Painting Prodigy: Little Picasso or Pretender?

Questions remain about whether or not 4 year old painted pictures alone.

Oct. 5, 2007 — -- Marla Olmstead was only 4 years old when she took the art world by storm. Exalted as a painting prodigy, she was compared by some to Picasso.

Documentary filmmaker Amir Bar-Lev set out to tell the young painter's story and explore what constitutes abstract art. He spent countless hours with Marla and her parents, Laura and Mark, at their home in Binghamton, N.Y.

"We don't actively promote her art at all," Marla's mother, Laura Olmstead, told Kate Snow in an exclusive, live interview on "Good Morning America Weekend Edition." "The only venue to see her art work is a Web site. ... As far as us being here today, it's really just because we feel like we don't want 'My Kid Could Paint That' to be the last true and only word about our family."

The film, released Friday, did not turn out quite like anyone had expected, including Bar-Lev or the Olmsteads.

"The reality is it's a simple story," said Marla's father, Mark Olmstead. "The media takes a story and does what they will with it. Ultimately, there are regrets. ... I felt very much like the pressure that was put on us. And the pressure I put upon Marla, I regret that and I feel a lot to blame."

While he takes the blame for the pressure, Olmstead vehemently denies painting the pictures on his daughter's behalf.

Rise and Fall of a Prodigy

Bar-Lev documented the remarkable rise of the little girl whose paintings sold for tens of thousands of dollars.

He was also there months later, recording the Olmsteads' reaction to a "60 Minutes" report questioning whether Marla had actually painted the artwork alone.

"Either somebody else painted 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," said one of the experts in the "60 Minutes" piece.

Some suspected that Marla's father, Mark, who is also an artist, was helping her or completing the paintings.

When Snow asked Olmstead if he ever helped his daughter paint the pictures, he responded, "I think we should define help. I do have to be involved, and I have, because she is -- was -- a one-year-old, two-year-old, three-year-old. And I help her by priming the canvas, by lifting her up over the canvas when she was younger so she could reach certain points, doing the edges, helping her with the paints themselves, as far as getting them in ketchup bottles. From that standpoint, yes, I help."

But he insisted he never painted the canvas.

Laura added that Mark barely offers suggestions to Marla on her work.

"The strongest piece of advice I ever heard him give her, and I think she was 3, was to pull rather than push the brush," she said.

Mark said he's no Picasso either. He's a night manager at a Frito-Lay plant and he's painted a total of four paintings in his life.

Despite the questions raised in the report, the Olmsteads allowed Bar-Lev to continue filming with the belief that he was recording the truth about Marla and that he would tell their side of the story.

"When '60 Minutes' happened, my heart went out to them," Bar-Lev told ABC News' Cynthia McFadden. "But there was a side of me, you know, that said to myself, 'Wow, my documentary just got really interesting.'"

By the end of the film, Bar-Lev had become part of the cast, telling the Olmsteads on camera that he had doubts about whether their daughter painted alone.

When asked whether he thought Marla had painted the pictures, Bar-Lev still hedged.

"I wish I could give you a clear answer to that," he told McFadden. "In my heart of hearts, I have a very hard time believing that a 4-year-old did all of those paintings. But I want to add that I have a very hard time believing that her parents would be behind an exploitation of their kid."

Bar-Lev insisted he doesn't want it "both ways," but in the end, his film never answers the question.

Parents Not Angry

Laura and Mark Olmstead said that despite everything that has happened, they don't regret allowing Bar-Lev into their lives and are not angry with the finished film.

Bar-Lev said he was forthright with the Olmsteads about his doubts while making the film.

"As soon as my doubts reached a point where they were strong enough that it wouldn't have been right to keep them from the Olmsteads, I told them and that's the climax of the film," he said.

Laura has an emotional moment at the end of the film, where she says to Bar-Lev, "I need you to believe me."

Now, she says, she no longer needs him to believe, but she said, "I hope he does."

Laura said Marla has not yet seen the film, adding that she does not know when she will show it to her daughter.

"I think we'll take that as it comes," Laura said. "I think I can't give you an age right now when it would be appropriate. But when she's ready, we'll discuss it and we'll show it to her."

When asked if he thinks Marla will continue to paint, her father said, "Whatever she decides to do, we love our daughter, we love our son, we're going to support them -- whatever."