Maira Kalman: Realism and Optimism

Subscribers to the New Yorker are very familiar with the work of American artist Maira Kalman; her bright, exuberant art regularly appears on the magazine’s covers. She’s also a writer and illustrator of children’s and adult books, and a Solo Mom. Kalman was married to the designer Tibor Kalman until his death from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1999. The couple had an incredibly tight bond, and Kalman took the loss hard. “We were so connected with each other that it was mind-boggling and I really didn’t think that I would continue existing after he died,” she told the Daily Beast in 2011.

But exist she did. After Tibor’s passing, Kalman became Solo Mom to daughter Lulu and son Alex, who were both in their teens when their dad died. Creative perspective had always been a fundamental part of the kids’ upbringing: daughter Lulu Bodoni got her middle name from an 18th-century typeface her parents liked, for instance. (As Kalman shared with Dumbo Feather, “I said to [Lulu] the other day . . . ‘Honey, what do you think of your name?’ And she said, ‘Oh, it’s a real ice-breaker.’”) Kalman’s unique worldview continued when she was tasked with parenting alone. Over the years, she told her kids rich visual stories, filled with accordion-eating dogs and noodle women wearing polka-dot shoes. Kalman made Lulu and Alex the subjects of these stories, too. As she shared with the New York Times in 2001, “They were part of the comedy lab. I like the loopy way kids think, which is the way I think. It’s wonderfully surreal and inventive.”

Kalman modeled for her children a resiliency in the face of loss, a quality she seems to have inherited from her own mother. In an interview with Create, Kalman says, “If [my mother] was unhappy, she carried on.” And part of being resilient meant tapping into courage. “In the face of all the horror in the world, of the loss of friends and family, how do we bear to go on?” Kalman mused. “How do we find the courage? Rather than being frozen by this, I believe you must keep moving.”

Kalman’s kids, grown now, remain close to their mother. “I’m really happy to say that we all have an incredible relationship and we’re very close and have a lot of fun,” Kalman told Longreads in 2015. “They’re both very funny, which I appreciate. And they’re both very humanistic and they work very hard.”

Kalman never had formal training in fine arts. As she noted to the Daily Beast, “I’m not an artist, I’m an illustrator. There’s too much baggage calling yourself an artist. I like the idea of being grounded in the real world of having an assignment, handing it in, getting paid, next assignment, done.” But her modest assessment does not adequately describe her erudite and unpredictable work, which ranges from murals to opera sets to paintings sold in galleries and captures references ranging from dogs to Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

Ingrained in the work is a complex blend of realism and optimism. “Though I have a great capacity for joy, it goes hand in hand with sorrow and self-doubt,” Kalman shared with Dumbo Feather. “That is a daily circumstance. The sense of loss is palpable every minute of the day. . . . I have found that there are some very real things that help deal with sadness. Work is one—engagement in a meaningful occupation, the satisfaction of focusing and disappearing into another place. The other is love. Love of my family. Love of rituals shared with them. Basically living life.”

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