Posted by: hmillic | September 19, 2007

My Kid Could Paint That: My Reflections on Marla Olmstead and Modern Art….

One of my favorite daily internet rituals is to check for new movie trailers on the Apple website. Most are met with groans or sighs, but sometimes I come across movies that I actually want to see.

One such movie is the documentary, My Kid Could Paint That. The movie follows the story of Marla Olmstead, a four year old girl from Binghamton, New York who skyrocketed to international fame when her abstract paintings began to sell for thousands of dollars. Her work has been compared to that of Kandinsky, Pollack, and Picasso. She became a sensation of the art world, a child prodigy of epic proportions. Then, 60 minutes ran a piece on Marla that aimed to cast doubt on the authenticity of Marla’s work, and whether or not her parents were exploiting her for financial gain.

In the beginning of the trailer, we hear New York Times art critic Michael Kimmelman discuss one of the more hotly debated topics in art… if a child can do it, what does that say about modern art? What is art? (On a side note, if you want the “answer” to that question, Michael Kimmelman’s book “The Accidental Masterpiece” is a great read !)

I love art, it has been and always will be my greatest passion. I consider myself an amateur painter. Art is wonderful. It can convey thought and emotion, freeze moments in time. Art is magic. I must be honest though, I don’t care for most modern art. Last month, on a visit to Williamstown, Massachusetts, I visited the Massachusetts Museum of Modern Art (or MASS MoCA) and I have to tell you, I hated almost everything in the place. I came in there with high hopes… the main entryway is illuminated by the coolest light installation .

I thought I was in for quite a treat. Then I looked at everything else. A stack of fans that go on and off. Apples that fall from a gutter to an astro-turf square on the floor. Crumpled up cellophane. And my favorite, blank paper. I’m sorry, but I’m allowed to look at a blank peice of paper with writing on it and think, “Wow, this person is just really lazy.” I point and laugh. Maybe that makes me dense or unsophisticated, but I can’t help myself. I’m reduced to giggles and jeers, because to me, that art is nothing but kitschy. It’s the reason that word exists. Hey, how about I staple a gym sock on my wall and say its a statement about world poverty. Will I get a showing at MASS MoCA?

I think that this movie is a perfect illustration of what I’m talking about. Is Marla a genius? Or is she merely a child that has a knack for color? Either way, what does that say about modern art? The movie blurb says it best :

Others felt her work was, in fact, comparable to the great Abstract Expressionists – but saw this as emblematic of the meaninglessness of Modern Art. “She is painting exactly as all the adult paintings have been in the past 50 years, but painting like a child, too. That is what everybody thinks but they don’t dare to say it,” said Oggi, the leading Italian weekly.

For the record, I think her paintings are a thousand times better than anything I saw at MASS MoCA. She is immensely talented, and has that “it” factor that some artists strive to achieve and most never find. I’m actually considering buying one of her prints. You can buy them on her website, AND her parents have posted videos of her painting (see below), which put to rest any doubt over whether or not she’s really the artist behind the work. There’s also a gallery of all the work she’s sold and paintings that are still available. After seeing her paint, I’m definitely going to invest in some large canvases when I have kids and let them go to town. Sometimes its all about materials! I doubt they’ll be anything more than handprints and smiley faces, but anything that means something to you can be art. I guess that’s the moral of the story. Art is subjective. If you like it, then its art. If you don’t, then it sucks.

That’s all I have to say about that.

If you’d like to see more pictures of Marla painting, look here.

Here’s a video of her painting:

Footage of her painting, as seen on the Jane Pauley Show:


  1. I understand your frusteration with “abstract art”, there is something that is more personal about viewing it. I think you will find with some research is that artist from before who were working “abstractly” were doing this for the first time, so everything was totally experimental. Kandinsky, Pollock, Picasso – all of these artists were cutting edge. No one worked in their particular way before them. Whether you like their work or not, they were at least trying to think in new terms. So if you open up an Art in Amercia, or Art News or any other major art magazine, or go to a new “modern” art show, what you will see is mostly a similar take on an old idea. Not much “new” is being done. I would love to submit that there are new thoughts out there, but for the most part we don’t see them, because a lot of “art” is about what sells rather than what is good. It does come down to the issue, is this something that makes me think, I like the aethetics of, or just like for some odd reason?

  2. […] the full story here Author Comments […]

  3. enjoyed this about the painting girl, Maria. i’m starting to paint, as well as my sister, we both have a small art background from school, but we’re not artists. this girl is quite special & i agree about your opinions of art. at the sf moma they have a flourescent light bulb displayed as art!!

    anyway, i also saw the post “on the road” and wondered if you would check out my blog & perhaps even post it as a link or broadcast it somehow. i spent a year traveling in s.e. asia, actually met a swiss man & now live in switzerland. so there are photos of both places & i’m continuing to update it.

    thanks! i enjoy your website : )

  4. p.s. i’ve suggested Maria’s story to my sister because she has a 4 year old and an 8 year old, never too early to introduce them to new things!

  5. i watched the documentary. While i think she probably paints most of it, i came to the conclusion that her dad might put some finishing touches on them. To me the ones they show her paint aren’t nearly as good as the ones they don’t. And the ones they don’t show her paint all seem to have a flow to them, while hers didn’t.
    But that’s just my opinion, hopefully i am wrong. And if it is the father, then he is pretty talented himself.

  6. Hello Heather,

    My name is Buster Juicy (not really, just when I’m online). It’s a pleasure to make your online acquaintance.

    I enjoyed your post on Modern Art entitled, ‘My Kid Could Paint That: My Reflections on Marla Olmstead and Modern Art….’ I especially enjoyed the gut-wrenching laughter I experienced after reading the following line you wrote:

    “Hey, how about I staple a gym sock on my wall and say its a statement about world poverty. Will I get a showing at MASS MoCA?”

    HA! HA! Pure gold, girl! I think your comments beautifully capture the state of Modern Art these days, which is: Modern Art is pompous crap!

    I’m preparing to launch a blog of my own, in which I plan to post a short list of ‘Favorite Quotes’, mostly spoken or written by ‘reasonable’ people who have a modicum of commonsense, along with a good sense of humor. Would you mind if I included your line above in my quote list? If you’re OK with it, would you prefer that I include your last name? Or, in case you fear that I’m some kind of Interent weirdo (I guess we all have to be careful in that regard…I have two daughters about whom I worry with respect to all of the ‘freaky-freaks’ out there), perhaps I can just post it from ‘Heather’.

    Actually, by attributing it to just ‘Heather’, you can live vicariously (and sarcastically) in my blog as one of those self-important people who are so much better than the rest of us…a modern-day patrician who could never be identified with something as ‘tawdry’ and ‘hoi polloi’ as ‘a last name.’ LOL

    Either way…I’d just like to use your comment, since it’s both funny and true!


    Buster Juicy

  7. As a prodigy child myself I’m really thankful my parents didn’t get greedy and put up a circus like the one these guys are putting with that child. Right now she doesn’t really see what is happening in the future she will have a hard time. I was able to create an international business out of what I was born to do, but I was literally left alone to create, without being pushed or directed like her father definitely does (as shown on the videos)

    That aside, the prodigy part is debatable after all that came out with the interviews, the videos, etc. It is obvious the child is being exploited by her father mainly and the fact that the girl openly says “I didn’t paint that, my brother did” on one of the segments and still the painting is signed by the child and sold as made by the child says way too much in opinion to even consider this the real deal and to spend the amount of money people pays for those works.

    The problem here is not really if the works are good or not, we are attracted to them because we are attracted to color and simple shapes, if they are or not modern art, if they look or not like the big masters is not the actual issue or miracle, the problem here is that this looks, smells and progresses as a big scam and as time goes by and more interviews are aired the more pieces of the reality of the situation come out.

    To me this seems like the story of The Emperor’s New Clothes, there is a personal gain rather than the interest for the world to really see this child is a prodigy child. I hope mom and dad are putting all the money away for that child’s future instead of spending it on themselves.

    As for the paintings, it is more than obvious those works, not all of course, but the majority are not done by the child as pointed earlier, and it is definitely proven on the 60 minutes interview, the movie and many other public appearances. It is so easy to edit a couple of brush works here and there on a canvas to make it look the girl is really painting that anyone can do it. It wouldn’t be the first parent who by frustration after not being able to accomplish a career in what he/she loves would use their kids to create a cloud of smoke to make money. Sad but a true reality.

    If that child really has the talent it will show through out her life, if it’s just a lie, it will show as well… let see if the last happens what the collectors who spent thousands for a scam would say then.

    Happy Painting.

  8. While some of Marla Olmstead’s paintings are aesthetically pleasing I agree with the opinion that when watching her paint she has no true method or passion involved in her work. She is a child playing, and the direction from her father creates a nurturing environment that produces a finished product. I think any child could be grown into an abstract artist, that pattern of thinking and creativity is natural for most children.

    As for modern art, go ahead with your sock idea…you’ll probably be world renowned for your innovation and provocative insights!

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