Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Wonderfully Crazy World of Maira Kalman

In the last few weeks I’ve been fortunate to twice see the excellent Maira Kalman exhibit at the Skirball Cultural Center. I attended the pre-opening of the exhibit, which included a very entertaining conversation between Maira herself and Ingrid Schaffner, the curator of the show. I love the artist’s work and was both inspired and entertained by what I saw. I was already familiar with her wonderful children’s books and some of her editorial work, and this exhibit shows a wonderful variety of paintings, embroidered pictures, installations and magazine covers. Her loose, free and deceptively simple images can actually be quite subtle and sophisticated. What I love most is her freedom of expression.

During my second visit, with a group of SCBWI writers and illustrators, several of us spoke with the docent about that very quality. The wonderful loose quality of Maira’s style we surmised might be partly due to her decision not to ‘study’ art. She has stayed (purposefully) ‘naïve’ in her art style, though she can be quite painterly too. This may be what has enabled her to keep her creative freedom. She didn’t study the ‘rules’ one learns in art school.

Early in my art school training I realized that although the departing Art Center graduates were clearly talented and wonderfully trained, there was a similarity in their ‘look’ as well. Art school can do that. It can be worthwhile and at the same time take away something special. My friend Suzy suggested that art school can destroy that wonderful quality that we all have as children (and that we agreed that some of us spend the rest of our lives trying to regain). That is the simplicity, exuberance and spontaneity that Maira Kalman’s work still has. In my art studies I wanted to learn to accurately capture what I saw. Now I want to return to expressing what I feel.

Though Maira has a successful career in children’s literature (12 books), it’s been said adults may be her most appreciative audience. I find her work to be evocative, chaotic, irreverent, original, idiosyncratic, charming, hilarious, quirky, moving, joyful, vital, surprising and always creative. Though her work can sometimes appear ironic, she told us her work is never sarcastic.  Her paintings are like a sketchbook narrative of what she observes of her life and the lives of others she passes on the street. She has said, “My work is a journal of my life.” What a wonderful journal it is.

The exhibit, Maira Kalman: Various Illuminations (of a Crazy World) is on view now through February 13, 2011 at the Skirball – see it if you can!

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