By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Olivia Bennett's angled brush slides effortlessly across the textured paper, trailing hot pink paint. A sliver of long blond hair falls in front of her eyes, and she pushes it behind her ear, keeping the brushstroke steady all the while. The 14-year-old sits back on her stool, eyeing the watercolor fuchsias on the page critically and comparing her painting with a reference photograph, tilting it, making sure the tones match.
Flanked by primary-colored scribbles given to her by young fans as well as her own prolific work, images of vividly shaded flowers, Olivia paints directly from the showroom of her own gallery in Southlake. She lacks the typical teenage slouch, her shoulders poised even as she leans in close to her palette, hovering above just the right shade of blue.
Across the room, 9-year-old Sarah, Olivia's youngest sibling, pounds away at the keys of a sleek black computer. She has made it her personal mission to interrupt the museum-like calm of the gallery, where the lightest footstep causes a hollow echo on the wood floor. She chatters away about potential names for a new pet.
"Mom, how do you spell 'Raptora'?"
"Any way you want, sweetie," Michele Bennett answers, distractedly spelling out R-A-P-T-O-R-A before asking Olivia if she remembers when last week's employee hours were called in. Michele, with a youthful figure and highlighted hair, looks sophisticated even in jeans--the kind of woman who is clearly more "mom" than "mother." She has the PR thing down pat: Visitors are greeted with her best stage-mom smile and given tours and business cards. Michele bounces between Olivia's studio area and a countertop covered in paperwork, leaving Sarah to her own devices as she tries to keep her oldest daughter's business running smoothly.
Today Olivia will work four or five hours in the suburban-swank Southlake Town Square, working on paintings and entertaining the customers and admirers who come in to view her artwork. Then it'll be off to homeschooling. After she finishes science, English, math and social studies homework, she'll try to get in eight or 10 hours of sleep before she wakes up tomorrow to do it all over again.
It's another day in the life of Southlake's own child artist, a girl whose one-time agent breathlessly compared her to a young Georgia O'Keeffe. Three years ago Olivia joined the small group of visual art "prodigies" discovered in their early teen and preteen years by a California agent named Benjamin Valenty, who specializes in marketing the youngsters. Packaged with a poignant backstory and possessing unusual artistic ability for her age, Olivia was the ideal subject for the kind of family-friendly media hype created by appearances on The Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show. "I just love painting flowers," she says.
If only it were that simple.
The child-prodigy business paid off well for both Valenty and the Bennetts. Able to turn out a 15-by-15-inch painting in just a few hours, Olivia's not exactly a human assembly line, but pretty close. Olivia will price work that size at several hundred dollars, depending on how much she likes it. A larger canvas could list for more than $6,000. And then there are limited-edition prints that sell for hundreds. Valenty claims to have paid the Bennetts $240,000 in royalties over a 22-month period beginning in late 2001. But pulling in that kind of money can come with a price--in this case, lawsuits.
While Olivia seems more than content to paint her flowers, Valenty has accused the Bennetts of forcing their child into a life of "indentured servitude"--and it really only gets nastier from there, according to statements made by Valenty in court documents, in which he repeatedly calls them "consumed with greed" and "self-dealing." Demanding independent legal representation for Olivia, Valenty has alleged that the Bennetts intentionally swindled their daughter out of tens of thousands of dollars, what he constantly refers to as Olivia's "hard-earned money." Olivia's parents, of course, see things much differently, and their attorney says the allegations "are completely without basis in fact."
Matt and Michele Bennett contend in court filings that Olivia's former agent was dishonest and unscrupulous. They accuse him of concealing a "remarkably poor reputation" and inducing them to enter into a contract with him based entirely on "false statements." Apparently he'd neglected to mention anything about the coin-collecting business he'd bankrupted in the early '90s or his 1997 Federal Trade Commission ban from any telemarketing activity. The Bennetts also allege that an initial claim on Valenty's part--that he'd pre-sold 15 of Olivia's paintings--was merely a ploy to get their signature on the dotted line.
The battle started simply enough. In August 2003, the Bennetts wanted out of their two-year-old management contract with Valenty, and he agreed to a split. Except nobody could seem to agree on how much money Valenty still owed the Bennetts, or vice versa. Cue the legal three-ring circus of lawyers, accountants and settlement offers. Eventually, the Bennetts would decide to sue Olivia's former agent over a disputed grand total of $14,339.29. Valenty countersued in October and made a variety of disparaging allegations, asserting that the family had purchased a pickup truck and gone on freewheeling shopping sprees with "their own daughter's hard-earned money."