Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘Maira Kalman’

17 JULY, 2014

Portraits in Creativity: Artist Maira Kalman, Modern Patron Saint of the Moments Inside the Moments Inside the Moments

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“We always are in this in-between world of ‘Is this a dream? Is this really happening? Are we in costume? Who are we?'”

From her immeasurably wonderful visual meditations on life, including The Principles of Uncertainty and Various Illuminations (Of a Crazy World), to her illustrations for such cultural classics as Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style and Michael Pollan’s Food Rules, Maira Kalman is one of the most influential artists and visual storytellers of our time. Beneath her visual vignettes and narratives, imbued with enormous generosity of spirit, is always a subtle undertone of the great existential inquiry — why are we here? — coupled with a gentle assurance that it’s okay not to know, to thrash around in the maddening and marvelous ambiguity of it and make that be its own exquisite answer.

In this fantastic short film from the Portraits in Creativity project — a beautiful and thoughtful series of cinematic profiles by Gael Towey, spotlighting notable artists, their vibrant minds and inspirations, and “the courage and curiosity that propel the creative act” — Kalman discusses her influences, her love of New York, her charming collaboration with Daniel Handler and the MoMA, her witty TEDxMet talk, which maps “epic moments” in Kalman’s own life onto the museum’s timeline of notable acquisitions, her role as the duck in Isaac Mizrahi’s production of the pioneering Soviet children’s symphony Peter and the Wolf, and more. Annotated highlights below — please enjoy:

On how walking helps us see the world with new eyes:

Walking is another way of getting out of yourself, in the best possible way, because you really do get swept away by what’s around you.

On the singular poetics of New York:

I think that every person you talk to is eccentric — deeply eccentric — in their own way. You just have to find it. Some people are not willing to show it — which is why New York is so fantastic, because people are über willing to show any eccentricity they possibly can. And that’s one of the points of being here — you’ve left the restrictions of whatever place you’ve been in and you go, “Now I’m really going to show you something!”

On how mind-wandering enhances creativity and the importance of unconscious incubation, or what the Chinese call wu-wei, in coming up with ideas:

Daydreaming is a function of the brain that’s an uncensored exploration, without controlling it, of ideas and emotions. Often, the best ideas, the smartest ideas, the most amazing ideas come from those moments when you’re not trying.

On the Alice in Wonderland quality of everyday life:

We always are in this in-between world of “Is this a dream? Is this really happening? Are we in costume? Who are we?”

Complement this gem with Kalman on the two keys to a full life and the difference between thinking and feeling, then revisit her delightful Girls Standing on Lawns.

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04 JUNE, 2014

Maira Kalman at TEDxMet

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What teenage Vladimir Nabokov has to do with the spiritual power of shoes.

There are few artists today whom I admire more wholeheartedly than Maira Kalman. In addition to her magnificent books and projects — including the especially glorious The Principles of Uncertainty and Various Illuminations (Of a Crazy World) — she is also a bottomless well of wisdom on life, with a penchant for the endearingly quirky and a special gift for children’s books.

In this wonderful short talk from TEDxMet, Kalman traces the timeline of her life as an artist, delivered with a hearty helping of her immeasurably gladdening sense of humor.

Walking is the antidote to a lot of misery and boredom. Whatever you do, you should always try to walk somewhere before you do it.

Complement with Kalman on the power of not thinking and the two keys to a full life, then revisit her recent collaboration with Daniel Handler and MoMA, the charming Girls Standing on Lawns.

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06 MAY, 2014

Girls Standing on Lawns: A Quirky Collaboration Between Maira Kalman, Daniel Handler, and MoMA

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A celebration of the art of seeing and being seen.

Besides her incontestable talent, what makes beloved artist and illustrator Maira Kalman such a singular creative spirit — full of wisdom on how to live fully and why walking sparks creativity — is her idiosyncratic lens on life. To wit: She is a lifelong collector of vintage photographs fished from flea markets and netted around specific themes — hats, animals, chairs, etc. Among them is “girls standing on lawns,” a category whose delightful richness Kalman discovered in the world’s best-curated flea market for such esoteric gems, the collection of “vernacular” images — everyday snapshots never intended as works of art, made by amateurs and professionals alike — at the Museum of Modern Art. Kalman was so captivated by these photographs that she sent a selection of them to her longtime friend and collaborator Daniel Handler, perhaps better-known under the irreverent persona Lemony Snicket, and he wrote back with simple, charming haiku-like responses to the photographs. Kalman immediately sensed the poetic potential of this impromptu mashup and decided to paint a series of watercolors based on the images.

The result is Girls Standing on Lawns (public library) — the first in a series of enchanting three-way collaborations between Kalman, Handler, and the MoMA, celebrating the art and act of seeing, the poetics of the mundane, and the charm of the esoteric.

One morning we found some photographs. One morning these girls stood on lawns. We looked at the pictures and we got to work.

There’s no use standing around. You should do something.

This is the whole thing.

Forty vintage photographs from MoMA’s collection became the catalyst for Kalman’s impossibly wonderful watercolors and Handler’s lyrical short texts — interpretations, projections, and playful imaginings of the larger lives condensed by these photographs into mere mementos, forgotten and contextless. Under Kalman’s brush and Handler’s pen, these static moments blossom into a dynamic contemplation — isn’t that the definition of art? — of themes like childhood and family, social mores, womanhood, and belonging.

Meet me on the lawn, I want to take a picture of you.

Her sister asked her, maybe. I am making things up. A brother, a sweetheart. He told her how pretty she looks there on the lawn.

He’s not in the picture now.

Perhaps she stood there so she could stand still.

We are all standing for something on this lawn.

It doesn’t have to be a lawn, even. It doesn’t matter. Something else.

Girls Standing on Lawns is absolutely delightful in its entirety. Complement it with Why We Broke Up, a very different but equally captivating Kalman/Handler collaboration, and 13 Words, their lovely children’s book.

Images courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art

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