Maira Kalman lives surrounded by chairs both life-size and miniature. Her studio is two floors below her West Village apartment, and it’s filled with such objects as hair tufts from her beloved (and now late) dog Pete, puppets from the 1930s, and hats adorned with feathers from friends and admirers. I dropped in to chat about Maira’s first retrospective at the Jewish Museum and heard, among other things, about her love for Thomas Jefferson—unlike Abraham Lincoln, he’s apparently “not boyfriend material”—and her studio moss collection.
When I left college, I decided I wasn’t going to write anymore. I started out writing fiction, and I thought I would be a writer—it was something that I just always assumed when I was a little kid. I had a teacher who told me I was a good writer, and I loved writing. Then it became tormented, as it often does when you hit your teens. So I thought, I have to lighten up a little bit. And it was the age of New Wave and punk, and there was a whole new era of illustration going on. So, I started to draw.
I don’t want to use my imagination anymore; I’m tired of that. I have the pleasure of seeing things all around me. I don’t have to make anything up. For the time being, that pleases me. I dreamed a few nights ago that I invented a candy to stop time, and it was a lemon-honey candy, translucent like a lollipop. I thought, Well, I made that up—and I wasn’t sure it was pleasing.
The subject of my work continues to be the normal, daily things that people fall in love with. I happen to fall truly in love with things many times during the day—the bobby pin, the rubber band, the paper clip, the safety pin. Those fasteners intrigue me. On one level, you could say, What else is there? Alex Melaman and I decided that we would have a society for the love of rubber bands, which might have been an excuse for people to come and drink. I’m not a drinker, so I was in it for the rubber bands.
My work is all narrative, and it’s always word based, and speaks, really, to literature. This is my way of writing. I’m very connected to the feeling that I get from reading books, and the information I get from reading books, and the hopefulness I get from reading books—the text and handwriting, word becoming image. Now I’m on a complete, hysterical, Beckett phase. I’m going to go to Dublin to do a little Beckett research. I saw a play called Watt, a novel he wrote, but in the loosest word possible. It was experimenta, yet lyrical. Accessible.
I have a moss collection. From Monticello, I brought back Thomas Jefferson’s moss. He wasn’t alive for this moss. I took it off the side of a building, because I’m doing a children’s book about Jefferson. It connects me to having been there, and it connects me to an experience. I mean, there are so many things that are inexplicable about the process of working. A talisman gives me a sense of an emotional reaction which may or may not affect the work. It gives me a narrative.
If you look at the final result, you can say the discussion about the difference between art and illustration is tedious, and you can say, Who cares? But I think the distinction has something to do with speed. Illustration is done on assignment—you don’t have months and years to develop a project. Maybe there’s something superficial about illustration, or maybe there’s something delightful about it. Maybe it’s a mind-set.
I made a conscious decision: I wasn’t just going to create something in my studio. I was going to respond to assignments in the real world that had accompanying text, that had a literary connection, and had a problem to solve, a deadline. I figured I could travel around, do it from everywhere. And that’s what I discovered when I decided I was going to draw. If I did a memoir, it would be an illustrated memoir. I’ve always seen myself as an illustrator—first, last, and always.
Maira Kalman’s retrospective is at the Jewish Museum in New York City through July 31, 2011.