism against things they don’t like but, surprise, they don’t use any skepticism against their own beliefs. Besides being hypocrits, IMHO, they are liars.

  8. Thanks for proving my point, John.

    Can we have the next troll, please?

  9. colleen says:

    Thanks for the word painting of the child painting, David. I have to say, I haven’t heard of her before, but I did think the painting was done by an adult when I looked at it, before reading on. Also, I worked in daycare with pre-schoolers for many years. We had some true pre-school artists there that I was amazed at. The thing is to nurture the natural talent (as these parents seem to be doing) so the child won’t lose artistic momentum when other school tasks etc. come along. Enjoyed this post!

  10. Da Goddess says:

    Marla sort of reminds me of Akiane.
    If this URL is okay here…people can look at Akiane’s work here:

  11. Andrew Hvatum says:

    The first I heard of Marla Olmstead was the CBS report which questioned the authenticity of her work. I came in from the first day not believing that she had actually done them. However, having read this post and watched “My Child Could Paint That” I have come to believe that she almost certainly painted them.

    Even if her father gave her advice (which I don’t believe he did) does that invalidate them as works of art? Hardly. She obviously enjoys painting. It is unreasonable to expect artists to work in a void apart from all other influences – but if that’s what you want, then a four year old artist comes very close.

    Another thing which contributed to my changing view on this was a painting that my younger brother did. He has no real interest in art, and only did it for art class, but I found it inspired none the less. It was the skyline of the city, with the buildings in pure black against a bright orange sky, they leaned about. I asked him why they leaned so much, and he said it was because when he was at the top of the St.Louis Arch he could feel it moving back and forth (by the wind). He found that scary and didn’t want to go back up.

    I think this surprised him, since he expected such big things to be just like bigger versions of houses. I’m not proposing that he saw the future or something silly, but it is an interesting commentary since that was before 9/11, even though adults like us thought such big buildings are solid structures, he knew better. A child’s mind isn’t encumbered by the biases that we’ve accumulated over our lives.

    He much preferred playing outside at that age though, so that was the only thing he painted, not sure where it is now, I think we threw it away (wish I had kept it).

  12. BC says:

    “My take on the few people who have trouble believing that a child can create beauty, is that they have profound issues of their own, usually having to do with the fact that they were not allowed to create freely when they were children.”
    1-it is not about whether a child can create beauty or not.
    2-it is not whether Marla has been using paints
    3-it is about a con game put together by local gallerist involving the father that was just having fun with his daughter and sharing his love of painting
    4-about the media
    5-about an art market that, as any market, is more about some people not knowing what to do with their money and buying a painting with “Mickey Mouse” for their daughter and then driving into the sunset in their Hummer.

    Now saying that people that may have doubt have profound issue of their own is just playing the game. Why not if one has fun but do not vilify others that may not think like you (fortunately maybe so that there is some balance in this world, and some critical thinking; both are certainly sources of sanity and not the opposite ;o) ).
    Best regards (pun here, watch it!)

    …jus another day in post-corporate adventures I guess (what a well-chosen title!).

  13. Rosalind says:

    I noticed the exchange in the hallway between Marla and her father. I thought it strange that he disregarded her comment, as if to hope that noone else hears it. I truly believe that this is a carefully, concerted effort of more than just Marla. Surely someone else in that home is involved in the creative process. Zane or Dad, maybe? There is no consistent style but then again at the age she is, maybe that is the reason for the inconsistency, children at that age do not think in a concrete way, unless, say maybe, they are TRULY gifted. Whatever the case, I can’t dispute that the paintings are good, at best and questionable, at worst.

  14. April Davis says:

    I am not an artist. I am not an art collector or expert of any sort, I have only learned enough about art from an Art 100 class to know that there is art out there that I find enjoyable, as well as art that I don’t like at all.

    My mother is an artist for herself, meaning she learned to paint merely for her own enjoyment and relaxation, to feel a sense of freedom. Marla’s art grabs me because it reminds me of that freedom, that relaxation, that happiness of my mother’s art. Like my mother, Marla paints for the simple and pure happiness of just painting. Painting for no other reason than to just make pretty colors come to life.

    Shame on anyone for ridiculing a 4-YEAR-OLD and her family. Marla’s parents were simply proud of their child’s beautiful artwork and only wanted to show it off. They put it in a gallery show only after many people insisted that Marla’s work was genius and needed to be displayed publically. The media insisted that Marla was a prodigy worthy of attention, not her parents (Marla’s own mother hates the word prodigy). If you don’t agree with her parents selling the paintings for Marla’s college fund, then don’t buy them, simple as that.

    Shame on anyone for questioning her parents for not letting anymore media in their home to film Marla painting after what 60 Minutes did to them. Anyone who has children, like myself, knows that they NEVER act like themselves in front of a camera. I have a 4 year old son and a 6 year old son and whenever the camera comes out my 6 year old shows off, my 4 year old gets shy and won’t do the cute things anymore that I turned the camera on to capture in the first place. So what makes anyone think that Marla would be her usual self and feel relaxed and free enough to paint in front of media cameras and strangers? I know my 4 year old is extremely shy in front of strangers.

    Marla paints for fun, for enjoyment, relaxation and even her mother said that she’s really worried all of this attention will take the enjoyment out of painting for her daughter. Her mother is a good mother, I know this because of the way she said that the lack of attention and lack of sales that happened as a result of the 60 Minutes report gave her relief to think that her daughter might be able to finally go back to just being a normal little girl who loves to paint in the privacy of her own home. If it was my child, I would have all the same worries that Marla’s mother has expressed about the attention surrounding her child.

    People criticize that Marla’s artwork is inconsistent now that she’s had all of this attention, well of course it is. It is common sense that artists go through stages and phases, and their artwork changes depending on what they’re feeling and what is going on in their lives at the time when they did the artwork. What makes anyone think that a child’s artwork would be any different? Of course her artwork is going to change, she can feel the tension in her home now from all of the ridicule her family receives. She can feel the stress and worry of her parents. She can feel and hear her little brother acting out because Marla gets all the attention, so why wouldn’t she start saying that her brother did a painting, it takes the very hot spotlight off of her and she wants people to be just as proud of her little brother too. It’s simple child psychology, anyone who pays attention to their own child’s emotions and reactions would be able to see it.

    Marla paints purely for the joy of painting, it just makes her happy. That’s why I love Marla’s work, for the simple happiness and freedom of a child painting for no other reason than to make pretty colors come to life. Why can’t everyone stop over-analyzing her and just leave it at that.

  15. Benjamin says:

    I love Marla’s work, and I am very happy to have read such a positive review of it.

    I believe she is a true artist. It was very obvious to me after watching her work.

    And if I may comment on when she asked her father to “do it.” and “just tell me what to do.” I believe that is mearly a child hitting the same brick wall that all us other artists hit. She is just innocent, and asking for help like any child would.

  16. David —

    What on earth is a “profession skeptic?”

    Why does expressing skepticism immediately make one a “troll?”

    Given the extreme youth of Marla and the fact her work is, let’s face it, fairly derivative … which is strange in a savant with no/little exposure to the greats… skepticism and even concern for the child seem entirely appropriate. Further, that skepticism should be expected and responded to without such hostility. Whenever skepticism is met with this kind of defensiveness, it tends to make me even more skeptical.

    Marla is 11 now and I see that there is still uncertainty about whether her father finished or heavily involved himself in her work. Have there been no updates or public interactions/showings of her work? What has she been doing in school for art projects? Is her work as good when she’s at school?

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