Minou Drouet: A Forgotten Child Poet

Roger Hauert – Minou Drouet (1956) (1)

In the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, the media and public opinion in France, and to some extent in Europe, were impassioned about a little girl who wrote very imaginative poems and letters, sang on stage with famous artists, starred in a film and was even involved in children’s fashion: Minou Drouet. When she grew up, she stopped writing poetry, and soon fell into oblivion, so that now only old people barely remember who she is. As writes Robert Gottlieb in his essay “A Lost Child” (November 2006):

In fact, you can’t find a book by Minou Drouet in any bookstore in Paris, not even her phenomenally successful Arbre, Mon Ami, which was published just over fifty years ago—early in 1956—by the aggressive René Julliard, who a year earlier had scored an international triumph with Francoise Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse. But Sagan had been eighteen; Minou was eight.

Minou Drouet was born on July 24 or 27, 1947. Her birth certificate did not indicate a father, and her mother relinquished her parental rights, so the baby was put up for adoption. On June 17, 1949, she was officially adopted by Claude Drouet, an unmarried woman who worked as a private teacher. The girl was christened Marie-Noëlle, with the diminutive Minou. As writes Robert Gottlieb:

Minou Drouet’s existence was turbulent well before she became a cause célèbre—in fact, from the very beginning. When she was a year and a half old, she was adopted by Claude Drouet, an educated woman who earned her living by coaching children at home. The story was that Minou’s parents had drowned in a fishing-boat accident, but actually she was illegitimate, and her birth mother had signed away all rights to her.

Indeed, when Ms. Drouet adopted her, she had heard about a child whose parents had both drowned, and she sometimes told that story in order to preserve the reputation of Minou, so she would not be called a “bastard,” since at that time single mothers were considered shameful.

Roger Hauert – Minou Drouet (1956) (2)

The baby was almost blind and affected with a strong strabismus; she also suffered from poor health and it seems that she had difficulties closing her mouth on food. Ms. Drouet herself had a very poor eyesight and had been completely blind during seven years of her childhood, then in her youth she had written a short tale about the marvellous world that a blind little girl creates inside herself as a shelter from the torments of the world. So her choice was deliberate: to raise a child who had suffered in the same way as her. She was also inclined to the occult, and she read the lines in the baby’s hands. Says Gottlieb:

Minou was almost blind at birth, and for three years or so lived in a semi-autistic state, unable to speak and cut off from communicating with people other than her mother and her beloved grandmother. Years later, she wrote, “Locked inside myself, I led the life of some kind of vegetable. … The doctors warned Mama, ‘The condition of this child is desperate. We can’t imagine her being cured.'” Other children were unkind to her, and her emotions were directed almost entirely to nature: to animals, birds, and especially the big tree in the garden—“Arbre, mon ami.”

It took on the part of Claude Drouet a long and patient work of love to change this sickly and closed off baby into a healthy, happy and creative little girl. Music was the means by which she could awaken to the world. There are several versions of how it started (her age at that time, the music composer and the medium through which she heard the music vary in each); here is the one of Gottlieb:

Then, when she was three, Minou heard Bach organ music on the radio, and it awakened her to the world. Music became her link to humanity, and in those early years it was music rather than writing that obsessed her. Her passion led to piano lessons from a local teacher, and her abilities led her eventually to Mme. Descaves, in Paris; if the child wasn’t a miniature Mozart (any more than she was a miniature Rimbaud), she was clearly gifted.

Roger Hauert – Minou Drouet (1956) (3)

A more extravagant version of Minou’s early childhood is given by Charles Templeton in An Anecdotal Memoir:

Minou Drouet’s mother was a prostitute and her father a field hand. As an infant she was taken into the home of a middle-aged woman, whose ambition to write well exceeded her talent. She adopted the child and raised her with love, surrounding her with music in a home dedicated to literature. It appeared that Minou was retarded. At six she hadn’t spoken a word. The judgment of four doctors was that she would never be normal.

One day, her mother played a recording of a Brahms symphony for her. Minou swooned. When she was revived, she spoke perfect French in complex sentences. Shortly thereafter she began to write poetry.

Similarly, Carol Mavor writes in “Tragic Candy, Time” (an article leaning towards post-modern speculations and titillation):

Her father was a very poor field hand. Many said that her mother was a prostitute.

By age six, little Minou still had not spoken a word. She was tight-lipped and silent.

In fact, Minou’s childhood has been surrounded by mystery, and fantastic tales have been told about her. Ms. Drouet herself seemed to be involved in fortune telling through cards or reading lines in hands. According to a French online article, Ms. Drouet told the author that Minou possessed a gift of clairvoyance; she could foretell exactly a visit or a death. When the controversy erupted about the authorship of her published poems, some critics hypothesized that her mother had hypnotized her or transmitted her poems by telepathy. The writer Louis Pauwels even hinted at “possession” and labeled her “not a case of a child prodigy,” but “a case of sorcery.”

Roger Hauert – Minou Drouet with Lucette Descaves (1956)

In 1954, Minou started piano lessons first with a tutor, Ninette Ellia. The latter put her in contact with famous pianists: Alfred Cortot, Yves Nat, and foremost Lucette Descaves, professor at the Conservatoire de Paris, who took Minou as pupil on July 29, 1954. Minou, an affectionate child, developed strong feelings for her teacher and sent her letters full of love, together with poems. Ms. Descaves showed them to professor Pasteur Vallery-Radot of the French Academy, who became immediately fascinated, and remained afterwards a staunch supporter of Minou’s exceptional talents. He told about her to the publisher René Julliard. Ms. Descaves entrusted Julliard with a batch of Minou’s writings, and Julliard met Minou on May 6, 1955.

Then things started to move fast. Professor Paufique, an ophthalmologist in Lyon, operated successfully on her eyes. In September, Julliard made a private edition of a booklet with a selection of poems and letters by Minou. A controversy immediately erupted, involving the major French media. Some disagreements concerned the quality of her poems, but mainly it dealt with her authorship, many stating that it was an imposture, that her adoptive mother had written the poems and letters herself. Templeton writes (getting wrong with Minou’s age, she was then aged 8, not 6):

Some of the poems were published and immediately provoked debate. It was said that no child of six could possibly have such thoughts, much less express them so profoundly. It was argued that, unlike music, poetry demands an experience of life, experience that no child so young could have had. It was charged that her adoptive mother — a poet herself who aspired to recognition but had been judged second-rate — was the author of the verses.

Several journals sent reporters to interview the Drouet family. In particular the magazine Elle sent a journalist and a photographer for an “investigation,” then published their report, claiming to give a “proof” of forgery. This article was shown to Minou. Also journalists revealed her adopted child status, something that Claude Drouet had hidden her in order to protect her. Many letters of Minou published later show the deep hurt felt by that sensitive girl, resenting the cruelty and wickedness of people; in a very sad one of them, addressed to her mother, she compares herself to a frightening cat whose whiskers have been cut out, or to an old castle surrounded by moat.

Graphologists and writing experts were called in by both sides, with conflicting opinions. At the end of November 1955, Julliard took Minou without her mother at his home for a few days, so he could witness himself how Minou composed her poems (and it is during that stay that she wrote that letter to her mother mentioned above).

Roger Hauert – Minou Drouet (1956) (4)

The surrealist leader André Breton published in Paris-Presse, December 20, a short article where he stated firmly that he did not have to investigate the facts, simply by examining the texts he could deduce that no child aged 8 and even beyond could write such texts, which show a maturity and experience of life unavailable to such a child. “Between the physico-mental structure of Minou and what is published under her name there is an incompatibility of structure.” He invoked in particular the works of Jean Piaget on the psychological development of children. He finally speculated on Ms. Drouet’s personality, and the possible reasons for her to write under the guise of her daughter.

Minou seems to hint at that in a letter to Pasteur Vallery-Radot, where she mentions “the article by B,” adding that “if this was true, I would have only to go back to classroom and burn everything I have written. This dreadful man says that some sixty-year-old dictates me what I write.”

Breton would not have written such a nonsense if he had only examined the writings of Ms. Drouet herself. As she told Julliard, in her youth she submitted some poems to a “floral games” competition, but did not win. Then around 1925 she had submitted her tale about the blind little girl, which was again rejected, and in 1948 she had again tried to publish it, still without success. She contributed articles to third-rate serials, especially religious ones. The book L’affaire Minou Drouet by André Parinaud reproduces two of her works, an article about the misery of fishermen and a short tale about a poor family, they are drab and show her as a mediocre writer, very far from the flamboyant imagination shown by Minou. And indeed Julliard said to Parinaud that he saw her writings, except her poems, and their dullness reassured him. When Ms. Drouet was accused of fraud, he envisaged publishing these texts, but he felt this would be ungracious to her.

It has been said that this “literary” quarrel was a way for media bosses to settle their accounts, in particular between Hélène Gordon-Lazareff of Elle and Françoise Giroud of l’Express, and that Julliard himself encouraged the debate in order to get more publicity. In particular he published in 1956 L’affaire Minou Drouet by André Parinaud, a detailed analysis of the whole controversy.

On January 14, 1956, Julliard published Minou’s first book, Arbre, Mon Ami, with 21 poems followed by letters she wrote to various people. In it she displays a flamboyant imagination, with powerful metaphors, and she freely creates neologisms. As remarks Carol Mavor, “like Apollinaire, she liked to make her poems into calligrammes, serpentine shapes, crystal cages of words.” At the same time she shows an immense sensitivity, a huge capacity for love towards all her friends, and a maturity usually not expected at that age. The book knew an immediate success. As writes Gottlieb:

By the time Arbre, Mon Ami was published, in January 1956, the publicity had been so unrelenting that within a few months the little book had sold forty-five thousand copies. (Later, Minou said, “I believe that René Julliard himself was at the bottom of this campaign.”) The celebrated actress Madeleine Renaud recorded a group of the poems and letters. A jazz band, Michel Attenoux et Son Orchestre, released the “Minou Drouet Stomp”—you can find it in a recent CD collection, Jazz in Paris.

A month after publication, Minou was put to the severest test of all. The February 13 issue of Life tells the story: To resolve the controversy, Minou agreed to take a test for membership in the Society of Authors, Composers, and Music Publishers. She was left alone in an office (from which “the telephone had been removed to prevent all communication with the outside world”) and given a choice of two topics to write on: “I’m Eight Years Old” or “Paris Sky.” “My eight years were already too sad,” she said. “I chose Paris Sky.” Within twenty-five minutes she had written a few dozen lines, and the judges, as Life put it, admiringly awarded her membership. ‘I’ve won’ yelped Minou.”

This poem, “Ciel de Paris,” was published in her second volume, Le Pêcheur de Lune (1959), with the following dedication (translated from French by me):

My Mummy, it is to defend you that I composed this poem, to prove that it was indeed me who wrote my little things. This text has been much more than an imposed subject, it has been for me an act of love towards you.

Roger Hauert – Minou Drouet (1956) (5)

Gottlieb tells then how Minou became a showbiz star:

Soon after the publication of her book, Minou’s life began its transformation from that of a controversial child poet to that of a full-fledged celebrity. She mixes with cabinet ministers at the Julliards’; she collaborates with famous singer-songwriters like Gilbert Bécaud; she’s photographed with Maurice Chevalier (he’s kissing her hand) and at the premiere of Jacques-Yves Cousteau’s The World of Silence. (She’s ten, and that big bow is still in her hair.) She stars in a movie. She launches and designs lines of children’s fashions. She demonstrates her guitar playing for Andrés Segovia. Pablo Casals teaches her his “Song of the Birds.” In Rome, she encounters Vittorio De Sica, and “quickly we were inseparable—we spent the entire day together.”

By this time, Minou was in rigorous training, every minute accounted for. She practiced the piano for hours every day; studied guitar and gymnastics; spent six years learning ballet. Soon she was touring France, appearing with other celebrities—pop singers and comedians—in nightclubs, theaters, arenas. Her act involved reading her poems aloud, singing to her own guitar accompaniment, playing “Clair de Lune,” Handel’s Passacaglia, Albinoni’s Adagio on the piano. (There’s a demented photograph of her standing on a piano, arching backward until her fingers are on the keyboard. She’s playing upside down!) In June 1957—she’s about ten—she’s at the Gaumont Palace in Paris, the largest theater in Europe (six thousand seats), performing between screenings of Gary Cooper’s Friendly Persuasion. In Brussels, she’s on with Jacques Brel and Charles Aznavour. At La Scala, she’s a guest of honor at a gala for Mario del Monaco. She’s thirteen when a rose is named after her.

She starred in the film Clara et les méchants directed by Raoul André in 1958 (some pictures from it can be seen here). In his article, Gottlieb recounts her private audience with Pope Pius XII, and how she made him laugh (the story can also be read in his shorter article in the JohnShaplin blog).

Claude Drouet’s influence on Minou has been much discussed. Because of her eyesight problems (and maybe the scoffs of other children), the girl did not attend public school for a long time, so she was educated at home by her mother. Julliard wrote in the introduction to Arbre, Mon Ami that Ms. Drouet raised her daughter with as much tenderness as severity, and that she constantly encouraged her to work, both for music and for her general education. Gottlieb writes: “The child was firmly disciplined—kept hard at work and punished for infractions of the rules.” In several letters, Minou mentioned being spanked on the buttocks, and Ms. Drouet did not deny using this form of punishment, which was considered normal at that time. However the press spread the rumour that Minou was a battered child, that one witness said having seen Ms. Drouet beating her daughter with a wet towel, etc. This image of an abusive mother is echoed in the article by Carol Mavor:

As in many fairy tales, Maman was the wicked stepmother. Mme. Drouet cracked the whip: ballet lessons, guitar lessons, hours of piano practice and gymnastics, “every minute accounted for.” Even though she could play Mozart while doing a backbend on the piano, Minou could never be perfect enough; one might even say “empty” enough. (“Innocence is … like air … there’s not a lot you can do but lose it.”) Mme. Drouet beat the innocence (air) out of Minou for the most minuscule mistakes.

Nevertheless, since Ms. Drouet had chosen to adopt a child who suffered the same blindness as her in her own childhood, one may speculate whether she used Minou’s talents in order to compensate for her own failure as a writer. Gottlieb writes:

Mme. Drouet encouraged her gifts—some would say exploited them. However devoted she was to her child, to strangers she could appear severe, controlling, overprotective. She would jump to answer questions put to Minou, declaim her poetry, boast about her talent. She was, clearly, a classic stage mother—using her child both to live out her own ambitions and to carry her and Minou onto a larger stage than was available to them in La Guerche-de-Bretagne. Minou read the situation with a cool precision: “My successes opened the door for her to opportunities that would otherwise have remained closed.”

Roger Hauert – Minou Drouet (1956) (6)

After her second volume, Le Pêcheur de Lune (1959), Minou ceased to write poetry. She tried writing novels and singing, studied nursing, married the artist and radio chronicler Patrick Font and soon divorced. Says Gottlieb:

In her early twenties, Minou published some fables, a novel for children, and a novel for adults, but the irresistible impulse to write had left her when she was fourteen: “When a bird no longer feels the desire to sing, it stays silent.” Her mother contracted Parkinson’s and needed her, her marriage petered out, and in her early thirties she retreated to La Guerche-de-Bretagne, to the house where she had grown up. There she cut herself off completely from her public past, making no appearances and refusing all interviews, until 1993, when, having remarried—her husband, Jean-Paul Le Canu, is a local garageman—she published a reticent and skimpy memoir, Ma Vérité (My Truth). But the public was indifferent. Her celebrity, like her talent, had disappeared.

In that book she wrote that since the death of her mother, “I sing in myself and I am the only one to hear me.” I quote again Gottlieb:

In her book, Minou acknowledged that part of her had found it hard to give up the fame, the applause, the perks: “You amputate part of yourself.” But she went on to say, “If I had the kind of child I myself was, I would try to protect her from all the temptations and assaults of the world. … Beyond the public recognition there’s everything that can’t be replaced—play, friends, family, a kind of freedom. Everything I had to live without.”

It doesn’t require much psychological acumen to figure out that what she needed to express and what she needed to suppress are the same thing: her anger at what had been done to her. “No one protected me. Adults rode on my back to exploit me. . . . I was caught up in the gears.”

She is also reported to have said: “I was sold like a soap, I was criticized as a child prodigy. I was neither.” Gottlieb stresses the responsibility of her mother:

And who was the person who should have protected her? Her mother—the one who exposed her to the world, first as a beleaguered victim, then as a performing seal. Yet it’s also her mother who rescued this semi-autistic, semi-blind orphan and gave her a life. Minou is rigorously fair, fully aware of her debt to the woman who adopted and succored her. But her account has very little warmth, and it leaves out a good deal—for instance, that her birth mother, who she discovered lived only a few kilometers away, had refused to meet her.

Under the influence of her mother, Minou Drouet rose from a near-autistic and nearly blind baby to a precocious poet with a powerful imagination, becoming a superstar … then abandoned poetry and fell back into silence, finishing her life in seclusion. Was the weight of her mother too heavy? Or was it the cruel adult world that tore her sensitive soul? Gottlieb concludes:

This is Minou Drouet before she’s eight—a primitive, an ecstatic, an original. A few years later, she’s become a phenomenon, a scandal, a by-word. “I was a lost child,” she says. “I was only a pathetic little animal,” she says. “What crime did I commit to be persecuted this way?” she asks. There is no answer. That she survived at all is a testament to her strength. That she lost Minou on her way to becoming Mme. Le Canu is the price she was willing to pay.

On the other hand, Carol Mavor writes:

Completely sugarcoated and consumed by the time she was fourteen, Minou lost her passionate desire to write.

As in the years before she was six, Minou is once again silent.

Roger Hauert – Minou Drouet (1956) (7)

The photographs by Roger Hauert shown in this article were scanned from the booklet Poèmes. They are included here for scholarly purposes. Please do not use them publicly without citing their authorship (or, for commercial purposes, without the express permission of the copyright holders).

Bibliography:

  • Minou Drouet, Arbre, mon ami, Julliard (1956).
  • Minou Drouet, Poèmes (with photographs by Roger Hauert), René Kister (1956).
  • Minou Drouet, Le Pêcheur de lune, Pierre Horay (1959).
  • André Parinaud, L’affaire Minou Drouet, Julliard (1956).
  • Chez les libraires associés, “Minou Drouet : ‘On a fait de moi un animal qui a mal’,” September 13, 2012.
  • Robert Gottlieb, “A lost child,” A critic at large, The New Yorker, November 6, 2006 (Full article reserved to subscribers). Republished in Lives and Letters, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Apr 26, 2011, pages 52–64.
  • Carol Mavor, “Tragic Candy, Time,” Cabinet, Issue 40, Hair Winter 2010/11.
  • Charles Templeton, An Anecdotal Memoir (1982), “Inside Television CBS & CBC.”

The Blind Art Collector

In the beginning of Public Speaking, a film about Fran Lebowitz, she tells the story of an art collector who was showing off his multi-million dollar Picasso to some friends. When he turned around, his elbow went through the canvas and tore it. You see, this man could not see and this incident serves as an apt metaphor for our age.

…there is no more suitable and potent image-symbol for our time than the image of the blind art collector. -Fran Lebowitz, Public Speaking, 2010

Lebowitz mused that that would make an excellent book title. Sorry for stealing your thunder Fran, but the two films reviewed here really demonstrate different aspects of this phenomenon: Catfish (2010) and My Kid Could Paint That (2007).

Watching Catfish is a fun adventure because it is not simply a documentary, but a mystery that takes place in real time. It is about the evolving relationship between a dance photographer named Yaniv “Nev” Schulman and a woman named Angela through Facebook. Schulman shares an office with two filmmakers in New York and they decided they wanted to document this interesting development.

It all started after the exhibition of one of his photographs; shortly after, he got a unexpected package in the mail. It was a painting of his photograph, ostensibly produced by an 8-year-old girl named Abby.

Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost - Catfish (2010) (1)

Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost – Catfish (2010) (1)

When first I saw this, I knew I had to share this story with Pigtails readers, not imagining how many twists and turns there would be. Over time, Angela introduced Schulman to a number of her family members, all seemingly endowed with artistic talent. Alex was Abby’s brother who was part of a rock band and Abby’s half-sister, Megan, was a singer, musician and dancer. Abby continued to send paintings of Schulman’s pictures and he began to hear about her prodigious output and the popularity of her work at gallery showings. At a certain point, he could request a painting (from Abby) or a song (from Megan) and it would be produced in short order. The bubble finally burst when Schulman and the filmmakers got suspicious about this fast turnaround. With a little investigating, they realized that Angela was simply taking music found on the internet and calling it her own. Schulman was deflated at being so deceived and his instinct was to cut off all contact, but it was decided that they should slyly confront her about her ruse and see where it led. After a show in Colorado, the crew flew to Chicago and drove to a small town in Upper Michigan to see how she would react to a surprise visit. They planned to handle things gingerly so Angela would not be scared off right away. After the initial greetings, he finally got to meet Abby who was with her friend when they arrived.

Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost - Catfish (2010) (2)

Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost – Catfish (2010) (2)

While Abby was getting ready, Schulman cornered the friend to talk about this prolific output. Being unprepared for this unexpected visit, this turned into something of a clearcut confession.

Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost - Catfish (2010) (3)

Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost – Catfish (2010) (3)

When Abby finally came out, the gentle interrogation continued and getting flustered, she finally exclaimed, “You’re confusing me!”

Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost - Catfish (2010) (4)

Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost – Catfish (2010) (4)

Having secured his confession, he continued to spend time with Angela looking for the right time to confront her without needlessly hurting or embarrassing her. He realized she was just a lonely woman looking for a way to connect on a deeper level with a bigger world. Her home life was both mundane and challenging with a mentally-challenged son who needed a lot of care. Finally, while Abby was having her riding lesson, he coaxed the truth out of her, assuring her that everything was all right and that he was no longer upset by her deception.

Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost - Catfish (2010) (5)

Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost – Catfish (2010) (5)

It was an especially moving story because instead of exacting revenge, Schulman made a real connection with a warm and imaginative woman—who was, of course, the real painter. By the end of shooting, the two of them remained Facebook friends.

The second film is about a 4-year-old named Marla Olmstead. It is an instructive story about fame, the media and the fickle art world. Marla’s parents, Laura and Mark, say all of this was just a fluke. While Mark was doing some painting, Marla started begging him to do some painting as well. Instead of just sticking her in front of the television, he obliged. He learned that it made more sense to just have her work on a canvas placed flat on the dining room table instead of an easel.

Amir Bar-Lev - My Kid Could Paint That (2007) (1)

Amir Bar-Lev – My Kid Could Paint That (2007) (1)

Amir Bar-Lev - My Kid Could Paint That (2007) (2)

Amir Bar-Lev – My Kid Could Paint That (2007) (2)

Amir Bar-Lev - My Kid Could Paint That (2007) (3)

Amir Bar-Lev – My Kid Could Paint That (2007) (3)

Like any proud parent would, they loved her “masterpieces”. Friends kept commenting on the work and one who owned a coffee shop asked if he could hang some of them at his place of business. The canvases garnered a lot of positive comment and he was compelled to ask the family for prices so they might be sold. Anthony Brunelli, himself a realist painter, offered to have her work exhibited along with his. He contacted a local paper and a family and parenting columnist for The Press & Sun Bulletin, Elizabeth Cohen, did a human interest piece on Marla. When someone at The New York Times got wind of it, the fuse was lit. The ironic part is that Marla did not seem to like all the attention and was normally the quietest kid in her class—unlike her little brother Zane, who could be seen hamming it up in front of the camera. The last thing she wanted to do was talk to a lot of grown-ups about her artistic vision. Whenever she was in the mood to paint, she was made to wear a denim dress that would be easy to clean after the inevitable mess.

Amir Bar-Lev - My Kid Could Paint That (2007) (4)

Amir Bar-Lev – My Kid Could Paint That (2007) (4)

Amir Bar-Lev - My Kid Could Paint That (2007) (5)

Amir Bar-Lev – My Kid Could Paint That (2007) (5)

It seemed like everyone wanted a piece of Marla and her parents had to confer with each other often about who should have access and who should not. After some time in the spotlight, it was inevitable that the media should turn on her. The story was getting stale and so there had to be a new angle. On February 23, 2005, a 60 Minutes story aired essentially calling Marla’s work a fraud. The niggling problem was that whenever there was a camera trained on her, she would produce these muddy compositions that did not reflect the style of her other work. This called into question whether she really did the canvases by herself and Mark and Laura got the expectable accusations of being bad parents and exploiting their child for personal gain. After the shock of the 60 Minutes piece subsided and nervous collectors were happily buying her work again, the Olmsteads cautiously agreed to allow Amir Bar-Lev to create this documentary. He promised to cover the story objectively and let the viewers decide if this was a fraud or not. It was a difficult task because Marla, being a real 4-year-old, did not take a full-time interest in painting. A hidden camera was set up and finally she was shot producing an actual work. Nevertheless, critics were not satisfied as this piece still did not seem to meet the standards of those that came before. At age five, Marla continued to get high prices for her work.  Here she is attending one of her showings.

Amir Bar-Lev - My Kid Could Paint That (2007) (6)

Amir Bar-Lev – My Kid Could Paint That (2007) (6)

I’m afraid the filmmaker left the audience hanging as he could not make a definitive conclusion. And I had a bad feeling in my stomach because I knew that most people would look at this story in a conventional way—taking one side or another—and not see what it reveals about abstract art and the human mind. Many simply regard abstract art as a simple fraud. Indeed, a testament to an artist’s skill is his ability to communicate an idea clearly with at least some elements of realism. Laura hated it when people called Marla a prodigy and it is a reasonable complaint. The reality may seem a bit dull to some but a little girl had a rare opportunity to express herself with paint simply because the tools were on hand—including a supportive father who could bring together the materials. It is no surprise that someone so young would produce abstract images as they are an expression of the unabashed impulses of the subconscious which could not only be produced by 4-year-old, but would be appreciated by the sensitive adult mind. Adults do tend to forget how aware small children can be. Even the parents erroneously assumed that, in her innocence, she was oblivious to the vagaries of fame. I actually did not find it surprising at all that Marla could not be herself when being watched, even when shot by a hidden camera.

Amir Bar-Lev - My Kid Could Paint That (2007) (7)

Amir Bar-Lev – My Kid Could Paint That (2007) (7)

Unfortunately, society’s current assumptions and modern scientific understanding are inadequate to understanding the subtleties of this story and others like it and reflects how far we still have to go. I was told about a similar case in Australia of Aelita Andre. Whereas Marla is private and subdued, Aelita is articulate and self-possessed and yet both reveal something universal about the human mind as yet unhindered by the constraints of culture.

Aelita Andre website

Akiane, Indigo Child Prodigy

Akiane Kramarik was born in 1994 in Mount Morris, Illinois.  Her American father and Lithuanian mother identified themselves as atheists; and then surprisingly, their daughter began to have intense spiritual visions in which she would meet God “face to face”.

Akiane Kramarik

Photographer Unknown – Akiane: Her Life, Her Art, Her Poetry (book cover) (2006)

This was not initially easy to accept as her mother Forelli remembered, “At first I thought it was a nightmare.” (Evening Magazine.) Her father Mark was also caught off-guard, “It sort of took me aback because we never read the Bible and didn’t have any kind of spiritual connection.” (CNN)

Photographer Unknown – Painting 'On My Knees' (2005)

Photographer Unknown – Painting ‘On My Knees’ (2005)

Akiane began having spiritual visions at age three; the following year she picked up art tools to express the things she was experiencing.  “I was just so surprised at the impeccable images I had in my head that I just had to express them in some sort of physical matter.”  (Sally Lee, Daily Mail, January 30, 2015.)  She quickly progressed from sketching to pastel by five, then to acrylic at six, and finally to oil.

Akiane Kramarik – On My Knees, 2005

Akiane Kramarik – On My Knees, (2005)

Her mother speaks of this process as follows,

It wasn’t just art that was happening. Simultaneous with art was a spiritual awakening…. It all began to happen when she started to share her dreams and visions. … We didn’t pray together, there was no discussion about God, and we didn’t go to church. Then all of a sudden, Akiane was starting to talk about God. … We were with the kids all the time, and so these words from Akiane about God didn’t come from the outside—we knew that. But there suddenly were intense conversations about God’s love, His place [in our lives], and she would describe everything in detail.” (Marry Berryhill, Today’s Christian, July/August 2004.)

Akiane’s parents soon joined the church, while she herself remains spiritual but does not consider herself a member of any denomination or religion despite frequent Christian references in her art.

Akiane’s family did not have an artistic character.  Akiane describes her painterly education thus, “I am self-taught. In other words, God is my teacher.” (In5d, Indigos, April 26, 2011).  Nonetheless, she was soon recognized as a prodigy.  In a few short years she appeared with Oprah, CNN’s Lou Dobbs, ABC’s Peter Jennings, Katie Couric and  Diane Sawyer on Good Morning America, Craig Ferguson of The Late Late Show, and Robert Schuller on the Hour of Power.  Her paintings sold for upwards of fifty-thousand dollars, and hung in locations such as the U.S. embassy in Singapore.

Photographer Unknown – Painting 'My Sight Cannot Wait for Me' (2002)

Photographer Unknown – Painting ‘My Sight Cannot Wait for Me’ (2002)

Akiane is highly dedicated.  She paints six days a week, rising at three or four a.m. and paints for as many as fourteen hours a day; some works take months and hundreds of hours to complete.

Akiane Kramarik – My Sight Cannot Wait for Me (2002)

Akiane Kramarik – My Sight Cannot Wait for Me (2002)

Akiane’s art can mostly be described as either realist or surrealist.  Often times, she herself does not know the meaning of the images she has seen in visions and feels compelled to paint.  She said, “God gave me more ideas I don’t even know what the meaning is, like pyramids, I really don’t even know that meaning….” (CNN)  Her mother said of these fantastic dream images,

“When she was talking about these galaxies and intergalactic experiences and God, I knew whatever she was seeing, something was really there for her.”  (CNN)

Akiane Kramarik – Faithfulness (2010)

Akiane Kramarik – Faithfulness (2010)

As a girl artist who often made a girl the subject of her work, she might be doubly interesting to Pigtails readers.  In fact, many times that girl subject was a self-portrait.  Described as an indigo child and dedicated to God and love, it’s probably appropriate to find girls and particularly one so angelic as herself in her paintings.

Photographer Unknown – Painting 'Turquoise Eyes' (2005)

Photographer Unknown – Painting ‘Turquoise Eyes’ (2005)

Akiane has traveled to thirty different countries and is currently residing on the Gold Coast in Australia.  She is fond of animals and since the age of twelve, her compassion for other living souls has motivated her to practice veganism.  She is home-schooled and studies largely only what is interesting to her personally.  Akiane speaks five languages including American Sign Language and has contributed significant funds to children’s charities.

Akiane Kramarik – Turquoise Eyes (2005)

Akiane Kramarik – Turquoise Eyes (2005)

Akiane’s painting and the publication of two books have earned her millions of dollars.  Rich, beautiful and genius, she has quite a lot going for her.  Despite all that, she remains humble and committed to sharing what she’s been given.  “I really love sharing my gift with others. At the same time, I’m just a normal kid having fun and that’s what life is all about—having fun at the same time as helping people.”  (rememberwhoweare, October 20, 2011.)

Photographer Unknown – Painting 'Innocence' (2006)

Photographer Unknown – Painting ‘Innocence’ (2006)

Akiane has occasionally faced criticism.  Some people accused her of being a fraud; others called her technical proficiency lacking, and some were offended by the religious content.  She recalls, “People wanted to burn all my works when we tried to display them in public.” (Sally Lee, Daily Mail, January 30, 2015.)

Akiane Kramarik – Innocence (2006)

Akiane Kramarik – Innocence (2006)

Akiane had some profound insights on art and children,

“Portals of divinity are everywhere. I believe that children may enter these divine portals easier, because they are seeking for answers in the purest way.” (In5d, Indigos, April 26, 2011)

“Infinity imagines curiosity from the wild abyss—Only the child makes a swing-set view of the worlds upside down. Unwatched truth is the enchantment of childhood.  And we never grow out of it…” (rememberwhoweare, October 20, 2011)

Akiane Kramarik – Co-Creation (2005)

Akiane Kramarik – Co-Creation (2005)

Akiane has a personal site online which can be found here.

Climbing Mt. Ambition: Brooke Raboutou

It is easy to underestimate what children are capable of when given the right encouragement. A short while ago, a friend turned me on to a video about a rock climber named Brooke Raboutou. The video is one of a series about prodigies produced by @radical.media and aired on the THNKR channel on YouTube. At the time of production, she was 11 years old and had broken a number of age records for climbs with the highest difficulty ratings—climbs that only a minute fraction of adult climbers have tackled.

@radical.media - Prodigies: Brooke Raboutou (2013) (1)

@radical.media – Prodigies: Brooke Raboutou (2013) (1)

I was at first tempted to produce a somewhat perfunctory post about this remarkable girl, but as it happens, I know a little about rock-climbing. My mother’s second husband was an avid climber and turned her on to the sport and I have accompanied them on a few simple climbs. Climbing is often misunderstood by outsiders who assume that it is simply a matter of strength and endurance. In fact, the most important attributes are balance, flexibility and a degree of creativity. Strength and endurance complement these skills to produce the best climbers in the world. The remarkable swiveling moves Brooke makes is hard to convey in a photo still and the video needs to be seen to get a sense of it. One of her climbing coaches says she has almost baby-like flexibility. Indeed, after learning of this story, Ray Harris at The Novel Activist—doing research on child prodigies for one of his novels—decided he had better beef up his heroine’s superpowers!

@radical.media - Prodigies: Brooke Raboutou (2013) (2)

@radical.media – Prodigies: Brooke Raboutou (2013) (2)

A climbing wall is like an ordinary household appliance in the Raboutou home and theirs was built by Brooke’s father, Didier Raboutou—an exceptional climber in his own right. There is also a practice ledge for maintaining finger strength, a prerequisite trait for handling “hanging” climbs. In the shots above and below, we see Brooke exercising with her mother and coach, Robyn Erbesfield.

@radical.media - Prodigies: Brooke Raboutou (2013) (3)

@radical.media – Prodigies: Brooke Raboutou (2013) (3)

As with all prodigies, a bit of luck is involved. Talented children need to be given the right environment in which to express their talent. The Raboutou family has encouraged athleticism in their children from a very early age.

@radical.media - Prodigies: Brooke Raboutou (2013) (4)

@radical.media – Prodigies: Brooke Raboutou (2013) (4)

@radical.media - Prodigies: Brooke Raboutou (2013) (5)

@radical.media – Prodigies: Brooke Raboutou (2013) (5)

Her mother points out that Brooke is quite driven in her ambitions and the family have never had to push her in this regard. Many a time, she could be found trying and retrying a climb until she was satisfied—even after dark. With great ambition, comes great disappointment and I was impressed by the inclusion of one scene where Brooke lost her grip and fell. You can hear her cry as the reality of her slip hit her. It was brave to include this for it shows us her humanity and is not just another showcase for her talents.

@radical.media - Prodigies: Brooke Raboutou (2013) (6)

@radical.media – Prodigies: Brooke Raboutou (2013) (6)

I don’t mean to be a killjoy, but I feel it important to point out some things about climbing that accounts for some of this virtuosity. As mentioned before, strength and endurance are important in the most challenging climbs, but for a climber, lean muscle tone is paramount. I am reminded of the movie Cliffhanger (1993) starring Sylvester Stallone. Anyone who knows this actor of Rocky fame knows he is quite muscle-bound. When training for the movie, his coach reported that he had the greatest difficulty doing what is considered the simplest maneuvers simply because he has the wrong physique to be a skilled climber. By the same token, a child with sufficient discipline actually has an easier time because of the lighter body. Once adequate finger strength is developed, the child climber has a huge advantage over adults with much more experience. Another fact of which most non-climbers are unaware is that the spacing of footholds and handholds are critical in the difficulty rating of a climb. For a shorter person, reaching the right combination of holds can be a radically different experience for someone with a different center of gravity. Therefore, it might be argued that the rating of some of these climbs is really inappropriate for Brooke (and other children). Instead, what I feel is most impressive about Brooke is not her ability to break records, but her tenacity in pursuing something challenging she really enjoys; she follows her bliss.

In researching this story, I found there was little information after a couple of years ago. The only current information can be found on Brooke’s own Facebook page. She still loves climbing, but I expect that she began to take on other interests and more and more her ambitions will be focused elsewhere.

Baby Take a Bow!

Today is the birthday of the biggest—and arguably the greatest—of all child stars, Shirley Temple.  A true wunderkind, Shirley could act, sing and dance with equal poise.  She was brilliant (with an IQ of 158!), able to learn dance steps by ear, holding her own with the likes of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and Buddy Ebsen.  But her greatest feat was to single-handedly rescue Twentieth Century-Fox Studios from bankruptcy during the Great Depression.  She was truly one of a kind.  Happy birthday, Shirley!  We love you!

temple-shirley_25 u-adolf-menjou-shirley u-temple-shirley-captai u-temple-shirley-lit2 u-temple-shirley-little u-temple-shirley-with-w u-temple-shirley_03 u-temple-shirley_22 u-temple-shirley_24 u-temple-shirley_28

The Official Shirley Temple Web Site

Wikipedia: Shirley Temple

Dr. Macro’s High Quality Movie Scans: Shirley Temple