The story of Marla Olmstead raises a lot of interesting questions about art, what is a prodigy and how far parents will go to further their own stifled ambitions. Marla’s art (Be careful of that link, the website is irritating and loud) was unique among child artists because it is abstract. Obviously, it’s rare to skip representational art and go straight to abstract, but her father swears she just picked up a brush and paint beautiful swirling abstractions. Not only that, but she covers the whole sheet of paper, another very rare thing in a child. So rare, that her paintings have gone for $24,000 and she was hailed as a genius.
60 Minutes taped her while she was painting and it turns out, in their expert’s opinion, that it was probably her failed artist father who was doing the paintings. The article linked above says, “He can be heard on the tape, directing her, sometimes sternly: “Pssst …. Paint the red. Paint the red. You’re driving me crazy. Paint the red.” “If you paint, honey, like you were … This is not the way it should be.” Only to have her produce a painting that was inferior to all the paintings she had done before. But, the family swears they are hers.
A documentary filmmaker was following Marla’s family around during this period. His film, which premiered at Sundance, is called “My Kid Could Paint That”. I can’t wait to see it. To me either story is fascinating. Whether it’s an actual child prodigy or a father using his child to succeed where he failed, it’s the stuff of high drama.