Blessed or Cursed? Child Prodigies Reveal All
Are child prodigies genuinely gifted? And, if they are, do they become even more gifted as time goes on? We track the fortunes of a clutch of child prodigies.
A quick search for “child prodigy” will give you a flood of results: kids of different ages, who can paint like Picasso, make music like Mozart, or write prolific poetry like Sylvia Plath.
It seems like almost anyone under the age of ten can immediately be labeled a prodigy, solely for being slightly ahead (and more dedicated) than their peers. So, are children revered more for their work because of their talent or for their age? Or, are they not even responsible for their works at all?
These are the questions I kept asking myself at a recent exhibition of seven-year-old art prodigy Aelita Andre, who has been painting since she was nine months old and exhibiting since she was four. The little girl I saw before me, running and screaming around the gallery, simply seemed like a typical kid in a stimulating environment who was up past her bedtime.
“Can a seven year old—let alone a two year old—really make the conscious calculations necessary to create ‘true’ works of art?,” I rhetorically asked readers. “Or do her parents—who are also artists—play a large role in guiding the brush that pulled in well over $200,000 in 2012?”
Andre spoke to me by phone the following day in a seemingly rehearsed tone while her mother sat next to her to reiterate, in Russian, questions she didn’t understand. Whether or not she actually created the works herself, I’ll never know.
Her work has definitely progressed and she seems to be using more advanced techniques than when she was a toddler, but the narrative depicted in promotional brochures and press releases seemed way too complex for Andre to have conceived herself. After all, she couldn’t give me more than a few words in attempting explain it to me.
“I’m not really sure. I got it from my heart,” she told me.
As Jacoba Urist points out in a recent article in The Atlantic titled “What Makes a Child an Art Prodigy?,” it takes obsession and dedication to master their craft, as described by child psychologist and prodigy expert Dr. Ellen Winner. “Child prodigies draw realistically, not abstractly,” Urist writes, “and they don’t have any interest in sharing their work.”
But, Dr. Joanne Ruthsatz, one of the nation’s top researchers on child prodigies—and who believes Andre is in this exclusive group—says a child prodigy can still be an art wunderkind and your typical kid. “There is a biological difference that kicks in with these kids and they become obsessed with their work and want to engage in their art or play the piano all the time,” she stated, “even though they are ordinary kids in the sandbox.”
Over the years, many of those deemed child prodigies have had their integrity questioned—mostly as to whether or not a parent was behind the final product. Still, there have been some pretty amazing kids prove the skeptics wrong.
So, in an attempt to really just make ourselves (and you) feel bad about how little we accomplished by the age of ten, The Daily Beast has rounded up some of this generation’s child art prodigies to find out if they’ve kept up with their fifteen minutes of fame or simply grew out of it.
Kieron Williamson, 12
As with most young prodigies, Williamson had very little experience with painting before picking up a brush at age five. In 2008, his family was on holiday and a scenic coastal town in Southeastern England that they were visiting captivated the young artist.
“Before then, Kieron wouldn’t spend much time drawing for himself,” his mother, Michelle, told the UK’s ITV News in 2009. “But I think it was the harbors and the boats and the scenery which first captured his imagination,” she added. “He has been drawing and painting ever since.” The mini- Monet, as many have come to know him, had his first solo exhibition shortly after.
Adrian Hill, owner of the Picturecraft Gallery in Holt where Williamson lived at the time, organized the show. Prices ranged from £1,825 ($2,867) to £7,995 ($12,562) for his works of various mediums—from watercolors to pastels to oil paintings. They were sold to collectors from all over the world. That was 2010, when Williamson was seven, less than two years after painting his first picture on a whim.
Today, Williamson’s works fetch up to £390,000—roughly $612,670.50—and sell out in a matter of minutes. Williamson still paints when he’s not at school or playing football—his favorite sport—indicating he’s just a typical, well-rounded kid with an extraordinary talent.
When The Guardian’s Patrick Barkham caught up with the established artist earlier this year, he observed how the then 11-year-old had changed, both physically and artistically.
The family had moved from their “cramped two-bed flat overlooking a petrol station in Holt” to a free-standing home “in a quieter village.” The money his paintings have brought in has helped support his family, so a case for exploiting the child could be made. However, that’s not the case.
Williamson “talks fluently and modestly about his art,” Barkham wrote. His oil paintings have evolved into more mature depictions and advanced techniques.
Unlike other child “art prodigies,” who mainly create abstract works, Williamson’s paintings are mostly scenic, making it almost impossible to deny his talent. The majority of on-camera interviews see Williamson in action, blending colors, adding shapes, and creating masterpieces that are solely his own.
Autumn de Forest, 13
The daughter of musician and composer Douglas de Forest and actress/model Katherine, her lineage posits her as a descendant of art world royalty—Lockwood de Forest (1850-1932), George de Forest Brush (1855-1941), and Roy de Forest (1930-2007) were all established artists of the 19th and 20th centuries.
She’s even a descendent of Robert W. de Forest, the former director of New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art who was responsible for the American wing. “I’m actually the first female in my family—that I know of—that has brought the paintbrush to a canvas in a big way,” she told the Daily Beast.
After picking up a paintbrush at age five, de Forest’s works have evolved into a vast array of styles mastered only by the greats—Modern Expressionism, Surrealism, Pop Art.
“I started out letting the paintbrush guide me, seeing what popped up in my head or seeing what I could create just be jumping into it,” she said. “Then, as I had more experience and did more research, I realized I loved taking classic paintings and throwing in some of my personality and making it my own.”
De Forest recreated Andy Warhol’s Marilyn to look like Barbie. With Grant Wood’s American Gothic, she replaced the farmer’s pitchfork with a crayon. There are works that evoke Dali, Jasper Johns, Egon Schile, Mark Rothko, Picasso, and also a style unique to herself—she’s developed her own technique of blowing acrylic across a canvas with an air compressor to create intricate lines.
“Her work is amazing in the most profound way, Dr. Joanne Ruthsatz said in 2013. “It’s not just technically skilled, but it’s emotional in that you have a feeling and storyline that goes with each painting.” These works bring in millions.
At thirteen years old, de Forest speaks with the confidence and the knowledge of someone much older. And institutions have noticed. She’s gearing up for an upcoming TED talk, though she doesn’t “know all the details,” and is expected to give a speech at Harvard, like she has at other schools for years.
“I’ve spoken at a lot of schools, sharing what I believe is important to arts and education and trying to inspire kids,” she said, about her passion for kids to be creative. “Most kids play video games and not every kid is going to be an artist, but just taking whatever you love, you know, you can do it, too. Don’t focus on how good you are; focus on how much you love it.”
De Forest is not only consolidating her position in the art world. For years she has done philanthropic work with third world countries, and those affected by major disasters.
“Some kids don’t know where their next meal is going to come from and I do,” she said of auctioning off works to help with relief in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. “I realized that every day we are blessed with so much and I wanted to give back in some way.”
She’s since offered to support those affected by the tsunami disaster in Japan and Hurricane Sandy in the Northeast, along with a slew of charities with various causes.
Zoe Yin, 13 & Victoria Yin, 17
A parent can only hope for spawning a single child prodigy, but two…that’s just damn good luck (or genetics). Victoria and Zoe Yin, who hail from Boston, were both deemed child prodigies at young ages.
By age 10, Victoria’s artworks were being collected internationally. Two years later, the China Cultural Ministry invited her along with her 8-year-old sister Zoe, who started drawing when she was one, to hold a joint exhibition titled Strokes of Genius at Beijing’s World Art Museum.
Their paintings sell for over $20,000 a pop.
“Zoe’s work is more passionate, more modern, it’s very happy,” their mother, Eva Xu, told THNKR in an episode of Prodigies. “I really enjoy swaying along to music so that’s kind of how my paintings look.” The figures in her works, which are mostly limited to a blue, yellow and red color palette, could easily be compared to Picasso, especially her earlier works.
“Victoria’s work is more rational, precise,” their father, Yizhong Yin, said. “She’s re-creating her own myth and fiction within the painting,” Xu added.
Her works are like sculptures on canvas, sometimes looking like a Diego Rivera mural or intentionally mixed with art history icons, like Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa or Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam. Yet, they are unexpectedly Surrealist in method.
All of their earnings are put into a savings account. College is just around the corner for Zoe, and Victoria is already enrolled at Brown University, where she is full swing into her first semester—“a turning point,” she told The Daily Beast by phone. “I’m involved in a lot of their film production clubs and doing a lot of screenwriting,” she said. “I’m interested in going into cinematography and branching out into that field.”
Zoe, who is currently in eighth grade, is still painting and “exploring with more techniques and improving [her] style,” she said by phone. She focuses a lot of her time on after school activities, such as student council and the yearbook committee.
“It’s really a creative way to show a different side of being artistic,” she said of snapping photos of school events and designing the pages and content of the school publication. She, too, plans to stay within the art realm for college, “because that’s my passion,” she said, along with writing.
The sisters, who consider each other best friends, also set up a charity in 2012—a Global Foundation for Children’s Arts, which was founded due to the sister’s impression that art was under-appreciated among kids their age. “Many people are interested in sports and music—and we are too,” Zoe said, “but we felt that we should give the younger generations more exposure to art and prompt them to be interested in it.”
“Being a little different from everyone else in my age group, I did feel slightly alienated,” Victoria said of growing up in the spotlight. “But my peers and teachers were all very supportive of me and that made me feel proud. I’m actually very glad of all the experiences I’ve had as an artist and as a child artist.”
Zoe enjoys being able to share her stories with her friends and classmates. “It’s really fun because I come back and everyone is asking me what I did,” she said. “I like to share stories with them so they can have a bit of the experience, too.”
Marla Olmstead, 14
Things haven’t been so picturesque for Marla Olmstead, who, at seven-years-old, was the subject of the 2007 documentary My Kid Could Paint That.
Her integrity had been questioned two years prior, when 60 Minutes sent a camera crew to document the child prodigy in action. During the segment, the footage was shown to Dr. Ellen Winner, child psychologist who specializes in arts and gifted children mentioned at the beginning of this article.
“I don’t see Marla as having made, or at least completed, the more polished looking paintings,” Winner said, “because they look like a different painter. 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.”
Olmstead’s father, an amateur painter himself, has repeatedly denied the accusations. The documentary left it up to the audience to decide.
It all started when Olmstead was three. A family friend had asked to hang some of her paintings in his coffee shop. There was then a gallery show and a local reporter did a feature. It was quickly picked up by the New York Times. Within months, the four-year-old had made over $300,000 off of her paintings, which were purely abstract.
Almost a decade later Olmstead has stepped down from her pedestal to focus more of her time on sports and friends. The ninth-grader has just finished playing soccer and is thinking of joining the basketball team, she told me during a phone interview. She also plays that bass in orchestra.
The last major event or show of her work was early last year, at The Intersection 2013, which was co-hosted by Google and brought together “leading innovators from a number of fields to share their thoughts about up-and-coming trends in personal, team and organizational creativity, as well as social impact,” according to the organization’s website.
“That’s the last thing we showed, about four or five paintings,” Mark, her father, told me over the phone before introducing me to Marla, who he warned was a bit shy. “Marla was interviewed and talked to the audience about what she does and her work.”
She tells me that she still paints, but is also working on learning more realistic styles and techniques through private art lessons. She doesn’t “look at certain artists very much,” but recently finished a realistic portrait of her brother, which she is really proud of.
Akiane Kramarik, 20
Leading the pack of millennial art wunderkinds is Idaho-native Akiane Kramarik, who began drawing at age two. By age six, she had moved on to painting and within a year was writing poetry. Her first work, a self-portrait, sold for $10,000. Oprah Winfrey welcomed her onto her show when she was 10. She’s kept up appearances—and producing works—ever since.
Her hyperrealist paintings are so powerful that they converted her atheist parents to Christians. Kramarik, who was homeschooled and is a self-taught painter, has created works that have been inspired by visions from God—a figure she had never known in (or outside of) her home.
“We didn’t pray together, there was no discussion about God, and we didn’t go to church,” Akiane’s mother, Forelli, told Today’s Christian in 2004. “Then all of a sudden, Akiane was starting to talk about God.”
“I wake up after I have had many dreams,” Akiane added. “I wake up and I pray, and then I see visions and I explain all those to my mom,” who would give her canvases to re-create them. They even led her to paint “The Prince of Peace,” a portrait of Jesus completed when she was ten. The model: a carpenter who showed up to her house looking for work.
“Some researches actually analyzed my work and compared the Shroud of Turin with… this painting,” Akiane told Katie Couric earlier this year. The Shroud of Turin is the alleged cloth Jesus was buried in after he was crucified. “They said it was almost 80 to 90 per cent accurate.”
Today, her original works sell anywhere from $10,000 to $3 million.