Savvy at the Movies: "My Kid Could Paint That"

Eliza Clark
May 26, 2008

As fellow parents of preschoolers, we know that your movie-watching time is limited. Severely limited. Maybe some of you did manage to catch a movie over this long weekend. If so, we hope it was great. Because we just do not have time to watch bad movies anymore, do we?

Your very very high bar for movies notwithstanding, we absolutely must tell you about and urge you to see the riveting documentary "My Kid Could Paint That" (2007). Especially if you have any interest in, say, preschool-age kids. Or modern art. Or how best to nurture our children's interests and gifts. And as you know, here at Being Savvy, we're a bit obsessed with all of those things. Hence.
A quick recap: the film tells the story of Marla Olmstead, a little girl from Binghampton, New York whose paintings fetched thousands by the time she was four-years-old. She got started painting alongside her father, an amateur painter himself. A few of her paintings in a friend's coffee shop led to a gallery show, led to local press and then to a frenzy of media coverage. She was dubbed a "budding Picasso" and a "pint-sized Pollock." By her fifth birthday, she had sold more than $300,000 worth of her abstract, acrylic covered canvases. "My Kid Could Paint That" chronicles Marla's rise as a media darling, and also the backlash that occurred when "60 Minutes" aired a segment questioning the authenticity of her work. Had her father helped and directed her? Or even passed some of his own work as hers?

So the film presents something of a mystery a whodunit, so to speak. It raises provocative questions about the meaning of abstract expressionism. As a reviewer in Slate Magazine asks, "Can a work of art transcend the intentions of its maker? If a child can make great abstract paintings, does this mean that modern art is itself a hoax?" And the film critically examines the role of the adults in Marla's life (her parents, her dealer, the press) and the media-hype around this supposed prodigy. The director, Amir Bar-Lev, also self-consciously acknowledges his own participation in the frenzy swirling around this small child. New York Times critic A.O. Scott argues that for this very reason, the film should never have been made.

Perhaps. But as parents of preschoolers, we're still hoping we can learn something from this story. What absorbs and makes us wonder most is Marla'a own experience, unknowable as it is. We see her playing with her baby brother. We see her getting silly in front of the camera, just as we often see our own kids doing. We see her painting, but never for all that long. We see her romping around at gallery openings. What was the good, in all of this, for her? And what was the trouble?

The trouble is fairly clear. As we've been blogging about all month, most every preschool-age child loves to make art. Art is play, and play is life, and that play often yields beautiful creations. But for Marla, it seems fair to say, art stopped being play and became, to some degree, work. And work means pressure Marla was visibly pressured to paint as expected for the cameras, and we cringed watching those scenes. As we wrote in a post on how to talk to children about their art, that kind of strain on a little one's creativity is no good for mind or soul.

Still, it's kind of wonderful to see a little girl let loose on a canvas that's bigger than she is with squirt bottles and spatulas, brushes and (of course!) her fingers. What fun! What a way to explore and learn the medium! It makes us think, why not, once in while? My kid could paint that, and so could yours and yours and yours. And then we'd have something a bit more lasting than construction paper ephemera by which to remember these fleeting years of artistic play. But, sorry, it's not for sale -- we want to keep this one for ourselves.

From the Parents

  • Parent # 1


    over a year ago

  • Parent # 2

    Immediately I have to think of you and really, it was a story about you,

    over a year ago

  • Parent # 3

    well sort of,

    over a year ago

  • Parent # 4

    We have a page for marshalling in which we will be putting information on what is involved in marshalling and how people will be able to volunteer and train,

    over a year ago

  • Parent # 5

    It really gives me a great feeling to see people who really care. ,

    over a year ago


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