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If you live in New York, or read the New Yorker, or love dogs, or love learning about things in a humorous, unintimidating way, you know Maira Kalman. If you don’t…YOU’RE KIDDING US, RIGHT?
Our love and admiration for Maira Kalman is equally weighed by our awe of her immense talent and her huge heart. She’s written enough books to fill a shelf, including “What Pete Ate A-Z,” “Food Rules” and “The Elements of Style, Illustrated,” and her art exhibit “Sara Berman’s Closet” can be found at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She is currently collaborating with choreographer John Heigenbotham on a piece based on her book, “The Principles of Uncertainty,” which will debut in late August. Despite this packed schedule, Maira set aside some time to let our editor at large Jane Larkworthy take a stab at stepping into that wondrous brain of hers. Frankly, we don’t understand how she managed to leave it once she got access inside…
Curious about your relationship with the New Yorker. Do you contribute on a regular basis, or do you basically pitch whenever you have an idea?
Yes, when I have an idea, but they may not always be excited to hear the idea! They might say, “Thank you very much for contacting us!” I’m going to be doing a residency with Etgar Keret, who is an Israeli writer, later this month. Maybe we’ll do something for the New Yorker, I don’t know. They’re pondering.
Where do you get most of your ideas? In your studio? On the way to your studio? Do you always have a notebook with you?
I do. I always have a notebook. It’s funny, just this morning, I went to visit six-year-olds at a local school in New York City and one of them said to me, “You know what you should do? You should write down what you see, and then you’ll have a story.” And I said, “Funny you should say that…” and I took out a notebook. So the ideas probably come when I’m not trying. When I’m walking, when I’m taking a shower…
Have you ever gotten cocky and thought, “I’ll remember that,” not write it down, then later, it’s gone?
So often. So many things are gone. And then you just have to accept it and think, “Well, all right, that’s how it is.” So many things are gone, but so many things have replaced them (“if it was meant to be”).
Also, the way I get ideas can be spontaneous. When I met Andrew [Goetz], he walked into the apartment and I said, “Oh. My. God. I’m going to paint you.” He was working for Vitra at the time, and he was bringing something to my apartment. He walked in, and I couldn’t believe how fantastic he looked. It was one of those moments where I ordered him with complete authority, “YOU. Stand over there.” I don’t know how thrilled he was with that, but I really loved the painting. I’ve done a number of things with him, in my different books. They’re in “What Pete Ate.” And I think I painted him when I did the Grand Central mural.
What is it about Andrew?
Well, he’s got a fantastic sense of humor, and kindness in his face. He’s also very graphic, and he dresses very graphically. He just represents a kind of person I like. When you see somebody, it just hits you. Maybe he reminds me of the people of the village of my mother, in Belarus. I don’t know.
How often do you stop people who walk past you?
Very often, actually. People who are on the street. I’m photographing all the time. Sometimes I run after somebody and stop them and ask if I can take their photo. Most of the time, people are very sweet about it, because I’m really quite nice about it. I’m liking them, so it’s clear that it’s a compliment.
What a fantastic show that would be: The people you have stopped over the years, gathered together for one night, each telling their story of how you approached them before they eventually became a “Maira Kalman.” They’d call it “My Maira Moment.” Tell us about “Sara Berman’s Closet.” How did that come to be?
Well, it’s wonderful that it’s at the Met. It started in my son’s [Alex Kalman] museum, which is called Mmuseumm. It happened because we adored my mother. She lived on Horatio Street in a studio apartment, and when she died, it was clear to me that the closet was singular as an expression of an artist who wasn’t an artist, and of a life that was expressed that way. She only wore white and kept everything in precise order.
So we saved everything and then it went to the alley. And then Amelia Peck, the curator from the Metropolitan, came to see it decided it would be perfect for the American Wing of the Met. So it went from a grungy little alley to the illustrious Metropolitan. I go there every Friday afternoon to watch people look at it, and just to commune with my mother. Also, the Met on a Friday afternoon is the best place in the world to be.
Why is that?
Well, it’s the best place to be any time, but because it’s open late on Friday, there’s this energy. The people are dressed in a different way, there’s music, there are cocktails, so it’s a very festive place to be on a Friday night. I decided to spend the next year going to every single gallery in the Museum and document the event. Not every thing in the room, obviously, but to mark this year at the Museum. The show’s only going to be open until September or October, they’re not sure. But that sense of looking at all the work, which, of course, is endlessly inspiring and wonderful.
Do people recognize you when you observe them observing your work?
Sometimes people come over and say, “That’s you!” And so I go, “Yes, it is.” And sometimes I go over to somebody who looks particularly delightful in some way, like, two elderly ladies. I’ll say, “I have to tell you that it’s me, and I’ll tell you everything you want to know.” But other times someone will walk up to the exhibit, look at it, then…
Couldn’t care less.
Could not care less. As in any place, you can’t look at everything. It’s interesting, some people will examine every detail, and read everything on the wall and really think about why is this at the Met and what is this thing? Now, hopefully, it will travel.
I think the interesting thing about your work is that you do as magical a job at explaining your art as your actual art. The visual is beautiful, but the writing is even…
Hopefully, the writing is good. Or the writing is good enough. But what’s interesting is I paint and I write. Of course, I get illustrating-only assignments, but writing and painting, to me, are so embedded with each other that when I have to extract one, I’m a little bit sad because I always want to combine them. They need each other.
But don’t you think that makes you an anomaly?
Yes. definitely. They’re separate skills, but in a funny way—they are happy together in my brain. We left Israel when I was four and it was amazing to come to a new country and look and listen. It is really an advantage.
Even when you were that young?
My father always said, ” before “We’re Israelis”. I assimilated quickly, but we always considered ourselves Israelis. The idea was that we were only here temporarily. We’re Israelis who happen to live in America.” And, for me, that was always fine. I thought, “Okay. Why not?” But listening to a language and looking at things, I really think it’s part of the gift you get when you move to another place.
Tell me about BAM. The performance is based on your book, “The Principles of Uncertainty.”
It premieres at Jacob’s Pillow the last week in August. Then it’s at BAM last week in September at the Fisher space. I’m working with a choreographer named John Hiegenbotham. He used to dance with Mark Morris and now he has his own company, Dance Hiegenbotham, which he’s had for five years. He and I worked together at Mark Morris on “Four Saints in Three Acts.”
I’m doing the sets, costumes and animations, and I’m actually in “The Principles of Uncertaintly.” We worked on it for a few years—a series of residencies–exploring how it is, for me, to go from my studio where I’m alone and very happy, to working with dozens of people in a performance that’s about time, and showing it on a stage, and just being performative. I didn’t realize how conceptually difficult all that was, although I always expected Pina Bausch to call me and say, “We’re ready for you. Here’s your spot.” And I would sit there on a table. And now I’m sitting on stage the entire time in the Heigenbotham, and during rehearsals I’m always asking John, “What’s my motivation?” “What should I be doing? “Should I put my hand here? Or here? Or not anywhere?” And he is very patient, but probably wishes I would stop asking him unanswerable questions.
Did he also work with you on the Met tour?
No, the tour is something else. That’s the Museum Workout at the Met, which I did with Monica Bill Barnes and Anna Bass. That’s also an amazing thing, a really interesting project. An exercise workout before the museum opens with music blasting and my voice narrating here and there. You should do it. It’s starting again in July.
what is your next book project?
The next book is a cake book. It’s a cookbook that I’m collaborating on with a cookbook author, Barbara Scott Goodman. She is doing the recipes for 16 cakes and I’m writing stories and doing paintings of cake memories. At first, I had a lot of very very sad memories connected to cakes, which sounded very much not the right tone, so I had to write through that to get to something that was a tad more festive. The book comes out next spring, and I’m going to France after the residency with Etgar to do research on the Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein.
My sister is going to be so excited. She loves that book.
It’s a great book, and probably mad and all made up, but…who cares. It is a delight.
What five or six things would you like to accomplish in 2017?
There are things I’d like to not accomplish, that is my goal. I would like to take a sabbatical. I have two or three more years of commitments, but then I’d like to have the sense to say no to everything else. Because I work all the time. I mean, it’s wonderful to call this work, and there isn’t a thing in the world that I’ve wanted to do that I haven’t done or could say that hasn’t been part of my life. But I’d like to be smart enough to give myself a year or two to just see what happens. And I want to spend more time with my granddaughter.
It’s interesting, I was speaking with one of my editors today, who reminded me that I’d signed a contract for a book that I haven’t produced yet. I said, “I signed a contract?” She said, “Yes, you did. And you got an advance. And, I was like “Oh no…” But with ideas, there’s a pause to take. I would like to take that pause. It’ll be about traveling and living in Japan for a while, and going from garden to garden.
And other places. I’ve done some of that, but not enough, for sure.
Have you traveled the US quite extensively?
I have not not traveled, which means I have traveled, and mostly because of Rick [Meyerowitz]. he knows more about the country. We get in the car and do these big trips. There are alot of cities in the middle of the country, I have no idea what they are.
Was Obama the reason you did your work on DC and Lincoln?
Yes. After I did “The Principles of Uncertainty,” my editors wanted me to do another year, but I said “I don’t want to do another year about myself. I’d like to do something I don’t know anything about.” So they sent me on assignment, to cover history and politics.
You must love your editors.
The editors at the Times, David Shipley and Mary Duwenwald, who are no longer there (both went to Bloomberg) were angels from heaven for me, and they trusted me and allowed me to do something that was great for me and great for the reader.
And were the ideas a joint effort?
Yes, we sat around and talked about them: I wanted to go to an army base. I wanted to meet Ruth Bader Ginsberg. Alice Waters said, “Come do something about food.” One thing just leads to another, in the nicest possible way.