Saturday, May 17, 2008

Review - My Kid Could Paint That

I recently watched My Kid Could Paint That, a documentary about child painter Marla Olmstead. Marla, an abstract painter, has been compared to Jackson Pollack. At the time of filming, Marla was 4 years old and was selling paintings for $25,000. Marla was born in 2000 and lives in Binghamton, New York.

This films explores a number of questions:
  • Did Marla create the paintings all by herself?
  • What is abstract art?
  • What is the motivation of the media?
  • What is the motivation of Marla's parents?
At the start of the documentary, film maker Amir Bar-Lev is telling the story of child prodigy Marla Olmstead. During filming, the TV show 60 Minutes does a segment on Marla. 60 Minutes asks Ellen Winner, a child psychologist who studies gifted children, to comment on Marla and her work. Before seeing film from a hidden camera in Marla's house, Winner is very impressed with Marla's work and comments that her work would be right at home in the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA). But after Winner views the hidden camera footage, she declares that Marla is not a prodigy and probably did not create the paintings by herself. In the footage, you can hear Marla's father coaching and directing Marla (e.g., why don't you use red?). At this point forward in the documentary, Amir Bar-Lev starts to have doubts about the authenticity of the paintings, and the remainder of the documentary is asking "Did Marla create the paintings?" Amir Bar-Lev never comes to a conclusion and allows viewers to make up their own minds.

Do I think Marla painted the pictures by herself? Probably not. The documentary shows Marla mixing mud, and she doesn't seem particularly interested in art or painting. But it doesn't really matter what I or anyone else thinks. If Marla is a prodigy and is destined to become a great painter, she will become one. If she isn't, she won't. In either case, hopefully the pressure of her early success won't destroy her. It must be tough to be a has-been by age 12.

The film also asks "What is abstract art?". Is it amazing that a 4-year old can create abstract art that would fit right in at MOMA? Or is the fact that a 4-year old can create abstract art that would fit right in at MOMA say that there isn't much to abstract art?

The motivation of both the media and Marla's parents is explored. When the media first discovers Marla, she is praised as a child prodigy. After the 60 Minutes piece, she and her parents are torn down. The media always needs fresh and interesting news to keep viewers engaged and keep ratings up. Tearing down a star, hero, or celebrity is good for ratings. Finally, the motivation of Marla's parents needs to be questioned. Do they want the money? The fame? Are they really selflessly promoting Marla for her own good? Does a 4 year old care about all of this?

This film is thought-provoking and enjoyable, and Marla's paintings are pleasing to the eye. I recommend this documentary highly.

Here are some web references:

Child Painter Marla Olmstead, Art News Blog
Marla Olmstead Website, Official Marla Olmstead Website
Marla Olmstead, Wikipedia.
My Kid Could Paint That,
My Kid Could Paint That, Official Sony Pictures Website
New Questions About Child Prodigy, 60 Minutes


Anita Davies said...

Such an interesting post Laurel. I had never heard of this little girl, thankyou!

Lorie M. said...

facinating, a very good post, and I would like to check it out!

steve said...

Yeah, what a film, huh? The thing is, if you constantly and continually put a kid in front of paint and canvas day in and day out, over an extended period of time, they'll indeed come up with someting and produce way more than your average kid, who spends more time on the soccer field or in front of the video game console. I have no doubt her dad had a hand in her work, though to what degree I couldn't say. As for the abstract art part, I thought the photo realist curator was rather smug in his opinion, as if his brand and style of art was the be all of what art should be. Seriously, if photo-realism was the only art out there, I wouldn't be into art at all--boring. He says how kids could do abstract art, which is true, but I say, "my camera could take that" to his work--why spend a painstakingly long amount of time (I think he said nine months for some paintings) on an image that is an exact replica of what one could take in the snap of a camera ? No imagination or, or "soul" for that matter. Sure, there's a lot of abstract crap that is indeed overpriced and overhyped, but there is also a good deal of amazing abstract work made with an enormous amount of imagination and understanding of color and composition. Basically, the guy shouldn't generalize, as he did in the film. As for the little girl, only time can tell, and I certainly wish her all the best. Anyhow, also check out the film, "Who the F&%@ is Pollack ?" (not sure if that's the exact title), if you found "My Kid could paint that" interesting.

Laurel Neustadter said...

Steve, I agree with your comments on photo-realism. I'll check out "Who the F&%@ is Pollack ?".

Ella said...

My boyfriend and I also watched the movie back in March. We also questioned how interested Marla actually was in creating the paintings at the age of filming beyond the simple joy a child has in splashing paint. Also we wondered why the director never compared the paintings of the father (you only see them for a few seconds in the movie) to the ones that were actually sold as being created by Marla. I keep asking myself if he actually has the 'artistic eye' to be able to help his daughter to create art that actually sells. The documentary was certainly worth watching for it touched on many different aspects of the story. Personally some of the art shown in the movie looked inspiring and fresh to me whereas some pieces left me with a feeling of mediocricy. There were moments when I thought to myself: Would anyone have cared, had she not been that young?

LeftHandArtist said...

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.