Marla Olmstead Documentary – My Kid Could Paint That

I finally watched the Marla Olmstead documentary that people have been commenting on in earlier Marla posts here, here, and here. The comments that people have left on earlier posts are very FOR or AGAINST the little “child prodigy” with very few neutral opinions on the whole saga. I still think the art critic Clement Greenberg got it right when he said..

“In visual arts, prodigies don’t count. In music and literature, yes, but not in art.” Clement Greenberg

my kid could paint that documentaryFor those that don’t know, Marla Olmstead is a child painter that quickly rose to fame at the ripe old age of 4, before a 60 Minutes episode doubted the authenticity of Marla’s work. Some of the doubt has since disappeared for some people and she is back in demand with art collectors, selling original paintings for tens of thousands of dollars.

The documentary called “My Kid Could Paint That” by director Amir Bar-Lev seems like a fair and balanced portrayal of Marla and the Olmstead family. The filmmaker seemed to become very attached to the family and struggled to confront them when his suspicions were aroused about who painted the more “polished” works, but he generally let’s the viewer come to their own conclusion.

I felt uncomfortable through a lot of it, especially when Marla’s father was around (most of the film). His performance just wasn’t convincing for me. I think Marla’s an adorable little child, but I didn’t see a child prodigy in the film. Hopefully Marla’s mother will step in when it looks like her child is losing too much of her childhood, as she seemed to have the interests of her child before the money and fame, which is not the same impression that I got from the father.

Here’s a quote from the director Amir Bar-Lev..
“If Marla wasn’t doing the paintings, why would Mark and Laura ever have allowed 60 Minutes to do a piece? Why would they have invited me to make a documentary? Especially given my “deeper truth” speech upon our agreement? Marla had done one sub-par painting – what did that prove? Was it really conceivable that Marla had been propped up in front of a bunch of paintings that she hadn’t done – and hadn’t ever said anything about it? And was it really possible that Mark could hide this from his wife – it would mean that, mysteriously, every time a painting was completed, Laura was out of the house? I had to conclude that the Olmsteads’ version of events was the most likely – or rather, in retrospect, I chose to conclude that – it was far more comfortable than the other, darker scenarios.”

More of Marla Olmstead’s work can be seen at her website here.

About Dion

Australian artist and observer of things.. all kinds of things. I like a wide variety of art, from the weird and wonderful to the bold and beautiful.. and everything in between.


  1. I really enjoyed the movie. I liked the paintings. I think the whole PR phenomenon around Marla says a lot more about the art world than it does about this family. I really don’t care if they duped the world … whatever. Art IS .. it exists. If the paintings are masterpieces then they are so regardless of if they were painted by the child, the child & dad or a monkey. I find the whole story very amusing and intriguing.
    I just hope the poor kid grows up and does not go to college for art, her teachers will hate her.

  2. I liked this movie. I think that it portrayed the family fairly, and most of the so-called “help” that Marla received was help that any parent would give their 4-year-old when painting. Marla is no prodigy, and her paintings are the scribblings of an ordinary little girl. If the art world felt duped, it was only because they duped themselves.

  3. Donald Frazell says:

    Didn’t get all the angry responses of last time, Dion. Guess things have settled down, and not the hordes or anger following the movies. Which I havent seen, so just looked at the website to judge the worth of the work itself, outside of all the hoopla. Its pretty good. Seems like well done typical art school stuff to me.

    Just went to the Laguna Art Festival, three sites, one hippy arts and crafts at the Saw Dust, one “International” of those outside the area, and one of local fine artists at the Pageant of the Masters site, a weird spectacle in an amphitheatre built for it, two months of nightly reenactments of famous paintings on a stage, with a giant frame and in it people dressed and posed as “classic” paintings. George Washington Crossing the Delawarere, etc. With the spotlight showing people dressed, or undressed, and painted posed as statues til the next act can get set up on stage. Remember going to that as a kid with my mom, kinda creeped me out.

    Been doing this since the Depression, as the south OC was artists and crafstmen, even more than Malibu which is mostly actors in LA, before it became the bedrock of conservative Republicans and wannabe and nouveau riche.

    Basically, the work on that site would have fit right in, perhaps better than most. It is worth buying, if wallpaper is your thing, lots of “legit” art just like it, not bad at all. The site is something else though, DAMN!!! That cost some $$$, doing a great job marketing. And why not? Probably why it got so many angry, he is getting pub and is as good if not better than most artistes I have seen.

    Art now being separated into three categories, Intellect, mental games like Piss Christ and words spelled backwards cut out of metal and built into spheres like at MOCA. YBAs too.

    Physical, things like this, decorative splashes of color, basically well done framed wallpaper. Tastefully done. Fine art for the wealthy who want comfort and calmness, something to fill that newly bought wallspace with. What modern art decayed into, design being the more vital path.

    And emotional, things like Cy Twombly or Basquiat, scratches that purport to convey vast emotions. Therapy. For inner city pseudo intellects who want to be thought of as great artists. And of course, fail miserably.

    Mind, body, and soul. Creative art has all three, interwoven, inseparable. As all life is, the human being impossible to separate head, from heart, from enraged loins. And a body to move them through life. They are not sepearate, but one. When we create this equivalent of life, we create our Frankenstein, a life force from inert objects. But not as God, but like god. And so come to a deeper understanding of life, and ourselves.

    This can take place in many forms, writing, music, two dimensions of paint, sculpture, film. What doesnt matter. Does it work as a living being. Does its presence fill a room, not through sheer size, or loudness, or brightness, or movement. but a living breathing, pulsing life force at rest. Beyond a plant, or canary, or cat on the lap. Human, or not, but with soul.

    This of course isnt it. but nice wallpaper. $1,000 a sq ft seems to be about the going rate, it is a market economy, but dont see it as being true capitalist, not worth as an investment, No legs. Or of course, soul.

  4. says:

    As far as the prodigy comment, dont quite agree with that either. While Michelangelo created the Pieta at 24, and Picasso Demoiselles d’Avignon at 25, both having plenty of charming quality work before that, visual artists do tend to mature in their 30s and even much later. Except during times of extraordinary change. Plus gotta get all that art school crap out of ones head. Takes time to get beyond mediocre ideas.

    But I dont see any prodigees in music or writing at early ages either. Mozart didnt write great ones til older, like many musicians, mimiced others as classical is about interpreting, and when faced with a child at the piano, many ideas of our own are thrust into the sounds to fill it out, give it body, ones that really arent there yet. We put in our own maturity. But every young pianist or violinist i have seen under the age of 20 had no personality, kinda like 13 year old gymnasts at the Olympics. Rather watch the older men on the rings anyday. Power, not just nimble flexibility.

    There are no young prodigies in jazz, as it is pure creativity and improvisation, some like Keith Jarrett who try to play purely creative when young, actually are putting out strings of plagiarisms, haven’t settled in yet, percolated and come out fully formed in a mature way. Miles sucked at first when he left Julliard to play with Bird, but had the talent, took years to finally formate, after playing around with lesser forms like cool jazz, the equivalent of Picassos Blue and Pink periods, though later pink is actually quite classical and beautiful.

    The writing example in the above earlier thrread was absurd. The girl read Candide, so? It was written in a purposefully naive way, Candide WAS a child, with the two forces of cyncicism and sophistry fighting to win his soul. Neither ever did, he was a child til the end, when he saw he must tend to his garden, mature within, rather than seek answers from life. But by tehn he had lived it, ad had the vast array of human activity, and ethic failings, to come to maturity.

    You think that girl understood that? LOL!!! Her writing was abysmal, yes, the rantings of a mimicing preteen. Writing volumnes doesnt mean any of it is worth a damn. But with the ill education and naivite of many in the “creative” world, they see what they want to see. A supposed purity. Its just infantile rantings. She had no idea of what she was saying. Ignorance is bliss, or so they say. I wouldnt know.

  5. I second what others have said about her, that she seems to be a perfectly normal child. Most children like to paint. I found some more of her work on the abc news site:

    Although I’m not a child psychologist I don’t think she’s above her age group developmentally, the link below has a list of the stages:

    Alot of people still do not see the merit in abstract painting or they think that composing it is easy. Which is probably one of the reasons the media ran away with this Marla story.

    I do think her parents have over exposed her to the media, she’s only four years old. If she still wants to paint when she’s an adult then that’s another situation.

    I suppose they did the documentaries to justify selling her work for high prices, or so they could sell it for high prices. Hmm the marketing machine, all artists need it, but not at four.

  6. I don’t know about her current work. But if you look at the pieces in the movie, except for the one they filmed her painting, she is not tall or big enough to make many of the rhythmic strokes or lines in the painting. Nice painting dad.

  7. Exploiting a child like that is simply child abuse. How dare the father do that to his child. What disturbed me was how he treated his child Zane. He was laughed at and ridiculed when talked about his paintings.

  8. I think you are pretty dead on in your assessment of this film. I watched in discomfort too, and it certainly provided an interesting discussion as it got passed around the museum and others watched too…

  9. I agree with Rebecca, only moreso. The story condemns the contemporary art world, as well as the greed of contemporary American society in general.
    The artist as a child, or My kid could paint that!

  10. I liked the documentary and was glad the family had a chance to tell their side of the story. However, I’m uncomfortable with the prodigy label for this child. Abstract art is what the viewer says it is. If someone sees “adult themes” in it, then it is b/c they themselves are projecting that into the painting, not b/c it’s what the artist necessarily intended. Marla herself saw things in her paintings that she didn’t plan, like when she commented about the “Mickey Mouse ears” in the painting “Ocean”.

    I don’t think the family is exploiting their daughter. If she hated painting, then I would feel differently, but she clearly enjoys it. Is it “exploiting” a child to put her in gymnastics or ice skating at a young age to give her a shot at the Olympics? If she loves her sport, I would argue that it is not exploitation. If I am pushing my child into something she doesn’t want to do so that I myself can gain from it, then I am exploiting her. (Even so, I have my daughter in the kitchen working on a drawing this instant. I told her she needs to get to work if she wants to catch up with Marla. JUST KIDDING, I did say that but my daughter knows I was kidding!)

    • Dorothy says:

      Agree. It is obvious that Marla enjoys painting, because she spends so much time doing it. Also the canvas was moved around for her to be able to reach all of the canvas. I thought it was sad, that the news media are such bloodsucking parasites to put this family through this because of their own inadequacies and need for attention. Maybe she does paint like a 4 year old, well guess what 60 minutes she is 4 years old, and how dumb does that make you. Obviously, we see what WE see when we look at any painting.

  11. Marla is a very cute little girl. Her paintings seem typical of any child with the exception that I have noticed, with all the videos, there is no live sound and only music. The paintings definitely are not from start to finish and were edited. It seems at times she is being directed to do things a certain way which would account for the music instead of actual live sound. I don’t see her as any great artist but someone throwing paint on a canvas, smearing it or squeezing lines and drops all over. I just now saw a documentary of her on television and I didn’t feel well about her father. The one thing I wondered was how her paintings even got recognized to begin with. My son paints and draws incredible according to his teachers. I never once thought about going to some art place or selling his artwork. Who in her family did this? For some reason I have a feeling that it was her father. If one really wants people to believe and ever feel she completed anything with her of her own accord, then they would have to most definitely remove the father from the premises and just let go at it without any interference. I supposed it is okay to tell her to make sure the whole canvas is covered and to not stop until this is completed but otherwise, no direction what-so-ever with sound, complete coverage from someone nuetral. Sorry for her parents but as long as you decided to show off her work and sell it you have to live with the doubt from the world. The father was just too bent on ignoring his little girl when she said she didn’t paint it and kept trying to get her to shut up. Later, he was trying to explain everything just so hard as if he was trying to cover up. Wish the best for her really and I assume…since at four even if the father directed everything and helped in some of the paintings, by age 10, 12, and 20 he won’t be and I doubt her paintings will become any better.

  12. I have seen the documentaries and films about this family and looked at the paintings. She is not a prodigy. She isn’t even precocious as they keep saying. Her parents, especially Dad, are using her as their little cash cow and saving the money from her sales for her “education.” Oh sure. If you believe that, you should buy one of Marla’s paintings. This is exploitation at its saddest acme. She paints like any child of her age—no better or worse. I believe she has been told to do so for a very long time and it isn’t a question of whether she likes it or not, she has been taught that it is something you do so her Dad probably sets her up with a new canvas every day. This girl will rebel and when she does, she will see what her father did to her. Reminds me of the side shows in the circus. He sits back, the child performs, and he collects the admission coins. And this whole thing puts authentic artists in such a poor light. They toil their whole life to perfect their art and here rolls in a 4 year old who has been marketed like a new plastic Remco can opener. They hatched their little plan and found people to believe it. A sucker is born every minute. They can live with their consciences obviously. Marla doesn’t know what’s happening and that’s the point. Prey on others. Cheap, sad and do-able. The American way. And the people buying those “paintings” are incredible to me. Wow.

  13. Like most good documentaries this one compelled me to watch straight through, observing as the story unfolded and the struggles of the the filmmaker in seeking the truth not only for his film but also for his own piece of mind. I think the most uncomfortable scene was at the end where Marla’s mother breaks down thinking of the ‘damage’ she may have inherently caused to her daughter’s childhood, while the father looks on and yet continues to try to defend his position that he did not assist in the creation of the paintings. I think that for the mother to show that kind of distress and emotion is more telling than anything else, and shows that she regrets the trust factor lost because of the whole affair. It is also quite obvious that the father is lying through his teeth and has sold his soul for the fame and notoriety. Overall an interesting look into a family’s experience with fame.

  14. I think it’s incredibly important to remember that as children age, their views of the world change. Furthermore, children paint differently as they age. They begin with what adults such as ourselves would call “abstracts”, which may largely involve finger-painting and mash-ups of different colours. Slowly, they begin to add form to their work and before you know it, they are painting people with faces and other such objects.

    I think that Marla is most definitely talented and that her artwork portrays very clearly her physical, emotional and imaginative route through her childhood development. Not only is she aware of the scrutiny that she has been put under, but she naturally recoils from the world at large as she has come to view it as a dangerous place where outsiders probe her privacy, looking for more and more parts of her that they may gawk at, talk about, steal and place in the public domain. Her defense mechanisms became apparent whenever she was placed in the presence of a camera.

    I think that if we were placed in a similar position as Marla when we were young and still learning about the world, we would have reacted much the same.

  15. P.S. I think that is why a lot of the people were saying that the artworks appeared to be somewhat different in style to Marla’s, that they seemed “less polished”. I believe that these people have difficulty seeing the similarities and differences between Marla’s work as expressions of her development, rather than attributing these to Marla having received help from somebody to paint.

  16. I am not an artist. I am not an art collector or expert of any sort, I have only learned enough about art from an Art 100 class to know that there is art out there that I find enjoyable, as well as art that I don’t like at all.

    My mother is an artist for herself, meaning she learned to paint merely for her own enjoyment and relaxation, to feel a sense of freedom. Marla’s art grabs me because it reminds me of that freedom, that relaxation, that happiness of my mother’s art. Like my mother, Marla paints for the simple and pure happiness of just painting. Painting for no other reason than to just make pretty colors come to life.

    Shame on anyone for ridiculing a 4-YEAR-OLD and her family. Marla’s parents were simply proud of their child’s beautiful artwork and only wanted to show it off. They put it in a gallery show only after many people insisted that Marla’s work was genius and needed to be displayed publically. The media insisted that Marla was a prodigy worthy of attention, not her parents (Marla’s own mother hates the word prodigy). If you don’t agree with her parents selling the paintings for Marla’s college fund, then don’t buy them, simple as that.

    Shame on anyone for questioning her parents for not letting anymore media in their home to film Marla painting after what 60 Minutes did to them. It’s better for the child to not have any more media in the home. And anyone who has children, like myself, knows that they NEVER act like themselves in front of a camera. I have a 4 year old son and a 6 year old son and whenever the camera comes out my 6 year old shows off, my 4 year old gets shy and won’t do the cute things anymore that I turned the camera on to capture in the first place. So what makes anyone think that Marla would be her usual self and feel relaxed and free enough to paint in front of media cameras and strangers? I know my 4 year old is extremely shy in front of strangers.

    Marla paints for fun, for enjoyment, relaxation and even her mother said that she’s really worried all of this attention will take the enjoyment out of painting for her daughter. Her mother is a good mother, I know this because of the way she said that the lack of attention and lack of sales that happened as a result of the 60 Minutes report gave her relief to think that her daughter might be able to finally go back to just being a normal little girl who loves to paint in the privacy of her own home. If it was my child, I would have all the same worries that Marla’s mother has expressed about the attention surrounding her child. Her mother even offered to take a lie-detector test just to put all of this ridicule and stress on her family to rest.

    People criticize that Marla’s artwork is inconsistent now that she’s had all of this attention, well of course it is. It is common sense that artists go through stages and phases, and their artwork changes depending on what they’re feeling and what is going on in their lives at the time when they did the artwork. What makes anyone think that a child’s artwork would be any different? Of course her artwork is going to change, she can feel the tension in her home now from all of the ridicule her family receives. She can feel the stress and worry of her parents. She can feel and hear her little brother acting out because Marla gets all the attention, so why wouldn’t she start saying that her brother did a painting too? It takes the very hot spotlight off of her, and she probably wants people to be just as proud of her little brother and give him attention too. It’s simple child psychology, anyone who pays attention to their own child’s emotions and reactions would be able to see how all of this affects her artwork.

    Marla paints purely for the joy of painting, it just makes her happy. That’s why I love Marla’s work, for the simple happiness and freedom of a child painting for no other reason than to make pretty colors come to life. Why can’t everyone stop over-analyzing her and just leave it at that?

    • You know I felt the same way everything you said is pretty much dead on! My boys dont act the same in front of a camera and that is what I thought when I watched this documentary. She isnt relaxed, it stopped being about her self expression and became a demand for her to perform for a camera so everyone would believe it was her painting the pictures. To me that is the sick part, the media exploited her not her parents. I did get the sketchy feeling from the dad but I dont know them and wont make judgements about them. I hope she still paints but after all that happened to her at a young age she may not and may find it difficult to express herself in an artistic way. The media sucked all the life out of her a long time ago and its just sad.

  17. M. Sosnowitz says:

    I am shocked at how many people think these paintings by a little girl are faked by their parents for purely exploitive reasons. My God! This says a lot more about the people writing these comments than it does about Marla or her parents. I had no idea that there are so many small-minded people out there. If you find yourself believing that these parents abused their child for financial gain, maybe you better take a good hard look at yourself and what YOU are capable of.

  18. Hello, I am impressed by Marla’s paintings… I am also impressed with the documentary which I have just finished watching. I only have one thing to say about the ‘attack’ on the family where it is suggested that Marla’s works were ‘doctored’ by her father. How many parents have ‘worked on’, ‘helped’ their kids with their homework and projects???? hmmmm…. either way I hope that Marla reaps the benefits well into her adult life. Blessing to you Marla

  19. Just watched the documentary. I think this shows what can happen when a child is allowed large canvases, lots of paint, great parental support, and no judgement. (Until the cameras moved in) Just think how many gifted children would be great artists today if they were given more than little scraps of paper and told not to get messy, and be happy doing a fish with sparkles in Grades 1 to 5 from teachers who have had only Grade 10 art training. This speaks to the need to have in service support for teachers in the arts, not just maths and sciences. Also, to the need for parents to understand that great art comes from being given the canvas, tools and licence to get messy, it is not just about technique, but about the ability to conceptualize.
    I wish you and your parents well Marla, there are people who understand your gift. You have helped many by being open and giving of your talent.

  20. I enjoyed the movie, having just seen it on DVD. If you have it, check out the special features, especially the “Return to Bingingham”. You’ll find an interview with a woman who organizes a women’s art show who received and application, supposedly written by Marla, then age 4 or 5. The woman also makes some very good points about the unlikelihood of a child requesting a 4 by 6 foot canvas, or choosing a “triptych” format.
    I, for one, see a clear distinction between “Ocean”, the piece the parents documented the making of, and a lot of the earier pieces, namely in the paint handling. For instance, there was one large piece consisting mostly of numerous circular swirls, done wet in wet. Perhaps a 4 year old could attain that kind of manual dexterity, but we saw none of it documented.
    For those of you who only see an innocent child painting away for the joy of it, maybe you should check out the Marla website…
    …Point being that there’s big money being hoped to be made here.
    Does Marla have uncommon talent? Probably. Was there no “coaching” as the parents claimed? I doubt it. Anyway, I hope she keeps painting- This story isn’t over yet and it’ll be very interesting to see what happens in about 10 years…

  21. I can’t believe anyone would be so gullible to believe that her father didn’t paint the vast majority of these things, but then again people fall for all sorts of other “nigerian prince” email scams every day. With this, they refuse to see the abuse of trust inflicted upon the viewers because of the glurgey “innocence of a child” tagline.

    Obviously if you find the parents to be lying opportunists, you hate children, America, and apple pie, the shame seems to be placed back on the “unbelievers” by true believers.

    Some people enjoy being scammed, what can I say?

  22. I just saw the documentary (haven’t looked at the special features yet). The father seems too cagey to be telling the truth. Watch his facial expressions and body language closely when he claims that his daughter has had no help: the fidgeting and nervousness, the shifty eye movements. The mother comes across as sincere. It’s quite possible that she was never around to see her husband coach the daughter since she works days and he works nights.

  23. i watched the program and to me all these paintings that Marla did is just a mess of paint, i see nothing fantastic in any of her work.
    Marla is not a prodigy at all, she is a little girl that likes to paint as most children do, and they have blown it all up, soon we will have thousands of these so called prodigy’s, my great nieces and nephews paint just like this, but no they dont sell for $$$$$ of dollars there just on the fridge and walls were all childrens paintings belong. As far as i see its all a scam, using the child as a pawn and guess what it worked..!!! parents cashing in on their own child,a fool and his money are soon parted and if people are buying these paintings for such large sums of money then more fool them. They are the ones looking the fools

  24. Hello All
    I’ve watched the documentary, and the 60 min show. Being an artist my self; I know how skeptical people can be about works of art. I believe in Marla, I believe she painted all her paintings! I think 60 min show was slanderous, and irresponsible. All though we forget it is a show not news! I can remember when the news was to be reported and we were to be the judge of it.. Now news is shaped to conform to the views and policies of the organization it’s from.
    To Marla and her parents I applaud you and your heart. Marla, don’t give up. We the people whom are not the cynics of the world believe in you and your work ! ! I pray you and your family will grow and prosper, God Bless you all .. Woody

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