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Podcast #40: Maira Kalman on Her Favorite Things


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Illustrator and writer Maira Kalman's My Favorite Things is an arresting portrait of the significance of objects in our lives, from Toscanini's pants to Abraham Lincoln's pocket watch. At a recent Books at Noon event, she spoke with us about her favorite things, including, Kantian walks, Pippi Longstocking, and Monet.

Maira Kalman

The artist described the women in her family as smart and irreverent, particularly her mother. In fact, it was at her mother's urging that Kalman became a library patron:

"She never wrote, though there was a lot of letter writing, which was another way of them expressing themselves... What she did encourage me to do was to read, and that was critical in my family. So when we came to America, we went to the library. We didn't buy books. We went to the library and we worked our way around. And when I got to L, when we got to Pippi Longstocking, I said, 'This is the job for me. I'm going to be a writer.' There was no question about it."

Since then, Kalman has become one of the greatest and most beloved creative minds in America. Her secret? Just putting one foot in front of the other:

"Kant: I know nothing else about him except he took a walk, and that's about the extent of my knowledge. But he took a walk at three-thirty everyday... So when I was teaching a course for design students at SVA, one of the years we took this Kantian theme where you take a walk by yourself without your phone and your things and no music and no conversation, and you're really able to experience what people do experience which is just the freedom of not thinking about something and the ability for a human being to experience the pleasure of everything that's around them, so you get to this kind of giddy state... and all of a sudden problems are solved and ideas flood in and you don't know where they came from."

Another major source of inspiration to Kalman are her fellow artists. She explained that she learns from observing, and the lessons provided by looking are not merely brushstroke techniques:

"I consider myself an illustrator, but I spend a lot of time in museums. And really, the more I paint, the more I'm inspecting how other people are painting. And if you look at a Monet waterlily, you could probably look at that for the rest of all time and learn a tremendous amount, both about the nature of being alive and about the nature of what kind of truth you want to express in your life and how do you use that white and how do you do that thing."

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