When Autumn de Forest was 4 years old, she brought home an art project from preschool: a watercolor she called “Elephant.” Her depiction of the animal was abstract, with pronounced brushstrokes that her parents found very deliberate and startlingly artistic.
Over the next several months, Autumn created more art, much of it remarkable, and all of it suggesting a strange and precocious talent for shapes, colors and patterns. “At first we did think it was a fluke,” said Autumn’s mother, Katherine, who appeared on TODAY Thursday with her daughter.
“We were scratching our head and thought it was an anomaly and interesting,” she told Matt Lauer.
Still, she carefully preserved her daughter’s work because “I just thought it would be really fun for her to have these paintings when she grew up — not to put art on our walls.”
The masterpiece moment came about a year later at the family’s Las Vegas home, when Autumn was 5. One day she walked into the garage where her father was working and asked if she could paint something for fun. He gave her a paintbrush — the kind for painting houses —some stain and a piece of plywood.
“I turned away,” said Doug de Forest, “and what seemed like a few moments later I turned back, and I swear to you it was as if [abstract expressionist painter] Mark Rothko had done some kind of mid-century masterpiece. Certainly it was simple and abstract, but profound in its simplicity. It was just kind of a wonderful moment.”
“Elephant,” it turned out, was not a fluke. Autumn’s parents bought her museum-quality paints and canvases “to see what would happen,” Doug said, “and in very short order a prolific kind of blossoming happened, and the canvases started getting bigger and bigger.”
In fact, Autumn’s canvases are now so large — typically 4 by 6 feet — that she has to paint them on the floor. Doug built her a sort of wooden bridge so she can sit on it and paint the middle of the canvas. (Autumn is slightly taller than 4-foot-2 and weighs slightly less than 50 pounds.)
“I do it every day,” Autumn said about painting. “I try to do as much as I can ... I do my best.”
In about one year’s time, Autumn de Forest, who turns 9 this month, has become one of the art world’s youngest and biggest stars. Prolific and versatile, she has produced a range of work representing multiple styles: abstract impressionism, surrealism and pop art. Her paintings bring to mind the work of masters like Picasso, Warhol, Dali and Matisse.
And it sells.
This year, Autumn has sold dozens of her paintings at auction for a total of about $250,000. The highest price paid for her work is $25,000, for the painting “People Are Strange,” inspired by The Doors song of the same name.
The next auction for Autumn’s work will be held online Oct. 14. The de Forest family hired art promoter Ben Valenty to handle sales of Autumn’s art.
Valenty, based in Orange County, Calif., has acted as an agent for several other child painters such as the Romanian-born prodigy Alexandra Nechita (whom he met 15 years ago), and is largely responsible for creating the market for child artists in the art world. His relationships with some of his clients have been contentious — a few have sued him over earnings — but the de Forests trust him.
“I was skeptical at first,” Doug said, “but he does exactly what he says he is going to do.” And so far, Valenty’s efforts have resulted in financial rewards that would be the envy of any artist — let alone one whose work was not seen in public until spring 2009.
Doug admitted that he has encountered some people who question the authenticity of Autumn’s work: “They don’t think she did it.” To preclude controversy, he has recorded Autumn on video at work as proof.
Autumn has never taken formal instruction, although her parents believe she would benefit from it and would like her to start. So far, her work is the result of pure intuition, imagination and inspiration. She painted “The Messenger,” depicting a fetus attached to its umbilical cord, after going to an exhibition with her mother at age 5 and becoming fascinated with a display of a pregnant woman.
Neither of her parents is a visual artist; Doug is a musician, Katherine an actress. There are, however, several accomplished and collected painters in Doug’s family: Lockwood de Forest (1850-1932), George de Forest (1855-1941) and Roy de Forest (1930-2007), who was part of California’s “funk art” movement.
“We’re not claiming what Autumn has done is due to some mind-blowing talent,” Doug said. “It’s an issue of access or exposure. If you put 5-year-olds in front of an 80-piece orchestra and put a baton in their hands and exposed them to that to their heart’s content, by the time they were 10, you might have a prodigy. That is a question we discuss on a daily basis. It’s a question that transcends Autumn.”
Pets, dolls and old TV
Away from paint and canvas, Autumn seems a very typical child. She is outgoing, talkative and patient, drawing in a sketchbook while her parents gave a long interview. She drew “a jet, a cat, a train, a Haiti person looking at me … I drew swans and I also drew a little boat.”
Like most girls her age, she loves animals — especially her poodle, Ginger (“Her fur is just like ginger,” she says) — and her Barbie dolls. They were part of the inspiration for her painting “Barbie Marilyn,” which sold for about $15,000 at auction. The other inspiration was artist Andy Warhol.
“He did a Marilyn Monroe,” Autumn told Matt Lauer. “Maybe it wasn’t a Barbie, but it was Marilyn Monroe. The real reason why I think he painted her is because at that time she was the best example of a sexy one.”
She has an unusual penchant for old TV shows (“I Love Lucy”), old movies (“High Society”) and old music (Frank Sinatra).
She attends third grade — “I can’t wait for school to end because I want to paint,” she said — and loves science and reading. One of her favorite authors is Judy Blume. She said she is “not a real Harry Potter girl.” Instead she says she reads a lot of “girl books” and the Bible.
“I’m not an artsy-fartsy girl when I’m at school,” Autumn said. “I talk about regular girl stuff, what’s happening at school, who is whose friend. At recess, I’m a matchmaker. Let’s say a girl and girl start off friends and three weeks later they break up for some reason. I get them both together and I try to explain people’s problems with each other, and I try to ask them, ‘Can you try to work on them and make that part better?’ ”
But Autumn is also aware of what sets her apart. She knows grown-ups are paying large amounts of money for her paintings, which the family is saving for college. “I love my paintings, but I’m not the bragger of my paintings,” she said. “If someone is going to pay a huge amount of money to buy my painting and if they know I’m going to spend it to buy a bunch of Barbie dolls, they know you’re going to waste your money on something not important. But people know the money is going into my education, maybe even art school.”
Doug, 46, and Katherine, 50, have been tempered against the criticism they sometimes read on the Internet, some of it posted as comments on stories about Autumn. Some of the criticism questions her parents’ intentions; some of it devalues the quality or integrity of her art.
“If I ever see harm coming to her either from herself or the outside world,” Katherine said, “I would pull her back. Right now it’s one day at a time.
“There’s no question if you wanted to criticize her work you can tear it up one side and down the other. We are not trying to prove she is a genius or a prodigy. She’s a little girl who is exploring and experimenting, who has a lot to learn and a lot to give, and either you like it or you don’t. It is an incredible package, but it’s not perfect.”