Spring 2003

Reputations: Maira Kalman

‘I was out walking the dear dog and I saw 500 things that made me want to make art’

Maira and Tibor Kalman met in college as English students and were together for 32 years, many of them as husband and wife, until Tibor’s death from cancer in 1999. While nurturing an ambition to write short stories, she helped Tibor found M&Co in 1979 (and was in fact the ‘M’ in the enigmatic studio name). For many years, however, while raising their two children, her contribution was usually behind the scenes. Then in 1987 she published her first book, Stay Up Late, illustrating David Byrne’s lyrics with an array of colourful primitive-looking characters and expressive type treatment designed by M&Co.

A year later she published Hey Willy, See the Pyramids, her first solo book. The sarcastic wit, absurd non-sequiturs and eclectic diversions, not to mention the naive drawing and painting style of this and later books, particularly appealed to the ageing baby-boomer’s ‘inner child’. Maira helped found a new genre of picture books that employed kinetic type composition as an expressive means of marrying word and image.

Maira’s major protagonist, a dog named Max, became an instant classic, winning children’s hearts and book awards. She also wrote and illustrated Chicken Soup, Boots; Next Stop Grand Central (based on murals she created for New York’s Grand Central Station) and What Pete Ate From A-Z (a culinary biography of her own mutt Pete). Each book revealed the Israeli-born Kalman’s own autobiography as they celebrated her love for New York City.

Before Tibor’s death Maira helped curate ‘Tiborocity’, a retrospective exhibition that opened shortly after Tibor died. Today she continues to work on projects that the couple had begun years ago, including (un)Fashion, a book about the way the non-Westernised world attires itself, and Colors, an anthology of Tibor’s work when editor of that magazine. She still runs M&Co, in its current incarnation as an entrepreneurial producer of paperweights, clocks and art ‘products’.

In addition to keeping Tibor Kalman’s flame alive, this one-time backstage manager has emerged as a significant artist and auteur in her own right. She has produced murals for Grand Central Station, windows displays for Sony, and clothes mannequins for Pucci. Her book, Fireboat: The Heroic Adventures of the John J. Harvey, about the decommissioned boat that fought fires at Ground Zero after 9/11, reveals a growing interest in fusing real life and art into an entertaining, though poignant form of social commentary.

Maira has reported for The New Yorker, produced commentaries on public radio, and is working with choreographer Mark Morris on a performance piece to be mounted at the mental institution Creedmore.

Steven Heller: It’s more than three years since Tibor passed away. How are you doing?

Maira Kalman: I am doing as wonderfully and as awfully as can be expected.

. . .

SH: So, what are you thinking right now (aside from ‘what an idiotic question’)? Is there anything at this moment, or this day, that makes you want to go out and make art?

MK: I was out walking the dear dog (who is a sweet meal ticket – two books about him, one New Yorker cover and a back page) and I saw 500 things that made me want to make art. I ran into a father taking two kids to school. The girls were wearing green skirts and orange rain boots and one of them had a ponytail and was carrying a pink book and was pigeon-toed. Then I saw a man wearing a bowler hat with a feather and he was wearing an eye mask like Zorro made out of a twenty-dollar bill and I thought, ‘There is a God. Thank you, whoever is showing me this.’

SH: There are few things that you are unwilling to try. Just last year, as a reporter, you covered a convention of philosophers, and published a piece for The New Yorker ‘Talk of the Town’ on Alex Melamid and the Rubber Band Society. What are some of the other unexpected adventures you’re doing that we should expect?

MK: I am going to have a one-woman show at the Julie Saul Gallery where I will do things like hang out and fold fabric and have my mother iron clothes. I will also have paintings, so that we can all hopefully make some money. But I am interested in the events part. And that is about having fun – just plain old fun.

SH: You are always thinking of weird ways to make a scene (in the best possible sense of the word). At your Colors book party last spring, your mother ironed handkerchiefs printed with Tibor’s quotations – I still have mine, nicely pressed and folded, and I can’t bring myself to blow my nose on it. You’d make a great party planner. Have you ever thought of doing some kind of performance art? Something using narrative?

MK: The play, the gallery show, the store front, the Mark Morris, walking to the post office. I think that is one of the places I am heading.

SH: Okay, if you had a chance to do anything this year without worrying about money, fixing dinner, or folding the laundry. What would it be? What is the zenith of your creative urge?

MK: I would be doing exactly and precisely what I am doing every day.

First published in Eye no. 47 vol. 12, 2003.

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