"Wonderful things happen when your brain is empty," says artist Maira Kalman (b. November 15, 1949). But of course her brain is never empty — rather, it is a wonderland of the most enchanted and enchanting kind, brimming with painted poetics, hand-lettered philosophy, and enormous kindness. She speaks with the simplicity of words and richness of expression that betoken a full mind and draws with the vibrancy of a full heart, every project as much a feat of artistry as a profound meditation on our shared humanity, every brush stroke an inviting doorway into an exceptional soul.
Born in Tel Aviv, Kalman moved to New York City with her parents when she was four and has remained there since, roaming Gotham’s streets with her endlessly observant eye and delighting its people with her visual magic for more than half a century. She has authored or illustrated more than books, ranging from collaborations with Daniel Handler and his children’s alias, Lemony Snicket, to illustrated editions of such modern classics as Stunk and White’s The Elements of Style and Michael Pollan’s Food Rules.
Kalman is also a woman of beautifully osmotic opposites: "A deadline is a beautiful thing. It puts me into a framework," she says in an interview. And yet: "There’s a certain freedom to do whatever I want to do, which I guess is the definition of being an artist," she proffers in her fantastic Creative Mornings talk. She turned her self-admitted disinterest in politics into a year-long challenge to trace the underpinnings of modern democracy, which became the charming New-York-Times-blog-turned-book And The Pursuit of Happiness. The project, of course, isn’t really about “politics” in the drily governmental or academic sense; it’s about all the complex composite parts of political awareness — idealism, hope, the capacity to cherish and savor our cultural legacy. Kalman enthuses:Hallelujah for knowledge and for the honor of language and ideas. And books.
In fact, all of her work manages to expands the boundaries of whatever its presumed subject is, to broaden its allure, to invite us into adjacent worlds that only magnify the magic of the one she originally set out to explore. Kalman exudes a singular brand of optimistic curiosity, rooted in an unflinching faith in the radiance and relentlessness of the human spirit. Here it is, at its most alive, in The Principles of Uncertainty:
How are we so optimistic, so careful not to trip, and then get up and say O.K.?
What can I tell you? What can I tell you? The realization that we are all (you, me) going to die and the attending disbelief — isn’t that the central premise of everything? It stops me dead in my tracks a dozen times a day. Do you think I remain frozen? No. I spring into action. I find meaningful distraction.
Wonderful things happen when Kalman’s full brain springs into action.
A ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality.
His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pound of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot — albeit a perfect one — to get an “A”.
Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity.
It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work — and learning from their mistakes — the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.
A glance at the romanticism that used to be the textile industry
Was it for this I uttered prayers,
And sobbed and cursed and kicked the stairs?
That now, domestic as a plate,
I should retire at half past eight?
Edna St. Vincent Millay (via cvctothelees)
The more you know, the less you need.
— Yvon Chouinard