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The Schmooze

Q&A: Maira Kalman on the Illustrating Life

On March 11, “Various Illuminations (of a Crazy World),” the first museum exhibition devoted to New York illustrator and author Maira Kalman, opens at the Jewish Museum. The show, which debuted in Philadelphia last summer and then traveled to the West Coast, gives Kalman’s fans a rare opportunity to see the original artwork behind her blogs, books, and magazines spreads, as well as some of the quirky objects that inspire her. The Arty Semite sat down with Kalman recently to talk about her homecoming, her process, and why being funny is important.

Maira Kalman, ?Self Portrait (with Pete),? 2004-2006, guache on paper. Courtesy of the artist.

Jillian Steinhauer: How does it feel to have a museum exhibition?

Maira Kalman: It’s really nice, because I don’t think of it as a show but as rooms that happen to have my work in them. It’s lovely — it’s in a museum on Fifth Avenue, the windows are huge, and the trees are going from winter to summer. Yes, there are drawings sprinkled there, and yes, there are ladders and buckets and suitcases, but it’s the same in my living room, so it feels very natural.

New York is a big part of your identity. Does it feel special to have the show here?

You know, everybody keeps telling me, “This is your show in New York, this is your town, this is your life,” and I have to remind myself that it is. I volunteer to sweep in Central Park, so I’m hoping that during the show I’ll sweep once in a while in front of the museum. I wouldn’t think of doing that in another city, but I feel so proprietary about New York that I want the blocks around the museum to be spotless — at least for a few hours. Also, it’s incredibly poignant because those rooms housed an exhibition about Charlotte Salomon, whose work I adore. She was a young woman who lived in Germany before the Holocaust and wrote and painted about her life and crazy family. She was killed in a concentration camp, but the paintings were saved — over a thousand gouaches. I encountered her some years into my career, and there was a kinship, an electric moment.

Two of the exhibition venues have been Jewish museums. Do you identify strongly as Jewish?

There’s no doubt that my heritage, culture, and some of my outlook are framed by being Jewish and by my family’s history. That enters the work obliquely, but I don’t know how to look at it from the outside and say, “I’m a woman who’s a Jew.” Perhaps having an observer’s view, a sense of humor, a sense of the absurd, and a sense of tragedy are, on some level, Jewish qualities.

You identify your work as journalism. Why do you see it as such as opposed to, say, memoir?

I like being on assignment. There’s something exciting about having a mission to go out into the world and report on what I see. Of course it’s a memoir and it’s personal, but I’m also interested in conveying what’s actually going on out there. I see the relationship as concrete, which is why I became an illustrator as opposed to an artist. I wanted the connection to be grounded in the real world.

How does that outlook relate to your children’s books?

I don’t like to write stories, so they’re very episodic, and within those episodes are things I encounter during my travels. Maybe for a kid that sense of being excited about an experience is different than a story that has to fit into a specific framework. You can jump all over the place. I think that’s how I approach things. Somehow I seem to forget everything that’s ever happened to me, and I get continually excited, as if it’s the first time I’ve seen something.

You do have a sense of wonderment about your work.

It’s funny, I do. I have perpetual wonderment. I’m not always happy, but I’m always amazed.

When you’re working on a piece, do the words or the images come first?

Both things flow freely. For instance, for “The Principles of Uncertainty,” I had to see what images, events, and emotions came to the forefront every month. Whether it was Modigliani’s tortured love affair with his common-law wife, seeing a Samuel Beckett play, or eating a grilled cheese sandwich, I had to frame a story out of that. So there are vivid images I know I want to paint, and there are vivid moments of intense emotion I know I want to talk about. I also carry a camera with me, a little Lumix, so I can snap hundreds of pictures a week and look through and say, “Oh, remember that woman with the incredible outfit.”

You have a wonderful ability to distill big ideas down to neat sentences. Is simplifying a process every time?

I always write too much, and I end up editing way, way down. I would like to write a book that’s only one sentence. When I see a whole page of text in one of my books, I say, “Why didn’t somebody club me over the head and shut me up?” I like fewer words and that they be tart and spritely.

Humor is a big part of your work. Why you think it’s so important, and where does it come from?

My relationship to my family was such that I was the funny one. We came here when I was little, and I found out that a way to survive is to have a sense of humor. Now I look at my kids, who are in their late 20s, and I think that if they weren’t funny I would send them away to some reeducation place.

What are you working on next?

I just finished a collaboration with Daniel Handler, or Lemony Snicket, which is a young-adult book called “Why We Broke Up.” It’s about a teenage couple that falls in and out of love. Then Michael Pollan wrote a book called “Food Rules,” and I’m doing a version with illustrations — it’s going to be a bit like “The Elements of Style.” I just finished a book about Abraham Lincoln for children, and I’m going to do one on Thomas Jefferson. Then I’m going to illustrate the autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, which will be wonderful — but now we’re a few years away. I’m doing sets and costumes for a little Mark Morris ballet. There’s a lot of lovely stuff going on, and I still have time to walk around the street in a haze and a daze.

Basically, I want your life.

Well, the tears are invisible. But it takes a while to get here. This is the life that I described to myself when I was 20. I thought, “How do you, more or less, with tragedies and confusion and mistakes, structure something that really feels true?” So, it’s possible.

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