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Arts and Entertainment

On 'the elusive vulnerability of things': Illustrator and Author Maira Kalman's Skirball Exhibit Unfolds an Inspiring Narrative of Life and Art

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Towards the starting point of a traveling installation exhibit of a body of work from illustrator, author, and designer Maira Kalman there is a loving sketch of a woman the artist once spotted on the street. "I saw her," the drawing reads in Kalman's famed handwriting.

Opening today at the Skirball, Kalman's "Various Illuminations (of a Crazy World)" will touch visitors in that same gently, simple, and stirring way, as the meticulously curated and charmingly eclectic installation will leave you feeling as though you stopped time to hold on to the ephemeral, and that you actually saw her...Kalman...through her work.

The installation space, meant to echo Kalman's home studio, is filled with curiosities, found objects, and 120 of the artist's pieces, arranged thematically in order to construct and evoke narrative, which is a core element of Kalman's work.

The running joke with the exhibit's curator, Ingrid Schaffner, is that most people don't know that they know Kalman's work. Her work is, in fact, rather prominent, including a dozen children's books, two year-long New York Times illustrated "columns," and several New Yorker covers, including the one that let New Yorkers exhale and laugh in a post-9/11 world. Regardless, if you don't know Kalman's work, well, you should.

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Kalman appeared in person last night at the Skirball in conversation with Schaffner, to talk about the work in the exhibit, and her work itself. A self-described "dreamer" who grew up in a household where facts were not discussed, and reality was abstract, Kalman says she begins her day with a cup of coffee and a read of the Obituaries section, "which puts a good spin on the day." Humor is a guiding force for Kalman, though she is not a comedian, or even a humorist, and certain not a satirist. Nothing in her work is "ironic or sarcastic," but rather her drawings, embroideries, and writings elevate the everyday, honor the imagination, and try to capture "the elusive vulnerability of things."

A self-taught artist, Kalman said she shifted to art from writing because writing was too painful and self-conscious. She prefers to tackle projects unencumbered of directives and methods. "I don't want to know how to do things," she explained. "I want to struggle through."

For the pure joy and whimsy that is present in so many of her works, from Max Stravinsky, the poet dog character in many of her children's books, to the illustrations of her dreams, and even her crush on President Abraham Lincoln, there is still the starkness of daily life (a Snickers bar, a kitchen sink) and the very real element of sadness. "Nobody can escape tragedy," Kalman says, though she hopes that some of her work can help people talk through tough times. "Keep calm and carry on," is a tribute to the British wartime morale campaign, and also the unofficial sub-motto of the exhibit, and is adapted onto boxes of band-aids, bookmarks, and fridge magnets in the nearby gift shop. (Speaking of carrying on, Kalman's next project is a collaboration with Michael Pollan; she will illustrate a new edition of his book "Food Rules.")

Schaffner describes Kalman as having "the gift," though Kalman, through her mercurial wit and modesty, might seem to think she was just sort of getting by. "I'm a little bit of an archeologist," Kalman says of herself, and her propensity to collect onion rings, photos of kangaroos on trampolines, and shoes that are too big (in the hopes wearing them might force her to walk more slowly, thereby having more time to spend alive in the world). The everyday, the tragic, the famous, the spectacular, the dream-world, however, is not mundane in her hands, but rather presented in a way that you can imagine you are wearing too big shoes, and a wristwatch whose numbers make you smile. You pause. You look. You see her.

"Various Illuminations (of a Crazy World)" opens today, November 17th, at the Skirball, and runs through February 13, 2011.