Empowering Autumn

A local artist is taking the art world by storm, and in 12 years she’ll be old enough to toast her success

Photo by Anthnoy MairAutumn using a vacuum cleaner as a paintbrush.

Photo by Anthnoy Mair“Barbie Marilyn”.

Photo by Anthnoy Mair“The Messenger.”

Painter Autumn de Forest bounds out of her large home in northwest Las Vegas and calls a cheerful hello. Wispy-thin and dressed in jeans and a matching pink ensemble, she projects a pleasantly sunny, carefree disposition.

Inside the de Forest home, most walls are covered with non-objective paintings in vibrant colors. The 3-by-4 foot canvases are done in the oft-imitated Abstract Expressionist style pioneered by Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. Of course, all the ones seen here are by Autumn.

Since her first auction in February when she earned more than $100,000 in 16 minutes, the artist has become a mini media sensation. She’s been featured on Inside Edition, NBC’s Today and a Discovery Health special titled My Kid’s Smarter Than Me. All that success and she’s only 9 years old. 

“Her mother and I are incredibly flattered when people call her a prodigy,” says her father, Doug de Forest, “but that’s not a term we use.”

He’s an artist himself—a musician and composer, currently performing at V: The Ultimate Variety Show in the Miracle Mile Shops at Planet Hollywood—but he seems determined to stay in the background. He leads the way to a garage-size space attached to the main house by a narrow breezeway: Autumn’s studio.

Resembling many painters’ studios, Autumn’s is adorned with paintings in various stages of completion: portraits, landscapes and some that are purely fanciful. There’s a heart encircled with bands of paint and a floating whale that invokes Magritte. From an art connoisseurship perspective, these fantasy landscapes and decorative tableaux are mostly unremarkable, save for the fact they were executed by a very young child.

While she settles herself in a low-slung chair (“My dog always sits here, so you don’t want to,” she explains with a laugh), Doug busies himself in the studio, doing the cleaning, organizing and prep work he says is his only contribution to his daughter’s oeuvre. “I’m happy to subjugate myself to doing the menial labor,” he says.

While Doug must be listening to our conversation, he refrains from interjecting, even when Autumn struggles with one or two questions related to her career timeline. Surely he could have helped, but it’s as if his silence is saying, “No stage parenting going on here, in case you were wondering. And I know you were.”

Autumn indicates she likes school (especially science), has a lot of friends, loves babies and animals and has no siblings, but considers her poodle, Ginger, her “sister.” She also has no trouble expounding upon the mechanics of and inspiration behind her paintings. Autumn is composed, polite, has a charmingly precise way of enunciating and, when she remembers something she wants to recount, is prone to putting her hands to her temples and saying, “Flashback!”

Autumn also reveals a respectable knowledge about Andy Warhol, to whom she pays homage in one of the home’s most eye-catching paintings, “Gold Barbie Marilyn.” She created it using the tricky encaustic, wax-painting medium and liquid gold leaf. (“Jasper Johns!” she exclaims, when asked where she learned about encaustic.) Whereas Warhol used reference photographs to paint “Gold Marilyn,” Autumn used her Marilyn Monroe Barbie doll, which her mother—former actor and model Katherine Olsen de Forest—smilingly drops off. Katherine doesn’t linger and, like her husband, doesn’t intrude.

The painting itself is pretty good by any number of measures. Featuring a near exact likeness of the Marilyn Barbie, harmonious composition and enough difference from its inspiration, it stands alone as more than just a copycat piece. Autumn has bona fide skill.

When asked why she chose to paint this subject, she says it was because Marilyn was a “sexy brand” in Warhol’s time. And when Autumn considered sexy brands today, Barbie seemed the obvious choice. Of everything she will say during the interview, this comment alone smacks of adult-coached talking points. On the other hand, a precocious child maneuvering in an adult world would naturally pick up some adult jargon along the way.

Autumn quickly adds, “I love Barbie,” as she turns the Marilyn doll around in her hands. “This one is Marilyn from the movie The Seven Year Itch, I think—the one where her dress went whoosh!”

“Whoosh!” probably didn’t figure into any talking points. As if to further nullify the idea that her career is crafted by grown-ups—a belief that has been expressed by more than one hard-working adult artist—Autumn has a series of fetus paintings.

She first saw a fetus at the human-corpse-on-display show Body Worlds 1 in Denver about four years ago. “We considered for a long time whether we should take her, but she was so interested in it and responded so positively,” Katherine says.

One tableau, titled “New Dripping Life,” features a sunrise with dozens of painted and sculpted fetuses. Autumn says some of these plastic, injection-molded figurines—which resemble medical models—were purchased by her dad “from the computer,” but she molded the tiniest ones out of Sculpey clay. None of the fetus series has sold; her parents don’t expect any will and are “fine” with that. They raised their eyebrows when the fetus paintings first appeared, but wouldn’t think of editing Autumn’s creative process.

In fact, the de Forests seem humbled by their daughter’s abilities. They recall first being struck by Autumn’s prowess when, at age 5, she created a “Rothko-esque” piece out of wood and stain from the garage. Trips to Michaels—and eventually Dick Blick—ensued, and she soon produced her first three, small-scale canvas paintings, which now hang in the dining room.

In spring 2009, after a few months of collecting canvases, the de Forests exhibited Autumn’s work at the Boulder City Art Festival. Doug encouraged Autumn to introduce herself to passersby and invite them to see her paintings. She took to the task with natural zeal and even won an honorable-mention ribbon.

Subsequently, Doug researched representation for Autumn’s work and came across Ben Valenty, who has enjoyed success representing child artists beginning with Alexandra Nechita in the mid-’90s. In June 2009, Doug contacted Valenty, who happened to be conducting an art auction at Lake Las Vegas in October. He invited the de Forests to stop by and say hello. Doug knew “sometimes you only have one chance,” so he loaded a rented van with Autumn’s latest output and, to hear him describe it, more or less ambushed the dealer. Prior to the auction, Doug and Katherine recall Autumn being apathetic about selling her work, but her eyes lit up when she saw the elegant, exciting atmosphere.

Valenty, too, liked what he saw. He requested 12 paintings, which Autumn eagerly agreed to supply. That meant using her winter holiday to meet Valenty’s January deadline. Autumn sold more than $100,000 worth of paintings at her first auction and has continued to sell in the tens of thousands at each auction ever since. (The money goes into a trust.) Her auction presentations, which are viewable on YouTube, show audiences receiving her witty, effusive art explanations with delight.

Back at home, Doug says, “We maintain an atmosphere of creative discipline.” The family cites Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers: The Story of Success (Little, Brown and Co., 2008) as a major influence, and minimizes TV and video games. They foster a philosophy of “creative equality,” implying that Autumn and her parents enjoy a fruitful exchange on a level playing field.

Meanwhile, he and his wife were raised in families where their creative pursuits were thrust upon them and their passions squelched. That is the opposite of what they hope they’re doing for their only child. About “doubting Thomases”—including close friends—who have questioned the authenticity of Autumn’s artwork or her parents’ choices, Katherine becomes aggrieved.

“To think that I would ever do something that would potentially harm my child or is meant to be self-serving to me is absolutely ridiculous,” she says. “I would do anything for her, and all I want is for her to be happy.”

What’s most surprising about meeting Autumn’s parents is that they don’t seem motivated by their daughter’s monetary success, nor do they trade on the concept of “prodigy.” Doug prefers to describe his daughter as “empowered.” He and Katherine convey a heartfelt belief that Autumn’s success lies within reach of any child whose parents are as resourceful and passionate as they are. “Wouldn’t it be amazing if we gave more children the tools to maximize their creative potential?” Doug muses.

When asked if they’re concerned about what might become of Autumn’s career when the novelty of youth fades, Doug is forthright. “Look at all the most important artists in the last half century and they all had a gimmick,” he says. “We just want her to have a foundation that she’ll be able to build upon as long as she wants to. That’s what her success now is going to allow her to do.”

Seeing as he also believes in the tenet that “there’s no better art, only better promotion,” it’s reasonable to assume the de Forest “team,” as Doug describes it, will succeed. For Autumn’s part, she says no matter what happens, “I’ll never stop being an artist. That’s what I do.”

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