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Maira Kalman: I Have Enough

By Matthew Porter

“We don’t know anything, but that’s all right. Because if you know too much of anything, you are stymied.”—Maira Kalman

Maira Kalman wrote a job description and then built a career to fit it. She has become widely known for her illustrated essays, covers, and cartoons for the New York Times and the New Yorker. She has written and illustrated numerous books for children (in which her dogs play heroic roles) and adults. Her children’s books include 13 Words, a collaboration with Lemony Snicket; Fireboat: The Heroic Adventures of the John J. Harvey; Ooh-la-la (Max in Love); What Pete Ate from A–Z; and Looking at Lincoln. She has illustrated Strunk and White’s classic The Elements of Style and created two illustrated columns for the New York Times: The Principles of Uncertainty and a narrative journal of her life. Her two most recent books are Ah-Ha to Zig-Zag, which brings to life objects from the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, and Thomas Jefferson: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Everything, an illustrated exploration of American history and democracy.

 

cover of the book Ah-Ha to Zig-Zag, by Maira Kalman
cover of the book Ooh-la-la (Max in Love), by Maira Kalman
cover of the book

She is one of the most influential and respected women in American design, illustration, and writing. From her exuberant and prolific works, you might think Kalman would be easy to know. But she defies expectation. In our conversation, she reflected on being an artist (a title that makes her uncomfortable) and being a journalist (which she embraces). The vagaries of identity are a central theme of her work—she explores identity as she considers the beauty in broken things and accepts that pain and loss are as vital to life as joy and humor. “How do you know who you are?” she asks. “Half the time I do not know who I am. There is not one static place.”

She also rejects chronology: “I don’t like plots because my life’s too random and too confused.” In keeping with that philosophy, then, here are some of her observations and her favored objects—not her life story.

 

ON HER MOTHER

My mother had a profound influence on my life. She had no need to have any information of any kind about anything. Her map of the United States is an example of this. In the center of the map is a great blob of American landscape in which she wrote, “Sorry, the rest unknown, thank you.” I take that to mean “The rest is unknown. Who cares? Go to hell.” She was not interested in knowledge or the accumulation of facts—she was interested in the experience of learning and collecting moments that matter to the present. And she left that thirst for learning, experiencing, and living in the moment with me.

photo of Maira Kalman, with her dog
a map of the United States drawn by Sara Berman, the mother of Maira Kalman

In the photograph, Maira Kalman sits with her dog Pete. The map drawing is one Kalman often shows—it is a map of the United States drawn by her late mother, Sara Berman, in 10 minutes. Today, Kalman thinks of this map as a reflection on inhibition, curiosity, and the strength of being unencumbered by knowledge.

ON GENRES

When I was seven or eight, I knew I was going to be a writer. I was writing until college, when I looked at my writing and said, “This is really awful.” So I began this idea of narrative drawing, expressive illustration—and I decided this was for me. I am now a writer who uses words and paintings to convey my ideas. I love books. My relationship to creating books is the strongest motivator. There is a fluidity between the narrative word and narrative picture.

 

ON CURIOSITY VERSUS KNOWLEDGE

My mother taught me that there was no “right way” to think about things. She was a beautiful, intelligent woman. She and her family left Belarus in 1933, moving to Palestine, where I was born, in Tel Aviv. In 1954, we relocated to New York. My father was a diamond salesman. He traveled a great deal for his work. So I was raised in a house of women: my mother, my aunt, my sister, and myself. My mother encouraged me to read. She took me to museums and the opera. If she was unhappy, she carried on. She taught me to do the same. She loved books and taught us to love them, too. We acquired knowledge through self-education and personal experience. We’d read a book to read a book. We’d go to a museum to enjoy the art. But there were no tests. We could absorb all that was around us, without having to perform. That kind of freedom is an extraordinary gift to a child. It built self-confidence. She taught me that you don’t have to have knowledge. You have to have curiosity.

illustration of a cup by Maira Kalman
illustration of a dog by Maira Kalman
illustration of a watch by Maira Kalman

ON WRITING FOR CHILDREN

In a way I am immature. I do not understand 90 percent of what I see or hear, but I am constantly making beautiful notes and doodles. I take photographs of random people and things. If I think they might object, I make sketches from a distance. I believe the best things come out of incomprehension. I don’t like plots because my life is too random and too confused. When writing for children, the goal is 32 pages. This forces you to edit the story down to what needs to be said so that the story is simple and true and hopeful. I don’t think any differently for children than I do for adults. I love imagination, whimsy, and language. I put in my books things I love—like my dogs. Hats. Shoes, which are more religious than most religious objects. My books are journals of my life.

 

ON MOMENTS BETWEEN MOMENTS

A digression from the topic at hand may be a moment worth remembering. When I get an assignment from an editor, say to cover a fashion show in Paris, a great assignment by the way, I am looking at all the things that happen besides the fashion shows: People walking in the rain. The print on the wall of my hotel room. The cheese shop nearby. When I attend a show at the Met, I start with a coffee in the café, take a break for a coffee in the middle of my visit, and end with a coffee after I am finished looking at the show. I spend more time drinking coffee than looking at the exhibit. I eavesdrop on conversations. I sketch in my drawing book. I wish I was the waitress, not the one being served, because the waitress gets to visit all the other people in the café. I look for the moments between the moments. I want to show you what else I see and then weave that into the story. The digression is much more important than the topic. I am never bored with the digressions I encounter along the way.

illustration of an angel statue by Maira Kalman
illustration of a woman in a net hat by Maira Kalman
illustration of a Parisian park scene by Maira Kalman

ON HER BUDDHA SHOES

I call these shoes my Buddha shoes. The shoes are two sizes too big, so you have to walk slowly when you wear them; otherwise, you’d fall down. They force me to be in the moment. They symbolize to me how we are so careful not to trip, but do trip, and then get up and say, “OK, I can carry on.” I love to walk, in whatever city I am in. I take photographs. I make sketches of things I see and love. I remember a quote by Einstein: “The only reason for time is so that everything does not happen at once.” You never know when a truly significant, funny, or moving moment might suddenly appear. Or how they might later appear in an illustration, painting, or story.

 

ON MEANINGFUL DISTRACTIONS

I find meaningful distractions. What is important? What is the meaning of life? Why are we here? One way to find out is to go off point—to sit in a room and dream. I was in India. I saw a woman dancing. I saw a boy dressed for a festival. I bought a gift for a friend, but the woman who sold it to me wrapped it in a box with a ribbon so beautiful I could not bear the thought of someone opening it. So I kept it for myself. I was buying candy in a store in Rome. I don’t remember the chocolates. I remember the smell of the chocolates and the cognac. We never know what we are going to celebrate.

a photo of Maira Kalman's Buddha shoes

Kalman calls these her Buddha shoes—an enormous pair of brown bowling shoes she bought at a thrift store near Sissinghurst Castle in Kent, England. She keeps them near her desk in her work studio.

ON THE BEAUTY OF BROKEN THINGS

I like to collect broken things. I am fascinated by the idea that there are so many things around us that are broken, like broken chairs. What does it mean to be broken and unbroken? Broken things are more beautiful and interesting.

 

ON COURAGE

In the face of all the horror in the world, of the loss of friends and family, how do we bear to go on? How do we find the courage? Rather than being frozen by this, I believe you must keep moving. I don’t need to know how or why. I don’t have to know when or where or understand. Go with your instincts, lightness, and irresponsibility. Not knowing and not caring can be fascinating—and fun.

 

ON COMPASSION

Why do I feel so sorry for everyone—and yet so proud? I don’t have antipathy towards people. I care about the people I am writing about. I have a humanistic attitude, a loopy optimism, because by acknowledging all the sadness and heartache and all the trouble, I usually come out on the side of “Well, here we go and on we go, and things can also be fantastic at the same time as things are horrible.”

illustration of a lawn chair by Maira Kalman
bulldog illustration cover of New Yorker by Maira Kalman

ON DEATH

The realization that we are all—you, me—going to die and the attending disbelief stops me in my tracks a dozen times a day. The idea of dying enters into your vocabulary when you are four years old. And the older you get, the more you grapple with the idea that time is lessening. This makes me wonder what it is I am supposed to be doing here. How much happiness am I achieving on this planet? Even though so much is infuriating and frightening and maddening and horrible some of the time, the idea that you have to say goodbye to all this is even more infuriating and maddening and horrible. But do you think I remain frozen? No. I spring into action.

 

ON LOVE, FAMILY, AND WORK

What protects you from sadness and the loss of the ability to do things? Work and love are what protect you. They define who we are. They help us understand why life matters. How do you spend this time on earth without perpetually being brokenhearted? What you do and who you love and what you do with your time are the only questions you have to answer. In the end, work and love are the only things that matter. And time: waste not a moment.

 

ICH HABE GENUG

Ich habe genug is a Bach cantata. It means “I have enough.” The sentiment is true…usually. I once thought it meant “I’ve had it! Give me a break! Enough!” But it really means just the opposite. It means “I have all that I need.”

Much more biographical and bibliographic information is available at Maira Kalman’s website, which includes a trove of great videos of talks.