The Arc of a Prodigy A new documentary, My Kid Could Paint That, charts the rise and fall of Marla Olmstead, who was hailed as a painting prodigy at the age of four before questions were raised about the authenticity of her work. Filmmaker Amir Bar-Lev explores the controversy.
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The Arc of a Prodigy

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The Arc of a Prodigy

The Arc of a Prodigy

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When abstract painter Marla Olmstead of Binghamton, New York, was discovered in 2004, she became an overnight sensation. Her paintings sold for thousands -tens of thousands of dollars. She had shows in L.A. She appeared on "Oprah." Her work was hailed as sophisticated and sensitive.

And oh, yeah, at that time, she was 4 years old. Here's one collector had to say.

Unidentified Man (Painting Collector): I've been around the block. I've been in and out of art and galleries and stuff all my life. And I have never seen one little person affect the art community and people around the world as much as this little girl has done and continues to do.

When I bought the paintings, I knew exactly where they were going to go, and my wife agreed. I knew that this 4-year-old needed to sit right above the Renoir's sculpture. So we have the young master and the old master all in the same corner.

STEWART: Yes, that man has a Renoir at his house.

BURBANK: And apparently, someone playing piano in the background…

(Soundbite of laughter)

BURBANK: …all the time.

STEWART: That's a scene from the documentary "My Kid Could Paint That." It traces the rise of 4-year-old art media star Marla and how fickle fame can be and how art affects people.

The director of that film joins us now, Amir Bar-Lev.

Hi, Amir.

Mr. AMIR BAR-LEV (Director, "My Kid Could Paint That"): Hi. How are you doing?

STEWART: I'm great. I'm just going to full disclosure say this, I really liked your movie just before I start this interview.

Mr. BAR-LEV: Oh, thank you.

STEWART: I found it really interesting. But one of the things I found interesting about it was you went in to make one kind of movie and you ended up making a different movie. Tell people about your original intention, the original documentary you expected to make.

Mr. BAR-LEV: Well, the original documentary that I thought I was making was about this wild ride that this 4-year-old and her family were going to take. They weren't the type of people that I expected to meet when I heard about a 4-year-old celebrity. They were very - her parents were very ambivalent about all the attention they were getting very likable. And here, they had literally, overnight, become international stars in a world they knew nothing about, the world of abstract art. They were written about in as far away as Pakistan and Chile and news in Tokyo and Russia.

And, you know, to me, it was a very cinematic story about somebody who had just won the lottery. And, of course, you know, she had been a chess prodigy. There's these objective standards that would have come to bear, where we can say, well, look, the kid's beating adults in chess. But because it was abstract art, the people are saying she was prodigious and it brings up a bunch of interesting issues about how we value art.

STEWART: And how we value artists. It's interesting in the film, people assign all these sort of characteristics and beliefs about this little girl. Tell me about what you observed about the way these collectors reacted to Marla.

Mr. BAR-LEV: I think, in a lot of ways, it wasn't about the art she was making so much as it was about a sense that people were buying a piece of childhood. You know, in the film, you see people move to tears when they talk about her and there was this sense that, because she was so young, she hadn't yet been corrupted by the things that corrupt the rest of us as we get older.

So that's why people were buying her art, and then other people who were interested in Marla Olmstead but not necessarily spending $25,000 for her paintings, I think they were interested for the same reason that people are curious about chimps and elephants when they paint. We all have this kind of - a lot of people have these questions about how we value art and what does it mean when two paintings that look very similar on one level are valued very differently such as a child's painting versus a Jackson Pollock.

STEWART: So that would have been the original movie you made and then halfway through the filming of this movie, you've been involved with this family, filming their breakfasts and getting up and all this kind of stuff and following them around on their media appearances, Marla was getting all this publicity and you sat there with the family. She's been featured on "60 Minutes II." She'd done an interview with "60 Minutes II," and then the show aired.

Let's play a little bit of this clip, which changed everything.

(Soundbite of show, "60 Minutes II")

Dr. ELLEN WINNER (Professor of Psychology, Boston College): I saw no evidence that she was a child prodigy in painting. I saw a normal, charming, adorable child, painting the way pre-school children paint except that she had a coach who kept her going.

Mr. CHARLIE ROSE (Correspondent, "60 Minutes II"): That coach is Marla's father who's often present when Marla paints. He can be heard on this tape directing her, sometimes sternly.

Mr. MARK OLMSTEAD (Marla Olmstead's Father): Paint the red. Paint the red. You're driving me crazy. Just paint the red.

STEWART: That was Charlie Rose reporting on "60 Minutes II," which cast all this doubt about whether Marla actually painted these artworks on her own. Did that just completely come out of the blue?

Mr. BAR-LEV: Well, it certainly did for me. And I mean…

STEWART: Yeah. You never had doubt?

Mr. BAR-LEV: I had no doubts. I had no reason to doubt. And, you know, even after I watched that, the idea that her parents would be behind this grand art hoax just didn't at all jive with my sense of them. And so what happened was they stopped doing all media. They felt burned, but they turned to my documentary to exonerate them. And that's where…

STEWART: And that put you in a really weird…

Mr. BAR-LEV: …the second half of the film picks up and that's how I kind of got dragged into my own story in a way.

STEWART: Yeah. You got put in a really weird position because you had to document what's happening, yet you really wanted to be truthful with this family that you had started to have your own doubts. One of the reasons is they can never really get Marla on film. No one could get her painting the kind of paintings, which sold for the most and seemed the most mature, right?

Mr. BAR-LEV: It's as much a film about cameras as it is about paintbrushes, I think. And, in fact, in some ways, I see this as a kind of an allegory that touches on all kinds of things like reality TV and television and all these things, you know, that we became dependent on the camera in this situation to clear this family's name.

And as you said, you know, the camera affects what it tries to capture often. And these complicated relationships develop between journalists and their subjects when sometimes we need to represent people in a way that they don't want to be represented. What happened, you know…

STEWART: Have the Olmsteads…

Mr. BAR-LEV: …the left-hand turn that the film takes unexpectedly midway - the world that had put this little girl upon this pedestal, you know, bursting into tears when they talk about her and calling her the next Picasso, just literally, in the space of the seven minutes of that expose turned right around and considered the family criminals, the whole thing a hoax.

They were, you know, in a way, they were almost run out of town. They were getting on this vitriolic hate e-mail. I think really what the film is about is in some ways our incapacity to live in this sort of middle ground where most things happen between hoax and genius.

STEWART: So a question for you. I know that you - I read in one interview, the Olmsteads have seen the film and they're not particularly happy with it. Do you think Marla had assistance with painting her paintings?

Mr. BAR-LEV: Well, you know, what I think is presented at the end of the film in a pretty climactic scene…

BURBANK: You sly dog.

Mr. BAR-LEV: Well, I don't want to give away the end this movie.

BURBANK: You're not going to answer?

Mr. BAR-LEV: It's opening up today.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: Good point.

Mr. BAR-LEV: I want your listeners to go out and see for themselves. I mean, what I can say about this is that it is just a true mystery, and there's not one scenario that's ever really true, if you add it up for me, to this day.

STEWART: That's interesting.

Mr. BAR-LEV: I have my gut feelings, and audience members are going to need to see the film and decide for themselves whether or not they disagree with me.

STEWART: All right. We're going to…

Mr. BAR-LEV: Whether or not they agree with me.

STEWART: We're going to check back with you around award season because I'm predicting that you're going to have a good award season with this film. It's called "My Kid Could Paint That."

Mr. BAR-LEV: That's very kind of you.

STEWART: Amir Bar-Lev, the director of the documentary from Sony Pictures Classics. It's in theaters today. Thanks for spending sometime with us at THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT.

Mr. BAR-LEV: Thanks for having me.

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