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[ The New York Times ]
Early Ability on Abstracts:
4-Year-Old Paints With Flair
BINGHAMTON, N.Y. - The hottest new abstract artist in town has reason to celebrate. This summer, she went from selling her work in a coffee shop to having her own gallery show.
After a local newspaper’s feature on her, about 2,000 people came for opening night-everyone from serious collectors to the artist’s preschool teacher. She earned more money than she could comprehend. The gallery owner said it was his most successful show ever and scheduled a second one for October.
So celebrate, the artist did. During a recent visit, climbed on a big bouncing ball shaped like a frog, grabbed the handles and bounced around the house with laughter pealing and pigtails flying.
The artist is Marla Olmstead. She is 4. Her preschool teacher hasn’t taught Marla much of anything yet. And nobody wants her to-at least when it comes to painting. “I think Marla is as gifted as any child I’ve ever seen,” said Anthony Brunelli, the Fine Arts gallery owner in Binghamton, who is displaying Marla’s work. “I don’t think she’s aware of what she’s doing. I think it comes from within.”
Marla uses bright acrylic paints, which she brushes, splatters and scrapes on large canvases to create art that commands attention. She sometimes works on one piece for days at a time. When she decides she is finished, she gives her painting titles like “Dinosaur,” or something reminiscent of a bedtime monster. Then she leaves the grown-ups to see images and meaning.
In the beginning, her parents said, people bought her work without knowing her age. Then customers bought it because of her age. Some say she is a prodigy. Some say she is just playing. Her parents are sensitive to criticism that had not been voiced yet-at least not to them. They do not push her to paint or tell her how to do it, they said, and they do not spend penny of her growing back account. If she decides she wants to stop, she will stop.
Marla’s father, Mark Olmstead, a manager of e Frito-Lay manufacturing plant, was the first in the house. “You know how some parents put their kids in front of a TV to keep them occupied?” said Mr. Olmstead, an amateur painter. “Well, I let her paint, so I could paint.”
She first picked up a brush when she was 1, painting on an easel. Then her dad would put her on top of the dining room table and let her paint on canvases. ”Soon after, I was letting her paint and I was watching,” Mr. Olmstead said.
By age 3, Marla’s paintings caught the attention of a family friend who wanted to display them in coffee shop. When customers asked to buy Marla’s first large canvas painting, the artist’s mother, Laura Olmstead, who works part-time as a receptionist, priced it high, she thought - $250-so it wouldn’t sell, because she had a sentimental attachment to it. It sold the first day.
“She has no concept of money,” her mother said. “She was really into lip gloss, so I told her it was enough money to buy a whole room of lip gloss.”
This spring, a friend of Mr. Brunelli’s bought one, and brought it to him at the Fine Arts gallery. Mr. Brunelli is a painter whose photorealistic works are displayed in SoHo. He was drawn to Marla’s work. He and his friend stared at it like children staring at clouds, seeing flamenco dancers and their vivid movements on the canvas.
Then the friend told him the artist was a toddler. ”I admit I was a little skeptical at first,” Mr. Brunelli said.
He discovered Marla’s father was his high school classmate. A week later, he visited the family, scrutinized more of Marla’s work and watched a video of her painting. He bought one for himself and gave up his August vacation so he could organize her show.
“When I am in Marla’s presence, there’s a weird feeling ‘cause I know there’s something inside this girl that many artists look for their whole lives and never have,” Mr. Brunelli said. “But it’s in this little 4-year-old.”
Another person equally impressed was Stuart Simpson, a California businessman who was working in Binghamton when he heard about Marla. He bought three pieces, including one called “Bottom Feeder.”
“I typically don’t like abstract as a rule,” Mr. Simpson said. “Don’t tell Tony, but I would have paid any price for Bottom Feeder.’ “
Mr. Simpson and his wife own paintings by Renoir, Monet and Mante. They have a space picked out for Marla’s work now, too.
Others scoffed. “If I didn’t know a 4-year-od child had done it, I wouldn't take notice,” said Yvonne M. Lucia, who turned down Marla’s work for the feminist exhibition, Rude and Bold women, to be on display in October at the Y.M.C.A. in Binghamton.
Another artist, Orazio Salati, said: ”I think her ability is her desire to paint, her excitement and the opportunity to play. There’s a lot of finger-painting in the process.”
Parents of other budding artists have besieged Mr. Brunelli. “They’d never produce that, never,” he said of the other children.
As for the skeptics, he said, “People wouldn’t be buying the work if the work wasn’t exceptional.”
In all, Marla has sold 24 paintings totaling nearly $40,000, with the prices going up. Her latest paintings are selling for $6,000. Some customers are on a waiting list.
Laura Olmstead still gets teary-eyed when her daughter’s work sells. She would rather keep it herself.
“It’s beautiful whatever your child does,” she said.
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