Armchair Series – Maira Kalman

Maira Kalman often paints chairs, “Comfy Chair” depicts a warm-pink wingback with doilies, and she illustrated the book, “Lucky, Plucky Chairs” by Rolf Fehlbaum, told from the chairs’ point of view. From a Design*Sponge story I learned that Maira Kalman’s New York apartment has white slip-covered armchairs on a black and white rug, in a white room (except for art and treasured collections). Her exuberant paintings come from a tranquil, blank-canvas living space.

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Kind and Dear

It’s January and cold – in Washington these days the thermometer rarely tops 32° and sinks to 22° – making me long for our usual winter 42° and appreciate house and heat.

This month I try to turn my attention to the house, clearing Christmas, which stops looking jolly and becomes clutter (except the tree, those lights are still so welcome). And January also invites more organizing, seeking comfort and cheer from order.

But in numerous ways I avoid those tasks. Although this year, I happily reboxed Christmas on January 6, energized after reading about the Irish tradition of “Women’s Little Christmas,” the old, but still observed celebration of the women (and surely now men), who worked so hard to make the holidays for their families.

A more typical stalling maneuver is to look at books about houses, including a Christmas present, Ben Pentreath’s “English Houses,” a beautiful book full of photos of loved houses that creak with tilted floors and worn Turkey rugs. Pentreath introduced a room new to me, the “snug,” a tiny room with books and fireplace looking just like the word. (I discovered while writing this that Pentreath writes a blog about his life in Dorset:    http://www.pentreath-hall.com/inspiration/).

And this January I miss “Red House West” – may it return soon! I did see a Pin from the blog’s proprietors of an imaginative under-the-stairs bed, cozily curtained off. And I began thinking about how certain house elements, sunny French windows, odd but comfy chairs, deep window sills, long pine tables make me stare at a photo and want to be there.

Leanne Shapton, an illustrator I admire, said she processes life by employing series and repetition in her work. Maira Kalman does that too. And an artist, Debbie George, I discovered while painting teacups last November, paints antique teacups and flowers one lovely image after another.

January lets such thoughts string together into a project. So, I’m going to look for little moments in rooms that make a difference – quirks, rumples, using houses I know or photos from books or the Internet. Done up doesn’t always do it, but personal often does.

And I can start with this little poem that William Morris had embroidered around the top of his four-poster bed:

     The wind’s on the wold

     And the night is a-cold

     And Thames runs chill

     Twixt mead and hill,

     But kind and dear

     Is the old house here,

     And my heart is warm

     Midst winter’s harm…

That’s the idea!

wm-morris-bed

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Maira Kalman and a Bird

Oh I do find inspiration in Maira Kalman’s sense of humor and her take on life. She makes me want to go and do – to travel, to see, and to make. To get on with it!

And just when I needed an infusion of energy in the bird project, a Workroom friend posted a video by the filmmaker Gail Towey. It’s about Maira Kalman, and particularly about the process of selecting objects for the opening exhibition at the recently refurbished Cooper-Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York City.

I hadn’t heard about the video or the exhibition – and thought how fine it would be to select objects with personal resonance from a huge collection (some 200,000). It was enough fun to draw all those flowered things from the V&A and post them here! Fancy choosing objects because of the stories they tell, the emotions they can arouse, or because they elicit a “gasp of delight” – and then to make an exhibition, and even collaborate on song and music about your choices.

Kalman calls the exhibition room of “Maira Kalman Selects,” a “contemplative space,” recognizing that people will gravitate to specific objects. The range is broad and eclectic – from Lincoln’s pocket watch (and a recording of it ticking after 200 years!) to hats and shoes and mourning samplers.

Part of her series, “Portraits of Creativity,” Gail Towey’s wonderful film is here:

http://www.portraitsincreativity.com/maira-kalman-smithsonian/

And I loved this longer one,

http://www.cooperhewitt.org/2015/02/18/maira-kalman-my-favorite-things-a-film-by-gael-towey/. This video records the premier of Towey’s film followed by a question and answer session with Towey, the show’s curator, and Kalman. They talk about what Kalman wanted to see, how they traveled to off-site storage locations to view “the cutest dog in the world,” and about being told, “No, you may not borrow Lincoln’s hat,” by the Smithsonian in Washington D.C.

With the serendipity of creative collaborations, everything came together to support Kalman’s themes of time, of life and death, and questions about the human condition like, “Why am I here?”

“Small questions.” Kalman says.

Olive-sided flycatcher

Olive-sided flycatcher

“Friends for Frances” – Studies

On Julie Davidson’s wonderful blog “Seven Imps,” she asks Maira Kalman about her work methods. Kalman responds: “There is a lot of hope involved. And hoping for the best.”

And in the part I like best, she says simply: “You just do your work. I can’t emphasize that enough. Just sitting there and doing it – persevering. Being patient – and seeing the long view. To let the work happen and to find the unexpected. To allow mistakes to be part of it. To not get it right, but just to get it.”

“Just get it,” just start, begin.

Frances  - field notes I

Wolsey  - field notes I

 

Cromwell  - field notes I-1

 

 

 

 

Maira Kalman Magic

Lady Baby and I recently spent a lot of time reading Maira Kalman’s “13 Words” (with words by Lemony Snicket), sympathizing with the despondent blue bird, rejoicing to encounter Pete the dog, and disagreeing a little about whether the illustrated goat (my take) who drives a convertible is a “puppy” (Lady Baby take).

So on a sunny but cold March afternoon, I delighted to spend a joyful time with Maira Kalman – thanks to Julie Danielson’s treasure trove blog about illustrated books “Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast” (“7imps” for short).

Danielson, who describes herself as an “illustration junkie,” has archived an amazing series of interviews she conducted with the makers of illustrated books. To interview Kalman, Danielson teamed up with the author and blogger Jama Kim Rattigan.

In addition to Kalman’s colorful, slightly wacky and always perfect-for-their-place paintings, she is an articulate artist. She never leaves me despondent.

In the interview (here) she responded to a question about nurturing creative life: “There is a lot of hope involved. And hoping for the best. And you just plain do your work. I can’t emphasize that enough. Just sitting there and doing it – persevering. Being patient – and seeing the long view.”

In a little video attached to the interview, Kalman speaks of the fluidity between the “narrative word and narrative picture.” She seems to take such joy in the myriad characters and absurdities of life, and makes her work, her “meaningful distraction,” from observing them. But Kalman also regards our mortality (she looks in no way close to death, but Kalman’s a realist). She asks what’s really important, and answers her question: “it’s love and it’s work.”

Love and work – yes. Thanks for the reminder “7imps” and Maira Kalman!

Kalman-1

Joy – and Happy Happy!

One day during my early December visit to Downtown Abbey, Lady Baby and I sat at the kitchen table, slowly eating bowls of white bean soup and reading “Three Stories You Can Read To Your Cat” by Sara Swan Miller. In the first story, it rains and rains, and the kitty wishes for sun, so we started calling out to the gray Anchorage sky for “snow pease!” (badly needed).

Sure enough, when we finished the book, I looked up and pointed outside and asked Lady Baby what was happening? “Snowflake!” she said, and the “l” in snowflake or “mommy’s hair clip” is as amazing as the strong “s” at the end of “Yes!” which has replaced the everyday “yeah” – so precisely said. (I wish I could insert a sound bite here of how the word angel sounds in Lady Baby speak, it’s like her words for thank you, which melt my heart.)

She has some linguistic shortcuts for fact or emotion: “house” means just the living room, “happy happy!” loudly repeated in a pre-bath runabout, wearing just tennis shoes and nakedy body speaks for itself, as does performing a “happy happy” dance while holding the photos of her world’s important people.

You realize, or think you do, how related consciousness and language must be – or maybe it’s just like Mrs. Hughes said at Thanksgiving, Lady Baby’s been thinking all along, but now we understand better because of language.

And, in a difference even from Thanksgiving, something clicked with books this trip, and Lady Baby truly joined her family of readers. Revisiting so many books that had once seemed too long or complicated, we read and read.

“What Pete Ate” the delightful Maira Kalman book in which Pete the dog devours pretty much the whole alphabet became a huge favorite. (Lady Baby would request “Pete ate, Pete ate!”) Listening to Christmas music, we read Christmas books learning the iconography and vocabulary of rooftops and trimming and twinkling, of Dasher and Dancer, and covered the basics – the night before Christmas, the Poky Puppy’s skunk friend, and Clifford, the giant red dog’s first Christmas.

But we also learned a little about sad, the bittersweet part of loving to be with someone, loving someone. She takes me for granted during our weeks together, and then I disappear. The morning I headed to the airport was very hard for Granny Katy. I try to remember Virginia Woolf’s words to a very sad friend “Remember what you have had.” I’ve had joy.

And I wish you Christmas joy!

christmas tree

What’s the Idea?

Where do ideas come from? That’s another thing we talk about in The Workroom.

Maira Kalman, an illustrator and author I admire, describes the initial process: “Through visits to museums/sites/institutions, reading, research, sketching, note taking, photo taking, and a general three-week immersion, I find my way to a story.” Such a brief statement – and such an important concept – to allow all that gathering time and activity before beginning.

Rather than actually doing one’s work (but better than surfing for news of Cate and Will), Maria Popova’s website “Brain Pickings” is a highly recommended but dangerous rabbit hole for reading about how creativity happens.

There I discovered James Webb Young’s little booklet, “A Guide to Producing Ideas” originally  written in 1940 for graduate students and active advertising practitioners. I guess we have to think Don Draper, but his ideas resonate for any person desiring to think creatively. The booklet is slim and well worth the $6.26 on Amazon ($4.40 Kindle).

Young’s sections reflect acknowledged steps in the creative process: preparation, incubation, illumination, and verification. It makes encouraging reading, particularly about the gathering stage. Toward the end, Young briefly restates his five-step formula for the “process or method by which ideas are produced”:

First, the gathering of raw materials – both the materials of your immediate problem and the materials which come from a constant enrichment of your store of general knowledge.

Second, working over these materials in your mind.

Third, the incubating stage, where you let something beside the conscious mind do the work of synthesis.

Fourth, the actual birth of the Idea – the ‘Eureka! I have it!’ stage

Fifth, the final shaping and development of the idea to practical usefulness.”

But – it’s not just the idea we need – Hugo Lindgren) wrote about what else we need in a New York Times Magazine article last January (here). He says: “Ideas, in a sense, are overrated. Of course you need good ones, but at this point in our supersaturated culture, precious few are so novel that nobody else has ever thought of them before. It’s really about where you take the idea, and how committed you are to solving the endless problems that come up in the execution.”

Solving those endless problems – that’s the fun of The Workroom!

Work sign  ©Katy Gilmore  2013