Pursuing everything and anything: Maira Kalman exhibit shows an illustrator following her eyes and ears

  • Maira Kalman, Illustration for Bold and Brave: Ten Heroes Who Won Women the Right to Vote by Kirsten Gillibrand (Alfred A. Knopf). Brooklyn Museum, Gift of the artist and Julie Saul Gallery, New York. © 2018 Maira Kalman.

  • Illustration for Next Stop, Grand Central (G. P. Putnam’s Sons). Courtesy of Julie Saul Projects, New York. © 1999 Maira Kalman

  • Illustration for Looking at Lincoln (Nancy Paulson Books). Courtesy of Julie Saul Projects, New York. © 2012 Maira Kalman

  • Illustration for Beloved Dog (Penguin Press). Courtesy of Julie Saul Projects, New York. © 2015 Maira Kalman

  • Illustration for What Pete Ate From A-Z (Really!) (G. P. Putnam’s Sons). Courtesy of Julie Saul Projects, New York.© 2001 Maira Kalman

  • Illustration for Smartypants (Pete in School) (G. P. Putnam’s Sons). Courtesy of Julie Saul Projects, New York. © 2003 Maira Kalman

  • Illustration for Max Makes a Million (Viking). Courtesy of Julie Saul Gallery, New York. © 1990 Maira Kalman.

  • Illustration for What Pete Ate From A-Z (Really!) (G. P. Putnam’s Sons). Courtesy of Julie Saul Projects, New York. © 2001 Maira Kalman

  • Illustration for Chicken Soup, Boots (Viking Penguin). Courtesy of Julie Saul Projects, New York.© 1993 Maira Kalman

  • Illustration for Next Stop, Grand Central (G. P. Putnam’s Sons). Courtesy of Julie Saul Projects, New York. © 1999 Maira Kalman

  • Illustration for Swami on Rye: Max in India (Viking). Courtesy of Julie Saul Gallery, New York.© 1995 Maira Kalman.

  • Illustration for And the Pursuit of Happiness (The Penguin Press). Courtesy of Julie Saul Projects, New York. © 2010 Maira Kalman

  • Maira Kalman and Pete Rick Meyerowitz photo

For Hampshire Life
Published: 1/3/2020 9:31:06 AM

Pause for a moment as you enter the exhibit highlighting Maira Kalman’s books for children, currently at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, to gaze at a recreation of artist/author’s studio wall. The assemblage combines ordinary with obscure: photographs and sketches join shoes, suitcases and keys, along with a bucket full of squeezed-out paint tubes. And the aesthetic eclecticism foreshadows what you’ll see in Kalman’s artworks and illustrations.

The exhibit’s title, “The Pursuit of Everything,” echoes earlier projects — “And the Pursuit of Happiness,” Kalman’s illustrated op-ed blog about American democracy for the New York Times (2009), and her illustrated biography of our third president, “Thomas Jefferson: The Pursuit of Everything” (2014). But the current exhibit focuses on her 18 books for children and amply conveys the artist’s lively interest in just about “everything,” at least, “everything” that includes “anything” she finds quirky, curious, appealing or engaging. As a visual journalist, she follows her eye and her ear. “I rarely make anything up,” she explained in a gallery talk. “That’s the beauty of wandering around and looking — you don’t have to make anything up.”

In “Stay Up Late” (1987), her first picture book, Kalman takes words from the song by the Talking Heads and channels the sleep-deprived, dazed, nearly demented, yet loving exhaustion of a parent with a newborn. The song’s offbeat rhythm, deadpan delivery and subversive lyrics find a perfect echo in the book’s off-center compositions, jiggly-squiggly lines and acid chromatics. Kalman’s colors are bright, at times eye-popping, but never come straight out of a tube. She mixes — and mixes — to create just the right bright pink, hot orange and glowing green. That bucket of paint tubes from her studio suddenly makes sense.

Once Kalman started writing her own stories, her own characters came to life. Meet Max Stravinsky, the dog poet, who embodies an omnivore curiosity expressed through a very human wit leaning towards wordplay and puns. Alter ego or imaginary friend, Max is an enthusiastic world traveler. The Max series goes global: New York, Hollywood, Paris, the Pyramids of Egypt — and India, in “Swami on Rye: Max in India” (1995).

In contrast to cosmopolitan Max, Pete is a true canine character, based on Kalman’s Irish Wheaten Terrier. As a young dog, Pete chewed up and chowed down everything in sight. Kalman kept a list that grew into an alphabet book, “What Pete Ate From A-Z (Really!)” (2001). In a sequel, “Smartypants (Pete in School)” (2003), Pete outdoes himself and swallows an entire encyclopedia, then sneaks into school as a smart aleck who knows all the answers.

Like Pete, Kalman’s lively imagination wants to get up and go outside, to race around and romp through word-play. But her books on historical topics tackle complicated subjects in a more august style. “Fireboat: The Heroic Adventures of the John J. Harvey” (2002) explores the September 11, 2001, bombing of the World Trade Center through the role of a retired New York City fireboat. With aboveground water mains buried under rubble, firefighters lacked access to water to douse the flames at Ground Zero. The quickly reactivated fireboat rushed to the rescue, and pumped water for 80 hours, until water mains were restored. In her illustrations, Kalman uses the power of scale to convey the historical moment. Silhouettes of two miniature planes aim towards the Twin Towers; the Statue of Liberty stands tiny amidst sea and sky flaming red.

Even so, Kalman’s inherent quirkiness come into play. In “Looking at Lincoln” (2012), it’s not just the bottle green socks young Lincoln wears while he studies by candlelight that brighten the scene. With the Lincoln family dinner in the White House — showing young children playfully tossing a bright green ball — Kalman sought out a relatable, light-hearted moment. “I imagined I was married to him, not Mary Todd. We probably would have had a happier marriage,” she speculated. Empathy enriches imagination — and without cynicism, sarcasm or snark, Kalman shares her delight in details.

The Eric Carle Museum, with its ongoing emphasis on children’s access to literature and art, installed the exhibit to invite serious engagement and playful interaction. Gallery-based games suggest literary adventures in alliteration and urge you to write your “Ode to Crazy Things” guided by Kalman, in turn riffing off Pablo Neruda’s poem “An Ode to Common Things.” And there’s the “What Pete Ate” bulletin board — brilliant in color and concept. Within a large-scale illustration of Pete and his resilient intestinal track, place your choice of a variety of magnetized items: along with usual dog-fodder of (yummy) shoes and socks, see such indigestible items as an egg beater and other small appliances.

I admit to one slight sigh of regret. My all-time favorite Kalman illustration — a painting depicting Sentence Fragments — is not displayed. The artwork comes from “The Elements of Style,” written by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White (the same E.B. White who wrote Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little). Not technically a children’s book but an evergreen English style guide, the book has been reprinted in many editions. In 2005, it was republished with Kalman’s illustrations — bringing Strunk and White’s classic prose to vivid, visual life. Her interpretation of Sentence Fragments shows a jumble of crooked steps falling short of a doorway at the top of the stairs, leading nowhere. It captures the essence of the sentence fragment: phrases hopeful but left hanging, failing to reach their goal of full-sentence status. But with so much other artwork on exhibit, you’ll find your own favorites.

End where you entered, at the wall of items from Kalman’s studio. With hindsight, it’s clear that seemingly random objects are not random at all, but a window into the artist’s world. Peer inside: Here’s a photograph of the lugubrious Basset Hound who inspired, “Well, Susan, this is a fine mess you are in” (illustrating comma usage in “The Elements of Style”); there’s the black-and-white sweater that Kalman’s mother designed, knitted and fitted for (real-life) Pete. “Everything in here is part of my own life,” Kalman acknowledged. But some objects promise stories still untold. I’m hoping, in particular, for a future book based on an envelope labeled “Moss from Pompeii.” What a story that could be!

The Pursuit of Everything: Maira Kalman’s Books for Children, is on display at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, Amherst, through April 5, 2020.

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