Marla Olmstead: Child Prodigy or Pawn in a Fraud?

I watched the documentary My Kid Could Paint That, about Marla Olmstead, a young girl who took the modern art world by storm with her paintings when she was four years old. She had art showings in galleries and her paintings sold for tens of thousands of dollars.

The controversy arose when no independent filming could prove Marla painting one of her masterpieces from beginning to end. Her mother explained that Marla was a very shy child and behaved differently when there was a camera around. In one scene, before the camera, she basically does fingerpainting and makes a big mess, which her father says she did because she knew the camera was there. Both of her parents insist Marla did all of the paintings herself.

Watching this documentary, I was struck by several things:

  1. Marla’s mother, Laura, seemed very reluctant with her daughter’s fame, and on several occasions had to be persuaded by her husband and the local gallery owner who showed Marla’s paintings to do media interviews and take Marla to places where she would be in the public eye.

  2. Marla’s parents worked separate shifts. So, if her father influenced Marla’s work, (he’s an artist himself) I don’t think her mother knew about it.

  3. The documentary attempted to show Marla painting, but the painting she did was very childish and incomplete compared to her other works. In one scene, while working on a painting, she urges her father to help or finish it for her. After that scene, I was struck by the long explanation the father gave…almost as if he was afraid the gig was up. In another scene, before a gallery showing in California, she told her father that her younger brother (who seemed somewhat ignored) had done the painting, not her.

  4. One painting, Ocean, the parents videotaped from beginning to end to prove Marla did the work on her own. I do see a similarity between that and another painting, Flowers, but I’ve seen more “sophisticated” work that was also attributed to Marla. One couple own one of her paintings called Bottom Feeder and the man was pointing out the pathway to a door, with one figure looking in from outside while another figure outside looks in. I suppose it’s possible if 500 monkeys type for 500 years they could bang out the works of Shakespeare, and I suppose it’s possible with Marla’s painting she made something that said something to the art lover. But it still seems something beyond her capabilities.

When all is said and done, I would submit that Marla does some painting, but her father may do some of the finishing work. I don’t think the mother’s in on it. I don’t find much modern art to be art, and I certainly don’t hold myself out as an art connoisseur. But for those in the art community (OpalCat?) has the controversy been resolved for you? Ivylad is of the opinion that if you like the art, it doesn’t matter how it was produced. But a lot of people seem hung up on the fact that she’s just a little girl with (or not) an amazing talent.

When I watched a program about the family, I remember feeling pretty sure that Marla’s dad was responsible (in collusion with Marla’s mom) for 95% of the artwork, but cant recall what made me reach that conclusion… (this may have been a 60 Minutes-type program that I saw)


The documentary mentioned the 60 Minutes II piece, (in fact, showed the parents watching it) which aired two days before her west coast gallery opening. In fact, the owner of the gallery hinted at the possibility of a lawsuit because of the negative publicity and the loss of sales.

When I watched My Kid Could Paint That I walked away with the strong impression that the dad was the true artist of most of the paintings.

I’ve brushed up against this story a few times, but never watched the documentary. Every time I read anything about it, hear an interview, or see footage of the family, I am struck by how reflexively I assume that the father is behind the whole thing. It’s all gut-feel, but I’ve tried several of the POV-adjusting thought experiments I use to shake my biases, and he still comes out way (way) behind. Having now flipped through her gallery, I can’t say for sure that she didn’t paint them… but a few things about the canvasses don’t look like a kid’s work to me. I say it’s the dad heavily coaching her and then sneaking in to “finish” the works so they’ll conform to the art-school norms (or daringly break them, if that’s more artsy).

I didn’t see the documentary, but I did see this story on TV a few times. I think it was the 60 Minutes piece. They had some sort of psychologist, IIRC one who did research involving child prodigies, look at the paintings and she said what I had been thinking: that it’s very unusual for a young child to be interested in non-representational art and that she’d not previously heard of an art prodigy who didn’t do representational art.

I’m not a psychologist, but this seems right based just on what I remember from my own childhood (I did like to draw, although I was hardly a prodigy) and interacting with kids as an adult. Ordinary little kids usually CAN’T produce good representational art, but they WANT to. They’ll get upset if an adult doesn’t recognize their scribbles as a portrait of the family dog or whatever. Some children are gifted when it comes to art, but if Marla is for real she isn’t just more artistically talented than other little kids she also thinks about art in such a different way from other little kids. She has apparently never aspired to making a picture that looks like something from the real world. I find that unlikely.

The psychologist also pointed out that child prodigies tend to be very focused on their work, while Marla on camera seems to be idly playing around and not that interested in painting. Her parents would attribute this to her nervousness in front of the camera, but I don’t believe that a little kid would care that much about cameras or that someone with a real interest in art could be so easily distracted from it.

I agree with all of the above, and (though its been a couple of years since I saw the story) there just seemed to be something about the parents that made me think that they were highly invested in Marla’s fame and recognition…

Was the father also an artist? Possibly trying to parlay his daughters success into some for his own career?

My favorite part of the documentary was the backpedaling by the gallery owner. First he’s gushing over how wonderful Marla is. Then after the 60 minutes interview, he seems gleeful at what he sees as a blow to abstract art in general, and rants about getting paid less for his own realistic paintings which take so much longer to produce. Then, after Marla’s “comeback” when her parents produce the DVD showing her painting, he’s back to gushing over her again.

I actually liked the art gallery owner’s work…very detailed, almost like a photograph. I don’t deny several of Marla’s paintings are pretty, but $25,000 worth of pretty? No way. My tastes trend more toward Josephine Wall, anyway. If I can squirt a few colors on a canvas, smoosh them around, and have someone pay be tens of thousands of dollars…well, it’s good work if you can get it. But not if you’re passing the work off as your child’s.

One painting, Roads I think, struck me as definitely not Marla’s work. It’s white squiggles on a black canvas. I can’t see any four year old restricting themselves to one color of paint.

I’d be seriously doubtful that a four year old could produce the art at the link. A few pictures looked like they might have had a foundation in something a child might do, but overall kids tend to not want to fill the canvas or layer colors over one another. It’s possible she was schooled to do this, but then you get into compositional issues. Going from fingerpaint abstraction to very specific designs like a perfect rectangle with regular curlicues seems like too much of a range to be able to achieve.

Still, you never now what a child genius might accomplish, but I’d want to see a full painting session be filmed first.

I saw the documentary a couple of months ago. My own take on it is that the father helped Marla out considerably, but that originally he wasn’t attempting to commit fraud. I believe he initially told people that his daughter was the artist not in an attempt to sell the paintings for more than they would otherwise sell for, nor to bring attention to his daughter, but merely just to tell an interesting story. I believe this because I’ve done the same thing, on a much, much smaller scale.

When my son was very little and used to draw pictures, I’d add to them. Little details – shapes in the background, objects in the foreground, fingers at the ends of hands, that kind of thing. His mom would come downstairs and ask, “Did Tim draw this?” And I’d answer yes, because what am I going to say? “No, Tim’s a talentless hack. Without me he’d be nothing.” So, yeah, I’d let her believe that he made the drawings himself.

For me, the story ends there, because neither Tim nor I can draw for crap. But I can totally see how Marla’s story could have started out similarly, and then as more and more attention was paid to the pictures, the harder and harder it became for the dad to extricate himself from the original half-truth. And then at some point he just had to commit to lie 100%, despite the overwhelming evidence against it, because it was no longer possible to reverse the chain of events that brought him there with any shred of dignity.

None of this excuses the dad’s actions, of course, and why he’d continue to perpetuate the lie with new paintings (instead of trying to let it fade away) is puzzling to me. But I can totally see it happening like that.

Again, the above is just my speculation – I know nothing of the case or the people other than what I saw in the documentary.

I think she’s part of a fraud.

My reason has to do with the mechanics of the brush strokes. I think they were made by larger arms and stronger fingers. I don’t think a little kid could physically move paint that way, given the length of her arms and the scale of the paintings. There should be “pauses” in the paint, where she’d moved to continue the line. But there aren’t, it’s very fluid.

Somebody who knows their geometry could probably prove it, one way or the other.

If you ever copy a drawing or painting, really copy it, you’ll be surprised how much you learn about the process. Like, I’m pretty sure da Vinci was left-handed. I copied a couple of his pencil drawings, and the strokes were wrong because I’m right-handed.

If she’s so skittish around cameras, then why don’t her parents just secretly tape her while she works one time? If, as they say, she’s doing the paintings entirely on her own, then that’s an easy way to verify that fact and set everyone’s mind at ease.

I haven’t seen the documentary so I shouldn’t pass judgement although in reading the above I wouldn’t be surprised by fraud. The attached is related link of my niece who’s doing the same thing but in more of a tongue-in-cheek way. Her father is also an artist. She’s actually had a gallery showing or two which has pissed off some of the local artists. It’s obvious in her case it’s her painting though. The piece “oo oo mmm uh” is in my personal collection.

I really enjoyed this documentary. My thoughts at the time I watched it were pretty much in line with Meltdown’s. I felt like it started out more or less innocently, with Marla fooling around with her dad’s paints, and maybe he “collaborated” a little with her, and then somewhere along the line it snowballed to the point where to admit what was happening would have been nearly impossible.

I kind of wonder how many kids with some interest in art would benefit from being allowed to work like Marla does—big canvas, real brushes and huge tubes of acrylic paint. There’s only so much even a talented child can do with Crayola markers and those little toy cakes of watercolor and cruddy plastic brushes.

Mr. singular and I watched this together. As artists, we thought she did create the paintings. Just the way she held her brushes and approached the canvas rang true to us. We did resent her parents’ whoring her out, and mightily rolled our eyes at their “surprise” when it all went south. What did they think would happen? These days, if you present anything that is surprising and remarkable (and especially threatening to someone’s fragile ego), you can bet there will be someone working very hard to make it look bad. It’s a lot easier to destroy an artist’s reputation than it is to build it, and for some reason it’s really important to people that this little girl is a fraud. The parents are idiots.

They did, as I mentioned in my OP. They secretly taped her as she painted Ocean and hold that up as proof that she did it All By Herself.

Not to repeat myself, but I notice a difference between Ocean and some of “her” other works. The technique is different. I’m not an art critic, so I can’t really put into words why it’s different…to me, there are subtle differences in some of her paintings that lead me to believe she didn’t do them all.

De Kooning was a Dutch modern artist who painted into his 80’s. The suspicion was that his daughter and son-in -law painted a lot of his “later” works, because they commanded a high price. I don’t know if the authenticity of these paintings was ever settled.

I know what you mean. I did a copy of a Peanuts cartoon once. I’ve seen footage of cartoonists at work, and it seems like they pick up a pencil, whoosh-whoosh-whoosh, two minutes, and they’re done. Me? I sweated over that thing for hours. I’m no artist. The only way I could get it to look right was to be absolutely painstaking about it. If I got the shape of Lucy’s head wrong, it looked like a strip from the first year. Even for the letter forms in the dialog, I had to copy Schulz’s way of writing them. All except for Linus’s hair; the only way to get that right was to let go a little bit. I had plenty of books to use for reference.

Except for the condom in the last panel. For that, I was pretty much on my own.

I’m just bowled over by the phoniness of it. To me, it’s not just likely, but virtually certain her father is painting most or all of the paintings.