Sunday, October 28, 2007

lessons from maira

The jacket flap of Maira Kalman's The Principles of Uncertainty (The Penguin Press, $29.95) asks, "What is this book? What is anything?" Well, to partly answer the first question: it's a visual journal of a year in the life of a renowned artist, designer, & author of children's books. And it is, of course, more than that.

It's almost certain that few people fail to describe Kalman's work without relying on a certain nine-letter, three-syllable word beginning with wh-, so it won't be employed here. Better, perhaps, to point out that the great thing is she gets to do whatever she wants--to focus on a pickle tag one moment & on Abraham Lincoln or Fyodor Dostoevsky the next; to follow ephemeral, sometimes oddball thoughts & turn them into drawings, musings, memories. She illustrates selected items from her collections of empty boxes, sponges (Cleanbot is one, Trista another--the latter a "sandwitch scrubber"), mosses of Long Island, & candy bars (the most treasured of which is Cuban & called Cratch).

Despite the vivid colors & pages devoted to major hairdos, abandoned sofas, & everyday objects that, like the accidental art of a photograph unearthed in a thrift shop, deserve to be immortalized, it is evident that serious issues are ever present in this artist's head. Early in the book she abruptly writes, "What can I tell you? The realization that we are ALL (you, me) going to die and the attending disbelief--isn't that the central premise of EVERYTHING?"

Kalman talks about her mother, "and why she did not marry the man she loved, but instead married my father." A suitcase she owns once belonged to a man who fled Danzig in 1939. "As if I need reminders of the Holocaust. That's ALL I think about." But the pages of Principles of Uncertainty are also peopled by the likes of Lolita, in pink bunny costume, who "has a thick Brooklyn accent, but she says she is British. Oh well." After this encounter Kalman goes home & washes dishes, which she says is an antidote for confusion.

And what of her realization that we are all going to die? "IT stops me DEAD in my tracks a dozen times a day. Do you think I remain FROZEN? No. I spring into action. I find meaningful distraction."


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