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Portrait of the artist as a cherished child

Mark Olmstead is the father of Marla Olmstead, the young artist seen in the documentary "My Kid Could Paint That." Ebert's review is here.

Dear Mr. Ebert,

Watching and reading you for years obviously gives me a sense of you and yours, though I am well aware that there is always much more to a person and a person’s story than we get through the media. I have certainly learned the hard way. Anyway, after mulling it over, I thought (for what it is worth) I would touch base with a person whose opinion I respect and for some indefinable reason, care about. I am willing to put myself "out there" to provide some insight as to Amir Bar-lev's film about the media, my family, and the questions surrounding modern art portrayed in the film you recently reviewed, "My Kid Could Paint That.”

I am Marla's father, Mark, and I was made aware of your review through some colleagues. I honestly try to avoid reading much about this story but sometimes you slow down when you drive by a bad accident and take a look. I looked, and felt compelled to call and now write. I hope you are interested in our/my take.

Trust me when I say that I am ultimately not trying to convince you of anything, though I hope you take away a different explanation than the film provides. I am well aware that reviews are based on what you watch and your interpretation. It is likely you didn't know us from Adam prior to seeing the film.

That's part of the dilemma; the audience is deprived of the whole, more accurate story, the story of a happy, loving family with no hidden agenda. Perhaps we all were a little swept away, naïve, gullible, and in my case for a brief and completely damning way, shamefully pressuring my daughter. The creative editing and extensive omission the director uses to create an interesting movie magnifies and alters the real us. Granted, "60 Minutes" was an embarrassment, and I only have myself to blame -- I was gullible and eager to please. Promises made, promises broken, but I ultimately learned the hard way and I live with my jackass decisions and actions every day.

They were fewer than you think, but when I did make them, I made them big. Again, Amir's editing and omissions certainly made for an interesting depiction. As he stated, he "chose the journalist hat over the friend hat.” I honestly believe that Amir saw a big opportunity he could not let get by him. I get that...

Anyway, there are some things I have been surprised about, particularly how the story is so easily accepted by the media. Few media outlets really have considered our everyday life, the facts or current status of Marla and her paintings. We have been measured in our approach to this movie for Marla and her brother Zane's sake. They are what matters. Otherwise, the approach we have chosen to take with the director would be much less measured.

I want you to know some things without over-explaining (I hope). My wife Laura always says the more you try to explain the worse it sounds. By the way, she means this in all situations, not just with the media. Less is often more, though that hasn't been my style as you can deduce. Anyway, some of the following information that follows is from an interview with the London Telegraph. I believe this will shed some light on the bigger picture (there is so much more). The key is not to overcomplicate something that has always been very simple...

First, I am definitely not an artist. Though, I have heard interviews and read articles where Amir does refer to me as an amateur artist, and in some cases the articles used the term frustrated artist to describe me. I have never had any significant interest in being an artist and still don't. I did paint for therapeutic reasons the winter after my father's death (December 1998). I painted a couple of paintings during that time. One of which was a portrait of my dad (very average, but it helped the healing). I did not paint after the winter of 1999 until I tried again in January 2002.

That is the time Marla insisted on painting. All she had to do was ask (she was so damn cute), so I gave her paint and a brush and away she went. During this time I attempted to paint two more portraits. I describe these paintings as likenesses of Laura, just in case people couldn't tell it was supposed to be her. I did this in hopes of hanging my painting on our wall. We did -- temporarily. Marla's paintings soon took over the space where my painting was. That was the end of that, and I have four paintings to show for it. None of which reside on the walls in our house. As far as how Marla started; it is true that I was trying to paint and Marla kept asking if she could. How could I not let her? It was sheer joy.

Most of the back story is pretty standard. We were absolute befuddled with what happened; we, especially me, were swept away. Around the time we were getting a lot of media attention, Amir showed up. He explained that he wanted to act as a fly on the wall in hopes of discussing the possibility of filming a documentary about Marla and modern art. We sat down with him during that first visit to find out if a documentary is something we were open to. He convinced us that it would be a special way to remember this time in our lives and that it was about the whole modern art movement and how Marla fit in. To sum it up, Laura and I thought it would be a good way for Marla to look back upon her childhood when she got older.

We welcomed him into our homes and lives; he became more like a friend. He came up once a month on average, sometimes twice and tried to be at major events, TV tapings, Marla's art openings, and of course when we watched the 60 Minutes story. Other than that we talked on the phone a fair amount and saw him when we visited New York City. We didn't consider him "the media" Oftentimes he was with us in that capacity--as a friend, no cameras--and other times he was filming. The filming lasted just over 10 months with a total of 100 hours of footage, a lot of it is just us hanging around together, cleaning up after dinner, doing things as a family -- perhaps not as exciting as you'd expect! We really never approached this as a way to document any kind of "deeper truth"; just a way to capture a specific time in our lives.

When this all started, Laura was skeptical, and I admit that I got a bit wrapped up in the excitement of the media attention but I had no idea that some people would take our story so out of context. If there was anything I could change, it would be to have been a bit more cautious with the media. I, personally, take responsibility for putting pressure on my daughter and on my family to please the media. In hindsight, we didn't need to prove anything, and when Marla's old enough to understand how this all happened, we will certainly be candid with her.

Amir made the most interesting marketable story he could; it's his story, for his reasons. I believe he has regrets but he ultimately seems OK with his choices; I not happy with his or my choices. I do wish I had handled the whole thing differently. It was an exciting time and we as a family had some great experiences all because the stars aligned a certain way. I hope Amir looks back at this some day and feels shame for how he handled my family and reconciles the story he's leading people to believe.

As far as how Laura and I feel, we never felt that Marla was a prodigy. We do believe she is talented, as many children are. Marla does paint all of her painting and the help we give has nothing to do with paint to canvas or coaching during this process. We encourage, support, discuss and have fun allowing her to make her colorful mess. Call it what you want, art, crap, whatever... The bottom line is she loves to paint and will continue as long as she wants to. No pressure, no gimmick, in fact not very complicated. Amir, me, you and all the people involved have made this more than it is. I realize my part and deal with it daily.

Lastly, I am not sure if you are aware but Marla has continued to paint, as fervently but much less often. Marla has painted around 10 paintings start to finish with video documentation. You can see a few samples of her others on her website. I would be curious which paintings on her site couldn't have been painted by a child. I am not writing to prove anything but moreover to ask how of all groups, the media so easily believes what they see on film or in print. Thanks so much for your time, I hope you reply, if nothing else this was good to write. Self therapy.

All The Best, Mark Olmstead

Marla’s website is at http://www.marlaolmstead.com/

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