Maira Kalman is more than just a quirky cartoonist for The New Yorker
She's authored books, performed in a ballet and took piano lessons from a chicken. And that's just the beginning.
The artist Maira Kalman is in perpetual motion. We reach her by phone at her apartment in New York City, a metropolis whose vibrant energy courses through her work. This afternoon, she's traveling to Philadelphia where she'll be joining her friend and fashion icon Isaac Mizrahi on stage. They'll be discussing, of all things, motherhood.
She's had art shows everywhere from Beijing to Wisconsin, and many points in between. Kalman, who comes across as the consummate New Yorker, was actually born in Israel. She moved to the U.S. when she was just four-years-old and hasn't stopped moving since.
During that time, Kalman has written or illustrated 30 books – both for children and adults. "I wanted to be a writer and that's something that I always thought that I would do," she tells From The Grapevine. But merely calling Kalman an author is like calling Tom Hanks a typewriter collector. It's just one thread in the multi-layered canvas of her work. She has also taken up painting and reporting and dancing. She considers herself a storyteller, a journalist, a designer and a humorist. She gives Ted Talks. She's dabbled in ballets and operas.
Some of her work is surreal. Kalman was the duck in a production of "Peter and the Wolf" at the Guggenheim Museum. "I've always had this unrequited desire to be on stage," she says. She frequently works on projects with her son, including a short film in which Kalman gets a piano lesson from a talking chicken. You can watch it below:
Kalman has made illustrations for the New York Times and has drawn famous cartoon covers for the New Yorker magazine. One cover in particular, which she made with collaborator Rick Meyerowitz, appeared shortly after 9/11 and tackled the issue of tribalism in the city. It was a map of the Big Apple divided into different sections with humorous names like Artsifarsis and Botoxia. "The response to New Yorkistan was overwhelming," Meyerowitz recalls. "The magazine disappeared from newsstands in two days, becoming the best-selling issue of the New Yorker in history."
Asked if she has a picture of this famous cover on her wall, Kalman demurs. "I do not," she admits. "I never have my art on my wall. I go on to the next. There are some pieces that I love, but basically I'm not interested in looking at it. I really like the idea of a clarity and an emptiness around me and then I can create new work."
Those looking to see some of her work have a new opportunity. An exhibit of 100 pieces of her art has just opened at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. “It is such a wonderful thing to meet a gifted illustrator or a talented writer, and Maira happens to be both,” says Jane Bayard Curley, the exhibition curator at the High Museum. “She is just like her work: funny, smart, and an undisputed champion for the universal appeal of the picture book. Her highly personal and somewhat eccentric worldview appeals to anyone who wants to be verbally and visually amused and challenged.”
Dogs are a common theme in Kalman's books, even though she grew up afraid of them. 'I was terrified until I realized that they are the greatest thing on Earth,' she says. (Photo: Maira Kalman / High Museum of Art)
In conjunction with the exhibition, the Alliance Theatre next door to the High Museum is presenting the world premiere of “Max Makes a Million,” a play based on the charming children's book by Kalman.
While she considers herself a light-hearted person, Kalman isn't afraid to sometimes show a darker side – like in a children's book called "Fireboat" about a post-9/11 world. "I don't avoid difficult subjects, but you have to do it with a kindness and a humanism, and not to terrify somebody," she explains. "The point of talking about that to children is to say that terrible things may happen and probably could happen out of the blue, but really the most important thing is how you respond in your life to whatever sadness befalls you. And there's always something to do. There's always some way to make things better."
She could also be talking about the sadness in her own life, like the 1999 death of her husband, Tibor Kalman. The two partnered on a design firm together and frequently collaborated on projects. She now finds joy with her grandchildren. "The three-year-old and I read my books together and that's a great delight."
Maira Kalman (right) and her son, Alex, her co-author on 'Sara Berman's Closet.' This photo was taken by Kalman's three-year-old granddaughter, Olive Orbit Bennett. 'I know I am fuzzy,' she told us, 'but that is intentional!' (Photo: Courtesy Kalman Family)
When Kalman needs inspiration, she flitters around New York City. "When you start to walk, you really are able to absorb new things," she explains. "Walking around the city is a great, great gift. So I'm lucky."
But the constant motion can sometimes take its toll. "It would be nice to take a sabbatical and just kind of have no deadlines, even though I adore my work," she reveals. "There's something intriguing about wandering around and not having any obligations at all. I don't know if that's going to happen, but we'll see."
When From The Grapevine asked where she hopes to be in five years, Kalman responds sardonically. "I hope to be alive." She pauses, and then adds, "I'm doing and have done everything I could ever dream of doing and more."
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