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NY Times: Little Jackson Pollocks, Exploring in Oil Paint


Date: Mon Oct 04 2004 - 15:27:10 PDT

Wanted to share this interesting article that a friend sent me. Click on the
NY Times article to see the paintings! Didn't Picasso say it took him a
lifetime to learn how to paint like a child?
Susan on Long Island

attached mail follows:

The article below from
has been sent to you by

Sue, I thought you'd enjoy reading this! Did you read about the 4 year old in Binghamton?
Hope all is well! See you soon...

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Little Jackson Pollocks, Exploring in Oil Paint

October 4, 2004


Is every 4-year-old a Marla Olmstead?

Marla is the preschool painter from Binghamton, N.Y., who
has had her own gallery show. The gallery owner who
represents her - because what 4-year-old doesn't need
gallery representation? - is charging $6,000 for her latest
works. Never mind whether she is a larger-than-life talent:
Every canvas she splatters and scrapes her way across is
larger than she is.

No doubt some parents who heard about her accomplishments
said to themselves, "My 4-year-old could do that." No doubt
some parents were tempted to run to the kitchen to see if
the finger painting on the refrigerator (which looks like a
sideways California, except to little Jimmy, who feels it
perfectly captures the play of light and shadow on his
teacher's foot) is good enough to be mounted and framed.

In an experiment that touched on how creativity emerges,
how it is nurtured and how the skills needed for painting
differ from those needed for, say, piano playing, a group
of 4-year-olds was asked to try its hand at oil on canvas.
Later, the children's paintings were shown to an adult with
credentials in early education and long experience in
children's art, Andrew S. Ackerman, the executive director
of the Children's Museum of Manhattan.

Painting with oil on canvas was something of a stretch for
artists accustomed to tempera and construction paper. But
their art teacher at the Weekday School at the Riverside
Church in Manhattan, Naomi Hudson-Knapp - "Miss Naomi" to
the children - was ready to start them off as soon as they
slithered into their smocks.

She began by explaining that oil paint is "smooth and
silky" and different from anything they had used before.
Not only that, but the canvas they would paint on had a
texture different from paper, a bit bumpy and a bit
resistant, even to a brush loaded with paint.

She also explained that the wooden board with little dabs
of paint was called a palette, and that it could be held
with the thumb.

Finally she told the children they could choose their
brushes: wide, narrow or in-between.

The 4-year-olds went to work in a noisy blur of creativity.
In less time than it takes Big Bird to run through the
alphabet, Isabelle Harris, a little girl in a yellow smock,
announced, "I made a Jackson Pollock."

A Jackson Pollock?

"It's the one that was at the
Metropolitan Museum," she said.

Across the room her mother, Cydney Harris, knew exactly
what Isabelle was talking about: Pollock's "Autumn Rhythm,"
which is considered an incomparable example of Abstract
Expressionism, and is also one of the largest and most
important examples of his poured technique. Preschoolers
know the painting from "Olivia," the best-selling picture
book by Ian Falconer about a precocious pig who sees it at
the Met and then goes home and imitates it.

Isabelle - "she loves art but is not very good," Ms. Harris
said - had seen "Autumn Rhythm" in a book at home and
declared, "That scares me." This was before Ms. Harris
talked her into going to the Met one day after a visit to
the doctor.

Isabelle recognized "Autumn Rhythm" from a distance and
trotted toward it, raising her arms as if to embrace it.
"She said: 'It doesn't scare me. It's beautiful. Look at
all the colors,' " Ms. Harris said. "We stood there for 30
minutes and had a huge discussion about which way to hang

Isabelle was now having the same discussion about her first
oil painting. She grabbed the canvas, which had been
vertical while she was painting it, and rotated it 90
degrees. This is the way it goes, she declared, and
scampered off.

The question remained, could she be the next prodigy with a
paintbrush? What about her classmate Matthew Popkin, who
explained that his painting depicted "some sort of
criminal" that skulks around at night? What about Alice
Wright, who had worked at the one easel in the classroom
(the other children had sat around a large table)? Before
she wiggled out of her purple smock, Alice said her canvas
of wide and mostly vertical reddish-orange brush strokes,
which trailed off in drippy, runny pastels near the bottom,
"doesn't really show anything" and was "just a bunch of

Later, when high-resolution images of six of the children's
paintings were sent by e-mail to Mr. Ackerman of the
Children's Museum, he said Alice's painting was the one
that he would show to other adults to see what they thought
the painter was trying to depict.

"The difference is, a painter is trying to depict
something," he said. "A child is just exploring."

He added: "Sometimes, when a child creates something, if it
happens to hit the sweet spot of what we think modern art
or abstract art is, then the adult steps back and says,
'Wow, look at what the child has created,' when in fact,
the child who's created something that looks sophisticated
to us may just be doing the same thing as every other

The experiment - having 4-year-olds paint, and then having
Mr. Ackerman review the results - touched on more than
innate talent, he said. "What's interesting about young
children and art is they not only have to have the eye of a
visual thinker, but the manual dexterity," he said. "For a
4-year-old fine motor coordination is just developing, boys
much slower than girls. When you have a child who has both
the manual dexterity and is a visual thinker, that's

Some of the children's canvases were filled with long
tentacles of color that did not quite reach the shorter
strands they were reaching for. Some had blotches of
primary colors sitting proudly between colors the children
had created as they tried, say, a little yellow and a
little blue.

Mr. Ackerman guessed, correctly, that Matthew had held the
brush tightly in his fist. That was not the only sign that
Matthew was a novice. "When kids layer paint like this,
it's a way to explore how color changes," Mr. Ackerman
said. "They're discovering how colors change when you layer
one on top of another."

Marla Olmstead, the 4-year-old with the gallery show, long
ago passed that stage. She has been painting since she was
1 and her father, a food-factory manager and amateur
painter, handed her a brush so that he could work
uninterrupted. She gives her paintings titles like
"Dinosaur." But, as with Matthew's criminal, what an artist
of 4 says a painting represents may be an afterthought,
some child development specialists say.

"The value of actually being a child is you are for the
most part residing in a world where you are not aware of
what you can't be doing just yet, so children, by their
nature, are unguarded, uncensored," said Dr. Regina Lara,
medical director of the child psychiatric outpatient
department at the Mount Sinai Medical Center.

Judging by the six paintings, Marla faces no immediate
competition for wall space at the gallery. That raises
another question: Will Marla still be painting at, say, 6?
Or will she outgrow her career?

"If painting is a huge part of her world, she may continue
to embrace it or she may let go of it,'' said Ms.
Hudson-Knapp, the art teacher. "If you're familiar with the
vocabulary from the time you're 1, by the time you're 4,
you're familiar with the medium. You're comfortable with
it, so when you have an idea you want to express, you know
how to do it."


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