How Legendary Illustrator Maira Kalman Stays Creative

We caught up with the whimsical illustrator about productivity, creativity, and why her spirit animal is a “tiny, delusional bird.”

You’ve probably seen illustrator Maira Kalman‘s whimsical, wryly funny work, whether you know it or not. Her supersaturated gouache paintings have graced countless New Yorker covers (remember New Yorkistan?), as well as the New York Times’ illustrated blogs. She has authored beloved children’s books like Sayonara, Mrs. Kackleman and chronicled the adventures of poet-dog Max Stravinsky. With her late husband Tibor Kalman, she ran the design studio M&Co, making clever wall clocks, watches, and accessory collections in collaboration with the likes of Kate Spade, as well as fabric designs for Isaac Mizrahi and sets for Mark Morris Dance Group.


Now, the Tel Aviv-born, Bronx-raised Kalman has illustrated her 25th book, in collaboration with Daniel Handler and the Museum of Modern Art, called Hurry Up and Wait, a meditation on the nature of time in a fast-paced culture and the importance of stopping and smelling the roses. On the occasion of the publication of Hurry Up and Wait, we caught up with Kalman about how she keeps her creative juices flowing when productivity is the byword of the day.

Lewis Carroll

Hurry Up and Wait is themed around slowing down, pausing, not rushing so much. What is your own tempo like in life, and what is your daily work routine like?
I have a very scheduled, ordered life. I wake up at 6 a.m., I go for a walk in Central Park, then come back and work. I do Tai Chi one night, a mindful meditation flow. I’m very punctual (except with deadlines). I admire time. I’m a big fan of time. I wish I had more of it. I talk a lot about how to really stop time and look at the moments inside the moments, and walking is one of those ways. Another way of slowing down time is to draw with a pencil on paper. It’s the best way to encourage imagination and pre-thinking–letting your mind wander, almost to the point of a scribble or a doodle.

How has your relationship to time changed over the course of your life?
That’s a sad question. There isn’t enough of it–that’s what you realize as you get older, that the most precious thing is time, and you can’t hold onto it, it goes faster and faster in such a dizzying way. I make sure to really do the things I love to do, make sure I’m using my time well, not wasting it, not engaging too much in things that aren’t giving me pleasure or satisfaction. You edit down to people you want to be around, people you love. It becomes quite simple and clear.

Helen Levitt’s Bathtub

Early in your career, did you ever doubt you could succeed as a working artist and illustrator? How did you get over that doubt?
I have that doubt to this day. I’m amazed I’m a working artist. I’m always anxious when I start a new project, about whether I’ll be able to do something that I like and am not ashamed of. I don’t think that really goes away. Of course, I also can see I’ve had a career. The most important thing is, I never thought of myself as an artist, I thought I was creating work. I see it as an occupation of the mind. Of course there’s a romantic part of it, that my moods and my life is my work, that it’s a particular kind of engagement, but it has all the aspects of doubt and confusion, too. You ask, ‘When will this insecurity end?’ but maybe it never ends. This is part of the process, part of working, as long as it doesn’t stop you from actually doing the work.

© 2015 Maira Kalman

What do you wish you had known early in your career as an artist that you know now?
Nothing. I think exactly not knowing and exactly finding out what the story is is how it has to be. Basically, nobody can tell you anything. But I would tell someone who was asking that the most important thing is just to work. Don’t give up. It’s like Winston Churchill said: never, never, never give up. That’s the only thing to know. Then you either find out what you find out, or you don’t.


Do you remember the first thing you ever drew?
The first thing I ever drew for money was a series for the Village Voice featuring presidents with women’s hairdos and makeup. As a child, I copied my cousin’s drawing of a chicken.

© 2015 Maira Kalman

What are your favorite things you own?
I have so many things I adore looking at. My favorite thing from [my book My Favorite Things] is a handmade ladder from the ’40s and ’50s, as well as handmade dolls from Mexico in the ’30s–there are these fabulous little fashion plates for each doll. I also have a pair of Junya Watanabe shoes designed for Commes des Garcon, with an elongated toe, like a demented Oxford, which I don’t wear, because they’re demented. Instead, I walk around a lot in big clunky sneakers.

Do you have a spirit animal, and if so, what is it?

I would say it’s a bird. A tiny delusional hopping bird that loves to hop under trees and sometimes is sad. It’s like Daniel [Handler]’s book about the bird that’s always sad–maybe he was writing that about me. But I’m also completely obsessed with shrews, and have been drawing lots of shrews. They’re so tiny, and they hop around, and some of them have very very long noses. They look like little noses jumping around.


About the author

Carey Dunne is a Brooklyn-based writer covering art and design. Follow her on Twitter.