My Kid Could Paint That

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my kid could paint that

This girl doesn’t stay between the lines when she paints.

I enjoy documentaries, but this is one that goes into my wheelhouse for two different reasons. One, is that it deals with the goofy love some people have of abstract art. Two, it deals with nutty parents that push their kids to extremes.

Since I’ve argued with hardcore art fans about abstract art, let me state my opinion on the subject. It’s all crap. Now, that doesn’t mean I haven’t seen pieces that intrigued me. When I was at the Guggenheim, I saw many abstract pieces by the biggest names in the art world. Some were good, some did nothing for me. If my daughter had painted them, they’d go on the fridge for a week and then the trash.

To prove this theory, shock jock Howard Stern did something rather interesting. His sidekick and newscaster Robin Quivers, purchased a Jackson Pollock for hundreds of thousands of dollars. He was making fun of that purchase saying anybody could paint that. She said they couldn’t, because when she sees a work by him, it always moves the way no other artists works do. As this debate got heated, they made a wager, with him saying he could paint one and she wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.

He then painted one in the Pollock style, and took a photo of it. They enlarged the photo, and displayed them with nine photos of Pollock paintings. She had one guess to pick his out. The first two that she picked as being his, were Pollock. It was the third guess when she got it. Stern proved his point, won his bet, and then said “You pay hundreds of thousands for a Pollock…I’ll sell you my painting for $50,000.”

Of course she declined, but why? Had that same painting had the name Pollock on it, she would’ve paid that price. And that, right there, is the insanity of abstract art and the high prices paid for it.

As much as I loved Ed Harris playing Pollock, do you realize he was doing those paintings and yes – they did look like Pollock. We all watched that movie thinking “I could do that.”

The art critic at the Union-Tribune was trying to explain abstract art to me, and got rather frustrated when he couldn’t make his point. He ended the conversation saying “I know good art when I see it, and can’t help you if you can’t.”

Yet why when I watched an episode of Taxi as a kid, was it so funny when Marilu Henner (who worked at an art gallery), had a party at her house. An art connoisseur showed up and was analyzing a piece and trying to guess the artist that created it. She finally had to say “It was my 5-year-old son.”

The joke worked, because kids can paint those things.

The documentary My Kid Could Paint That is a wonderful story to tell in a documentary.

Marla Olmstead is the 4-year-old painter. When she smiles and talks, she’s a doll. When she paints, she’s a Pollock.

Her dad Mark is an amateur painter, and he tells the story about how he was working on a painting and she grabbed a brush and started doing a piece. She was a natural. A local coffee shop had one of her paintings on the wall, and a customer asked to buy it. He paid $250, and a career was born. More paintings were created and they started selling for thousands, and soon – a gallery opening of her work. In no time at all, they had $300,000 and a college fund.

The paint thickens when 60 Minutes comes to do a story. And much like when Johnny Carson was able to prove the guy bending spoons with his mind was a fraud, they had set up a hidden camera to show her “creating” her masterpieces. It seems the father did a lot of whispering in her ear on what to do. Without him coaching her, she just sort of sat there with a brush in her hand, occasionally dabbling a few dots on the canvas.

You start to wonder about the New York Times art critic that wrote about her work early on. It seems to me that any reporter dealing with a kid that can do something amazing, would surely want to see the kid in action. If a parent calls you and says their child beat Kasparov in a game of chess, do we just congratulate them? Or do we start setting up the pieces and seeing how they do?

I read a book years ago about child prodigies. There were lots of interesting stories on what became of them, but one thing I remember thinking was odd. They said that you may see some child that’s 4-years-old playing Mozart pieces on piano, but you never see a child that young drawing or painting extremely well. They figured they just didn’t have the dexterity or whatever hand-eye coordination was required in art. Yet if the 4-year-old is doing abstract pieces, that doesn’t matter as much; which is another thing about an artist that is well-known for abstract pieces. Jackson Pollock didn’t start out dripping paint all over a canvas. Neither did Picasso. I think an artist needs to show they can do a kick-ass bowl of fruit, or a Rubenesque nude before we praise their random splashes of paint. Otherwise, it’s no different than when we see a monkey or elephant that some zookeeper stuck a brush in their trunk and got a painting from.

I thought it was interesting how the movie starts out as a film that covers her art, and then starts to question it. Later, it sort of showed how parents can push their children. I had done a cover story for the San Diego Reader on Little League coaches and fathers, that scream at 7-year-olds like it’s the World Series and they have thousands riding on it. It’s like they’re vicariously living their baseball dreams through them. They forget that when it comes to children, you’re supposed to be teaching them things. You’re supposed to let them enjoy their childhood. And if it’s one thing I remember from that child prodigy book, it’s the children that were pushed to hard rebelled against their parents. One dropped out of school, lives on the streets, and enjoys collecting bus transfers from various cities.

I’m guessing some people won’t care for the change of direction the documentary takes, or the fact that the director becomes part of the story. It did bother me a little that he didn’t seem to want to offend the family and straddles the fence on the whole controversy. And you can’t help but think – in this, his first documentary, isn’t he also exploiting the child?

I’m giving this an A-.

1 Comment

  • Yolanda

    Nicely written, Josh. It could've included a kid who is a movie critic who writes all his reviews in the comfort and closed doors of his home with his mom proudly looking on….

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