High Museum show spotlights Maira Kalman’s playful book illustrations

There’s a new exhibition opening at the High Museum, and no one seems more surprised about it than the artist herself, Maira Kalman.

“I’m amazed and delighted that I managed to create so many children’s books,” she says. “I always knew I liked children, but never realized it was that much.”

In fact, over the past three decades, the New York-based writer and illustrator has created 18 quirky, irreverent and deeply beloved children's books. Their images will be featured in the exhibition "The Pursuit of Everything: Maira Kalman's Books for Children" premiering at the High on June 22.

Kalman is a prolific artist across a number of disciplines, but may be most prominent as a painter. Her work appears frequently on the cover of “The New Yorker.” She also engages in a hard-to-categorize mix of interesting activities that can sound a lot like the things the oddball characters in her children’s books get up to. She performed as a duck in a production of “Peter and the Wolf” at the Guggenheim Museum in a costume designed by Isaac Mizrahi. She created illustrations for a new edition of Strunk and White’s classic writing guide “The Elements of Style.” She designed the sets for an opera about Gertrude Stein. Her blog posts were turned into a book, “The Principles of Uncertainty,” which became a critical and popular hit. Naturally, she played herself in the dance version, created by acclaimed choreographer John Heginbotham. And she and her son recently recreated their stylish and fastidious mother’s closet — right down to every last perfectly starched and folded white sock and the little red pom-pom on the light-switch — for an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Kalman was born in Israel in 1949, but she grew up in the Riverdale neighborhood of the Bronx after her parents immigrated to the United States when she was 4 years old. “I always say that if you are going to come to America, you should come in the 1950s to New York City. I was very happy and well adjusted,” she says. “I learned English quickly. I loved Coca-Cola and TV. We ran around with no supervision. It was heaven. I was a good student until it came to algebra. That was my downfall.”

Throughout her childhood and beyond, Kalman’s idiosyncratic mother, Sara Berman, who grew up in a shtetl in Belarus and who died in 2004 at age 84, remained a powerful source of inspiration and influence. “My mother was beautiful and stylish and funny, a very potent combination,” says Kalman. “When we came to New York, she took me to the library. We started at A and worked our way around the room. Books and storytelling were very important in my family. We related to the characters of books with great intimacy. They were our family … She admired originality. She liked people who were unusual. It’s a good way to look at the world.”

Kalman eventually attended New York University and met her husband, fellow designer and activist Tibor Kalman, in a summer class for students who had failed economics. “The most interesting group of misfits were in that class,” she says. “He asked me out for a cup of coffee and that was that.”

Tibor and Maira founded the influential design firm M&Co in 1979. They lived and worked together until Tibor’s death in 1999 from non-Hodgkins lymphoma at the age of 49.

But it was when the couple had kids in the 1980s — daughter Lulu and son Alexander — that Kalman began writing for children. “We would turn the living room upside down,” she says. “Chairs and tables became forts and buildings. String was strung across the room like a spider web. We made hats and wrote books. We sang songs, watched movies, traveled, read many books. ‘Hey Willy, See the Pyramids’ was the first book I wrote and painted. It’s still my favorite. The stories are about my family.”

One of her most popular and enduring characters is the poet-dog Max Stravinsky, who, across several books, falls in love, makes a million dollars, runs off to Paris, visits India and finds success in Hollywood. During the run of the exhibition at the High, the Alliance Theatre will premiere a theatrical version of "Max Makes a Million" on the Hertz Stage. When asked which pet or person Max the Dog is based on, she answers point-blank: "Max is based on me. A hapless wanderer trying to make sense of an absurd world. Sometimes loving things. Sometimes inconsolable."

Kalman’s children’s books often take on serious subjects in a direct, no-nonsense way. “Fireboat” tells the story of an old boat that played a role in the rescue efforts on 9/11, and her book on Thomas Jefferson doesn’t mince words about his long-term relationship with the enslaved woman Sally Hemmings. “The best way to talk to children is directly and honestly but with kindness,” she says. “There is always a way to tell the truth without devastating a child. They can tolerate a greater amount of truth than people give them credit for.”

No matter what she’s creating, Kalman says she simply follows her instincts as they lead her to new projects and new ideas. “I have always tried to do what was natural to me,” she says. “Anything that takes too much thought is not appealing. I always say that an empty brain is the only way to create. For some reason I have never lost my curiosity and wonder. Every day, every walk is a promise of something ridiculous or beautiful.”

Asked about her plans after the opening of her exhibition at the High, she answers as one of her characters might: “I am going to Spain to visit Goya’s birthplace,” she says. “I am going to take walks and look at things. And then report.”


'The Pursuit of Everything: Maira Kalman's Books for Children.'June 22-Sept 15. $14.50. High Museum of Art, 1280 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. 404-733-4444, www.high.org.