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My Kid Could Paint That...Maybe

My_kid_could_paint_thatAs you're probably aware, the majority of the staff here at MamaPop fall somewhere in the spectrum of "parent bloggers." Some of us write almost exclusively about our children, and some of us write about other stuff with a dash of, "Oh, yeah, I have a kid," thrown in. Regardless of the amount of parenting material on our blogs, nearly all of us have been accused, whether individually or as a group, of exploiting our children, either for profit or attention.

Our response to that is, of course, "Pshaw." You don't have to believe me, but I can tell you that that's just not the case, especially when you get to see some potential examples of exploitation that will make you squirm. I'm referring to folks like Jon and Kate Gosselin who have a particularly nauseating approach to family life in the spotlight and who are coming under increasing scrutiny. I'm also referring to the far more complicated case of Mark and Laura Olmstead and their daughter Marla.

Marla is now 9 years old but she first came into the spotlight when she was just 3 years old. Marla had begun painting at around age 2 and according to her parents was a child prodigy. Her abstract paintings displayed an aesthetic maturity well beyond her years and they soon started selling for thousands of dollars.

You may remember the controversy that surrounded Marla and her family in early 2005 when 60 Minutes did a piece on the family and accused them of fraud, citing the fact that no one but Marla's parents had seen her do a painting from beginning to end. Mark's fanatical devotion to his daughter's career led many to believe that his own forays into painting might have motivated him to at least command Marla throughout her painting process, if not completing the paintings for her. It didn't help that all video footage that media crews had of Marla painting showed her pushing paint around the same way any preschooler would do and telling her dad to take over.

Documentary filmmaker Amir Bar-Lev decided to do a documentary about Marla and her family around the time that her international fame really started to explode and prior to the airing of the 60 Minutes piece. Mark and Laura hoped that the documentary would help to prove that Marla really was a prodigy but Bar-Lev himself became skeptical of Marla's actual talents and the family's motivation.

Near the end, the family finally captures video footage of Marla painting a piece called "Ocean" from beginning to end, which restores her reputation. But as the audience can see and as one collector notes, it doesn't look like it was painted by the same person that painted the earlier works.

However, Marla continues to paint and her works continues to sell and her parents say that all of the money that her works make goes into a college fund.

I say without hyperbole that the documentary was one of the more upsetting films that I've seen. Her father giddily takes calls from The Gap and Crayola and pushes her to paint even when she doesn't want to. Marla's little brother, Zane, is all but ignored and only receives attention from Mark when Mark says that Zane will be a sculptor. The family friend/gallery owner who first displays Marla's work changes his allegiance to Marla and her parents at the drop of a hat when the controversy erupts and then when the footage of "Ocean" is released. The art collectors all seem shallow and gross and more impressed with themselves for collecting such interesting work than with the artist or the work itself. In one of the most disturbing moments of the film, Marla and Zane sit in car seats in a limo riding through New York City late at night while their parents and some high-up art types laugh and celebrate their collective success. The look on Marla's face is one of pure confusion and fatigue, the same look that you might see on a child who is lost.

Certainly, even documentary makers approach a subject with an agenda or they develop one, and this was certainly the case with Bar-Lev. In attempting to portray how abominably every adult in Marla's life behaves, Bar-Lev was quick to turn the camera on himself and discuss how he felt about the controversy and how "badly" it could end for everyone. Oh, really? Wouldn't a controversy help to sell your film? In fact, the only people who seem to have any qualms with Marla's career are her mother, Laura, and a reporter who is writing a long piece on the family at the same time that Bar-Lev is making his documentary. Laura seems less and less confident in Mark's motivation and the reporter notes that Laura was unsure about selling Marla's work in the first place but didn't think things would progress to the point that they did, but now feels it is too late to express doubts. And, of course, it is too late because doing so would make her family fraudulent and would subject her little daughter to worldwide hate before she's even big enough to understand what fraud is. The reporter tells Bar-Lev outright that making a documentary doesn't help matters at all and points out that the media is such a profit-driven business that they will tenaciously report on the controversy for years if they can.

In short, no one in Marla's life was truly looking out for her as a person.

Exploitation is a truly ugly thing and is not what the vast VAST majority of parent bloggers engage in. The worst you could accuse them of is overstepping some privacy boundaries, but from where I sit all parent bloggers and people who write about their lives as parents try to avoid that with mixed results.

But in the world that we exist in, with Andy Warhol's prophecy of fame rocketing toward fulfillment, it's crucial to keep people like the Olmsteads and the Gosselins in mind when fame has the potential to touch all of us. I don't think either set of parents are inherently "bad" people, but they do seem to be strongly out of touch with the value of fame (hint: fame is meaningless and fleeting and not worth selling yourself or your kids out).

Related posts: Does Jon & Kate Plus 8 Violate Child Labor Laws?, Jon and Kate Under Fire Again, Larry Birkhead and Danielynn, Oprah's Father to Write Tell-All Book, Just When It Looked Like Britney - and I - Might Get a Clue, Livin' La Vida Lohan, Billy Ray Cyrus Does Nothing to Restore My Faith in Celebrity Parents

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I saw the documentary a year or so back. Made my skin crawl. It's hard to not walk away from watching it thinking that the father masterminded a fraud dependent upon his daughter's ability to lie/keep her mouth shut. That in and of itself is a kind of psychological/emotional abuse. UGH.


Oh my God, I've been meaning to watch this for awhile. Yick.

This totally reminds me of the Justin Chapman case -- where a mother faked her son's IQ test results and all sorts of other things to parade him around as a genius and sent him to Stanford at four years old and such. She finally admitted the fraud when the poor boy had a nervous breakdown and tried to kill himself.

He. Was. Eight.



I am due with my first child in July, a son,and already people are telling me what activities and clubs he should join. Someone already suggested to train him as a place kicker so he can make gobs of money.
I respond by saying that I plan to raise him the way my parents raised me,to think for myself,but still be there for guidance. This story made me sad,but you wrote it amazingly.


Good piece.

You should follow up with Toddler's and Tiaras. Anyone see that!?! Head explodes.


I've seen this a few times, early morning, on Starz or somewhere, and it bothers me on many levels. The Dad is beyond creepy, and WAAY too much of a cheerleader, leading me to think that he was the major force behind the 'works.'

It bothers me because as a holder of a BFA in Painting (and just semi-talented), I know many more talented artists than myself who never get this kind of exposure, and yet who do it anyway, and eke a living out of it somehow. That pisses me off a bit. The price those works command is obscene and stupid.

You said, "The art collectors all seem shallow and gross and more impressed with themselves for collecting such interesting work than with the artist or the work itself."

That is SO true. The other ones to blame are the so-called 'critics' who promote such shit in the first place. Damn, why can't people just buy what they like? (You know, even Thomas Kinkade, GAG. If people like it, good for them. My mother buys his calendar every year.)

Support your local artists!!


What really fascinated me about the film wasn't so much that Marla's indisputably solo work seemed unremarkable, but her father's work - at least the few canvases that we see stacked in the basement - is clumsy looking and amateurish. But the pieces that the father is suspected of painting are huge, beautiful pieces. I wondered if Marla and her father bring something to the works together that they are incapable of producing on their own. This doesn't change the creepy and expoitative aspects of the story, but it suggests to me that creativity may work in ways counter to the art market's fond imaginings.


Last Friday at our public library, my 3yo daughter glued some green glitter onto a picture of a shamrock. She then colored the smiling shamrock's mouth red. There were several witnesses that can attest to the fact she did this on her own. I will be selling said work on eBay for 2.9 million dollars US. I promise to use all the funds toward her college, which is going to cost roughly that in fifteen years.

Call me. Maybe I will give you a discount?


Thanks for sharing this. I'm always interested in documentaries that reveal some real truths about people that you hear about throughout the news. Hadn't heard of this one. It sounds terrible but wonderful.

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