Binghamton, N.Y. — Newcomer Marla Olmstead is receiving high praise in some corners of the art world. Critics describe her modernist paintings as laden with emotion. They rave how she makes colors interact with intensity. And her pieces are selling -- some for as much as $15,000.
For now, though, 4-year-old Marla is more interested in making friends in her pre-K class and playing with her little brother, Zane.
This shy little blonde has quickly graduated from loose-leaf paper renderings held on the refrigerator with magnets to giant canvases hanging in art galleries, studios and other people's homes.
"Realistically, we didn't envision anything coming from it, except it was fun for us, fun for Marla," Laura Olmstead, Marla's mother, says.
While there are skeptics who challenge her authorship, and critics who may debase abstract art, gallery owner Anthony Brunelli said there should be no argument about Marla's talent.
"She builds her paintings in layers. Children don't do that. She starts with big swatches of colors and then adds details and accents on to that. That's what is so impressive and beyond what other children do," said Brunelli, who gave Marla her first show in August.
"She paints with emotion," Brunelli said.
In hushed answers of few words, Marla says she likes that people like her paintings. "It makes them happy. I like that," the young painter says.
There have been other child artists: Alexandra Nechita, now 18, a Romanian who emigrated to the United States, began painting when she was about the same age as Marla. Called the "child Picasso" by critics, her paintings have brought in more than $1.5 million. Before he was 10, Beso Kazaishvili, of the Republic of Georgia, also now 18, had earned $150,000 for his paintings and been compared to Salvador Dali.
Blazing blends of colors
Marla's works are filled with blazing blends of colors, texture and depth.
In "Lollipops," tightly wound swirls of blues, yellows, greens, reds and oranges combine in a chromatic, spectral bouquet. In "Aquarium," she uses a brew of blues and greens to create a watery backdrop, then injects vivid strokes of reds, oranges, yellows and whites to complete the tropical tone.
Buzz Spector, chairman of Cornell University's art department, said Marla's vision and process were exceptional, but that many children provided with the right materials and influences can produce surprisingly complicated abstract art pieces. While they show a "beautiful sense of color and material," Marla's pieces still lack the cultural and spiritual sophistication to be considered museum pieces, he said.
Marla's parents forbid such words as "genius" and "prodigy" to describe Marla.
Too much pressure.
Besides her little brother, Marla says she loves flowers, pigs and the color yellow. She is learning to count and spell -- she still sometimes gets the "r" backward when printing her name on her paintings. It takes her time to warm up to strangers but if she likes you, she greets you with tickles. She also is cautious, strong-willed, and an unlikely star, her parents say.
Mark Olmstead, Marla's father who's a second-shift manager for Frito Lay, has painted since high school, and Laura Olmstead, who has an aunt and cousin in France who are artists, has done some writing. About two years ago, Mark Olmstead picked up his brushes again after a long hiatus and began a portrait of his wife. Marla was 2.
"Any time I wanted to paint, she wanted to paint. It became more her passion than my passion. It's always fun for her. Soon, I became her assistant," he says.
The Olmsteads gave one of Marla's 11-by-14-inch paintings to a friend, Andy Stevens, who owns a coffee house in downtown Binghamton, a city of 47,400 lodged between the Susquehanna and Chenango Rivers that gave birth to IBM, Link Aviation and Endicott-Johnson but whose factories have long since been reduced by lean economic times.
Stevens thought it would be fun to hang some of Marla's pieces in his cafe.
"We thought they were pretty. We were proud," Laura Olmstead says. "We honestly didn't think it was beyond anything any other 3-year-old would do."
Laura Olmstead remembered Marla in a diaper as she covered a 3-by-4-foot canvas with strokes of acrylic paint. Mark Olmstead held his daughter over the fabric so her little arms could reach the middle.
The finished work was called "All Kinds of Colors" -- as Marla called most of her first pieces.
The canvas and 13 smaller paintings were hanging in Stevens' coffeehouse only a short time before he called to tell the Olmsteads that people wanted to buy them.
"I was laughing and thought it was funny because these people didn't know a child had done it," Laura Olmstead recalled. In disbelief, she set the "ridiculous and exorbitant price" of $250 for the canvas piece and $35 for the smaller ones. A few hours later, Stevens called back to say someone had bought the canvas painting and three of the others. Delighted and stunned, Laura Olmstead called everyone in the family.
Word spread, and more of the paintings began to sell. In August, Brunelli gave Marla her own show. Appropriately, it was titled "Four." The response overwhelmed the Olmsteads, who suddenly found themselves negotiating with national television news and entertainment programs.
To date, Marla has sold nearly three dozen paintings. The Olmsteads have put all the money into a college fund.
Marla keeps no regular or daily painting schedule. She paints only when she wants to, working on a piece sometimes over several sessions.
"Painting is a three-to-four-hour commitment by the time we get everything out and set up, paint and then put it all away and get everything -- and I mean everything, the area, the brushes, Marla -- cleaned up," her mother says. Marla sets up in the kitchen, painting with her fingers, spatulas, brushes, and plastic mustard and ketchup bottles.