Friday, July 25, 2008

MAIRA KALMAN, CREATIVE HEROINE

Call me Max.
Max the dreamer.
Max the poet.
Max the dog.

My dream is to live in Paris.
To live in Paris and be a Poet.

These are the first words I came across fifteen years ago, when I opened the front cover of Max Makes a Million. That moment marked the beginning of my ongoing love affair with the work of author/illustrator/designer Maira Kalman.

I read and re-read and re-re-read and re-re-re read that book, soaking up the way the words were arranged and the way they played off the illustrations. I was amazed by the way that earth tones appeared alongside of sorbet colors to create images that were both whimsical and sophisticated. I was delighted by references - in words and in paintings – to aspects of life in New York City. There, for example, in the painting of “The Museum of Incredibly Modern Art” were the very same black grid chairs in MOMA’s sculpture garden that always left tiny squares in my legs and backside!

I gave the book as gifts to adults and read it aloud to children. I distinctly remember sitting in Barnes and Nobles ten years ago, reading Max Makes a Million to twin six-year-old boys. I came to this passage, and they made me read it over and over again and laughed harder each time that I did:

Bruno and I left the studio. Walking to lunch
we passed the door of the mysterious twins
Otto and Otto
and their two dogs
Otto and Otto.

Then there is my personal favorite passage, spoken by Max himself:

There is an old Chinese proverb that says parents must give their children two things, roots and wings. I have the roots. Now I want wings.

The book, at its heart, is about going after ones dreams ,which is why it has appeal and relevance for people of all ages.

Kalman went on to write and illustrate other picture books, and I relished all of those, too. There was Max in Hollywood, Baby; Chicken Soup, Boots; Ooh-la-la, Max in Love; Swami on Rye; Next Stop, Grand Central; and What Pete Ate. I went on several occasions to see her artwork at the Julie Saul gallery in Chelsea and also visited the Children’s Museum of Manhattan when they featured an exhibit based on Maira's picture books.

I saw Ms. Kalman's artwork appear in many other places - on the cover of The New Yorker, in The Sunday New York Times Magazine and in the newest edition of The Elements of Style. I saw her designs appear on Kate Spade merchandise and was overjoyed to find a mural of hers at Wave Hill Cultural Center depicting its lush and glorious landscape. Most recently, I enjoyed receiving as a gift The Principles of Uncertainty, the content of which came from her New York Times blog of the same name.

Every time I see Ms. Kalman’s work out in the world, there is the joy of recognition same as when I see someone I love unexpectedly on the street or when I see a dachshund dashing by on the sidewalk. Ah! Something I love – there it is again! Hooray!

So you can imagine my surprise and delight when Ms. Kalman granted an interview in her Manhattan abode.

At the door, I was greeted by her dog Pete (as seen in What Pete Ate) . He was dressed in crème color fur and Ms. Kalman in a crisp white outfit.

We all sat down for some conversation.

What has Ms. Kalman been up to these days?

As of late, Maira has been working under the auspices of the Robinhood Foundation and Pentagram Design Studio to create a three dimensional installation for a public elementary school in the Bronx. The central concept of this 3-D collage is that of a wall poem about the alphabet. It will be made of found objects, made objects, drawings, photographs, letters, words, and bits of text from books.

Maira likes the fact that the children will see mundane objects used as art, thus learning that they can create art from the stuff that is right around them.

For the Rosenbach Museum & Library in Philadelphia, Maira is working on a project based on Lincoln ephemera – letters, photos, etc. - in commemoration of the bicentennial of his birthday.

She’s also creating fabric based on maps for Maharam, a New York based textile design company.

Ms. Kalman was once a student at The High School of Music and Art right here in New York. What was that experience like for her?

Ms. Kalman originally went to HSMA for music. Her entrance was based on her skills as a pianist and, once admitted, she also found her way into the choir.
An important part of being at the school was getting the message that an artist is a real thing to be.

Maira went on to attend college at NYU. Her original focus on writing and she added drawing to her repertoire.

Her literary inspirations include Cummings, Austin and Nabokov. She’s currently reading Ulysses which she describes as “a full time job” that is both stupendous and sleep-inducing.

Does Maira collaborate with other artists?

Maira’s collaborations have been with her late husband, her current beau, and well as with a longtime friend and composer Nico Muhly. Her joint projects tend to evolve out and extend from already existing relationships.

Mostly, Ms. Kalman is a solitary worker who is “looking and absorbing in a daydream world.”

What does Maira like to do when she is not working?

She likes to clean things, travel, and walk. “I’d be happy to walk around the world, just not through wars or up steep mountains,” she shared.

Maira’s ideal is one where work and life are integrated in a seamless way where one can “be pragmatic and in another world at the same time.”

Are there other artists whom Maira considers to be kindred spirits?

Yes, and here’s a list of some of them:

Charlotte Solomon, a woman who made hundreds of gouache paintings of her life and who created books which were exhibited. Ms. Solomon was killed by Nazis in the 1940s.

Louise Bourgeois and Kiki Smith, who are both “trying to inhabit a few different worlds at once.” They both tell a narrative story and use imagery made up of dreams, memory, and childhood.

Eva Hess and Matisse.

From the world of children’s books: Lewis Carol, who wrote Alice in Wonderland and, by using humor on different levels, engaged both young people and adults. William Steig. Ludwig Bemelmans, author of the Madeleine books.

What is Maira’s daily schedule?

First, she does early morning exercise with a friend. Then, she spends time in her studio which is also in the building where she lives. Next, she gathers inspiration and ideas by wandering around New York.

Maira also spends a great deal of time traveling.

What’s the story of Maira and dogs? They appear a lot in her books.

When Maira was a child, she was terrified of pets. As an adult, she liked them conceptually. When her children were young, she got Pete – the dog she’s had for the past eleven years.

How does Maira like to spend her birthday?

In a quiet celebration with her family.
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