Turning Life into Art with Maira Kalman

Artist Maira Kalman was in residence at Duke for a week prior to the March 23 and 24 presentations of The Principles of Uncertainty. The show, presented by Duke Performances, is an “absurdist travelogue” in dance, dialog, and imagery that she created with choreographer John Heginbotham.

For her first student engagement, Kalman joined Bill Fick’s introductory drawing class in Smith Warehouse. As he introduced her, Fick held up the most recent New Yorker, with an image in blazing pink and yellow on its cover—Kalman’s latest in a string of covers for that magazine going back to 1995.

Kalman introduced herself as a failed writer who never formally studied art but has somehow made a career of lighthearted graphic storytelling. She was not there to teach the class about drawing—she was there to teach them about turning life into art.

Maira Kalman speaks to drawing students as Bill Fick looks on.
Funny, friendly and self-effacing, Kalman put everyone at ease.

Assignment 1: The Walk

A key to Kalman’s artistic practice is the hour-long walk she takes every morning, sketchbook and camera in hand. Her first assignment for the students was give it try: take a fifteen minute walk, observe the world around them, observe their own interest in what they see, and then allow those observations to gel into an artistic document that tells a story.

She told them that it was fine to bring a phone, but only to take pictures—no texting!—and that they had to take this walk on their own. That didn’t mean they should be antisocial, though.

“I follow a lot of people and photograph them,” Kalman said. “A lot of times from the back. But very often, very often, I stop people and say, ‘I’d really like to photograph you.’ And most of the time everybody’s quite happy because I’m approaching them from a humanistic, kind of humorous, point of view. I’m liking who I’m stopping, I’m not mocking them.”

“You’re constantly seeing stories everywhere,” Fick marveled.

That’s just part of her nature, she said—“my brain thinks narratively,” but in a way that’s “disconnected, episodic.” She couldn’t say exactly how she spins those thoughts into gold, but did have a few helpful points for the class before they took their walk.

There was no need to make anything up, she assured them—all they had to do was to observe. But their focus had to be as much inward as outward, because the thread of a story could only come from their own thoughts and reactions. Kalman suggested that the effort of documentation is a kind of natural filter. When she thinks, “I’d really like to note this or record it with a photograph or a drawing,” she knows she’s onto something.

Kalman was not there to teach the class about drawing—she was there to teach them about turning life into art.

Maira Kalman comments on a student's drawing
Everyone had a turn in the spotlight.

Assignment 2: The First Room You Remember

Kalman’s second assignment asked students to dig deep in their memories. “Draw the first room you remember with as much detail as you possibly can,” she told them. “And please write a few sentences about that room—the people who lived there or you or anything you remember.”

After about ten minutes, when the sketches were looking very room-like, Kalman urged everyone to focus more on the words. “You’re trying to connect to the emotional component of why you chose this room,” she reminded them. “You should write a little bit more than ‘this was the room when I was three.’” Like the walk, this project relies on the subconscious to filter the story from the noise.

After five or so minutes more, it was time for show and tell.

Some of the sharpest memories were from temporary or transitional living situations: a family between homes, parked in the grandparents’ attic, which is a chaos of bunk beds and mom yelling “dinner’s ready!” over the TV; the living room of a one-bedroom apartment, where nights were spent with a Nigerian grandmother on a mattress behind the couch; the tidy kitchen at Grandma’s place, from the year Dad was stationed in Korea; a small house in the trees that was knocked over after the parents built their dream house behind it.

More than anything else, Kalman wanted to see more writing. “You have beautiful room for text on the carpet area,” she told a student who had written very little, joking that this was part of her seminar in children’s book writing, “Room for Type.” Her ears perked up for significant items and events, like a candle in the shape of the number five—a birthday souvenir—that was “kind of an obsession” for the student whose father was in Korea. “These little germs of stories have a lot of emotional content to them—they resonate,” Kalman said, “so write more!”

A student presents her drawing of the first room she remembers to the class
Family chaos in the grandparents’ attic—Rudolph on the TV, and mom is yelling, “dinner’s ready!”

It was at a dining room with glass figurines and a bird feeder in the picture window, where the student remembered hiding to cut off a lock of her hair, that all the ingredients came together. “If I were you doing this story, I would put myself under the table cutting my hair,” Kalman said, and if you know her work, it’s easy to picture—a complete story in one frame.

After everyone had shared their drawings and their memories, Fick opened the floor for questions. “I can give you a lot of bad advice,” Kalman volunteered, when no hands went up. She offered a five-point plan: Do what you love. Be curious. Persevere. Take lots of walks. Spend some time in New York City.

A student raised her hand to ask Kalman about her sketchbook (“I paint in gouache on paper, because as an illustrator, the assignment is due in a minute”). Another student asked about her creative process with children’s books (“The specs for children’s books are thirty-two pages…, I write five times too much text, and then keep cutting and cutting and cutting”).

A student writing about her memories of the room she's drawn
“The wallpaper of a tree stands as a symbol of my youth, my mansion of a Barbie doll house scattered througout the floor….”

The Delights of the Doughnut Shop

Next was a biographical question: what did Kalman do when she dropped out of college? She and her late husband “did a million different things—we learned how to work, so we could start making a little bit of a living,” Kalman explained. Among the million things was working in a doughnut shop, which she called “one of my favorite jobs of my life.” A student wondered how that could possibly be, and Kalman rewarded the curiosity with a vivid memory of her own childhood.

“I was born in Israel, then I came to US when I was four, in the Fifties,” Kalman said, and as an immigrant she was awestruck by “the iconic American can-do spirit” she saw all around her.

“Look at this amazing typography! Look at this amazing television set! And look at this fantastic Coca Cola! Who came up with such a genius idea?”

“So I have a real fondness for some kind of elemental moment of stopping what you’re doing, having a cup of coffee, absorbing the surroundings, delighting in the pleasure of the names of the doughnuts and the shapes of the doughnuts, and watching people eat them.”

Students drawing
The grandparents’ house in rural japan, where the dining room is the living room and everyone sits on the floor.

To show how deep and lasting this fascination is, she mentioned that she and Heginbotham would be hosting an event in Durham for people to enjoy cake and share their favorite obituaries. Furthermore, cake is the subject—and the title—of her most recent book.

“Anyway,” Kalman continued, “I like those moments of repose. And I like”—she paused for a beat to consider the word—“money. I like the exchange of money. I gave you a doughnut, you give me money, I’m deliriously happy. Everybody knew what they were supposed to do. Life is clear, life is simple.”

“I could go on about the doughnut shop forever,” she said, delighted to be the famous artist who finds beauty and truth in the everyday business of baked goods.

Maira Kalman speaking to the drawing classStudents drawingA student writing about her memories of the room she's drawnA student presents her drawing of the first room she remembers to the classA student holds her drawing in front of her as she describes the room she drewMaira Kalman comments on a student's drawingMaira Kalman speaks to drawing students as Bill Fick looks on.Maira Kalman speaks to drawing students as Bill Fick looks onBill Fick looks on as Kalman talks to the students

(Photos by Robert Zimmerman)