Human Beings I Admire: Maira Kalman

30 October 2014

Whenever I read or see anything by the artist and illustrator Maira Kalman, I tell myself, “that’s precisely how I want to be when I grow up”. Maira has it all figured out. Half her head in the clouds, yet meticulously observing the world around her.  What I admire most is her ability to make something of all that observing and dreaming. That’s what sets her apart: she’s a dreamer + a doer. The two are not always so harmonious. You’ve probably seen Maira’s work before, but weren’t aware it was hers. This has happened to me on several occasions, so much so that Maira Kalman has become a recurring theme in my life. I admire her for a myriad of reasons, but chiefly for her uncanny ability to see the world differently and convey it in a way that makes me want to be more cognizant of my surroundings.

Recent examples:

I’m a sucker for any type of stationery (odds increase exponentially if it’s covered in flowers) and on a recent trip to Wave Hill, while sifting through notecards, I found a 1996 New Yorker cover Maira Kalman illustrated. Who knew floral crowns were so en vogue in the early 90’s? Maira did.

she's graced columns and covers.

she’s graced columns and covers.

Next, while perusing the bookstore at Oxford Exchange, I stumbled across my writing companion since college, Strunk & White’s “Elements of Style”  that Maira recently had given an updated and illustrated make-over.  As I flipped through the pages of her remarkable and whimsical illustrations, I fell in love with grammar all over again! I can’t say I totally abide by every rule, but didn’t someone say rules are meant to be broken? Alas, where was this version when I needed it in freshman lit?

Get this: Despite studying literature at New York University, Maira had never even heard of “Elements of Style,” which is the grammatical classic loved by legions of editors and writers! This makes me adore her even more! Apparently, she happened upon it at a church yard-sale and is quoted saying (as if no one had ever read it), “people should really know about this book, it’s amazing.” Well, there you go. Her updated version now sits proudly on my desk like a piece of art + the occasional reference. I swear.

The original Elements of Style was published in 1919  Cornell University for teaching use and reprinted in 1959 to become national standby. This is my personal copy, next to my Confetti & Co notebook!

The original Elements of Style was published in 1919 at Cornell University for teaching use and reprinted in 1959 to become national standby. This is my personal copy, next to my Confetti & Co notebook!

makes for a lovely gift if I do say so myself.

From the illustrated version. Makes for a lovely gift if I do say so myself.

The final run-in was when I stumbled across an interview with Maria Kalman while researching a book called, “On Looking,” by Alexandra Horowitz, which is about seeing the spectacle of the ordinary, being present and truly observing. (A tangent tabled for another day/another post, thank you Carol for this extraordinary book). But the rabbit hole allowed me to discover a gem of an interview with Maira where she shares her creative process and joys of wandering in her celebrated blog series, “The Principle of Uncertainty,” for the New York Times.

I finally decided I needed to share Maira Kalman with you, in the event you have never been introduced to this “remarkable artist, prolific author, unmatched storyteller and loopy optimist.”

The video interview is quick, but will leave a lasting impression. This quote specifically resonated with me on her assignment to cover the inauguration of Barack Obama.

“I want to tell you about the music that I listened to on the radio, what the people were singing in the church that weekend, and then I’ll get to point. When you set out with a target, if you don’t look at the digressions , if you don’t look at the things that catch your attention along the way, then you really haven’t had any fun.”

I admire her off-kilter perspective and ability to feel for others. Her process reminds me that a general curiosity in life, its experiences, and the people around us will enable us to lead a more emphatic and passionate path.

Further RECOMMENDED quick reading/watching:

  • Her hilarious yet equally insightful Ted Talk: The Illustrated Woman. “I didn’t understand 95% of the talks today, but I made some beautiful drawings. Good things can come out of incomprehension.”
  • This quote with which I surely identify: “I may be crazy, but I’m not stupid.”
  • Know anyone that’s been through a recent breakup? This book may or may not help but is very entertaining: Why We Broke Up.

Featured Image: From Maira Kalman’s series “Women Standing on Lawns.” Her inspiration: “I started with going to flea markets. I buy photos to paint, and I noticed that there were an awful lot of girls standing on lawns.” Teaming up with friend and author Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket), and MoMA, Kalman has painted images inspired by these snapshots and collected them in a book, to capture the “charming and funny” nature of this pose. “It’s so particular and so universal,” she says. “There’s often pride and delight, awkwardness, and terrible hairdos – it’s all in there.”  Been there, done that.


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