Friday, 22 August 2008


"There will be a special place in hell for Marla's parents. I guess it's OK for some of the scammed money to go into the kid's college fund, but put some aside for therapy when she gets old enough to see what they've done with her"

Just one of many personal attacks directed at Mark and Laura Olmstead; proud parents of Marla who became known as the 'Pint-sized Pollack'. When local artist Anthony Brunelli came across an abstract painting in Binghampton NY, 4 year old Marla Olmstead took her first steps toward stardom. Soon, art collectors and general public alike were flocking to exhibitions where Marla's layered paintings sold for thousands of dollars. As Brunelli had predicted, the news media soon moved in on this astounding story, enlisting art experts to provide informed comment and reaction. So far, so good, but the inevitable backlash was just around the corner.

When Ellen Winner - a child psychologist studying the arts and gifted children - appeared on 60 minutes, a comparison between Marla's early work and a more recent piece (the latter composed under the watchful eye of a hidden camera) prompted Winner to suggest that Marla's body of work may well have been the result of someone else's brush strokes. Amir Bar-Levi's absorbing documentary MY KID COULD PAINT THAT, follows events before, during and after Winner's comments, offering viewers the opportunity to decide for themselves whether or not Marla's father was more involved than he cared to admit. While Marla's stock was certainly affected by these allegations, the subsequent availability of a 5 hour DVD apparently showing her composing an entire painting did restore her credibility to a certain extent, but for many people, doubt still remains. If Marla's parents were responsible for some degree of deception, their lifestyle didn't appear to drastically alter, and it's true to say that her introduction to the art world was not the result of pushy parents who besieged the great and the good with demands to view their offspring's work.

So, was Marla really the force behind these paintings, or did Mark Olmstead simply have an eye for the main chance and decide to pass off his own work as the talent and inspiration of a child genius? Sadly, certain aspects of this documentary suggest this could well have been the case. Whatever, it's a compelling study which also throws up several questions regarding the validity of so-called 'Modern Art'. Collectors pay many thousands for abstract work while many talented artists struggle after composing pieces which often take several months to complete. Splash some paint on a canvas and you too can earn a decent living? I guess the main question concerns the perceived quality of the work. If the Olmstead collection is so good, does it really matter if Marla or Mark is the artist? Why should collectors object as to whose hand was behind the artwork that adorns their living room wall? If the painting(s) communicate to them, surely it shouldn't make any difference, other than a reduction in bragging rights if it becomes crystal clear that a 4 year old didn't paint these works of art. I suppose that with some folks, the story behind the painting is almost as important.

For what it's worth, my own extremely limited vision suggests that some of the paintings do possess a fluidity, coupled with a maturity that involves a methodical talent at work. if Marla was responsible for the lions share of this work, it seems more than likely that she had some help along the way as many portions of the work were surely beyond someone of such tender years? I don't know. Watch the doc and form your own opinion. A fraud? Just like the paintings, it's in the eye of the beholder.

Abstract art? Bit like gazing into an open fire. You can see pretty much anything your imagination desires. Give me a nice sunset composition any day. 4 year olds could most definitely not paint that!
I first learned about this documentary on Ian Smith's excellent blog so check it out asap His latest post gives the lowdown on HELLBOY II: THE GOLDEN ARMY.


  1. I didn't know about the doc. I had heard of her and the controversy surrounding whether she was really the artist or not. I do wonder though. I'll have to check it out to see if I can form an opinion on it.

  2. It really is a fascinating documentary, Keith. Be interested to read your opinion when you do get to see it.I know many people are convinced she was the artist. Maybe this is the ultimate whodunnit!