ENCINO, Calif. -- It is the late afternoon -- the sugar hours -- of her first solo show on the West Coast, and the abstract expressionist Marla Olmstead is clomping around on the blond wood floors of the storefront art space, clop, clop, clop, in big, pointy high heels.
Anne Kleins. Size eightish. Ink black.
Her publicist, the gallery owners, her family, a documentary filmmaker, several photographers: huddling, indulgent, wary, loving, respectful -- yet all watching.
Around and around the gallery the young artist Olmstead goes. Giggling. Clop. Clop. The workmen are putting the finishing touches on the title cards for the Saturday evening opening. The big canvases, six-footers, the enigmatic fuzzy circle titled "Burning Blue Ball" and the itchy, angry "Mosquito Bite" and the yellow-and-orange slash work called "Zane Dancing."
Top asking price: $25,000.
That figure -- a new kitchen? -- produces a queasy questioning about career paths not chosen. But it does not seem to impress Olmstead one way or another.
She is? Just clomping. Then. Shush. Wait. She is eating a pretzel now. Portent? She has discarded the muse shoes, which are actually her mother's. She is now barefoot. She is making choo-choo sounds. She is bliss? She begins to crawl on her belly. She is a frog. She is hiding under a table.
She is 6 years old.
Why are we -- the adults -- here? Here in Encino, in the baking San Fernando Valley, at a gallery triangulated by a Mr. Kosher grocery store, a White Rabbit adult novelty emporium and a place, seriously, called the Titanic Traffic School? Why does anybody do anything anymore? A network morning talk show host suggested, on camera, before millions, after admitting that she didn't know much about art, that Marla's work reminded her of Jackson Pollock.
Anthony Brunelli, an artist and gallery owner in her home town of Binghamton, N.Y., who sells Marla's work (and therefore has a financial hedge in all this), suggested she might be a "genius." Some prefer the term "child prodigy." Articles in papers in New York, London and Rome reference Kandinsky, Miro and Klee -- and Marla Olmstead.
She began her career when she was not quite 2.
What does a collector get, for the price of a mid-size Mazda? That is a good question. We don't have the answer. Because the real question is: What is art? And more to the point: What is kiddie art? And have they taken over?
Although we had total access, a substantive interview with Marla is not possible. With the assistance of her mother, Laura, we learn that her favorite color is pink (in earlier interviews, Marla had said it was yellow). Her favorite ice cream: strawberry. The artist recently completed kindergarten and is missing her two front teeth.
At one point another adult cornered her and asked about her plastic bracelet.
Q. "Does it glow?"
A. (After a really long pause) "Yes."
Other insights? Although we are no psychology major, Marla Olmstead seems completely normal and was giddy-fun-a-go-go to run around the gallery with her younger brother, Zane, and a couple of other apple-cheeked tots. She looked: happy.
Said Mom: "Marla is very excited. Hopefully, they'll be cookies." (There were.)
And cheese slices, watermelon cubes and meat pieces, and Charles Shaw wine for the adults (Trader Joe's, $1.99 a bottle).
Here's the back story:
Marla's father, Mark, is a manager at the Frito-Lay food processing plant in Binghamton, where Ruffles are made and 700 people are employed. His people -- father, uncle, grandfather -- were painters, amateur and professional. The pros were sign painters.
When Mark's father died, Mark bought some acrylic paint and supplies and started dabbling. Daughter Marla, at that point yet quite 2, reached out for the brushes and wanted to create. Dad indulged, he says, and the toddler impressed him enough that he yielded a canvas.
A friend of the family's hung a few of Marla's paintings in his Binghamton coffee shop. This was August 2003. A patron asked to buy one, and Marla's mom says she came up with a "crazy price" of $250, because she said she did not want to part with any of them and assumed no rational adult would pony up. She was wrong.
Then Binghamton artist Brunelli plugged into the Marla mix and held a gallery show, and the local paper, the Press & Sun-Bulletin, ran a piece (favorite Marla animal: pigs). The New York Times followed up, and her work soon started fetching several thousands of dollars as collectors snapped up the Marlas.
Stuart Simpson, who opened the StuART Gallery in Encino, happened to be in Binghamton on business (he is a contractor-engineer of sound studios). He bought four Marlas. He says he was blown away by her work. "I hear regularly from people: 'My grandkids could do this.' I say give it a shot. Because they can't. This is a once-in-a-lifetime thing. I think most people struggle all their lives to know what they should do. Marla knows what she should do."
Simpson references Monets and Matisses. One of the paintings he bought, called "Bottom Feeder," hangs in his home. Simpson said, "I'll have a glass of wine and look at the painting, and see something in the painting one night, and another night, I see something else."
His wife, Marte, said that "when he told me he had bought the paintings of a 4-year-old, I said: 'Great, they're going in his office, where I don't have to see them.' But when I looked at the Marlas, the size of the paintings, the colors and placement and texture, this is a kid's painting, but it's painting of gift and talent."
Marte Simpson calls Marla "an old soul."
In February 2005, "60 Minutes II" ran a Charlie Rose-anchored segment that raised questions about the Marlas. The producer got the family to agree to install a hidden camera to watch young Olmstead paint a canvas start to finish.
On the video, one can hear her dad saying: "Psst. Paint the red. Paint the red. You're driving me crazy. Paint the red. . . . If you paint, honey, like you were --"
Dad: "This is not the way it should be."
Okay. This doesn't look good. Laura Olmstead explains to us that the hidden-camera scene was not ideal, that her husband said what he said ("It did look like he was coaching her," she says), but Laura swears that the Marla paintings were all painted by Marla, that the parents never laid on a hand on the canvases except to prime them for painting.
"She's not a coachable child," Laura says.
To rebut the skeptics, the couple produced a long-running video of Marla painting "Oceans," and in the 20 minutes we watched at the gallery (along with a handful of guests), the child is doing all the paint splattering, smearing, squirting and brushwork. She selects colors out of a tube, applies them and works the colors together on the canvas, using brushes and spatulas. She is wearing her PJs while she does this, and brother Zane watches.
"Those paintings are all Marla," says Laura.
The proceeds of her work, says Mom, go into a college fund. The couple estimate that the daughter has produced about 90 works, and more than 60 have sold.
Early on during the first night of the show, no paintings have sold. A couple of patrons stand before one of the works, titled "Everyone's House," and wonder aloud:
"Is that a rocket ship?"
"Or a crayon?"
"Or a weird bug?"
Art, they say, it is in the eye of the beholder.
The artist Marla Olmstead, herself, is not saying. She is eating an ice cream cone.