- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 12, 2005

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 about how she makes colors interact with intensity. Her pieces are selling, too — some for as much as $15,000.

For now, though, 4-year-old Marla is more interested in making friends in her pre-kindergarten class and playing with her little brother, Zane.

This shy little blonde from Binghamton, N.Y., 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,” says Laura Olmstead, Marla’s mother.

Though there are skeptics who challenge her authorship and critics who debase abstract art, gallery owner Anthony Brunelli says 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,” says Mr. Brunelli, who gave Marla her first show in August.

“She paints with emotion,” he says.

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.

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, says Marla’s vision and process are exceptional but that many children, if provided with the right materials and influences, can produce surprisingly complicated abstract art pieces.

Though they show a “beautiful sense of color and material,” Marla’s pieces still lack the cultural and spiritual sophistication to be considered museum pieces, Mr. Spector says.

Marla’s parents forbid such words as “genius” and “prodigy” to be used 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.

Mark Olmstead, Marla’s father, who is a second-shift manager for Frito-Lay, has painted since high school. About two years ago, Mr. Olmstead picked up his brushes again after a long hiatus and began a portrait of his wife. Marla was 2.

“Anytime 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-inch-by-14-inch paintings to a friend, Andy Stevens, who owns a coffeehouse. Mr. Stevens thought it would be fun to hang some of Marla’s pieces in his cafe.

“Mrs. Olmstead remembered Marla in a diaper as she covered a 3-foot-by-4-foot canvas with strokes of acrylic paint. Mr. Olmstead held his daughter over the fabric so her little arms could reach the middle.

The canvas and 13 smaller paintings were hanging in Mr. 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,” Mrs. Olmstead recalls. 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, Mr. Stevens called back to say someone had bought the canvas painting and three of the others.

Word spread, and more of the paintings began to sell. In August, Mr. 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.

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