by Rebecca Leung
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February 11, 2009
In most ways, 4-year-old Marla Olmstead is just like any other child her age. She goes to pre-school, plays with dolls, and loves to draw and paint.
But Marla paints unlike any other kid in the world. She's signed her name to dozens of works deemed breathtaking by fans of abstract art. She's garnered international attention, and her paintings are selling as fast as she can finish them -- for as much as $24,000.
And that's where the mystery comes in: How is it possible that a girl so young and so small can create works of art that many say are so sophisticated and so complex? Correspondent Charlie Rose reports.
Marla's canvases, which range up to 5 feet tall, are filled with color, and expressive brush strokes. They are compositions of apparent planning and vision.
Her parents say Marla has completed more than 50 such paintings in the last two years, most of them bigger than she.
"She just wanted to paint. She asked me that question. She said, 'Can I paint, dad, can I paint,'" recalls Marla's father, Mark, an amateur painter himself. "And I just said, 'OK.' You know, good diversionary tactic so I could try to paint."
Mark says this conversation took place before Marla's second birthday.
If you visit the Olmstead home in Binghamton, N.Y., you'll find a typical preschooler. Marla loves making mischief, and playing with her baby brother, Zane.
But give Marla a paintbrush and a canvas, and her parents say she's all business. Her father says that she paints about three times a week, up to three hours at a time and usually finishes a piece every few sittings.
Rose asks Mark to describe one of Marla's paintings.
"I see the whole process, which is interesting. This one was a relatively quick painting," says Mark about one painting.
"She literally, she had a gallon of white paint. And she does like three or four steps. Three or four sittings. But one this one, she took the paint literally with a brush, a relatively big brush, and just walked around it."
Mark then points to another painting titled "Spots." "This was recent," he says. "And it's just a wild process because she just goes to town with the paint."
Marla's rise to fame began when she was 3-and-a-half years old. A family friend hung her paintings in a local coffee shop, and a customer asked to buy one. Not wanting to part with it, Marla's mother, Laura, set what she thought was a high asking price: $250. The painting sold immediately.
"I personally thought it was a fluke. And a once-in-a-lifetime thing," says Laura. "I made a photocopy of the check, because I wanted to be able to tell her when she was an adult, 'When you were 3, someone bought one of your paintings. And look, here's the check.' So I thought that was the end of the story."
But it was just the beginning. Anthony Brunelli, a painter and gallery owner in Binghamton, began hosting shows for Marla.
"You have a genius. An average 4-year-old couldn't do it," says Brunelli.
Is there any other explanation, other than genius? "No, other than it's her saving grace," says Brunelli. "It's the way that she can express herself."
As word spread, Marla was featured in The New York Times, in an article titled "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl." Time magazine called her a "pint-size Picasso." And she appeared on NBC, as well as CBS.
Her paintings were even compared to those of Jackson Pollock, the legendary abstract expressionist who was famous for dripping paint freely on his large canvases. Others said her bright colors and shapes reminded them of another modern master, Wassily Kandinsky.
Ellen Winner is a psychologist who has studied gifted children and specializes in visual arts. 60 Minutes Wednesday showed her several of Marla's works.
"It's beautiful. It's absolutely beautiful. You could slip it into the Museum of Modern Art," says Winner. "I think you could fool people. They're good. They're good."
And Winner says there's something else that sets Marla apart from other gifted children her age: "I have never seen a child prodigy paint in art abstractly. I've only seen them paint realistically or representationally. I have a drawing of Picasso at age 9. It shows that Picasso was struggling to draw realistically, and he was way ahead of his age."
"So you know of no one who's a gifted child, might aspire to be a child prodigy, who does abstract art," asks Rose.
"No, this is the first one I've seen," says Winner.
Winner says that typical children create recognizable forms in their art. So 60 Minutes Wednesday assembled a group of 4-year-olds and gave them the exact materials used by Marla. The end result: stick figures, smears of color, and unlike Marla, no attempts to cover the canvas completely with paint.
While those paintings go home with their owners, Marla's paintings end up in homes across the country. She has already earned more than $300,000, which her parents say has all been put into a college fund. With some 200 buyers on her waiting list, Marla stands to make millions.
So just who is the little girl behind the big art? To begin with, she's very shy. She does open up at home, but she barely ever talks about her paintings. And at her gallery openings, she hardly acknowledged them.
60 Minutes Wednesday showed Marla starting a new work. Her father said it took her only three hours to complete. He also said he's hardly ever had to scrap a painting because it's no good.
Winner was particularly interested in seeing Marla's creative process in action. 60 Minutes Wednesday showed her more than 50 minutes of videotape shot by CBS, and by Marla's parents.
Winner's enthusiasm immediately turned to concern and suspicion. "This is eye-opening to me to see her painting," says Winner. "Because she isn't doing anything that a normal kid wouldn't do. She's just kind of slowly pushing the paint around. I expected to see a child feverishly and intensively working at her canvas and filling up space."
Winner says gifted children have something she calls "the rage to master," an intense focus and drive to pursue their talent.
Case in point: Child prodigy Alexandra Nechita, who at the time was 10, continues to enjoy a successful career as an artist.
Winner says she's looked at videos of gifted children, and watched them painting personally. She says the children always show excitement in their work.
"You don't see that here," asks Rose.
"Well, I didn't see that in those clips," says Winner. "I would love to hide and watch her doing a painting from beginning to end."
Winner asked 60 Minutes Wednesday if anyone had ever seen Marla paint a piece from start to finish. It turns out that no one, except her parents, apparently ever has. Not even Brunelli, the gallery owner who represents Marla.
"Just here and there," says Brunelli, when Rose asked him if he's seen Marla paint in person. "Not anything full length."
60 Minutes Wednesday asked the Olmsteads if it could videotape Marla painting a single work from start to finish. But they told us she is uncomfortable in front of a camera.
"And so the skepticism always arises: something's wrong here. Where is the artist at work," asks Rose. "Why shouldn't you close that circle for the benefit of everybody?"
"To be honest with you? If it were in Marla's makeup to close that, we would do it. But it's not in her makeup," says Marla's father, Mark. "And you're not gonna see what she does if you're sitting there with 14 cameras. Or if we could put her in the middle of an auditorium one time and say, 'Ladies and gentlemen, pay-per-view, here's Marla painting.' If we could do it, we would do it."
Almost two months after our interview, the Olmsteads agreed to let 60 Minutes Wednesday place a concealed camera where Marla paints, so she wouldn't be distracted by its presence.
Beginning on a canvas primed red by her father, it took Marla about five hours of painting, spread over the course of a month, to complete a piece.
60 Minutes Wednesday asked Winner to review the tapes.
"My mind was not changed by watching 4-and-a-half hours of home videotape. I saw her making very ordinary kinds of marks, no different from what a typical 3- or 4-year-old would make. She didn't seem to have any overall plan. And she didn't seem very focused," says Winner.
"I saw no evidence that she was a child prodigy in painting. I saw a normal, charming adorable child painting, the way preschool children paint, except that she had a coach that kept her going."
Her coach is her father, Mark, who is often present when Marla paints. He can be heard on the tape, directing her, sometimes sternly:
"Pssst …. Paint the red. Paint the red. You're driving me crazy. Paint the red."
"If you paint, honey, like you were … This is not the way it should be."
Winner suspects that without her father's urging, Marla would not have the focus or desire to stay with one painting as long as she did on the tapes.
"I think she's being urged to continue. Many times she says, 'I'm done,' and there would be silence and she would continue to paint,'" says Winner.
Marla's parents told 60 Minutes Wednesday that the painting was a struggle for their daughter, saying she seemed stuck. Still, during the month or so that the hidden camera was in their home, they claim Marla was able to finish four other paintings off camera, with no problems at all.
Winner also believes the painting captured on the 60 Minutes Wednesday tape is less polished than some of Marla's previous works. How does she explain that difference?
"I can only speculate. I don't see Marla as having made, or at least completed, the more polished looking paintings, because they look like a completely different painter," says Winner. "Either somebody else painting them start to finish, or somebody else doctored them up. Or Marla just miraculously paints in a completely different way than we see on her home video."
And Winner isn't the only skeptic. 60 Minutes Wednesday spoke with two other specialists in children's art. While they didn't study Marla as intensively, they independently raised similar concerns.
60 Minutes Wednesday revisited the Olmsteads, who stand by their story.
"No one has interfered with Marla's paintings. No one has touched any paint to her canvases, other than the priming and the outlining the edge of the canvas that Mark has done," says Laura. "Neither of us have done that. Neither of us would allow someone to do that, ever."
The Olmsteads also told 60 Minutes Wednesday that any opinions based on the concealed camera footage are unfair, because it does not reflect Marla's true creative process.
"She didn't pick the place this time. She didn't pick when she got to paint," says Laura. "It was basically us saying, 'OK, Marla, do your stuff and do it right here,' It was a false environment for her."
"It turned out to be more static and strict," adds Mark. "And that's not the way she does it."
As to Winner's claim that Marla was being heavily coached, her parents explained they felt pressured by the hidden camera, and behaved differently towards their daughter.
"We were tense and nervous about it," says Laura. "There were points on the hidden camera film where we probably, because we wanted to show that she was indeed the person doing these paintings and nobody else, that we probably did force the issue."
"This was a little more pressure-packed," says Mark. "And what Marla read from me may have been different than a typical painting."
Finally, the Olmsteads say that as parents, they would never do anything to embarrass their daughter. And that Marla will continue to paint with their love and support.
"It's a story that invites skepticism. And there will be skeptics," says Laura. "And, you know, as long as the people who are purchasing the work believe Marla did it, and as long as our friends and family, and the people that matter believe it, that's enough for me."
Marla is having her first West Coast gallery opening later this week. It will include the painting captured on hidden camera by 60 Minutes Wednesday, which has already been sold for $9,000.
Copyright 2009 CBS. All rights reserved.