Marla Olmstead was born in 2000. Her father, Mark, a manager in a factory, had recently taken up painting as a hobby. He was still painting when Marla, aged two, asked to join in.
“I gave her a brush and some paper,” Mark recalls, “and put her in front of the easel.” Later, he gave her a large canvas and sat her on top of it in only her nappy. He provided acrylic paints and brushes and rollers, and let her get on with it.
When Marla was three, a friend of the family asked to put up Marla’s colourful abstracts in his coffee shop, in their hometown in New York State. Soon after that he said he wanted prices for the work. The family thought that was hilarious, but agreed. And soon Marla sold her first art work. Laura photocopied the $250 cheque.
Around the same time, a local artist decided to open his own gallery. A painter of painstakingly detailed hyper-realist figurative work, Anthony Brunelli came across Marla’s paintings at a friend’s house. It wasn’t like the stuff he painted himself, but Brunelli could see its potential. By the summer of 2004, Marla had her own dealer.
Brunelli phoned a local newspaper reporter, Elizabeth Cohen. “I told him, I don’t write about art, I write about families,” she recalls. But the story he told her about Marla was compelling, so Cohen phoned Marla’s mother, Laura Olmstead. “I asked if she wanted me to write a story.”
Laura consented. “It was like lighting a match to a fuse,” recalls Cohen.
Other news organisations followed, and the price of Marla’s work shot up. Mark Olmstead, understandably excited, asked his friends: “Do you want to make an investment?” The owner of the Houston Rockets bought a Marla. Oprah Winfrey and David Letterman called to get the family on their shows. And companies including Gap and Crayola offered corporate sponsorship.
“This is bigger than I had even anticipated,” said a delighted Brunelli. “We have more than 70 people wanting to buy something. I don’t know how long it will take her to paint all that.”
Art critics suggested that Marla’s work was comparable to that of the great abstract expressionists, and saw her success as emblematic of the fundamental meaninglessness of modern art. Thus she revived the question: “What is art?”
One who saw beauty in her work was Michael Kimmelman of The New York Times. “A lot of art in the modern era is about alienating the viewership,” he says. “Probably the worst thing you could say about an artist is that everything this artist does is joyous and wonderful and open-hearted and simple and free. In certain circles this might sound like you’re not serious. The appeal of the Marla world is that it seems pure innocent joy, no cynicism, no irony, no sarcasm. You know nobody is saying ‘F*** you’ in this picture. They’re just saying, ‘I’m a happy girl who loves painting.’ ”
That is, if Marla really was painting.
The great renaissance artist Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini caught the eye of the pope with sketches he made aged seven. Picasso started to produce extremely accomplished work around the same age. John Everett Millais entered the Royal Academy at 11. Marla was considerably younger – was her talent too success, in which her sales amounted to something like $300,000, cynics started to suggest that Marla’s paintings were actually done by her father. In particular, an hour-long investigation on prime-time TV showed footage from a hidden camera, installed with the parents’ permission. This showed Marla painting much like any other child of her age. A microphone captured Mark hissing instructions. An expert in children’s art concluded: “I don’t see Marla having made or completed these works. I saw no evidence that she was a prodigy. I saw a normal and adorable child, except that she had a coach.”
Cohen, who had always felt misgivings about putting Marla into the public eye, sat and watched that 60 Minutes programme alongside Marla’s parents. “I was pretty shocked,” she recalls. “It was ugly journalism – to undo a four-year-old and her family for an hour on prime time. They were really in over their heads.”
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Like Mark Olmstead, I too am a keen amateur painter, with a young daughter who is uncommonly passionate about art.
When I was 14, I won a prize in a fairly important adult art competition. I decided I wanted to be “an artist” but was told by a careers adviser that it would be terribly difficult to make a living and I should think of something else. As a result, my productive period as a painter in oils more or less ended with my teens.
But in January, for my birthday, my wife paid for me to attend classes at the prestigious Hampstead School of Art. I had not one but two professional artists teaching me: fantastic. Fired up, I determined to carry a sketch book with me at all times. A good number of the sketches depict Nancy, who has just turned four.
As for her own work: I already possess something like 300 drawings. I keep them because she fusses insufferably when I throw them out. Anyway, we like them. We recently framed one that she did with pens on a kitchen towel, and hung it in the downstairs loo. Whereupon Nancy decided to stick up her own works in the living room, using Blu Tack. I can’t think of any decent explanation why she shouldn’t do that – so the pictures stayed.
I have been astounded by the sheer attention she gives to art: from the age of two, she has often devoted more than an hour to a single work. Collecting her from nursery I would regularly be given a sheaf of drawings she’d done that day. Each picture had a story. “This is where we live,” she might say, pointing to one coloured blob or tangle. “And here’s the park. And here’s the Scilly Isles.” (We have holidayed there.)
Looking at other people’s pictures (drawings, photographs, ads), she became interested in why individuals in certain pictures looked cross or happy, and began to introduce those emotional states into her own drawings.
I was delighted by Nancy’s progress – which I absurdly put down to sheer genetic talent. I was dismayed when she showed mark-making skills that had quite obviously been taught by nursery staff – as, for instance, when she showed me how to draw a flower, or run a line of blue sky across the top of a page.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s researchers began to describe the three basic stages children follow in their development as artists: scribbling, first unsystematically and then in clusters and with circular shapes; then with elementary human figures, objects and environments; and finally with lifelike, naturalistic detail.
A certain Rhoda Kellogg proposed in 1969 that children go through a progressive sequence of scribbling that starts with simple marks and eventually becomes complex. Kellogg identified 20 basic scribble types, used by two- and three-year-olds, which provide the foundation for later graphic development. These include dots, single and multiple vertical, horizontal and diagonal lines, curved lines, roving open and closed lines, zigzags, loops, spirals and assorted circles.
At three or four years old, according to Cathy Malchiodi, the author of Understanding Children’s Drawings, children start to name the parts of their drawings and invent stories about them. Adults teach children to locate representational qualities in their art by asking, “Is that Daddy?” or just: “What are you drawing?”
The first recognisably human figures generally appear in the work of children aged around four to six, according to Malchiodi. These tadpole figures usually consist of a head, legs and, less frequently, arms. At this stage, figures are often placed around the page without reference to a ground line, and with little regard for relationships to size. Some may appear to be upside down. Towards the end of this stage, children begin to draw more detail. They add toes, fingers, teeth, eyebrows, hair, ears.
In the next stage, standard, formal visual symbols appear: trees with a brown trunk and green top, a yellow sun in the corner of the page, a ground line for figures to stand on and a blue line of sky across the top. This stage usually appears in children aged six to nine.
There are rare exceptions to this predictable sequence. In the 1970s, a young girl called Nadia was diagnosed as functionally retarded with autistic affect, but showed extraordinary gifts as an artist. From the age of three to six, she produced drawings that rivalled adult artists. But this ability was short-lived. By the time she was a young adult, her work had deteriorated severely.
Another artist with autism is the Londoner Stephen Wiltshire. From a young age, he demonstrated an extraordinary talent for drawing from memory, which he still possesses. In May 2005 he depicted Tokyo on a 10-metre-long canvas within seven days after a short helicopter ride over the city. The late Sir Hugh Casson once described Wiltshire’s sense of perspective as faultless. “I’ve never seen such a natural and extraordinary talent.”
To say that Wiltshire “only” has this talent because he’s autistic would be to denigrate something miraculous in its own right. But the fact remains that he and Nadia are different from “ordinary” talented children such as Marla – or two-year-old Freddie Linsky.
Freddie’s mother, Estelle Lovatt, is an art critic and lecturer who straightforwardly describes her two-year-old son as a prodigy. “I have been taking him with me to galleries and press views since he was three months old,” she tells me. On the wall in his bedroom are postcards from the galleries. “He can tell you which one is Botticelli and which one van Eyck.”
But he’s not only a connoisseur. “His work has been seen on the internet by people in Berlin who were in the process of forming an exhibition, and they invited him along and didn’t know he was a two-year-old.
“Having seen so much art myself, and knowing as a critic what is good, I believe he is a natural. It’s not about being good for his age. It’s not children’s art. Children’s art is when somebody at a nursery sticks sand onto a piece of brown paper, or macaroni. Freddie makes art, and just happens to be a child.”
So far as this goes, I can only applaud Lovatt. But I feel uncomfortable, and tell her so, about trying to commercialise such a young child’s art. Freddie’s work is available to view on the Saatchi website. But he’s not listed as a child artist. On the contrary, there’s a playful attempt to present him as a grown-up. Freddie Linsky, the site tells us, is an art critic and a familiar face at press viewings at galleries and exhibitions in London.
The prose that accompanies Freddie’s pictures includes much of the higher bollocks in which art critics trade. This might be seen as a splendid send-up of modern art and the people who buy it – except that Lovatt confesses she was “trying to test the market”. When money changes hands, people tend to take everything more seriously – as the Olmsteads painfully discovered.
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On www.marlaolmstead.com, paintings by the American prodigy remain available for purchase, alongside prints in limited editions of 100 that sell for around $500 each.
The site also features short films to download showing Marla painting over a gentle new-age soundtrack, filmed to reassure would-be buyers that Marla really does paint.
Watching those edited highlights, I find myself wondering what instructions Marla might have been given, even while the camera was rolling, and who selected her materials. By giving a child the right materials you can get results that you might not get if you let them choose their own. Fast-drying acrylic paints, such as Marla uses, applied over a large area of canvas, might very well result in satisfactory abstracts with bright colours, whereas a medium that remains wet is likely to result in a mud-coloured mess more typical of four-year-olds.
Hoping for some insights on this, I visited the artist Nigel Caple, who teaches me at the Hampstead School of Art but also teaches young children. I asked him to look at the images on Marla’s website. “The impressive thing is that they’re all so finished,” he said. “I have kids working on the same painting for weeks and I have problems getting them to fill the canvas.” He’s impressed by the mark-making. “They’re very decorative and attractive. But is it saying anything? The language of painting has become vast, but is it all valid? This kind of abstract work can only now be considered wonderful: 100 years ago it would have been seen as a mess.”
Could Marla have been taught to create art in a certain way – to cover every inch of a canvas, wait till one colour has dried before applying another? Possibly. But would that really be any more acceptable than faking, if it meant crushing a child’s self-expression, and artistic and personal development?
Zara Rochfort and Fuyuko Takeda are art therapists. They work in primary and secondary schools, offering courses of therapy to children who may have been referred by teachers. The therapy takes place in a quiet room with plentiful art materials, where children can feel free to pursue their own ideas.
The point is not to consider the final artwork, stresses Rochfort. “We never look at a piece of art and say, ‘This is what it means.’ It’s about the process. You notice what they’re making and how they make it – and what they say.”
Indeed, the children may not produce conventional art work at all. Takeda remembers one troubled boy who went around the room connecting pieces of furniture with Sellotape – a unifying procedure of fairly obvious symbolic meaning. “We discussed how frightening it was for him to be moved around from one foster home to another. The art was about him being in control, and holding things together.”
It would be hard to think of a more chilling, but also life-affirming, example of children’s need to express themselves through art than the exhibition put on by Kids Company, a charity for deeply troubled children, in London earlier this year. Showcasing the work of 500 children, Demons and Angels included such horrors as a doll with its eye gouged out, another with a plastic bag over its head, skulls, and figures like addicts with syringes sticking into their legs.
The message of such works may have been blunt, but the charity’s founder, Camila Batmanghelidjh, stresses that these children have an overwhelming urge to communicate: “It’s very important that we understand. It’s a sad exhibition, but it’s also incredibly uplifting because of the honesty and the courage the children have shown in sharing this.”
Art gives an indication of a child’s growth. Some types of art do this more than others.
“Drawing a family is not usually a favourite subject of children given freedom to draw anything they want,” says Malchiodi, herself an art therapist. The exception to that is children aged four to six years old – or earlier, presumably, in Marla’s case. At this stage in their development, “human figures become an important part of drawings and children naturally draw images of themselves, parents, siblings and other people significant to them. Children who are well adjusted and comfortable with their families generally draw images that are charming and creative, capturing details of family life and remarkably unique characteristics of parents, siblings and self”.
So why hasn’t Marla done anything like that? Where, on www.marlaolmstead.com, are the tadpole figures? Where are the drawings of her mother, father and younger brother, Zane?
After Marla first came to public notice, an award-winning film-maker, Amir Bar-Lev, approached the Olmsteads with a request to make a documentary about her. The family had already been turned upside down by intrusive media requests, but at that point their story was still generally positive. They agreed to let him make the film, welcoming him into their home for a period of months and treating him not as a journalist but as a friend. Then, when the world turned against the Olmsteads, they saw Bar-Lev’s film as an opportunity to set the record straight. “I open myself up to you,” Marla’s mother told him. “I choose to trust you.”
But the resulting film, out in December, didn’t work out quite how they’d like it. At one point, tellingly, when Marla paints on camera she produces muddy smears. Her father reassures Bar-Lev: “When there is no camera it’s different. This is not normal. The only time she acts like that is when the camera is in front of her. She will go back at it and over it and make it nice. It’s rare that she gets to the mud point.”
Another time, Marla tells her father it’s his turn to paint: “All right, just help me, dude.” “Marla, you do what you want,” he replies. “You have to tell me what to do – right now,” she says. Turning to camera, Mark explains: “She says funny things all the time.” But to me, Marla’s hesitancy and blankness are chilling.
After the 60 Minutes investigation, sales of Marla’s work dried up. In the film her mother calls that a blessing. “I caught myself smiling with relief that it was over. Mark thinks we were financially injured, but the money had just come from nowhere. It happened and it can unhappen.” Then the family made a DVD of Marla painting, to prove she did it. But the canvas she produced on camera is distinctly less accomplished than others she is supposed to have done off camera.
In a telling episode, Anthony Brunelli offers one of those less-finished paintings to a would-be buyer, along with other works.
“This one is easy on the eyes,” the buyer says, “but you look at that one and my mind is working hard. It’s not relaxing. It doesn’t look like the same person’s painting.”
In 2005, the Olmsteads parted company with Brunelli, who went back to his own painting.
“I have always felt that modern art is a kind of scam. It takes me months to do realist paintings. And these things sell for millions. The most I ever sold for is $100,000.
“When I came across Marla’s work it was like a gift – ‘Screw you, modern-art world!’ I do not understand that world, but I do understand the value of marketing. That’s when it came together. I thought, ‘I have history in the making and something that will turn the art world on its ear.’”
At the end of his time with the family, Bar-Lev was feeling deeply uncomfortable. “I have been telling everyone how great it has been for the film that this potential scandal has come up, but now I feel sad and conflicted. If they’re lying, they’re lying incredibly well. It’s only now that I realise I’m going to have to call some people liars, who on the face of it are great people.
“Was it really possible that Marla had been propped in front of a bunch of paintings that she hadn’t done,” he wondered, “and hadn’t ever said anything about it? And was it really possible that Mark could hide this from his wife?”
On camera, he tentatively addresses his concerns to the parents. “To me, if Mark helped in some way, then I can see that explaining the complexity of the paintings. I don’t know, am I completely off base?”
“I think that is wrong,” says Laura.
“I think that when she started I told her not to push the brush,” Mark puzzles. “Not to push it. How do you direct a child to make a crazy abstract painting? You can’t do that.”
Bar-Lev persists. “I feel like some of the paintings have big, adult ideas…”
“I need you to believe me,” says Laura. “I want to take a polygraph test. We are adults, we can handle this. It’s so unfair.” Before she starts to cry, she asks: “What have I done to my children?”
Since that interview was filmed, the Olmsteads have continued to sell Marla’s paintings. On their website, they say that their daughter, now seven, is largely unaware of the public interest, and happy. But there’s no evidence of normal, childlike progression in her work, or the kind of self-expression we might expect – the self-expression that, even in late developers, can be nothing less than magical.