By Carey Dunne, 21, reporting from New York, NY, on amazing illustrator Maira Kalman
Maira Kalman is the illustration powerhouse behind many a New Yorker cover (like the well-known "New Yorkistan"), illustrator of Strunk and White's Elements of Style, and author-illustrator of thirteen children's books. "Sayonara, Mrs. Kackleman," a story about two kids who go on a trip to Japan, was my favorite when I was little. Luckily, she also makes picture books for grown-ups. "And the Pursuit of Happiness" was originally an illustrated Blog in the New York Times, chronicling Kalman's yearlong trip across the USA. With drawings of George Washington's dentures, Abe Lincoln's dog Fido, and the Code of Hammurrabi, it's a meditation on democracy like none before it. "Hallelujah," it begins, glorying in Obama's inauguration. She published it as a hardcover book last year.
"Where is happiness? What is happiness? What did Thomas Jefferson mean?" she asks. Written in Maira's curlicued print, next to an illustration of bunny-eared dog walkers and lavender skies, questions like these no longer seem like the daunting queries of beard-stroking philosophers—they're fair game for anyone. How does Kalman pursue happiness? "I work. And walk. And go to museums… I make plans for trips to gardens where I will sit and draw and eat a meringue and savor the moment. By George! That's it. Savor the moment."
There is a lot to savor in Kalman's work. In her drawings, she turns objects into characters, giving a red velvet chair a human personality, convincing you that a piece of cherry pie is in a good mood. Martha Washington's purple heels with buckles look like they're tapping their toes on the page, and the faces of her people, bemused and beguiling, feel real. Kalman's colors, super-saturated, seem derived from tropical fruit stands. Each of her illustrations savors and praises the moment it captures.
Re-reading Kalman's "And the Pursuit of Happiness" post-fourth of July fireworks made me wonder what George Washington would have thought of these colorful bombs bursting in air. Or of the Budweiser, American flag bikinis, and barbecues of USA's birthday celebration. Kalman's explorations of the private lives of historical figures strip them of any textbook stuffiness, reminding you that they, too, had dental problems and pet dogs, one named Sweet Lips. Maybe they would have liked barbecues. The entire book is available online, so next time you're procrastinating at work, why not read it? Next on my reading list is her 2009 book, The Principles of Uncertainty.