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TED2007

Maira Kalman: The illustrated woman

March 3, 2007

Author and illustrator Maira Kalman talks about her life and work, from her covers for The New Yorker to her books for children and grown-ups. She is as wonderful, as wise and as deliciously off-kilter in person as she is on paper.

Maira Kalman - Illustrator, author
Maira Kalman's wise, witty drawings have appeared on numberless New Yorker covers, in a dozen children's books, and throughout the pages of the Elements of Style. Her latest book, The Principles of Uncertainty, is the result of a year-long illustrated blog she kept for the New York Times. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
What I am always thinking about
00:25
is what this session is about, which is called simplicity.
00:28
And almost, I would almost call it being simple-minded,
00:32
but in the best sense of the word.
00:36
I'm trying to figure out two very simple things:
00:38
how to live and how to die, period.
00:42
That's all I'm trying to do, all day long.
00:44
And I'm also trying to have some meals, and have some snacks,
00:46
and, you know, and yell at my children, and do all the normal things
00:49
that keep you grounded.
00:53
So, I was fortunate enough to be born a very dreamy child.
00:56
My older sister was busy torturing my parents,
01:03
and they were busy torturing her.
01:07
I was lucky enough to be completely ignored,
01:09
which is a fabulous thing, actually, I want to tell you.
01:12
So, I was able to completely daydream my way through my life.
01:14
And I finally daydreamed my way into NYU, at a very good time, in 1967,
01:20
where I met a man who was trying to blow up the math building of NYU.
01:27
And I was writing terrible poetry and knitting sweaters for him.
01:33
And feminists hated us, and the whole thing was wretched
01:37
from beginning to end.
01:42
But I kept writing bad poetry, and he didn't blow up the math building,
01:44
but he went to Cuba.
01:48
But I gave him the money, because I was from Riverdale
01:49
so I had more money than he did.
01:51
(Laughter)
01:53
And that was a good thing to help, you know, the cause.
01:54
But, then he came back, and things happened,
01:58
and I decided I really hated my writing,
02:02
that it was awful, awful, purple prose.
02:05
And I decided that I wanted to tell --
02:09
but I still wanted to tell a narrative story
02:11
and I still wanted to tell my stories.
02:13
So I decided that I would start to draw. How hard could that be?
02:15
And so what happened was that I started
02:18
just becoming an editorial illustrator through, you know,
02:23
sheer whatever, sheer ignorance.
02:26
And we started a studio.
02:29
Well, Tibor really started the studio, called M&Co.
02:31
And the premise of M&Co was, we don't know anything,
02:33
but that's all right, we're going to do it anyway.
02:37
And as a matter of fact, it's better not to know anything,
02:39
because if you know too much, you're stymied.
02:41
So, the premise in the studio was,
02:44
there are no boundaries, there is no fear.
02:47
And I -- and my full-time job, I landed the best job on Earth,
02:50
was to daydream, and to actually come up with absurd ideas
02:53
that -- fortunately, there were enough people there,
02:58
and it was a team, it was a collective,
03:00
it was not just me coming up with crazy ideas.
03:02
But the point was that I was there as myself, as a dreamer.
03:04
And so some of the things -- I mean, it was a long history of M&Co,
03:09
and clearly we also needed to make some money,
03:12
so we decided we would create a series of products.
03:16
And some of the watches there,
03:20
attempting to be beautiful and humorous --
03:23
maybe not attempting, hopefully succeeding.
03:25
That to be able to talk about content,
03:28
to break apart what you normally expect, to use humor and surprise,
03:31
elegance and humanity in your work was really important to us.
03:35
It was a very high, it was a very impersonal time in design
03:40
and we wanted to say, the content is what's important,
03:45
not the package, not the wrapping.
03:49
You really have to be journalists, you have to be inventors,
03:51
you have to use your imagination more importantly than anything.
03:54
So, the good news is that I have a dog
03:58
and, though I don't know if I believe in luck --
04:03
I don't know what I believe in, it's a very complicated question,
04:05
but I do know that before I go away, I crank his tail seven times.
04:07
So, whenever he sees a suitcase in the house,
04:11
because everybody's always, you know, leaving,
04:13
they're always cranking this wonderful dog's tail,
04:16
and he runs to the other room.
04:18
But I am able to make the transition from working for children and --
04:20
from working for adults to children, and back and forth,
04:25
because, you know, I can say that I'm immature,
04:28
and in a way, that's true.
04:30
I don't really -- I mean, I could tell you that I didn't understand,
04:33
I'm not proud of it, but I didn't understand
04:38
let's say 95 percent of the talks at this conference.
04:40
But I have been taking beautiful notes of drawings
04:43
and I have a gorgeous onion from Murray Gell-Mann's talk.
04:45
And I have a beautiful page of doodles from Jonathan Woodham's talk.
04:48
So, good things come out of, you know, incomprehension --
04:52
(Laughter)
04:55
-- which I will do a painting of, and then it will end up in my work.
04:57
So, I'm open to the possibilities of not knowing
05:00
and finding out something new.
05:04
So, in writing for children, it seems simple, and it is.
05:06
You have to condense a story into 32 pages, usually.
05:11
And what you have to do is, you really have to edit down to what you want to say.
05:15
And hopefully, you're not talking down to kids
05:18
and you're not talking in such a way that you,
05:21
you know, couldn't stand reading it after one time.
05:23
So, I hopefully am writing, you know,
05:26
books that are good for children and for adults.
05:28
But the painting reflects --
05:30
I don't think differently for children than I do for adults.
05:32
I try to use the same kind of imagination, the same kind of whimsy,
05:34
the same kind of love of language.
05:37
So, you know, and I have lots of wonderful-looking friends.
05:40
This is Andrew Gatz, and he walked in through the door and I said,
05:44
"You! Sit down there." You know, I take lots of photos.
05:46
And the Bertoia chair in the background is my favorite chair.
05:49
So, I get to put in all of the things that I love.
05:52
Hopefully, a dialog between adults and children will happen on many different levels,
05:55
and hopefully different kinds of humor will evolve.
05:59
And the books are really journals of my life.
06:03
I never -- I don't like plots.
06:05
I don't know what a plot means.
06:07
I can't stand the idea of anything that starts in the beginning,
06:09
you know, beginning, middle and end. It really scares me,
06:12
because my life is too random and too confused,
06:14
and I enjoy it that way.
06:17
But anyway, so we were in Venice,
06:18
and this is our room. And I had this dream
06:23
that I was wearing this fantastic green gown,
06:25
and I was looking out the window,
06:27
and it was really a beautiful thing.
06:29
And so, I was able to put that into this story, which is an alphabet,
06:31
and hopefully go on to something else.
06:34
The letter C had other things in it.
06:37
I was fortunate also, to meet the man who's sitting on the bed,
06:39
though I gave him hair over here and he doesn't have hair.
06:42
Well, he has some hair but -- well, he used to have hair.
06:45
And with him, I was able to do a project that was really fantastic.
06:48
I work for the New Yorker, and I do covers, and 9/11 happened
06:53
and it was, you know, a complete and utter end of the world as we knew it.
06:58
And Rick and I were on our way to a party in the Bronx,
07:03
and somebody said Bronxistan,
07:07
and somebody said Ferreristan,
07:09
and we came up with this New Yorker cover,
07:10
which we were able to -- we didn't know what we were doing.
07:13
We weren't trying to be funny, we weren't trying to be --
07:15
well, we were trying to be funny actually, that's not true.
07:18
We hoped we'd be funny, but we didn't know it would be a cover,
07:20
and we didn't know that that image, at the moment that it happened,
07:23
would be something that would be so wonderful for a lot of people.
07:27
And it really became the -- I don't know, you know,
07:31
it was one of those moments people started laughing at what was going on.
07:33
And from, you know, Fattushis, to Taxistan to, you know,
07:36
for the Fashtoonks, Botoxia, Pashmina, Khlintunisia, you know,
07:41
we were able to take the city
07:45
and make fun of this completely foreign, who are -- what's going on over here?
07:47
Who are these people? What are these tribes?
07:51
And David Remnick, who was really wonderful about it,
07:54
had one problem. He didn't like Al Zheimers,
07:57
because he thought it would insult people with Alzheimer's.
08:02
But you know, we said, "David, who's going to know?
08:05
They're not."
08:07
(Laughter)
08:09
So it stayed in, and it was, and, you know, it was a good thing.
08:11
You know, in the course of my life, I never know what's going to happen
08:19
and that's kind of the beauty part.
08:22
And we were on Cape Cod, a place, obviously, of great inspiration,
08:24
and I picked up this book, "The Elements of Style," at a yard sale.
08:28
And I didn't -- and I'd never used it in school,
08:32
because I was too busy writing poems, and flunking out,
08:34
and I don't know what, sitting in cafes.
08:37
But I picked it up and I started reading it and I thought, this book is amazing.
08:39
I said, people should know about this book.
08:42
(Laughter)
08:45
So I decided it needed a few -- it needed a lift, it needed a few illustrations.
08:48
And basically, I called the, you know, I convinced the White Estate,
08:51
and what an intersection of like, you know,
08:55
Polish Jew, you know, main WASP family. Here I am, saying,
08:57
I'd like to do something to this book.
09:03
And they said yes, and they left me completely alone,
09:05
which was a gorgeous, wonderful thing.
09:07
And I took the examples that they gave,
09:10
and just did 56 paintings, basically.
09:14
So, this is, I don't know if you can read this.
09:16
"Well, Susan, this is a fine mess you are in."
09:18
And when you're dealing with grammar,
09:20
which is, you know, incredibly dry,
09:22
E.B. White wrote such wonderful, whimsical -- and actually, Strunk --
09:24
and then you come to the rules and, you know,
09:28
there are lots of grammar things. "Do you mind me asking a question?
09:30
Do you mind my asking a question?"
09:33
"Would, could, should, or would, should, could."
09:36
And "would" is Coco Chanel's lover, "should" is Edith Sitwell,
09:38
and "could" is an August Sander subject.
09:42
And, "He noticed a large stain in the center of the rug."
09:45
(Laughter)
09:47
So, there's a kind of British understatement, murder-mystery theme
09:49
that I really love very much.
09:52
And then, "Be obscure clearly! Be wild of tongue in a way we can understand."
09:54
E.B. White wrote us a number of rules,
09:58
which can either paralyze you and make you loathe him
10:00
for the rest of time, or you can ignore them, which I do,
10:02
or you can, I don't know what, you know, eat a sandwich.
10:07
So, what I did when I was painting was I started singing,
10:10
because I really adore singing,
10:13
and I think that music is the highest form of all art.
10:15
So, I commissioned a wonderful composer, Nico Muhly,
10:18
who wrote nine songs using the text,
10:21
and we performed this fantastic evening of --
10:25
he wrote music for both amateurs and professionals.
10:29
I played the clattering teacup and the slinky
10:32
in the main reading room of the New York Public Library,
10:34
where you're supposed to be very, very quiet,
10:37
and it was a phenomenally wonderful event,
10:39
which we hopefully will do some more.
10:41
Who knows? The New York TimesSelect, the op-ed page,
10:45
asked me to do a column, and they said, you can do whatever you want.
10:49
So, once a month for the last year,
10:52
I've been doing a column called "The Principles of Uncertainty,"
10:53
which, you know, I don't know who Heisenberg is,
10:57
but I know I can throw that around now. You know,
10:59
it's the principles of uncertainty, so, you know.
11:01
I'm going to read quickly -- and probably I'm going to edit some,
11:04
because I don't have that much time left -- a few of the columns.
11:07
And basically, I was so, you know, it was so amusing,
11:10
because I said, "Well, how much space do I have?"
11:13
And they said, "Well, you know, it's the Internet."
11:14
And I said, "Yes, but how much space do I have?"
11:16
And they said, "It's unlimited, it's unlimited."
11:18
OK. So, the first one I was very timid, and I'll begin.
11:20
"How can I tell you everything that is in my heart?
11:25
Impossible to begin. Enough. No. Begin with the hapless dodo."
11:27
And I talk about the dodo, and how the dodo became extinct,
11:30
and then I talk about Spinoza.
11:34
"As the last dodo was dying, Spinoza was looking for a rational explanation
11:36
for everything, called eudaemonia.
11:40
And then he breathed his last, with loved ones around him,
11:42
and I know that he had chicken soup also, as his last meal."
11:45
I happen to know it for a fact.
11:47
And then he died, and there was no more Spinoza. Extinct.
11:49
And then, we don't have a stuffed Spinoza,
11:53
but we do have a stuffed Pavlov's dog,
11:55
and I visited him in the Museum of Hygiene in St. Petersburg, in Russia.
11:57
And there he is, with this horrible electrical box on his rump
12:01
in this fantastic, decrepit palace.
12:06
"And I think it must have been a very, very dark day
12:10
when the Bolsheviks arrived.
12:12
Maybe amongst themselves they had a few good laughs,
12:13
but Stalin was a paranoid man, even more than my father."
12:15
(Laughter)
12:19
You don't even know.
12:20
"And decided his top people had to be extinctified."
12:21
Which I think I made up, which is a good thing.
12:26
And so, this is a chart of, you know, just a small chart,
12:28
because the chart would go on forever of all the people that he killed.
12:31
So, shot dead, smacked over the head, you know, thrown away.
12:33
"Nabokov's family fled Russia. How could the young Nabokov,
12:39
sitting innocently and elegantly in a red chair,
12:42
leafing through a book and butterflies,
12:44
imagine such displacement, such loss?"
12:46
And then I want to tell you that this is a map.
12:50
So, "My beautiful mother's family fled Russia as well.
12:52
Too many pogroms.
12:56
Leaving the shack, the wild blueberry woods, the geese, the River Sluch,
12:58
they went to Palestine and then America."
13:01
And my mother drew this map for me of the United States of America,
13:04
and that is my DNA over here, because that person who I grew up with
13:06
had no use for facts whatsoever.
13:15
Facts were actually banished from our home.
13:17
And so, if you see that Texas -- you know, Texas and California
13:20
are under Canada, and that South Carolina is on top of North Carolina,
13:24
this is the home that I grew up in, OK?
13:27
So, it's a miracle that I'm here today.
13:29
But actually, it's not. It's actually a wonderful thing.
13:31
But then she says Tel Aviv and Lenin,
13:35
which is the town they came from, and, "Sorry, the rest unknown, thank you."
13:37
But in her lexicon, "sorry, the rest unknown, thank you" is
13:40
"sorry, the rest unknown, go to hell,"
13:42
because she couldn't care less.
13:44
(Laughter)
13:45
"The Impossibility of February"
13:46
is that February's a really wretched month in New York
13:48
and the images for me conjure up these really awful things.
13:51
Well, not so awful.
13:54
I received a box in the mail and it was wrapped with newspaper
13:56
and there was the picture of the man on the newspaper and he was dead.
13:59
And I say, "I hope he's not really dead,
14:03
just enjoying a refreshing lie-down in the snow,
14:05
but the caption says he is dead."
14:07
And actually, he was. I think he's dead, though I don't know,
14:09
maybe he's not dead.
14:12
"And this woman leans over in anguish, not about that man,
14:14
but about all sad things. It happens quite often in February."
14:16
There's consoling.
14:21
This man is angry because somebody threw onions all over the staircase,
14:23
and basically -- you know, I guess onions are a theme here.
14:27
And he says, "It is impossible not to lie.
14:30
It is February and not lying is impossible."
14:32
And I really spend a lot of time wondering,
14:34
how much truth do we tell?
14:36
What is it that we're actually -- what story are we actually telling?
14:38
How do we know when we are ourselves?
14:41
How do we actually know that these sentences coming out of our mouths
14:43
are real stories, you know, are real sentences?
14:46
Or are they fake sentences that we think we ought to be saying?
14:48
I'm going to quickly go through this.
14:51
A quote by Bertrand Russell,
14:54
"All the labor of all the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration,
14:56
all the noonday brightness of human genius
15:00
are destined to extinction.
15:03
So now, my friends, if that is true,
15:05
and it is true, what is the point?"
15:07
A complicated question.
15:10
And so, you know, I talk to my friends
15:11
and I go to plays where they're singing Russian songs.
15:14
Oh my God, you know what?
15:17
Could we have -- no, we don't have time.
15:19
I taped my aunt. I taped my aunt singing a song in Russian from the --
15:21
you know, could we have it for a second?
15:23
Do you have that?
15:26
(Music)
15:28
OK. I taped my -- my aunt used to swim in the ocean
15:47
every day of the year until she was about 85.
15:50
So -- and that's a song about how everybody's miserable
15:57
because, you know, we're from Russia.
15:59
(Laughter)
16:01
I went to visit Kitty Carlisle Hart, and she is 96,
16:02
and when I brought her a copy of "The Elements of Style,"
16:04
she said she would treasure it.
16:07
And then I said -- oh, and she was talking about Moss Hart, and I said,
16:09
"When you met him, you knew it was him."
16:11
And she said, "I knew it was he."
16:13
(Laughter)
16:14
So, I was the one who should have kept the book, but it was a really wonderful moment.
16:17
And she dated George Gershwin, so, you know, get out.
16:20
Gershwin died at the age of 38.
16:23
He's buried in the same cemetery as my husband.
16:26
I don't want to talk about that now.
16:29
I do want to talk -- the absolute icing on this cemetery cake
16:31
is the Barricini family mausoleum nearby.
16:33
I think the Barricini family should open a store there and sell chocolate.
16:36
(Laughter)
16:39
And I would like to run it for them.
16:40
And I went to visit Louise Bourgeoise,
16:41
who's also still working, and I looked at her sink,
16:43
which is really amazing, and left.
16:45
And then I photograph and do a painting of a sofa on the street.
16:47
And a woman who lives on our street, Lolita.
16:50
And then I go and have some tea.
16:53
And then my Aunt Frances dies, and before she died,
16:55
she tried to pay with Sweet'N Low packets for her bagel.
16:58
(Laughter)
17:01
And I wonder what the point is and then I know, and I see
17:03
that Hy Meyerowitz, Rick Meyerowitz's father,
17:05
a dry-cleaning supply salesman from the Bronx,
17:07
won the Charlie Chaplin look-alike contest in 1931.
17:09
That's actually Hy.
17:14
And I look at a beautiful bowl of fruit,
17:16
and I look at a dress that I sewed for friends of mine.
17:19
And it says, "Ich habe genug," which is a Bach cantata,
17:22
which I once thought meant "I've had it, I can't take it anymore,
17:24
give me a break," but I was wrong.
17:27
It means "I have enough." And that is utterly true.
17:30
I happen to be alive, end of discussion. Thank you.
17:33
(Applause)
17:35

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Maira Kalman - Illustrator, author
Maira Kalman's wise, witty drawings have appeared on numberless New Yorker covers, in a dozen children's books, and throughout the pages of the Elements of Style. Her latest book, The Principles of Uncertainty, is the result of a year-long illustrated blog she kept for the New York Times.

Why you should listen

Children know Maira Kalman for her series of Max storybooks, adults for her New Yorker covers and the gotta-have-it illustrated version of the Elements of Style -- simple proof that her sensibility blends a childlike delight with a grownup's wry take on the world.

With her husband, the legendary designer and art director Tibor Kalman, Maira spent several decades designing objets and assembling books like (un)FASHION. But after Tibor's untimely death in 1999, Maira herself became a cultural force. Her colorful, faux-naif illustrations -- and her very perspective -- tap a desire in all of us to look at the world the way she does.

Her latest book, The Principles of Uncertainty, is perhaps the most complete expression of Maira's worldview. Based on a monthly blog she kept for the New York Times website for one year, it is filled with carefully observed moments and briskly captured thoughts, an omnivore's view of life in the modern world.

The original video is available on TED.com
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