One morning, six years ago, the then-three-month old Aelita Andre sat wailing in her stroller within the Museum Victoria in Melbourne, Australia. Agitated looks emanating from all corners of the room chastised the parents as if to say, this is no place for a child. In an attempt to soothe his disquieted daughter, Michael Andre lifted Aelita from her stroller until she was eye level with the paintings. Within just a few seconds, the crying ceased as Aelita fixed her gaze on the work in front of her
“She probably was telling us, by yelling, ‘Pick me up, I want to see, too!’ ” Nikka recalled. “She doesn’t want to sit in the stroller and observe our feet; she wishes to see artworks, too.”
Michael, along with Aelita’s mother Nikka, sought to ignite a sense of creativity and wonder in their daughter from a young age. Now, at just six years old, Aelita is the “youngest professional painter in the world” and still somewhat of an anomaly in a typically exclusive industry. Her work as an artist has already earned her three solo exhibitions at Agora Gallery, one of New York City’s leading contemporary fine art galleries. Coveted by abstract art collectors, a few of Aelita’s paintings sell for upwards of $20,000, though most cost between $5,000 and $10,000.
Raised in Melbourne, Australia by parents who are visual artists, Aelita has always been witness to the creative process behind making art. As soon as she could crawl across the sprawling canvases her father painted on, Aelita began experimenting with different materials and color combinations.
Aelita completed some of her earliest works just after turning one, but according to the artist, she “first started painting inside mummy's tummy.” Gesturing towards a piece she completed more recently, Aelita indicates that she had painted similar works while in the womb. “I had my whole painting area in mummy's tummy. And I also made magic in mummy's tummy.”
Although she was not yet able to speak fluently, Aelita’s parents insist that she would communicate through her paintings. “She was making conversation happen through the colors,” Nikka said. “Painting for her is like, for us, talking and listening. For Aelita, it is how she expresses herself.”
Sometimes Aelita treats painting as a sort of performance art—singing and dancing around her canvases—as a way to further exude her emotions. “I feel like a magical space unicorn when I paint,” said Aelita enthusiastically. “I am very inspired about my artwork.”
Just after her first birthday, Aelita already had the consistent ability to stay focused on one work for almost 40 minutes at a time. Her parents liken Aelita’s process to a meditative practice, noting her extreme thoughtfulness and patience in creating her works. According to Nikka, “After Aelita finishes painting, she sits, puts her hands together, and thinks. And she will sit there like that for a few minutes.”
When Aelita was about two years old, Nikka said she actively began to notice there was something special about her daughter’s work, particularly her use of color, understanding of composition, and attention span. “We thought, it’s probably because we love our baby that we think it’s so incredible how she uses color and composition,” Nikka admitted. “We thought maybe we were reading too much into what Aelita was producing, but I thought, I have to show somebody professional to see what people will say to me.”
Nikka showed the paintings to a curator at the Brunswick Street Gallery, who agreed to feature the works in a group exhibition before ever learning Aelita’s age. Though he was surprised to discover that a 22-month-old artist created the paintings, he was still willing to showcase Aelita’s work.
“I think an artwork speaks for itself; who created it is irrelevant,” said Nikka, who intentionally withheld Aelita’s age from the curator. “Whether it appeals to you or does not appeal to you, art should be totally democratic—at least for the creator.”
Since this initial show, Aelita’s paintings have attracted an international following with exhibitions held in several cities including Melbourne, Hong Kong, Tuscany, London, and New York, with selected works chosen for private collections housed in Tokyo, Moscow, Vienna, Rome, and more.
New York holds a special place in Aelita’s heart after she first traveled to the city for her solo exhibition, The Prodigy of Color, which ran in June 2011 at Agora. With two follow up shows, Cosmos and Secret Universe, it seems the city’s art scene has also embraced the young artist’s work.
“Aelita approaches painting with a stealth-like determination of a more mature painter coupled with innocence and the abandonment of preconceived notions that often dictate outcome, and yet the outcome is always perfect,” says Angela Di Bello, Gallery Director at Agora.
“I think New York is very important because it has embraced modern art from the beginning,” Nikka said. “But for Aelita, she fell in love with New York. She absolutely adores Central Park.”
Not surprisingly, Aelita’s interests are hardly those one might expect of a six-year-old. She has watched countless documentaries on cosmology, astronomy, and paleontology and counts David Attenborough and Carl Sagan among her heroes. Currently being homeschooled, Aelita remarked, “They are the best teachers in the world.” Her deep fascination with these sciences is reflected in the nature of her paintings, which depict narratives relating to cosmos, galaxies, and dinosaurs.
Aelita usually explains the narrative behind her paintings as she is creating them. In the case of her 2012 work Paleontologists Footprint Dinosaurs Nesting Grounds, which she primed with a coat of paint partially applied by her feet, Aelita insists she was a paleontologist leaving her footprint on the canvas. Interesting use of tools and found objects adds a surrealist element to the otherwise abstract expressionist style of her work. Small details and indiscriminate marks can easily be overlooked, but often they play an important role in the story Aelita is trying to convey.
“She explains as she paints, ‘they are not just smears, but they are force fields hiding herbivores from carnivores’,” said Nikka of Aelita’s process. “When she’s painting, she’ll point, ‘the mother lays her eggs here’.”
In her free time, Aelita practices ballet and gymnastics and is learning how to play the piano and violin. A great penchant for attention and enthusiasm for communicating with people have instilled in Aelita a love of performance.
“She really loves being on stage dancing and singing,” Nikka said. “At one point, we went to a concert and I had to really keep her from running on the stage. She probably would have if I hadn’t kept her really hard, because she really was trying to run on stage and perform.”
Despite her remarkable success and sophisticated interests, her parents insist, “she is just a normal kid.”
“I love swimming, running, and playing,” Aelita said.
While she has experienced considerable success in her young career, skeptics question whether Aelita truly deserves her place in the art world believing her work to be either derivative or influenced by her parents. Others—who have compared Aelita to the likes of Pablo Picasso and Jackson Pollack—claim there is an uplifting innocence and honesty about her paintings that is not often found in adult works.
Part of what makes Aelita’s work original is her lack of formal training. Because she has not been educated in the traditional principles and theories of art, Aelita is utterly innocent in her practice. The colors and found objects she chooses to use on her canvases are organic, influenced only by her imagination and fascinations. “I choose colors because of their beauty,” Aelita said. “The rainbow galaxies in space inspire me to paint—even the spiral galaxies [because] of their color and abstraction. The first time I saw a star, I wanted to paint because I learned that stars are beautiful planets and galaxies.”
“My biggest fear is that someone will interfere and teach my child the conventional way to paint,” Nikka said. “This is a very wrong approach, because I think she needs to express herself.”
Aelita’s artwork is reflective of her fearless spirit, self-belief, and energy—childlike qualities many abandon in adulthood. While it was Aelita’s initial curiosity in her father’s materials that got her started in painting, it is certainly her liveliness and persistence in the practice of art that are promising of a long-term passion. The young artist proves that she should be taken seriously and judged on the merits of her work, not her age. Aelita is no longer observing the art world from the seat of her stroller—she is now one of the youngest professionals in an industry many considered off-limits to children.