Longform

Paint by Numbers

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The Bennetts' lawyer has confirmed that Valenty and his clients have "compromised and settled all their respective claims" but are not allowed to disclose the terms of the settlement. The Bennetts, in fact, are more than anxious to put the entire issue behind them. Michele calls any further dwelling on the case "beating a dead horse."

Barely even a teenager, a year away from anything resembling a drivers license or even high school, Olivia's future seems uncertain. She says that local collectors are buying her work, but clearly the media hype has dwindled since the days of Oprah appearances and Teen People features. One of her most recent television appearances was in June on the Home Shopping Network, and two separate visits revealed a gallery far from overrun with customers. But it's a tough thing to ask a kid: Have you peaked at 14? Is it all downhill from here?

Something has to change if Olivia is to maintain her success. That means branching out from her trademark flowers, and she knows it.

Happily churning out paintings in her gallery, Olivia isn't in any hurry to tamper with her oeuvre. "I don't know," she says, musing about her flowers. "I just can't seem to get away from them."


Olivia was 5 years old the first time her artistic abilities caught her parents' eyes. They say her coloring books were noticeably lacking in one significant aspect: the jagged, untamed scribbles of a 5-year-old unleashed upon a box of Crayolas. Michele was quick to encourage her daughter's talent, buying her more books and art supplies to explore her skills.

"I'd draw animals, mostly, and birds," says Olivia, who particularly remembers a favorite Cinderella coloring book. To Michele and Matt's horror, however, their fairy tale-loving daughter was about to enter into something more akin to a nightmare. She was diagnosed that same year with leukemia.

The path between the Bennetts' Sandy, Utah, home and the hospital was a well-worn one, with Olivia being taken in frequently over the next two years for chemotherapy and painful examinations. When nothing else could comfort her, she turned to drawing and painting.

"It was a release. I didn't have to think about going in to get a spinal tap the next morning," Olivia says, recalling the experience from an oversized couch in the back of her gallery. "I think I've blocked a lot of it out. It was very painful."

Painting flowers became a form of physical therapy when nerve damage left her fingers curled and stiff. First painting a basket of flowers her mom had bought at the grocery store, she immediately took to the imagery. "It's something about the colors. I painted one, and I was just in love," she says. Her hands eventually healed, and at 7, Olivia's doctor said her body was finally cancer-free. With her health improved, Olivia spent even more time on her flowers, and her artwork began to turn into more than just a hobby.

A family friend who was especially taken with a painting of tulips she'd seen while visiting the Bennetts' home bought the picture on the spot for $50. Olivia won a stamp design contest in Utah, and when her family moved to Texas in 1999 because of her father's work, she got her first significant break. Though her art won the annual T-shirt design contest for Southlake's Art in the Square exhibition, judges told her it was too colorful to be able to reproduce on a shirt.

"I asked them if they'd let me have a booth in the fair instead, and they agreed," Olivia recalls. She sold 24 paintings that day, the most expensive going for about $300. The 10-year-old loved taking her canvases to the fair and painting for the attendees. She would sit and chat about her work, enjoying every minute spent getting to know the crowd.

"I'd just start bawling when it was over because I didn't want to wait another year for the next show," Olivia says. She was ready to take her flowers to the next level, whatever that might be, and her parents were committed to getting her there. When they heard that a man named Benjamin Valenty could help them, they jumped at the opportunity. The Bennetts were hardly art connoisseurs or collectors--far from it. Michele and Matt were just suburban parents with an unusual daughter.

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Andrea Grimes
Contact: Andrea Grimes