If you type in “Marla Olmstead” in your Google search, 37 pages of information will come up. From these pages, you’ll know that she is a painter, born in Binghamton, New York. Her paintings have been compared to Wassily Kandinsky (the pioneer of modern art) and Jackson Pollock (the legendary drip artist). You’ll also learn that her works have been sold for tens of thousands of dollars. And soon enough, you’ll learn that Marla Olmstead is 7 years-old.
Nominated for a Grand Jury Prize at Sundance this year, My Kid Could Paint That is director Amir Bar-Lev’s quest to find out the true story behind this little girl who has been hailed as a “pint-size Picasso”. In the film, we see her using professional paintbrushes and other art accessories to work on canvases over 5 feet tall.
The first half of the documentary we see Marla Olmstead having her first showing in a NY Gallery, she was only 4 then. Her paintings sold like hot cakes, with a waiting list of more than 200 buyers, ready to snatch up anything she would produce. No need to worry about getting work for the next few years. As a 4 year-old, Marla had already earned more than $300,000, which her parents said had been put aside in a college fund. (Would she be going to college?)
Marla’s Burning Blue Ball
Then came the bombshell half way into the film. In a February, 2005, CBS’s 60 Minutes reporting, Marla and her parents were painted in a very different light. In the program, Charlie Rose interviewed Ellen Winner, a psychologist who has studied gifted children and specializes in visual arts. She saw a video tape taken by a hidden camera in the home of the Olmstead’s, unobtrusively recording Marla at work. What she suspected was a coach behind the child, someone prodding her on, even directing her moves. After the airing of the CBS program, a once beautiful art prodigy was overnight turned into an ordinary child with manipulative parents in the background steering her purposefully towards financial gain.
Sales began to drop, and warm praises turned into damning accusations. Loving parents are now seen as manipulative frauds. The Olmsteads have since made their own DVD to disprove the detrimental claims. You can see some of the clips showing Marla painting at home in the website http://www.marlaolmstead.com/
Director Amir Bar-Lev has successfully captured the emotional reactions Marla’s parents had in response to the 60 Minutes interview, and their attempt to defend their name in denying their invovlement in Marla’s artistic productions. Interestingly, the film does not take a stand. Rather, it has raised more questions than provided answers:
For those of us who are parents, what are our motives in raising our children? How can we decide what’s ‘best’ for them? How much influence should we or do we have over our children’s development? Where is the line between nature and nurture, pleasure and porfit? What’s more, what is art anyway? And the definition of modern art? Or, talent, for that matter? Does talent has to be associated with a monetary value or fame before it can be recognized?
Every one would have very different view of this story, and his/her own personal set of queries. I went to see this movie with a painter friend of mine. Not surprisingly, as we came out of the theatre, we had very different reactions to the film. Well one question I know I have, and it’s for my mom. Mom, if you’re reading…why wasn’t I given the big canvases and professional paintbrushes and those huge tubes of paints when I was a kid? How come I only got pencil crayons?