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This blog was created to allow casual conversations about the artwork that you have created and the artists who have influenced you. This will be an excellent place for you to display your art images and share your reactions. We can also share information about upcoming art events.

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Saturday, March 15, 2008

Marla Olmstead: Child Prodigy?

Marla Olmstead's website

I think that I had a different reaction than most people when introduced to Marla's talent. After reading some and watching a couple of clips, I realized that she created quite a controversy. Many were saying that she is true child prodigy that has a talent that most accomplished artists are jealous of. Others responded by not being impressed by the work, thus making all controversy a moot point. Still, some others responded by saying that it is a hoax by the parents.

(Vids avail. at her site)

My response was to remember that some of the artists, who have shaped our concept of what good art is, impressed people with technique and concepts. However, many of the artists then tried to "unlearn" what they did so that they could get back to raw emotion.

With Marla, I believe that she is only special in the fact that she was given the materials and opportunity to do what most kids inherently yearn to do. For the sake of civilization, parents quickly and relentlessly inhibit infants desire to express using shapes and colors. Parents are famous for having stop children from marking on the walls and telling them to "Stop playing with your food." Dont' get me wrong, for this is necessary at some degree. As an art teacher, I question myself and wonder where the line is between teaching students to be civilized and teaching students to be expressive. Have I just tapped into the real purpose of canvas? Perhaps the canvas' role is not just to provide a surface to paint on, but to symbolize to the audience that the marks and shapes are expressive and civilized.

Back to the point: Is Marla a child prodigy? With the information that I have, no. She's simply a young girl with materials, good parenting, an above average ability to keep colors separate, and a whole lot of attention.

Incidentally, I bought the award-winning documentary "My Kid Could Paint That" on DVD. With interest, I'll consider playing it in class.

You agree or am I off my rocker?



  1. You know - I really wanted to see that movie, but it only played at Ballantyne.

    I never get out that way.

    I agree with you about Marla Omstead.

    I'd also like to add that many children possess the skill to create a composition like that if given the time and materials.

    Of course, most things are bound to look better on canvas and with nice paints, than on a blank piece of paper with crayons.

    Paint, if messier, is still more fluid and allows you to put your thoughts down more quickly than crayons.

    (Omitting finger paints)
    I wonder how many more kids would turn out to be 'artistic' at an early age if someone braved the mess factor, and gave the kid paints and a nice paper, and a peaceful place to work.

    Branching on the 'peaceful place to work' - I think attention span has something to do with the potentiality* of a child creating a successful piece as well.

    I noticed Marla was completely alone (besides, obviously, the cameraman), no interaction with another person. Most children are not left to their own devices like that for such a long period. With nothing interrupting their concentration - no friend, distracting music, television - I would expect more kids to focus hard enough to make a better (if primitive)composition.

    Of course, most things are bound to look better on canvas and with nice paints, than on a blank piece of paper with crayons.

    Paint, if messier, is still more fluid and allows you to put your thoughts down more quickly than crayons. (Omitting finger paints)

    I wonder how many more kids would turn out to be 'artistic' at an early age if someone braved the mess factor, and gave the kid paints and a nice paper.

    *I think I made up that word...

  2. Finally got the DVD in from Amazon and watched it. I am a fan. I thought the documentary did a great job of keeping the audience guessing what stance the producer was taking. Probably didn't miss anything by not seeing it in the theater, but definitely a good afternoon watch. I'll be glad to lend it out.

  3. I only just recently saw the DVD "My Kid Could Paint That." Let me preface by saying this is my reaction as an artist:

    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.