Maira Kalman is an illustrator and writer who captures the absurdity of a moment and the vast questions of life. Her words and pictures are an engaging fusion of quirky commentary and emotional reflection, delivered through her work for The New Yorker, her children’s books, and her ground-breaking blog on The New York Times site. Maira gives life to everything from tribalism to chocolate to world peace, telling stories with soul, humor and melancholy. Beyond this, she teaches graduate courses in design and continues the M&Co design work she started with her late husband. Born in Tel Aviv and adopted by New York, Maira is as colorful and wonderfully offbeat as her work.
I love the way your art and writing work together, with the quirkiness, humor and melancholy of it all. How did you develop this artistic style and this way of telling stories?
There was always a desire on my part to write a narrative story. But the writing alone seemed ponderous. So I began to draw in a narrative cartoony kind of way.
This was the beginning of an interest in graphic novels. There were always people writing and painting. Futurists. Dadaists. Memoirists. And there was also the world of children’s books where there was often more freedom to experiment.
So I found my way into children’s books and into writing and painting fused.
There’s a funny dichotomy in your writing: you love language and the rules behind it enough to have illustrated a new edition of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, yet your writing feels very free-wheeling. Are you critical of your own writing, or do you find what comes to you first turns out to be spot on?
The writing is never spot on. And even after many drafts and alterations it often feels dead wrong. Or maybe a muddled attempt to describe something that feels ephemeral.
For someone who doesn’t relate to factual knowledge much, it’s funny that you do a fair amount of digging into historic events and people. Do you do this type of research to inspire your work or just for your own pleasure?
The current column is very full of information. There is an intersection between fact and fiction that I like to explore. I think I am a rather grounded person who can accept both worlds and go between them.
Your “New Yorkistan” cover for The New Yorker is an absolute riot, with Irate bordering Irant, and neighborhoods like Hiphopabad, Kvetchnya, Central Parkistan, Gaymenistan, and Psychobabylon. I know this was published about 2 months after 9/11, but was this project conceived before those events?
This project was a reaction to 9/11. It could not have happened for me before that. We were so overwhelmed with the tragedy and with the names of these tribes. Who were these people? So Rick Meyerowitz and I were making fun of our city, saying we are all tribal and a bit crazy.
Normally I ask what early influences shaped the sensibility of an artist, but looking at the map of the United States that your mother drew, I see an obvious thread! In what ways did your mother’s perspective shape your own?
My mother was a huge force in my life. Her attitude towards information was fascinating. She had no use for it whatsoever. She was a splendid housewife. But in another life, she would have been a writer. She adored her family and that was the only important thing. She had a refreshing irreverence and outsiderness to her. She was also a stunningly beautiful woman. And not vain. So it was a very interesting combination.
What makes you want to paint a scene, and does the wording come to you at the same time? Does it hit you right away that there’s a vignette or story worth telling?
Things are constantly hitting me. And I know right away when I see something or someone, that I would want to do a painting. It is somewhere in between humor and heartbreak.
I love your sense of color. Are you mostly using color in a journalistic way, reporting what you see in front of you, or are you taking creative liberties?
Everything is a combination of looking and inventing. I can convey the feeling of a scene faithfully without being literal.
Your blog on The New York Times site proves that online content can be soulful, deep, and something people can really spend time with. Has it at all been a surprise to you how well suited your work is to this medium?
I see that there is a need for a person writing about things that are not horrible or wrong. For me, it is a given that all of existence is a puzzle. That is the starting point. But I do have a sense that people are not horrible. Even though they often get on my nerves.
How did you start writing children’s books? And do you have a sense of the impact these treasures might be having on a whole generation of kids?
I loved reading as a child, and there were influences. Pippi Longstocking. Ludwig Bemelmans. The Eloise books. Winnie the Pooh. Dr. Seuss.
Something resonated. So after doing editorial illustration for 10 years or so, I plunged into illustrating a song by the Talking Heads which was the book STAY UP LATE. Then I was able to write and illustrate my first book “Hey Willy, See the Pyramids.” I knew that I wanted to create books that had a sense of humor that would be good for adults and children. And that there would be interesting things for both audiences. I don’t know what the impact is. But I am happy to continue doing the books.
You talk about randomness and chaos in loving terms, and I hear you started your M&Co business with your husband Tibor before you ‘knew too much’ — which probably defies conventional wisdom. Do you have any advice for those who just can’t figure out how to get started or who fret over not having a well-defined direction?
In the end either something works or it doesn’t. Why, is a huge question. So you can only do what you must do. And the other part is perserverance.
Usually when I have a feeling of wanting to do something it takes ten years to realize. Which is much longer than I expect. But that is the way I work or the world works.
Your work is so reassuring in a certain way, sort of a modern-day Keep Calm and Carry On. Is your work available to purchase as individual pieces, even in poster form?
The Julie Saul Gallery in New York City sells prints and original art.
What’s next on the horizon for you?
I am eight months into “And The Pursuit of Happiness” the new blog for The New York Times about America and democracy. I am also working on a number of children’s books.
What are some of your favorite things, whether they directly impact your work or just make you happy?
That is a big wonderful list. Here is a partial.
Going to bed.
Walking through the city.
Stopping for coffee at a coffee shop.
Dinner with my family.
Sitting under a tree.
The above images from Maira Kalman’s blog for The New York Times site were used individually to accompany certain points in our interview, but they are best enjoyed as a longer and connected story of images the way Maira posts them. Maira’s blog The Principles of Uncertainty ran from May 2006 to April 2007 and was released as a collection in hardcover in 2007 and will be available in paperback later this year. In her current blog And the Pursuit of Happiness, Maira covers the topics of America and democracy.
The following video clip of Maira Kalman’s presentation at the TED conference is about 17 minutes long and well worth the time. Enjoy!
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