Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Ways to slow down time: Maira Kalman

There are illustrators, and then there is Maira Kalman, the copper-haired sprite who writes the "And the Pursuit of Happiness" blog for the New York Times.  Renowned for her many iconic New Yorker covers, numerous books including The Principles of Uncertainty, Fireboat, the illustrated Elements of Style, Kalman was born in Tel Aviv in 1949, and now lives and works in New York.  Her exhibit Maira Kalman: Various Illuminations (of a Crazy World) opens today at the Skirball Cultural Center, through February 13, 2011.

Last night she was interviewed by Ingrid Schaffner, curator of the exhibition and Senior Curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania.  My friends Andrea & Wendy of R+G Collective brought me along. Andrea is a magpie, like Maira.  Their eyes nearly popped out of their heads when Maira said she was going to do a pop-up store in New York and sell cans of mushy peas.  Today we find Snickers bars on our seats. A gift from Maira.

"No-one can escape tragedy" -- Kalman

Kalman is dressed in black, with the cuffs of a white shirt peeking through the arms of her jacket.  She has a puckish quality, a spirit of youthfulness, a self-deprecating yet wicked sense of humor. She exudes joy.  She tells Stephen Colbert she would've made a better Mrs. Abraham Lincoln. She loves food and dogs and maps and books and collecting odd objects (a box of labeled, categorized and enveloped mosses found on Long Island, pieces of string).

"New Yorkistan"
December 10, 2001

by Maira Kalman and Rick Meyerowitz

"Books" says Kalman "are my dearest love, besides my family."

Her day, she explains to her eager audience, starts with coffee and reading the obituaries column in the New York Times. People laugh. She says this inspires her, puts a good spin on the day.  She hopes to glean information on "doing it right and not doing it right." It helps her realize that time is of the essence. In fact, time, or the slowing down of time, becomes a theme in her work and her life (the two seem to be interchangeable).

This picture is from the New York Times obit for George Nissen, inventor of the trampoline.

Then she takes a walk and looks at things, people.

"I don't know what I'm doing" she says... "But I'm interested in capturing the fragmentation and elusive vulnerability of things."

"Exhaltations, Observations" (Maira Kalman/Courtesy the Skirball)
Have a look at this piece. This could be a map of the mind of Maira Kalman as represented on paper. Note the shoes. They're too big. Another Kalman theory: if the shoes are too big, and the walking becomes labored, doesn't that slow down time?

An artist has better days and weaker days. "Just keep working to capture the better days" she says.

The latest book "And the Pursuit of Happiness," a "love letter to America," explores our country, our democracy and our constitution from a playful, philosophical yet non-partisan perspective. (Kalman claims not to be interested in politics.)  Ben Franklin, who woke every day at 5 would ask "What good will I do today?"

Her husband, Tibor, spent so much time cramming more stuff into his days, more books, more projects, that Kalman says that imagining more work isn't hard for her, that if you organize your days around producing your art, then that kind of schedule becomes easy.  (Already there is an illustrated "Food Rules" with Michael Pollan, an illustrated book about Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas in her future.)

"Crosstown Boogie Woogie" (Maira Kalman/Courtesy the Skirball)
 "Seeing as a way to slow down time, trying to find the time in between the time" I wrote, probably not quoting Maira verbatim.  And then I drew some squiggles around it, some question marks.

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