‘The Good Is Elusive and Transitory in This World’

Artist and illustrator Maira Kalman on mistakes, optimism, and how art (and dogs) warm the soul.

Jessica Gross | Longreads | November 2015 | 19 minutes (4,880 words)

 

Few things remind me of how much beauty there is in the world as clearly and reliably as Maira Kalman’s work. An author, artist and designer, Kalman has written and illustrated dozens of books for children and adults, including The Principles of Uncertainty and And the Pursuit of Happiness, both originally columns for The New York Times; done sketchbooks and covers for The New Yorker; curated museum exhibits; illustrated Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style and Michael Pollan’s Food Rules—I could go on indefinitely. What unites her work is not only her aesthetic style—vibrant paintings, overlaid with whimsical lettering, usually involving a large dose of quirk and whimsy—but her determined discovery of what it means to be alive. Kalman’s work often begins with the reportorial, and she has a keen eye for minute, but transporting, details. In transferring what she sees to the page, she affords the reader entrée into her sense of wonder and studied optimism—and into the deepest existential questions there are.

I would have grabbed at almost any excuse to interview Kalman, but it just so happened that she was about to publish a book on one of my favorite subjects: dogs. When her husband, the graphic designer Tibor Kalman, passed away at 49, Kalman—who until then had been terrified of dogs—got an Irish Wheaton named Pete. It was an abrupt about-face, and nominally for the children; to her surprise, Kalman fell in love. In Beloved Dog, she presents a compilation of her pieces featuring dogs: a whole lot of them, it turns out.

I visited Kalman at her incredible apartment in New York City, itself a kind of mini-museum. Naturally, we began with a tour.

I know you’ve probably given a thousand tours of your apartment, and are possibly very tired of it by now…

No, you know what? I like it. It feels very natural; it’s very sweet. So whatever you want to see, I can take you through. Do you want to take some water with you or do you want to wait ’til you get back?

I’ll wait!

[We proceed through a hallway lined with bookcases] So this is the “hall of knowledge,” as the architect called it. We moved here from a fifth floor walk-up with the tub in the kitchen on Cornelius Street when we were just kids. You can see the Empire State Building, a sliver—this hotel came up right there—but we are fortunate; you can still wave to the Empire State Building every morning. I didn’t think this was for real, this view. So this is my bedroom, and then there are a few more bedrooms, which are of no interest, really. [We return to the living room; Maira pours water.]

I read that you have an egg slicer collection. Can we see that?

The egg slicer collection, I sold. I do have the egg beater collection, but it’s not here, it’s upstate. Kim Hastreiter, the publisher and editor of Paper Magazine, had a pop-up supermarket, and I decided it was time to sell a lot of those things.

How do you feel about that now?

Great. I forgot I had them. Once you get rid of something, you think, why was I holding on to it for so long? I look at the things that I have, and I think, I love everything—it’s not that I’m surrounded by ugly things. But I could also live without them.

How often do you toss and renew?

I do quite often, and I should do it more, because I read the book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. You can’t be as fanatical as she is, but you can take from that and philosophically say, how does each thing fit in your life, and what are the things you really need? And why are you carrying them around with you?

Did you go around and touch everything you own, like she advises?

[Laughs] I did. But, look, I often paint the things that I have. I collect all these things, but I’m actually using them in my paintings. So they have a life. They’re not just sitting there, like, “Why am I here?” Those are the Shoes That Slow Down Time, and those are the Junya Watanabe shoes that I love. And I just paint them over and over again in my paintings. So they have a presence.

[Gesturing toward her Eames La Chaise chair:] Do you ever actually sit in this chair?

All the time. And the dog, dear departed dog, that was his favorite chair. He used to sit there, and he’d either stick his head through the back and look, because he understood there was a hole there for a reason, or just lay there very, very happily. Have you sat on one of those?

No.

You can try. It’s so comfortable. [I sit in the chair, and holy moly.] It is balanced so you could sit on the edge, if you were inclined to.

This is immensely ergonomic.

You can also put your feet up if you like and say, “Oh, look at me.” [I do.] It always looks good. Everybody looks good. If you need to take a nap, you’re welcome to. We understand naps in this house.

Wow, it is way more comfortable than it looks.

Yeah, it looks like a bathtub kind of thing, and you really get in and you go, “Not bad.” I adore it. And its sculptural simplicity doesn’t overwhelm.

No, it’s perfect, like everything in here. [I return to the chair near Maira.] In And The Pursuit of Happiness, you write that when you walk into Thomas Jefferson’s house, “you immediately appreciate the breadth of his curiosity.” Is that what you hope people will feel on entering your house?

I would like that people come in and have a sense of beauty and calm and appreciation of the objects that are around them, which I guess maybe translates into curiosity. I’m always surprised when somebody comes in and doesn’t say anything. I think, “Have you not noticed all these nice things around you?” But then, of course: not necessarily.

What do you think that says about them? How do you judge a person like that?

I decided that I wouldn’t be judgmental. It was my New Year’s resolution last year.

Really. [Laughs]

Yes. Not to make a judgment and just say, “That’s what it was, and all is well.”

Have you been a hugely judgmental person? You don’t strike me as such at all, from your writings.

I think that the judgment comes from being a designer and an artist and needing to make decisions every minute about, is this good and is this bad, and this is beautiful and this is ugly. Also, we live in New York, and it’s a very snappy place; you make snap decisions about people and things. So there is a kind of letting go of that, maybe. But I might also be thinking things that I’m not saying.

So how’s the resolution going?

Not bad. I mean, I have my lapses.

Let’s talk about your new book, Beloved Dog. You write that growing up, your mother taught you that a dog could turn on you in an instant and rip your head off. I grew up with that message, too! I wondered: This strikes me as a kind of neurotic belief system. But your persona, in your art and writing, comes across as extremely not neurotic. Is that a genuine representation? And, if so, how did you grow up not to be neurotic?

Well, what I have to say is that the complexity of a person is complex. What I once thought was, “Oh, I’m either this or that,” and then I said, “Oh, wait a minute, I’m both things, and many more things, and many more things that keep changing.” So there are parts of me that are very neurotic and very worried and very distressed and sad, and there are parts of me that are joyous and open and completely inclusive. Those things come out in different ways. There is much evidence to not be hopeful about anything, but somehow in my work I exude hope and optimism and sunniness—though I think if anybody’s really looking, they can see levels of darkness or sadness or confusion. I say I was born with a sunny personality, but clearly there are many layers to this thing. And the dog thing: I was just in Belarus visiting the villages that my parents left in the 1930s, looking pretty much the same—a collection of shacks and water from the well and some mangy dogs growling at you. So I completely understand where that came from—this sense of danger, danger, danger. It was a big leap for me to finally buy a dog, and then to fall madly in love.

Have you had another dog since Pete?

No.

Will you ever?

It’s hard to know. I’m open to the idea that my kids and I would share a dog. Since I travel so much, there really is a practical aspect of it.

What did you do with Pete when you were traveling?

Oh, I thought you were going to say, “What did you do with Pete when he died?” He’s up there on the shelf. I’ll show you where he is.

Is he really?

Yeah. In a box.

Obviously. [Laughter]

Well, I did travel; there would be biscuits and dog sitters and friends and family. There was a big hodgepodge of stuff. We weren’t neurotic about saying, “It’s time for you to go somewhere and you’ll be okay.” He never wrote me that he was miserable, though I think he probably missed me, because he was never more than twelve inches from me.

[There is a pause while I show Maira Kalman a picture of my dog reading her book with me. I had to.]

You’ve interviewed people to research some of your books, so—being that I’m here now interviewing you—I wondered if you could tell me how you prepare. Say you’re going to interview Ruth Bader Ginsburg, as you did.

I thought you were asking how much preparation I did for our interview today. I did so much. I read everything about myself! [Laughter] You know, I haven’t done that many interviews. But when I did visit Ruth Bader Ginsburg, I was able to talk to her about being in the moment and I didn’t really need to know anything other than that. I mean, obviously I knew enough about her to know who she was. But I think that what I do in an interview is, I’m curious. So I could just start with, you know, “Tell me what’s going on.” I don’t do that much research. I didn’t know I was going to see her beautiful collars and I didn’t know that I would find out her favorite cake. The conversation hopefully just flows organically from the moment.

In On the Pursuit of Happiness, you write, “Don’t we need both the warriors and the artist on this planet?” Why do you think we need artists in this world?

I think it’s a very good question. I go to the Met as often as I can and I try, when I’m in the right rhythm, to go once a week. I like to go on Friday night. I think that’s one of my favorite things to do. This week we’re going to go Saturday night.

Who’s we?

Rick, my boyfriend, and me. I think that all of us are searching for the reason we’re here and the meaning of life and what’s important and what makes you feel a sense of purpose and a sense of deep joy. I was talking to Rick and he said that human beings, as we know them, have been on the earth for 40,000 years. You think, well, when were the cave paintings done in Lascaux? More than 10,000 years ago. So the need for one person to communicate with another from their deepest soul has to be something that’s really important. And the art that you can connect with—when I see art that I love, I feel a sense of truth in the world and I get a heightened sense of gratitude and joy for being alive. And inspiration.

So it does something, maybe chemically, when you see art and you connect with it—and music, even more than visual arts, if I really were to think of it. The nature of music in our lives reaches some kind of incredibly deep, primal chord of belonging and safety. Not always. And of course there is all different kinds of work to respond to. But we need that. We need our souls to be warmed. And I think art does that in the best sense when you really are loving what you’re looking at.

Going back to the neurotic thing: from my point of view, the bad is real and the good is elusive and transitory in this world. You can count on the bad and the sad, but you can’t really count on being happy. You don’t know how often you will be happy and what it means in those fleeting moments during the day.

What kind of music do you like to listen to?

Mostly I tend to listen to classical music, and within classical music, Bach and Handel and Mozart and Beethoven and a host of others. But I would say that if I only had one thing to listen to, it would be St. Matthew’s Passion and I’d be just fine forever.

Where do you go to hear music?

We go to BAM or the Armory or churches. I actually like to go on Sunday morning to the Saint Thomas Church to hear the chorus there. It is glorious. When there’s religion being discussed, I’m sketching people who are wearing fabulous outfits or staring off into space and daydreaming, not about religion.

I also like that pause, the parentheses of the day: Even though I’m not looking at it as a religious point, we all need sanctuary, these meditative pauses. I get it from walking, which I do so much, but from music, too. I’m also listening to music all day long in my studio.

Can you listen to music while you write, or just while you paint?

I don’t know. [Laughter] Well, when I paint, for sure there’s music and that’s great. But I think when I’m writing, I probably am not sitting in my studio. I’m probably writing in the park or the subway or maybe in the kitchen, and music isn’t primary.

Can you really write on the subway?

Yeah, I’ve written a lot on the subway. I wrote the entire Fireboat on the way to an appointment. Of course, I changed it. But the first draft I wrote on the subway. And I draw a lot on the subway: I draw people I’m looking at.

Where was this appointment? It must have been far, to have drafted a whole book.

It was very, very far out. I was meeting somebody who was a historian about the fireboats in New York. It was quite a ways.

You’ve also said you write a lot of your children’s books in the MoMA Garden.

It’s an incredible place for me. I liked it better when it had the old configuration, but, you know, things change. So, okay. I am inspired by gardens in general. Put me in any garden and I’ll be happy and I’ll probably write something.

Can I ask how you and Rick met each other?

Actually, it was a blind date. A mutual friend set us up. He came here.

Oh, really? What happened? Did you make him dinner?

No, I forgot he was coming! [Laughter] I find that endlessly amusing. I don’t think he’s so amused. I forgot he was coming. I was going to my mother’s house for dinner and I said, “Okay, you can come along.” My son and my sister and another friend and my mother were there in her studio apartment. And I had two dogs at the time, Pete and a little dachshund who was visiting. It’s actually nice to have the whole family with you when you’re on your first date.

Why is it nice? [Laughter]

I think it removes some of the pressure. And it helps you be yourself when there are other people around, I think.

What are your kids like, if I may ask?

I think they’re great. Lulu is 33 and Alex is 30. The three of us just went away for a few days to Shelter Island because they said that they hadn’t been alone with me for quite a while, and it proved to be nice. I’m really happy to say that we all have an incredible relationship and we’re very close and have a lot of fun. They’re both very funny, which I appreciate. And they’re both very humanistic and they work very hard.

What’s Lulu’s profession?

Lulu is a manager of the food for food and music festivals. So she curates, as we use that word now, and organizes and manages all the food for anything from Bonnaroo and Googamooga and many, many festivals that are all over the land. She’ll have 80,000 for dinner, and I have a breakdown when I have six people for brunch: How am I going to deal with this? So we’re complete opposites in that way.

Do you more often have people for brunch rather than dinner?

Yes. Even though we’re having a big dinner tomorrow night. Rick is going to come by soon and start cooking the short ribs, so don’t mind the delicious smells.

I won’t.

I don’t like dinner parties so much, and I don’t like the night. I think that by seven o’clock I basically have nothing to say to anybody at all, and it would just be superfluous nothing coming out of my mouth. I also wake up very early, so by the evening, I really am not a company person—I just prefer to have a quiet evening and go to bed quite early and then be optimistic the next morning, as opposed to dark and morose at night. The night is not my friend.

I always told my kids, don’t have serious conversations with your mates at night, because everything looks so dark you’re going to have a fight in two seconds. Just don’t do it. I always say, “If you’re hungry you should eat something, and if you’re thirsty you should drink something, and if you’re tired, you should sleep.” They’re always making fun of me for saying that, but I think there are some truisms that are very, very basic. And if you just listen to what you need, sometimes it will take you out of troubling spots.

What time do you wake up in the morning?

I wake up at six. Then there’s coffee in the kitchen and reading the obits with Rick if he’s here and then walking with my friend in Central Park three times a week. We start in Columbus Circle and make a loop up to the Reservoir and back down to Columbus Circle. It’s about a three-mile loop. It’s not that much.

No, it’s much.

You know, I’d like to walk five or six miles a day. That’s my desire, but it doesn’t always happen. Then I come back here on the Fifth Avenue bus. I’m completely elated by the time the walk is over. On the bus down Fifth Avenue, still elated, looking at humanity, looking at buildings, couldn’t be happier. And, you know, it will last for about a half a day until you kind of go, “Wait a minute.” [Laughter] But by that time I’m back in the studio, I’m working.

What do you do at night?

If I can take a walk at night, I like to. If there is a lemon sorbet involved, that’s not a bad thing. And then bed and watching, ideally, some British murder mystery. That’s my ideal: comedies or British murder mysteries, and then hopefully asleep by 10 or 11. Ten is better because one wants the eight hours before waking up at six.

So you do watch television—I wondered. And particularly at night.

Only at night. It’s never on other than a few hours at night. I never watch the news; I haven’t watched the news in years and years and years. I find it depressing beyond understanding, and also an assault of something that really doesn’t do anything for me. The information that’s bombarded at you, I don’t do anything with it other than just worry more. I would rather know more about my community and do things within the context of my work and my community and my family and allow that other layer to take care of itself, whatever it’s doing. So that’s my story of the night.

So, New York museums: You like the Met and MoMA. Where else?

I think in New York, the three really serious ones are the Met, MoMA and the Frick.

What about the Museum of Natural History?

I go there, but not as much. It isn’t on my main loop. You’re reminding me that I should go there because I adore sketching the dioramas. They’re gorgeous and it’s an extraordinary, extraordinary place. If I had to say one thing, and this really sounds stupid, but: I don’t adore the lighting.

Can you tell me how Beloved Dog came about? Was it your idea or an editor’s to do a compilation of your work featuring dogs?

I think it was my agent, Charlotte [Sheedy], and my editor, Ann Godoff. Now, I may be misremembering, but I think we were having lunch together and talking about things that I love. Somehow dogs came up, and Charlotte said, “You should do a compilation of your dogs.” I thought, “How many dog paintings have I done? I wouldn’t have enough.” It turns out that every painting I’ve ever done has dogs in it.

Hi Res Jacket

Why do you think dogs enable an emotional opening up unlike any other creatures in the world, in my humble opinion?

Well, I think that’s completely true. There’s no doubt about it. I don’t think cats can come close. I think that they’re saying there’s some kind of also chemical, hormonal thing that happens between a human and a dog, a primal, ancient something. Because the amount of joy that a dog elicits cannot be explained by normal circumstances. It’s something that’s off any kind of known chart. It makes me very sad that I don’t have one now. When I’m sad, I think, “Wouldn’t it be incredible to have a dog?” And then I go, “Yeah.”

Do you ever feel like glad that you don’t have the responsibility of a dog at this particular point?

Definitely. You know, we have the old joke in our family, “I may be crazy, but I’m not stupid.” Clearly, not having to run home to walk a dog and being able to go away and not have to think about it at all is something that is also very nice.

I wanted to ask about your lettering: you have a mixture of capital and lowercase letters, often within the same word. The fact that it’s not uniform forces me to slow down as I read, especially combined with the richness of the language and the images. It encourages me to linger. Is that your intent?

It’s interesting. No, I haven’t ever thought about it being about time and about slowing down time, though that’s a very nice thing. I think of it as an integral part of how the page looks and how the art looks and the sense of integrating type with art, which has always interested me. Because designing the whole thing means you’re designing the whole thing. I do love typography very, very much. Lulu’s middle name is Bodoni, which is an extraordinarily beautiful typeface that was designed in the eighteenth century by a man named Bodoni in Parma. We made a pilgrimage to Parma to see his museum.

Do you ever have the urge to write in a way that’s totally different than you’ve ever written before?

No, but I have the urge to maybe write with my left hand, or maybe write with dirt and a stick. I use the typewriter a lot, also, because I just love the typewriter and making mistakes. I’d like to do anything that allowed me to make mistakes. Often mistakes have an ingenuousness about them: you’re just trying to do your best and it doesn’t always work out. I’m working on a ballet with a choreographer, John Heginbotham. He used to dance with Mark Morris, and he left to start his own company. I danced the part of the duck in Isaac Mizrahi’s Peter and the Wolf, and John was the choreographer for that piece. There were three of us who weren’t dancers, and it involves musicians playing instruments they’re not as familiar with, and so part of it is about making mistakes. This is an exploration: what is a mistake, and what’s charming about that? You often go wrong, and then how do you find your way, allowing for the fact that you don’t know something? Not being ashamed, not being mortified, just saying: “Oh yeah, I got that wrong.” The ability to be wrong, the mistakes that you make when you’re sketching, when you’re doodling, the tangents that you go on—those, to me, are thrilling. You find the true story when you do that. You don’t find the true story when everything is right. Then you’re not anywhere. Mistakes bring good.

Do you like speaking in front of an audience?

You know, I often make the vow that I’m never going to speak again, that I’m going to some kind of convent and you can find me there tending the garden and please, don’t expect me to answer your questions. Because I often say I regret everything I say. I’m very good at speaking in front of an audience, in a way. I feel very comfortable; I feel that I make a connection with people. It’s not as if I’m going to die or am slow and boring. But I’d be very happy if I never did it again.

What do you mean, you regret everything you say? Are you being tongue-in-cheek?

You can say, “She is actually very neurotic. She regrets everything she says!” You know, I have a kind of deep confusion about language and about everything people say, because it seems so surreal to me. It’s not as if I’m floating in space and I don’t know what’s going on—I mean that I can see the duality. If I say one statement, I could see just as easily saying the opposite or saying nothing at all. Maybe this comes from a certain humanism: what are people really saying when they’re talking? What is funny is that my mother always said to me, and I think about it so much, that if people said what they’re really thinking, nobody would be speaking to anybody. It’s an extraordinary thing to say, actually. Does it mean that we’re only thinking dark thoughts? So I’m always wondering, well, what’s the truth?

I’ve been on a few silent retreats when I was doing a series of pieces for Mindful magazine. I like to say they paid me to meditate. The silent retreats weren’t hard for me at all. They weren’t long—it was three days; it’s wasn’t as if I went for months or weeks. But they were so illuminating. I felt terrific afterwards. I felt stupendously clear. Of course, it doesn’t last and then you go back into normal life. But I thought, “What is it about not speaking that makes you feel clear? Why shouldn’t you be sad that you’re not communicating with people?” I realized that the premise of living in a silent retreat is that you owe nobody anything. You don’t have to nod hello, you don’t have to open the door and say thank you. Nothing. The point of it is to benignly be yourself. That’s an extraordinary thing, because so much of our energy goes into asking, a million times a day, how polite am I, and was I kind enough, and was I nice enough? Those things are completely negated when you go to one of these retreats. It’s refreshing not to have to worry about being nice.

So why ever talk to anyone? When you came back, did you develop a counterargument?

Oh, I was delighted. I couldn’t stop talking. I was in a great mood. And of course we were eating vegan grouts there and the minute I got out, I wanted a cheeseburger and a chocolate chip mint ice cream, and let’s live life to the fullest.

* * *

Jessica Gross is a writer based in New York City.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.