15: Maira Kalman
illustrator and designer
Maira Kalman is a illustrator, author, and designer living in New York City. In addition to her illustrated children’s books, such as What Pete Ate and Fireboat: The Heroic Adventures of the John J. Harvey, Maira has also illustrated and written books for teenagers and adults, such asWhy We Broke Up, a collaboration with Daniel Handler, and The Principles of Uncertainty, a narrative memoir. Maira is also a frequent contributor to The New Yorker, has curated shows for the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum, and has had work exhibited at the Julie Saul Gallery, The Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia, and the Contemporary Jewish Museum, among other locations.
Emma Noelle is a student and photographer who lives and works in New York City. Specializing in portraiture and documentary photography, Emma works with analog mediums to tell stories and evoke poetry through her images. Emma's work is largely influenced by her lifelong love for art, music, and literature. Through portraiture and documentary photography, she is able to unite her constant desire to return to the past with her ability to observe and engage with the world around her.
This interview was conducted by Nicole Blackwood on December 11, 2016, in Maira’s Manhattan apartment. Emma Noelle photographed and witnessed the conversation.
NICOLE: Tell me about your experience of girlhood.
MAIRA: Girlhood for me was fantastic. I have to say that; I have to admit that I was a very happy child, and that my sense of myself was very carefree and full of self-confidence. Kind of a sunny childhood, probably until puberty, where things changed dramatically. I think what happens, which is somewhat normal, is that there’s a loss of confidence. Of course going through puberty and going through adolescence, that becomes a big milestone for any human being, boy or girl, but it seems that there is a big drop in self-confidence, in the sense of, “Oh my god, I look awful, I don’t know anything, I don’t know what to say, I don’t know what to do and who am I…” Even though there are fleeting moments of, “Okay, I’m okay,” there’s a whole lot of angst and turmoil. So is it chemical, is it the evolution of a human being? I guess on some level it’s necessary. It took about until...I would say last week, but I think it wasn’t until my late twenties that I had a sense of, “Okay, things are a little bit better, things are shaping into a sense that I don’t have to feel so wretched about myself all the time.”
NICOLE: Do you think it was anything in particular that caused that shift, or was it just a natural progression?
MAIRA: Well, I was starting to work. I think that the identity of having a path of work, and finding the relevance of that, is something that’s really critical to a human being. It’s less whether you’re making money or not making money, but rather that you’re engaged in something that’s very profoundly satisfying. And if you get the glimmer of: “Oh wait, this is something that I can do, this is a task that I can really relate to,” then [your mindset] shifts dramatically.
NICOLE: I’ve noticed that the women in your family are a recurring theme in your work, with your mother, aunt, and grandmother a relatively constant presence. You’ve said in the past that your mother in particular is a huge influence in your life and work. I was wondering if you could speak more about your relationship with these women?
MAIRA: My mother was very beautiful, and very irreverent, and very funny. She also had quite a terrible marital relationship with my father. They did not have a happy marriage at all, so what I saw growing up was a woman who never realized any other potential other than being a human being. But I realized how big that is. That it’s not necessarily that you have to have a career and be successful; there’s some essential part of being a human being that just is magnificent. She never worked at all but she always said to me, “You have to be independent. You have to have your own income, you have to have your own work.” She was some combination of a very romantic and very lyrical human being, and gave me the groundedness to know that I was very much loved, very much trusted and admired. I think that if you feel you’re loved when you’re young, it’ll carry you through the difficult times. We hope. More or less.
[My aunt and grandmother] toiled. They worked really hard and only served their family; that was their life’s mission. They cooked and they cleaned from morning until night, and did everything that needed to be done, like sewing clothes. That was their identity, without any question. It wasn’t like, “Oh, if only I could be a prima ballerina.” So the sense of what the daily is, of what the mundane is, is a really important part of my work. I saw that keeping the house in order and having meals with your family was profoundly important and sometimes more important than the rest of it. I don’t think they were happy every minute, but they had a lot of satisfaction from their work, which was taking care of their families.
NICOLE: How did your heritage and moving from Tel Aviv to New York City impact your identity growing up as a girl?
MAIRA: I came here when I was four, so I learned English very quickly. I was speaking fluently probably within a year. I liked it here, and I was a good-natured child, so it wasn’t a traumatic move for me at all. What I felt as I was growing up was that it was good to be the outsider, that I had some kind of pride in observing and not belonging. Not belonging to me was completely fine. We were brought up to believe that we were Israelis, that we were going to go back, that we were not Americans, we were not part of this culture. So I was straddling both worlds and I was thinking, “Yeah, this is kind of good,” because I did feel like an observer, and it was interesting. I think it also develops your sense of humor about things, which is of course another part of my work, that being funny in a culture, being funny in the way that you speak to people is a universal connector. I understood that pretty early on.
NICOLE: With regards to this feeling of being an outsider – you speak a lot in interviews about your teen years being comprised of disinterest in school and writing poetry in cafes. How did your desire to be an observer and outsider intersect with the insecurity you were describing earlier?
MAIRA: On one level it probably compounds it. I went to high school to study music and art, and I think that everyone there was probably a weirdo, an eccentric outsider. If you go to a place where the point is to be eccentric, then you’re still struggling and going through tremendous periods of confusion and self-doubt, but you understand that there isn’t a judgement about being different. Being different was celebrated. Whatever you brought with you to that particular high school was welcome, and everyone was exploring and experimenting. So it worked very well.
NICOLE: You’ve said that your books are “the journals of your life,” and you’ve spoken about journaling as a young person. What is your relationship to journaling as a form of self-expression?
MAIRA: Well, I didn’t call it that then. It was a mix of sketchbooks and writing, and over the years, the emphasis was more on drawing rather than writing. So first I was pouring my thoughts and hopes and fears and poetry in them, and then they started becoming more visual. I would probably be mortified to read some of the things that I wrote when I was younger, or all of the things that I wrote. But I’m very tenderly attached to all of it, and I feel a tenderness towards my younger self for having done that. The perseverance of something is really extraordinary, and I think that if I were to give advice, I’d say if you can persevere in what you do, that’s 90% of it. I’m happy that I started doing that, and I’m happy that I continued.
NICOLE: During your RISD commencement address, you spoke about feminism “dropping into your life” when you were in the early stages of your relationship with your husband. I was wondering if you could speak a little more about what you meant by that, and what that experience was like?
MAIRA: It was the late 60s. It was anti-Vietnam. [My husband] Tibor was part of SDS, and the women who were beginning to say, “Wait a minute, our role here is defined by the men and that is not acceptable,” had a meeting about Tibor and me specifically, because I was always knitting a sweater for him. I was always in the background, knitting like the dutiful girlfriend of yore, and he was on the battle lines saying we had to have some kind of social revolution. I think that moment of feminism in ‘68, ‘69 was one of the greatest things that have ever happened on Planet Earth and despite what has befallen us these days with Trump, hopefully that won’t go backwards. I didn’t ever call myself a feminist, because I didn’t want to be political about anything. You just have to do your work. To say “don’t be intimidated by men” is kind of a flat-out phrase because you’re not one stabbing point. Sometimes you’re intimidated and sometimes you’re not – by men, by women. But I think that the trajectory and the momentum of that movement was – monumental doesn’t even describe it.
NICOLE: Branching off of that – you said in interview with Eye Magazine that during the days of running [the design company] M&Co with your husband, you were “insecure about dealing forcefully with the outside world.” It doesn’t seem like you felt that this insecurity necessarily hindered you, and in fact it seems like it was natural progression to developing your creative voice. I was wondering if you could speak about that development of voice?
MAIRA: It’s really interesting to examine the couples who have run businesses over the decades and say, “Well, at first he was the front and she was in the background, and she was working on stuff, but she’s really the force,” and part of that is very true. It’s not that I wouldn’t take that [element] away from the dynamic. The other part [of the business relationship] is all of the subtleties in the kind of relationship that you’re forging. I was happy to have somebody very forceful and brave as my partner, because he was never daunted by anything, and that’s something interesting to learn. I was able to have ideas which were implemented by somebody. Maybe I was indulging my insecurity too much and I should have been more forceful, but I don’t even know what that means. I like to say that one thing leads to another, that your voice develops as it develops, and things propel you in different ways. When I talk about Tibor’s death, that clearly was a breaking point in my life about how to address my own voice.
Developing my voice wasn’t a conscious thing at all, but what was conscious was that I understood that I felt a certain kind of bravery in the face of [Tibor’s] loss, which seemed inconceivable to me. I said, “I’m going to redefine a grieving woman and a woman who’s a widow with two young children and throw that out the window.” Because everything I thought before was, “Oh, you would just be annihilated and couldn’t do anything, and how could you grieve and be energetic and be focused and be productive,” and I said, “That’s exactly what you can do.” I wasn’t trying to develop a voice, but I just...was.
NICOLE: There’s a lot of discussion and debate about the material and the art that’s been put out in the world for younger children, in particular young girls, to consume. How do you think having children has shifted the kind of content you make, or shifted your relationship to womanhood?
MAIRA: I always say that I had a really good life before having children, but once I had children I said, “Now I know why I’m alive.” I never thought about it, I never thought that having kids was what I wanted, but once I had my first child I thought, “Oh, now, now I get it.” And the dialogue in the house, the humor and the creativity and the fun, affected me profoundly and affected the content of my work, my desire to create stories and paintings for children. To be able to balance working and having a family is, to me, of a piece. I couldn’t imagine having a life that didn’t include it all in one. My work was life or my life was work, my children were part of the work, and it just keeps going on like that. And now with my son and I doing an installation for the MET of my mother’s closet, it’s come full circle in an amazing way.
NICOLE: What has that experience been like?
MAIRA: It’s been amazing. My mother’s bras are going to be at the MET, so right away we’re just like, this is really fantastic news. The most fulfilling projects for me are the ones that come in the most natural ways. When one day I said, “Oh, we’ll have a museum of my mother’s closet,” it came as a complete aside, but it came from somewhere inside. And then it happened. So I’m incredulous, but I also say, of course it happened, it was meant to be.
NICOLE: You seem to have a fascination with objects and finding beauty and ritual in objects, which I’m interested in because your love for objects seems very different from the love of beautiful and unattainable things that corporations and beauty conglomerates try to instill in girls and women. I was wondering if you could speak about this, and what you think the distinction is.
MAIRA: The essential things in your life that give you joy – whatever you determine is beautiful and whatever you determine has meaning – come from a history, a personal history. Acquiring objects of status and money is the antithesis of that. It doesn’t mean that you can’t want things, that some things cost more money and some things less. But it shouldn’t be about status, about arrogance consumerism. That’s a very sad place to be. Everybody needs less than they think they need.
NICOLE: One thing I think is amazing and unique about your approach to your work is your certainty that what you have to say in these very personal books is something people will want to read or is worthy of being read. I think that conviction, or at least the ability to put your innermost thoughts out there without worrying so much about how they’ll be perceived, is unfortunately very rare for many women. I was wondering if you could talk about that?
MAIRA: You don’t have a choice. If you’re a writer or painter, you either do it or you don’t. You accept the fact that you’re going to put your work out there and then deal with the responses, positive and negative. So it’s not that I’m not aware or concerned about a response; I would like a good response. But my answer to that is what else would I be doing? There is no other way that I know of. I mean, I could be Emily Dickinson and just hide the envelopes in the closet, but I also like the idea of making a living from my work. If I were financially independent, maybe I would have a different attitude. But knowing that it’s going to be out there in the world forces you to edit what you’re really thinking, for better or for worse.
NICOLE: In the Smithsonian short film promoting your Cooper Hewitt exhibit, you said you decide who you are and what your fashion is every day when you wake up. I was wondering what the function of fashion is in your life and in the daily lives of women?
MAIRA: I love fashion. I’m not in love with fashion for myself. I love the idea of looking at fashion in the world. But you know, this is my uniform most of the time, black pants and a white shirt. The thing that you should feel is comfortable. And I mean, really comfortable in your skin, because it’s important. And if you find the way to be that makes you feel as much yourself as possible, without feeling that there’s artifice there, I feel that’s the goal. For me anyway, that’s the goal. That’s some kind of comfort.
NICOLE: What do you think is the intersection between that aesthetic beauty, fashion being inherently beautiful, and finding comfort? Can they be one and the same?
MAIRA: [Laughs] You know, they could be one and the same, and then all of a sudden it’s like, do you have to spend a lot of money? I really don’t know. I don’t know what that means for different people. The nice thing is that everybody is completely different about that, and that’s good, and everybody is finding some kind of way of expressing their fashion in a different way, and that’s great. So I guess artifice can be good, too.
NICOLE: You said in your TED talk that it’s often hard to know we are ourselves because we as humans are often posturing, and of course there are certain pressures to be certain things as a woman, so posturing can be unavoidable. Can you talk about what that’s like, trying to be certain you are yourself in your daily life?
MAIRA: Most people, I imagine, go about their lives not knowing a lot of things a lot of the time, about who they are, why they’re doing what they’re doing, or what their relationships are. And it’s a truism that the older you get, the more often you can say, “I really don’t know anything.” And you say that with a certain kind of confidence. I really don’t know anything – I know that I don’t know anything. And perhaps it’s true, because it’s all an incredible mystery. It just never stops being a mystery. It’s inescapable that as you get older, you will realize the complexity of what it means to be alive. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t stupendous joy.
NICOLE: Can you speak a little about maintaining that joy? Because I think you say a lot of the time that you never lost that childhood wonder. Is there a part of you that consciously tries to keep that?
MAIRA: I’m inherently immature. I don’t know what it is. I think it’s the makeup of a person. And that’s my makeup. It’s probably one aspect of what drew me to writing and illustrating. Why is it that a young person or child decides they’re going to be a writer? What does that even mean? But you fall in love with something. And in the best of worlds, I think that love stays with you for your whole life and and you shift and find different aspects of it, but it’s embracing some kind of positive aspect of living.
NICOLE: I was wondering if you could speak a little bit about the impetus and the process of creating Girls Standing on Lawns, because to me it seemed like a very beautiful way of linking lots of very different women, different situationally but also of different time periods, with very simple and almost whimsical illustrations. I was hoping you could talk about what that was like, and how it came about.
MAIRA: Daniel Handler and I are friends, and we would often send photographs to each other that we just thought were funny and we would write something to it. But I also have a vast collection of photographs from flea markets and thrift shops, and I realized that I was collecting a lot of photographs of girls standing on lawns. So I sent them to him and I said, “Anything?” And he said, “Yes, definitely something.” So that’s how it grew. Then we took it to MoMA and they said it’d be a nice book to publish. Like the best of all projects, it came very naturally, very instinctively. It’s amazing, how many women have stories and photos, of course, of them standing on the lawns or their family members standing on lawns. We’ve all stood on lawns in the family pose, or whatever it is, and as [Daniel] says, “tried to figure out where to put our hands.” So the nice thing about that kind of work is that the specific is universal. And if that’s felt, if you can go from that trajectory, then for me it’s a success. Most of those photos I collected, and then we went to a collector of vernacular photography, Peter Cohen, and chose some more photos.
NICOLE: How were you selecting those photos? Just any girls on lawns?
MAIRA: Love. Everything is based on falling in love.
NICOLE: Earlier we discussed your love of objects, but more particularly, how do the kind of objects you surround yourself with in your living space, and the aesthetics you frame through these objects, affect your daily life?
MAIRA: Well, not only do I paint the objects around me, like the pink box, or the dolls from Mexico made by nuns…
NICOLE: The dolls are beautiful.
MAIRA: They are. They’re from the thirties, and they were given to me by a friend. Everybody who walks in goes straight to those dolls and goes like, “Woah.” I don’t want anything around me that I don’t love, and that to me isn’t beautiful. And I certainly can edit and go through things, but that’s why I don’t have anything on the walls. It’s just shelves, and you can move things and take things away and start fresh. So I have what I think is a rigorous approach to what’s around me, which is that it has to be, in my opinion, really beautiful, otherwise I don’t want it around me.
Those dolls were made by nuns in Mexico, maybe Mexico City, and that’s all I know. They were given to me by a friend, bought from a shop called De Vera. I just love them. They’re fanciful and they’re super fashionable, and the fact that nuns made the fashion is really fabulous, and very eccentric, and quite beautiful. There’s really a story behind every object here. Sometimes more of a story, sometimes less.
NICOLE: Are there any objects that you have that hold particular meaning to your identity as a woman?
MAIRA: That pink box on the shelf – if you said, “Give us an object for your bio photo,” or something like that, I’d give you that pink box wrapped with string. I collect boxes. This is a box that I bought in India, I think in Jaipur, and it’s full of bracelets that were meant as a gift. They were packed in this box tied with a string and I thought, “Well, that box is staying intact.” I couldn’t even think of opening it and giving the gift and then retying it. It just seemed that wasn’t going to work out.
NICOLE: I was wondering if you could speak a little about the function of female friendships in your life, as I know there are several that have been significant to you.
MAIRA: I think women are glorious. Friendships come and go. You get closer to people and further away, but I met my dearest friend when we were nine, so we have been friends our whole lives and now we’re grandmothers together. The continuity and the trust that women have with each other is incredible, and very sustaining. Of course you meet people you like at one point and don’t like them at another point, but that sense of camaraderie...that is much harder to have with a man. It should be that a person is a person, and I do have male friends who are wonderful; there’s just something about the experience that a woman has that’s singular. Ah! Those men. I don’t know! They’re just men.
NICOLE: Optimism about the world is something that, above all else, distinguishes your work and womanhood. Can you talk about that optimism?
MAIRA: That’s tricky. Because you don’t want to say that everything is great, because a lot of the time everything is horrible. It’s like Beckett: “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” I always wonder, where does that optimism come from, where does that ability to be hurt come from, or to be destroyed or distraught and then to say, “Oh, but look, today I’m going to have a great cup of coffee, but look, at the beautiful tree out the window”? I don’t know which comes first. It’s a chicken and egg thing: are you born with that kind of chemistry? Does something happen that allows you to have that? I don’t know, because I see myself as being incredibly lucky. It’s reinforced by the fact that I do have a wonderful life, and great things have happened to me, but what brings what? If somebody knows, call me.
NICOLE: What do you think women in the world need or can do for each other presently?
MAIRA: This is such a huge question right now, and again, I don’t like to respond to political situations with political answers, but probably the most important thing that women can do for each other is to help each other achieve whatever it is that they want to achieve. And to be honest and kind. And unite to create good work. But the pragmatic things? I don’t know. Daunting. Very daunting indeed.
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