Navigate to Arts & Letters section

Women Holding Things

An interview with author and artist Maira Kalman

Frances Brent
March 21, 2023
© Maira Kalman; Courtesy of the artist and Mary Ryan Gallery, New York
Maira Kalman, ‘Woman Holding Chicken,’ 2021© Maira Kalman; Courtesy of the artist and Mary Ryan Gallery, New York
© Maira Kalman; Courtesy of the artist and Mary Ryan Gallery, New York
Maira Kalman, ‘Woman Holding Chicken,’ 2021© Maira Kalman; Courtesy of the artist and Mary Ryan Gallery, New York

I recently went to the Mary Ryan Gallery in Chelsea to see a group of paintings—gouache on paper—by the artist and illustrator Maira Kalman. Born in 1949 in Tel Aviv, Kalman is a force of nature. Since her first children’s book, illustrating the lyrics to David Byrne’s “Stay Up Late,” she’s published extensively for children and adults, contributed covers for The New Yorker, designed costumes and sets for the Mark Morris Dance Company, played the part of the duck in Isaac Mizrahi’s production of Peter and the Wolf, and starred in the title role of her own short film, My Name Is Alice B. Toklas.

In the gallery, my eye was immediately drawn to a detailed image: “E. F. Benson’s garden room, destroyed in a German bombing raid during WWII.” What struck me was the beautiful arrangement of color within this scene of catastrophe. On one side of the picture, two men wearing green flat caps are shoveling debris. On the other, a grand piano, a radiator, and a straight-backed chair have haphazardly landed on the roof of a garden shed. The zigzagging red walls of the brick shed lead your eye toward the painted façade of a London house. Look carefully and you’ll see that the Suffolk pink surface is variegated with streaks of lavender, gray-blue, and orange, as well as patches of greenish shadows behind the workmen. All of this is brightened by the golden yellow caning of a broken chair and what appears to be yellow gorse in the foreground. Kalman is well known for such fusions of contradictory elements, and that was what I wanted to explore when, in late December, I invited her to my apartment to talk about her new book, Women Holding Things.

A picture book with text passages, Women Holding Things is filled with overlays of seemingly irreconcilable elements. The 85 lushly colored illustrations (some pulled from earlier books) are whimsically idiosyncratic and often bitingly funny. Partly a compendium of portraits and partly an inventory of things concrete and abstract, it’s also a truncated family memoir that includes jokes, secrets, and confessions. Kalman’s grandfather makes an appearance, wearing a beard long enough to stretch across the floor. Her father, with his collar open, Israeli-style, and his eyes closed, is portrayed as a strong young man holding his small daughter to his shoulder. On the facing text page Kalman writes about his generosity: “He held his side of the bargain. / He paid for everything. / We ate well. / We travelled well.” But she also lists his deficits: anger, withholding, paranoia, and betrayal of her mother. And she acknowledges the shortfall on her side: “What did he not hold? I am sad to say, / as I got older, my love and understanding.”

The book progresses associatively. It moves backward and forward, jumping in and out of chronological time. The ebullient, double-page spread of Kalman’s contemporary Kiki Smith holding honey in a garden, bursting with cone flowers, anemone, and larkspur, is followed by three pictures of dour Hortense Cézanne and then a bowl of Cézanne-like cherries. I asked Kalman if she was thinking about time as she put the book together and she said, “I always say, that’s the only subject there is. Everything falls under that. What do you do with your time. How much time do you have. What do you do with your time? Where did the time go? There’s never enough time. Even now that I think I have all the time in the world, that’s delusional. And as you get older there is an interior monologue. How much time do you have? Is it 10 years? Is it 20 years? Is it one day? The mystery’s very present.”

When I asked if that was particularly the case for this project, she talked about the pandemic. “That had a lot to do with the distillation of these ideas because, of course, time stopped and the world stopped. So, what do you do with that information? And on a very pragmatic level, ‘What do you do with your day?’ Because I was with my son and his wife in our house upstate, we wondered if there was a possibility to help other people during this time. How would that happen? So we created limited edition booklets to raise money for causes we felt were important. And that sense of ownership was an amazing gift from that time. We did a booklet about trees. A booklet about bed. And one about women holding things. That booklet expanded into this longer version. I had more to say about women and home and family and loss and all of those things that we lived, and live through. So that was how it began.”

I was curious about the opening of the book, in which she writes about holding as an act of kindness or relatedness:

And perhaps someone you are walking with
will ask you to hold something for a minute
while they tie their shoelaces.

“Of course” is the answer
“As long as you like.”

But the visual starting point, the first illustration, is the rather surreal image of a woman, in a dark green dress and red Spanish dancing shoes, holding a chicken. I wondered how this odd image came about. Was it about relatedness or was it questioning relatedness?

“The images that I collect have an appeal that I can’t explain,” Kalman said. “When I look at the paintings and at the sequence, it is more a following of instinct. My son and I changed the order many, many times until we felt that the emotional narrative was clear. The woman holding the chicken had an immediate appeal. Very grounded and very absurd. Things like that speak to me. The way most things happen, or a lot of things happen, is that people send me images that they think I’ll like, that have my name on them. I have something like 50,000 photographs that I’ve taken myself or collected, and that’s an incredible range of imagery to look at and to say, yes, that’s going to be a painting. I don’t have any memory of who sent it to me or how it appeared, but the minute I saw it I thought this is a terrific image and I knew someday I’d use it.”

“And the woman holding the chicken?” I asked. “She’s followed by the woman holding a garden shears. What are you saying about holding there?”

“The woman holding the shears was a famous gardener, Lady Rhoda Birley,” Kalman explained. “I love the self-confidence. ‘I know what I’m doing,’ she seems to be saying. ‘I know what flowers to cut and I know what I’m holding.’ I look at that and I think, that’s a good role model. There are strong women and there are vulnerable women. I like them all.”

Gertrude Stein and Edith Sitwell are similarly strong women who make important appearances in the book. I asked Kalman if she thought of them in the same vein as Lady Birley, the gardener with the shears. Did they serve as guardians?

She agreed: “When I encounter characters like Gertrude Stein and Edith Sitwell (Cecil Beaton said you couldn’t take bad pictures of them—they are extraordinary models), I think maybe the overriding feature is that they couldn’t care less what people thought of them. Or it seemed they couldn’t care less what people thought of them. They had phenomenal self-confidence. This air of eccentricity of personality is intoxicating, particularly in literature. Edith is in practically everything I’ve done, even Next Stop Grand Central. I’m more interested in the persona than in the work. The same thing with Gertrude Stein. I love The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas and Four Saints—fantastically enjoyable—and The Mother of Us All—that’s also terrific. A person who just goes ahead in what she believes in and is not swayed, ‘I believe in myself and I know what I’m doing!’ I like that.”

I mentioned another image in the book, “boy standing / in front of a / blackboard / full of numbers / holding his hands / while a man / plays the accordion.” The illustration looks like a still from a French new wave film and shows a child in distress. His head’s bent down and you sense that he’s listening to a teacher’s voice: “This just won’t do, your answer’s not good enough.” I asked if that was her demon, that voice?

“I don’t know anybody who’s creating anything who doesn’t have that voice,” Kalman said. “I haven’t met a human being who doesn’t have that struggle and that insecurity of ‘What am I doing?’ and ‘How am I doing it?’ … a daily struggle: ‘Is it good enough? Is it funny? Is it smart? Is it interesting?’”

That gave me the opportunity to ask about the darker side to her images.

“The dark side is present in the light all the time,” Kalman said. “The two of them are together for me. I can’t distinguish. In my books, that’s unavoidable. I inevitably bring in the Holocaust. We were born a few minutes after the Holocaust. You’d have to make a leap not to be imbued with it. It was a daily presence in my family. For my father particularly, who lost his family. And the population in Israel, where I was born, was made of people who had lost their lives in a true sense. So, it was not only my family, but it was everybody, it was everywhere. A whole country built on this sense of loss, this sense of striving not to be annihilated, that’s an extraordinary place to have been born. So, in moments of great lightness, there’s an undertone of some kind of sorrow and, vice versa, that sorrow can lead to moments of great joy.”

We looked together at one of the most startling illustrations in the book, “mother holding the hand of her child / as they are being killed by Nazi soldiers.” Like the picture of E. F. Benson’s garden room, there’s meticulous artistry in the tragic composition. The leafy foliage of a forest comes alive with spots and smears of green paint. Smoke from the rifles collects in a vapor that’s stippled like white cherry blossoms. I asked if the picture was based on the photograph taken in the Ukraine, in Mariupol, in 1941, now made famous by historian Wendy Lower’s book, The Ravine.

Kalman nodded, “Yes, it’s from that photograph … there’s the shock of the moment, of that moment, and also the shock that I felt when I saw the photograph, knowing instantly that eventually I would do a painting of it. I had an instant recognition. It was not difficult to work on and it was very sad at the same time. My job was to paint it. That allows me to enter that world, but also to lose myself in the work.”

“And then there’s the great joy in your work,” I said, “You bring it in through color, your use of color. Can we talk about the inspiration of Matisse?”

“Matisse is my strongest inspiration,” Kalman said, “But I have to put in [French painters Pierre] Bonnard and [Édouard] Vuillard. These are influences that I try to escape, but I can’t. Of course, every artist is relating and working with influences. Also, Ludwig Bemelmans [author and illustrator of the Madeline books], in a very real way, is part of that group. Bemelmans wrote for adults and children, wrote and painted, and traveled … there’s something about the style of Bemelmans which speaks to me, you know, he’s also influenced by Vuillard and those painters.

“And why do you think you turn to them?” I asked.

“I think I resonate to all of them because they were struggling with finding a new way of expressing themselves … they knew a lot more than I do about painting, they were great painters, but what I think I understand is that they’re trying to find a truth in how they paint … and some styles you just respond to … you vibrate to a certain color palette or a certain way of drawing a line, or isolating a chair in a room and saying, I need to paint that chair.

I wondered if these artists were solving particular problems.

“They are great forces of un-painting,” Kalman said. “Which is a very complicated thing to try to do because it’s always a struggle between painting too much and not painting enough. So, you have to decide, ‘Where is the not-doing?’ And ‘How much not-doing can I do? How much empty space?’ And ‘How much undefined space?’”

We looked at a double-page spread that had puzzled me: “Woman holding baby in garden.”

“I’m glad you reminded me of that,” Kalman said. “Yes, the woman’s feeding the baby and there’s very little definition of her face. So, the conversation with oneself is: ‘What do you need to show?’ And I think that maybe, as I get older, I think I’m more self-confident about not having to show everything. You know, many painters don’t do the faces and who has the time for hands? That would take me a lifetime, to do hands.”

I told her how a friend of mine said she had created an “imaginarium” with so many characters we’ve come to know throughout her books. Though, in fact, it seems she’s reality-bound.

Kalman concurred, “My dearest inspiration is what’s happening all around.”

“And the next project?” I asked.

“I’m thinking about writing more stories about remorse with paintings of flowers and fruit. It takes a good amount of remorse to paint a good bowl of fruit,” she answered.

Frances Brent’s most recent book is The Lost Cellos of Lev Aronson.