Why Maira Kalman Loves to Work on Lots of Projects at Once

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S1: This ad free podcast is part of your slate plus membership.

S2: Welcome back to working the show about the creative process and what people do all day. I’m your host, Isaac Butler, and I’m your other host. On Ramaa, how are you doing today? I’m surviving. I’m good. Yeah, but you. I’m doing all right. I’m really enjoying the quarantine’s effect on my hair, which is just gonna get more and more out of control.

S3: I think in a month I’ll look like Rob Reiner on All in the Family or something. I don’t know if it’s getting a little crazy as somebody who has been living the bald lifestyle for a long time and living it.

S4: Well, I have to say that I was this was one aspect of quarantine life for which I was very well prepared.

S5: Well, more seriously, I suppose, you know, I’ve been working on my book this week and I found this quote that I wanted to run by you because it really made me think about the creative process and in like a different way. And I was wondering what you would think of it. So it’s an aphorism because it’s by a Russian theater director and they only speak in aphorisms, of course. But in the early 20th century, there was this Russian theater director of Jenny vakhtang goffe. And he said this thing, today’s rehearsal is not for its own sake, but for the sake of tomorrows. And he has like a much less penetrable quote where he explains what he means by that. But what he meant was like, you do the work that you do in order to become inspired, because inspiration is actually the subconscious processing work you’ve already done. And then you use that to do the next amount of work that you do, which then creates the next subconscious round of inspiration. So it’s not you get inspired and then work, it’s that you work and that causes inspiration. I was wondering what you thought about that.

S6: I think that we heard this in June’s interview last week with Veronica Roth, and I think we’ll hear that a little bit and the interview that we have today.

S7: This idea that creative work is no different from the work of a letter carrier or a mechanic. It’s the labor that you shop and do on a daily basis, regardless of whether or not you’re feeling it or you’re feeling moved. And in the process of engaging with the work, you may move yourself right, or create work that moves you or indeed like the work that you do that Wednesday that you’re just now in, it may prepare you for the work that you do on Thursday or Friday where things do connect and you are producing something you’re proud of. So I think that’s true. I think it’s sort of a classic conversation about the distinction between process and products. Right.

S8: Yeah, totally. And I’m excited for us to get into your interview with Myra Kalman, because I think she has so many smart things to say about this and so many other subjects. So can you tell us a little bit about her and what drew you to interviewing her in the first place?

S7: I will try. Myra strikes me as a very hard to categorize artist and person. I wrote a profile of my riquelme and for New York magazine’s The Cut. A couple of years ago, the New York Review Books was reissuing some of the children’s books that Myra had published in the late 1980s and early 1990s. So that was the occasion on which I was looking at her career. Myra’s first book was a illustrated picture book using the lyrics to a talking head song. Myra’s husband, who was a graphic designer named Tibor Kalman, had collaborated with the talking heads on the cover of their album Remain in Light. It’s a really beautiful image and I believe it’s in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art.

S3: Also one of the greatest albums of all time.

S7: Also an extraordinary album, Anti-pork Kalman like Myra is a figure who is hard to categorize. He was a graphic designer. He published a magazine called Colors, and he was just a renaissance man, really beloved for his work in design. Myra, I think, is similarly a Renaissance woman. She writes and illustrates books for children. She has a beautiful book about 9/11 called Fireboats. If you did not believe that anybody could make a illustrated picture book about 9/11. Myra, come in. We’ll show you that you were wrong. In addition to her work for children, she was for a year a columnist for The New York Times. And the columns that she produced for that institution have been collected in a beautiful book called The Principles of Uncertainty. They are drawings. They are texts that ruminate on life and arts and philosophy. And Myra has a very curious and engaged mind. And she’s a delight to talk to you at anytime. And in this particular moment where art and creative work seems so low on our list of priorities, given the sort of crisis, the role living through. I found it really a bomb to hear from her about the work that she’s doing. Myra’s newest project is an illustrated edition of the seminal autobiography of Alice B Toklas, which is Gertrude Stein’s memoir. Of her longtime lover, Alice Toklas, written in her voice, and Myra did these beautiful, beautiful portraits and paintings that illustrate this new addition from Penguin. And it was really a delight to talk to her about that book and about her work as a writer for children, about a project that she did called Sarah Berman’s Closet, which was an installation that she and her son Alex created. Recapturing the life of Myra’s own mother, the late Sarah Berman. The conversation went all over the place, just like my rozsa work has gone all over the place. I think I really enjoyed hearing from her, and I really think you’ll enjoy hearing it, too.

S9: Great. Well, let’s take a listen.

S10: Nice to meet under these circumstances again.

S1: I know, I know these are very strange times. You’re out of the city.

S10: Yes, I I’m fortunate that I have a house in the country. So we very good. My son and his wife and I are going to be survivors together here.

S1: Excellent. So I guess my first question for you is that I’ve heard you described as an illustrator. I’ve heard you described as a painter. When I spoke to you a couple of years ago for a story for the court, you described yourself to me as a writer. And I’m curious about in your own words. What do you do?

S11: What? What do I do? So I think that the nice thing about getting older and changing viewpoints is that all of the things that I do, which which are not were real, but had a sense of, well, what am who am I really?

S12: And how am I doing all these different things? Now I say, well, I do all these different things. And I’m a writer and a painter and an illustrator and a designer and now a dancer.

S11: Now insanely enough. And so why not? Is the answer. If there’s if there’s a way to communicate.

S1: So the confidence to claim any job title you like, you could you could juggle on the street for money and claim yourself a busker. That’s something that you feel like you’ve come to with age, with age and experience.

S12: You know, the more I do, the more I think, well, this is really interesting. But something else is equally interesting and why not try it? So there is a sense of exploring and experimenting and going out of your comfort zone, as the cliché is, and finding out, you know, exploring different relationships which are wonderful. So, I mean, I’m going back to working with Joan Higginbotham, who’s a wonderful choreographer on dance pieces and seeing that there there’s another conversation to be had in this world and life is short. I I’m going to say that in the beginning of our conversation that life is short. And especially in these times when we’re looking at what’s really important and who do we love and what we love to do, we better be doing it. So that’s the conclusion.

S1: And pushing outside of your comfort zone is part of a practice or a way of thinking about your work?

S13: Well, it is because I’m more open to failure and I’m more open to not knowing. I guess I have the enough self-confidence to do something badly and to say, OK, what is the interesting process in experimenting? So I think it does come with having worked a lifetime. And, you know, I wanted to try new things and also being happy to not know it. It’s a very wonderful point of view.

S1: It’s so interesting to me because I think we talk a lot about art, specifically about the prodigy or, you know, the artist who emerges fully formed when they’re really young. And I’m not saying you’re not really young. I what I’m saying is that it’s interesting to hear you talk about your respect for the context of getting older and learning that you don’t care as much or you’re not sort of inhibited by things that you might have been when you were younger.

S13: And, you know, it isn’t a decision that you make one morning, oh, I’m going to be this way, but it’s an evolution of what am I feeling now and how do I need to work? And even the way that I’m painting now, you know, I’m doing a children’s book about meeting my granddaughter for the first time. And the style of this is very different than the style of Gertrude Stein. It’s much looser and dreamier in a way. I mean, this is a different project, but that I can say, oh, what other way am I going to express myself? So I think that the wonderful thing is not to be a prodigy, but to just keep working all your life. And then you find out, well, you find out new things that you didn’t know you’d find out. So that’s fantastic.

S1: That’s so great. I’m curious about what your perfect day at work would look like.

S13: The perfect day of work is not working. I’ve said this a million times, but the perfect day of work is waking up and not feeling exhausted from terrible dreams, having a cup of coffee, reading the obits, going for a walk and looking at trees. Today I went for a walk to the office. Of course, everybody must read the open. That’s the best. The day starter. That kind of sets sets you into a mode of what am I really going to be doing with my life today? And, you know, the stories in obits are very much about lives, not about death. So you’re looking at these heroic or interesting or absurd lives and saying, well, how would they write about my life if it was condensed into, you know, 10 paragraphs or something like that, which just make me do anything differently. But I kind of like that in my pocket. So then I go for a walk and going for walks is probably the most important part of my day and looking and not thinking and looking and not thinking and then coming back to work in my studio to paint either things that I’ve seen or things that I’m working on. I work only to assignment because I like the idea of being connected to an editor. I’m a kind of Lois Lane of. Journalism and art. And so I like that I have a mission. I have an assignment. I have a deadline which I adore. And then I can incorporate both wandering and working. And that’s my perfect day. And then I have to go to sleep really early. And after watching a British murder mystery, that’s a perfect day.

S1: So you’re not somebody who goes into the studio just to muck around and discover what you might discover?

S13: I can’t do that or I haven’t done that yet. You know, the night is young. I mean, the night is kind of approaching evening, but it’s still there’s still a time for me to think about that. But so far, I have so many projects. Both was that I initiate. So I’m I’m allowing myself the kind of leeway of mucking around. But there is a specific assignment which gives me great happiness. You know, I love narrative and language and words and stories and literature. Right now, I’m joining a war and peace reading group, which is probably going to have millions of people in it that will be reading War and Peace together through this time. Right. At first, I thought I wasn’t inclined to read War and Peace right now, but I’ve been told by many friends that it’s and I’ve been assured that it’s a really good.

S1: But that seems to be the concern. It’s got good credit. So I want to talk to you about your most recent project. The new book that you have is an illustrated edition of Gertrude Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas. And you made paintings that illuminated different snippets of the text. And I’m going to read a snippet right now. I was impressed by the coral brooch she wore and by her voice. I may say that only three times in my life have I met a genius. And each time a bell within me rang and I was not mistaken. And I must say, in each case, it was before there was any general recognition of the quality of genius in them. But of course, as Gertrude Stein writing about Alice B Toklas writing about meeting herself, and you made this beautiful painting of Stein, and presumably it’s as you imagined, Gertrude Stein imagining l.A.P.D. Toklas imagining her. And it’s a funny, you know, slippery modernist text. And I’m wondering whether you had an existing relationship to the autobiography before you took on this assignment, whether you had read it or liked it or loved it or hated it.

S14: Right. Well, Gertrude Stein has always loomed large in my landscape, as modernist as an eccentric and original. I mean, know one of a kind for sure. So she and Alice lived very close to me. And in some ways, the more I read about them, the more I felt a kinship to them as people who would have been in my family, very reverent, very funny, very particular unapologetic opinions and, you know, feuds and love affairs and. And this book, which Gertrude decided she would write in Alice’s voice, being sick of being ridiculed for her inaccessibility, became a huge bestseller. And they embarked on a seven month press tour of the United States talking to her. So Alice is a force, but, you know, behind the scenes force. And Gertrude was able to to make Alice say, of course, what she want to say.

S15: And in this 350 page book, by the way, where I read a number of times, though, I can’t remember everything I underlined every time. Gertrude Stein wrote in Alice’s voice the name Gertrude Stein, which are the papers of the book. And it was something like 600 times. She sometimes eight times a page. The name Gertrude Stein would be mentioned. So Gertrude was very prescient about branding in about. I’m going to make sure you know exactly what’s going on over here. And it worked. So there’s a tremendous amount of humor and playfulness, you know, along with the intelligence and the fierce ambition.

S1: I just I’m struck by what you said before about how you could have been in your family, that there was a kind of a sensibility of humor and argument and confidence. Could you talk about that a little more about your relationship to figures like that?

S15: Well, it’s mostly I’m talking about the women in my family who really are the standout personalities. I mean, the men, of course, were part of the story. And that’s a different road. But the women were sharp and funny. And they also had very, you know, like my mother, who was a knockout beauty, had a similarity to Alice in her aquiline nose and a sharpness of look and a kind of a really unapologetic way of looking at the world, making tourist comments that nobody else would make, really saying what was on their mind.

S10: So Alice did that. When the more you read about Alice, the more you find out that really Gertrude was channeling Alice’s voice, that it was very much about understanding. And both of them being able to create a language between them. And that’s how it was with the women in my family, which carry down especially my mother, who, you know, I really adored for her irreverence and. Her originality and about not caring about what other people thought. Very much really IT centric in the most wonderful way.

S1: Do you see this projects the autobiography as related to Sarah Berman’s closet or the book that you did with Kristin Gellibrand, which is a book for children that illustrates the lives of sort of seminal feminist figures? Like, do you see a relationship between those three projects, given what you’re saying about your relationship to these women as outspoken kind of confident oddball geniuses?

S16: Well, this is clearly the era for me of looking at the women and the glorious lives of women who were famous and private and, you know, artists and homemakers. Just how extraordinary the influence and the impact of all these women were in completely different ways. So my mother, who didn’t have a political bone in her body and would never dream of doing anything heroic in the grand scale to me was just as heroic, if not more so in the private realm of being honest. She couldn’t. She was incapable of telling a lie. And this sense of integrity and the way that you can trust somebody that you know that when you’re with somebody, you think I can trust their intelligence, I can trust their love. And that’s a that’s a huge thing to have to believe, you know, that you can really trust somebody. So I cherish that. And I think that well, it’s always you know, it’s it’s very often about the women. Forgive me.

S10: No, but don’t ask for forgiveness. They know a thing. The women I know I’ve written about Lincoln and Jefferson and all that. But this is a much more intimate situation.

S1: Yes. Because you’ve written about the founding fathers, as you just said, and you are dealing with a really well known mythology and trying to find the humanity in those figures. And the project of Gertrude Stein and Alice B Toklas is similar, but almost I don’t know, it’s like Gertrude Stein. Part of her charm is this kind of incredible ego, as you just said, about sort of writing her own name over and over again through her partners voice. But it seems like you’re trying to illuminate something that has not been looked up before. I mean, of course, we’ve seen how Picasso depicted Gertrude Stein, but there’s kind of a pleasure in seeing how Meyrick Hellman depicts her and certainly how you depict Alice B Toklas.

S10: Yeah, well, I really I mean, I’m just madly in love with both of them. And that that whole era, of course. I mean, it was handing me the most delicious dessert on a platter to be able to be in this world and paint everybody in. And I really could have painted twice as many paintings, but there was a limit to the page account, literally. So. But, you know, I always think there has to be another volume of what, you know, what wasn’t in there.

S16: You know, I could do 10 paintings of Caesar’s wife and also because of the, you know, the photography of the era. There’s a tremendous amount of reference. And they were photographed by everybody. So there’s a wealth of reference and the modernism of architecture and art, music, dance. It just doesn’t stop. They knew everybody. Everybody came to their salon. And the stories are hilarious and profound and probably untrue and many of them. But that’s OK. We don’t count memoirs to be accurate.

S1: When you’re I mean, you’re talking about your affection for these people and for this text. I know your work as in the interplay of your words and your images. And this work is about the interplay between your images and someone else’s words. And I’m wondering if that is a challenge for you or the ways in which that might be different.

S10: You know, what’s nice is that when I first started illustrating, when I you know, when I was younger, I want to be a writer. And I stopped writing and I started just illustrating what I was looking for was texts that was really wonderful for me to relate to that it felt like it was in my world. So, yeah, the projects that I’ve done, bribe illustrated other people’s writing, like the elements of style by strutting the white. Or like Michael Pollan’s food rules or Daniel Handler’s why we broke up. It’s because the sensibility is there for me and I am given the complete freedom, which is the greatest gift in the world to do it exactly as I feel it. So nobody’s saying you must do this or you must do that. It’s like, here’s this text. What do you feel with this? With Gertrude and now. I mean, it was really, as I say, it was Kate. I mean, just I couldn’t I couldn’t believe how perfect that was for me. So, no, I entered into that world with great warmth and loved everybody I encountered. I really I’m I’m still a little bit bereft that I couldn’t paint everybody that I wanted to paint. But there’s always the future. So you could do some outtakes? Definitely. And I’m doing a book for the library, which is the encyclopedia of every. You know, the compendium of knowledge and everything that I’ve been thinking about for the last either year or 10 years or 40 years will somehow enter into that. I guess not very slim volume, but we’ll see. But I know. I love. I love the exchange of working in my own words and then collaborating with somebody else and entering into their world. It’s a lovely parallel world.

S1: There’s a profile of you in The New York Times on the occasion of this new book. And the reporter William Hamilton noted that the idea for the autobiography came from your agent. And I wondered if you could talk a little bit about, you know, is that common for you, that you get the idea or the assignment? You mentioned earlier that you like having an assignment. Who is bringing you those assignments? And, you know, I’m curious if you could talk a little bit about your reliance on having voices in the room with you to say, Myra, you should think about doing X or Y.

S10: It’s so fantastically random. On some level, you know, the phone rings or an e-mail comes and somebody with an really interesting project, the same way that you know, David Byrne, I’ve known David for a long time and the same way he got in touch us said, Do you want to do this curtain for my show, American Utopia? And it just was, yes, of course. And so I was. I have relationships with my editors and with my agent and my gallerist. Julie saw that go on for a very long time. I really have developed very close friendships. And and the wonderful thing is that nobody’s trying to make you the other than who you are or you know. So I understand that when I’m having conversations, 17 wanted me to do another to illustrate another Gertrude Stein book. And the project didn’t work out. And I was lamenting to Charlotte cheaty, my agent, how I was so sorry not to be in their world. And she said, well, you always talking about the autobiography and you love that so much. What did you do that? And it was extraordinary because somebody knows you very well to say the right sentence at the right time. And so I have dialogues a lot of time. You know, now I say know a lot more than I say. Yes, because that’s the luxury of having work that I that I love. And I don’t have to take on everything.

S16: So I love the the surprise and your instinct. It’s all instinct telling you, oh, this is really you know, you want to be able to make a living from it. But first is how interesting is this project? That’s the first question. And how much do I like the people involved?

S1: If so, it’s instinct. I guess there’s no good advice for developing your own instinct or learning what your own taste is or what you’re drawn to. Where is there?

S16: Well, I mean, the the oldest advice in the world is perseverance and patience. You know that if you expect to know who you are and what you are very quickly, then you’re kind of lost. And the only way to really find out anything is to just keep doing it, doing it and doing it over the years and and sticking to it, which is, you know, I always say in the end, you either do it or you don’t. You know, you either know that you can’t do anything else and you must do this. But there is no recipe for finding out who you are other than just keep working. That’s the only advice that you could possibly have. And hopefully the people around you who encourage you to keep working.

S1: You were talking about collaboration and noting that, you know, that’s been a part of your larger project throughout your career. I want to ask specifically about a project that you did with the writer Daniel Handler, who is known as Lemony Snicket. He wrote a book called Thirteen Words, and it does a book for children. And, you know, if you know his work or you know his sensibility, it will be unsurprising to you that the first word is bird. But the second word is despondence. And I’m curious about what that collaboration looks like in a more granular way. Is it just that Daniel is sending you the tax and saying, this is what it is, you decide what to draw? Or is there a back and forth or you mentioned you worked with David Byrne on the scene for the curtain for his show, American Utopia. Is it just him saying, Myra, I want you in on this? Have at it or is there an exchange in which do you prefer?

S15: You know, it’s really quite a wonderful thing. I knew Daniel and we’ve been friends for some time. So when he proposed collaborating on this book, you know, he knows who he’s talking to. He knows what he’s choosing. He knows that if he chooses the word hat is one of the 13 words, though he’s had one of 13 was a cake or Hubbard’s haberdashery, sorry, haberdashery, cake or ladder. He’s he’s writing for me. He knows what I love to paint. He knows I love to paint ladders and hats and cakes. And and we share a love of despondency. I mean, I guess anybody who is alive has to understand that the joy and the sorrow are mingled. You can’t tear them apart any time of the day. And it’s something you can communicate to children. You don’t have to be always cheery and kind of in a super upper mood. You can talk, of course. I mean, a million books do that. But it allowed me to enter into my world with a kind of graciousness coming from him. And then, of course, we exchange sketches and there are conversations going back and forth. And this same with David that once he said, do you want to do this? I didn’t have to ask him, what should I do? I mean, there was some kind of conversation, of course. And we’re collaborating and he’s seeing it along the way and has input. But all the best work is always with somebody really trust you to do the best you can possibly do. And nobody’s sitting over your shoulder saying, well, I wouldn’t do that. I wouldn’t do that because that’s kind of a killer. So it’s you know, again, I have probably is found in some dark hole, enough self-confidence to know what I love to do. And I’m willing to listen to people who I think are really smart and also trying to achieve the same thing. And, you know, there’s some kind of there’s always some yielding to another person’s thought, but not too much. It’s really it’s really nice.

S1: I wonder if that ever challenges your sense of ego, because they think that for a lot of people who are creatively, there is this very intimate relationship between the eye and the self. Who is the sensibility invested in this product? And then the finished product being, you know, designated the labor of two people or three people or a team, for example. Again, when I spoke to you a couple of years ago, we talked a little bit about the design firm run by your late husband, Tibor Kalman and company. Your late husband was a seminal graphic designer. And the term does even really describe the sort of breadth of his project. But that was a project that you were also very involved in. And when we spoke, you were very clear about your own relationship to that work. And I’m not saying that you need a correction of the record or you need it to be understood. I think you understand what you did and you are proud of your collaboration with him. As you know, as a person, as a partner, but also as a creative force. But I guess my question is, does that require some negotiating, figuring out like where you turn off your own sense of pride or a desire for recognition? And I guess ego really is sort of the best or describe, you know, that relationship. Is that something you’ve had to negotiate yourself?

S10: I think that for me, it’s ego and it’s. And maybe more than ego. It’s self respect. And I don’t. And self-confidence, which is which sounds a little bit aggressive, but and, you know, negotiating things with T-Bone now that he’s not here. Well, I usually get to have the last word, which is kind of fabulous. But we met in the late 60s. And now I’m just going to talk to about Thibeault for a second. Direct to the other things. But T-Paw started Emond Company in 1979 and we still were in the throes of the beginning of feminism, the beginning of understanding with the power of a woman in a collaboration was he was certainly the front. I was certainly in the back. And, you know, also I was there in the office. But a personal conversation was an intense and amazing one that lasted until he died for 30 years. And so I also can say, as an aside, this thing with Gertrude and now is their conversation was, you know, you don’t as I say, don’t be fooled by Alice being in the background. She was a force that was as important. And neither of them could have realized each other without each other. You know, they couldn’t have realized themselves. And I think that’s the same thing for T-ball, for me.

S16: And, you know, in other collaborations, I have the ability to enjoy a conversation with another person who I think is strange and funny and wonderful. And I’m not talking about T-ball now, though. He was all those things. But, you know, with Daniel or David.

S11: And that I can find myself and find finally dialogue, which is wonderful. So I like that and being trusted by somebody else. So my ego is fed a million times over and I don’t have any complaints.

S1: That is a really good answer because it’s really important to distinguish between ego and confidence. That is ego. You know, when you’re talking about creative work and sound like such a negative, but you need to have a kind of confidence to develop and take risks and learn anything about what you’re doing as an artist. And I love what you just teased out about Alice B Toklas on your own life.

S10: I think that’s a really sharp connection that was clear that there was some kind of like you knows, through line through this thing. Look at them. Yeah.

S1: Know your son Alex made a film through this book in which you performed the role of Alice B Toklas wandering around the streets of New York City. And it is really funny and really charming and really hard to. Grise, like so much of your work, and I wonder if you could talk about what it’s like to work with your son now and what it was like to make that film.

S10: You know, I was I was kidding to him that we were like Gertrude analysis, though I wasn’t sure who was who and which was which. But, you know, he studied film, but he’s a journalist and a writer and he has a museum on Cortland Alley called Museum in a defunct elevator shaft. So his interests also mirror as in mine, in that there should really are no bounds to what you can do if you are interested and curious, which you know, which is essential to doing that kind of work.

S16: And so the way that we’ve worked is very again, it’s very naturally. And when he installs Sarah Berman’s closet in his museum on Cortland Alley and then it went to the Met, you know, we had this trajectory of understanding that these very small ideas can really be influential and wonderful and can go other places. So besides doing Sarah Abrams cause of the book, we just finished doing a book incorporating the art from American Utopia, from David Byrne’s show with text, from the show with text, from his songs. And this book, which we hope gets printed in our world today, is a lyrical respite from the noise of what we’re assaulted with a lot of the time. And so Alex and I have an incredible conversation so far, so good where we can be lovingly honest with each other and somehow share a language of, as I say, of curiosity and humor and empathy.

S1: I’ve heard you in this conversation talk about like several different projects in varying stages of completion. You’re a busy woman. Do you go from right from one project to the next? Do they overlap? Do you require a kind of fallow period where you’re not doing something or you’re not engaged in the assignment?

S10: Well, I keep saying that I’d like a year of just wandering around and going from garden to garden in Europe, primarily in England. And I may do that. We’ll see what happens. But I have a lot of projects I’d like to know. This sense of attention or energy or desire to have less stress. I don’t want to give anything less than lessened attention. So I don’t want to have that many things going on. But they’re also amazing projects.

S11: So I have a few going on at once and more on the horizon.

S1: And you find yourself able to switch between registers to say, OK, at this moment I’m working on this children’s book, but I’m also thinking about my project for a cookbook in the back of my mind. And I can I can take that up at the end of this week and the two won’t interfere with one another.

S10: Well, the opposite of Interfer, they contribute to each other and they help each other. Because when I’m working on a book for adults, you know, something is is bubbling in my mind about children. And if I’m working in a book about cake, then, you know, the curtain that every project brings another energy to the next project. And so I’m learning from them. I’m learning what I want to do and what I don’t want to do. And and so I love it. They really contribute and feed each other in a very wonderful way. So I’m you know, I keep saying I’m really fortunate, but I really am one.

S1: Do you feel done with the project?

S10: You know, being active, just handing, handing it in. You know, that’s that’s exactly it. Oh, my God. It’s like there’s they’re saying you have to send it in. That’s when somebody else is knocking on the door saying, where the hell is it?

S1: But so Alice Toklas and says on and Cerar are looming over your shoulder anymore, tapping you on the shoulder.

S10: And I know they are you from what I know, they they. So are they. So are. Yeah. Yeah. I can’t. You know, I can’t let them go. But they’re gonna help me with my other projects and I’m going to paint a tree differently now than I did, you know, before going to any you know. And I went to his own studio and I know how to make the amazing gray of his walls. I got the formula for that, which is not that complicated, and went to read off the road to their apartment and to getting in, of course, to Monets gardens. So you she verni.

S11: So there are more expeditions of just feeling close to them and, you know, saying, oh, I’m glad to be in your world.

S1: Those were travels that you undertook specifically for doing this book. Yes. Yes, they were. They were. And when you’re depicting people who are real people and not only that, people for whom you have a real affection and the respect. How do you split the difference between wanting to get the grey of season’s wall and wanting to do what Meyrick Helmund does?

S10: Well, you know what’s great? They’re all dead. So it’s so good. When people die, you get away with what you can do, whatever you want. You have this freedom. You know, when I did, though, when I did the elements of style. We know the strength. Why? I mean, E.B. White’s granddaughter, Martha, and she told me that he really would have been happy with the book. So I was thrilled to hear that as opposed to, you know, how dare you. From the grave, hearing somebodys voice say, how dare you. But, you know, so this is what I’ve been doing my whole life. So I can say I’m a professional, but I. But I’ve been a professional in the sense that this is what I love to do. And I can try to. You know, sometimes I do a better job, but sometimes I look at it and go, wow, that’s terrible. And can we do it or should do something else. So, you know, that’s the daily menu of working in this field, is that if you don’t have the freedom and the self-confidence to do what you want to do, then why are you doing it?

S17: The Principles of Uncertainty is a book that collects columns you did for The New York Times that are sort of your writing and illustration on a variety of topics. And you write in one of your entries about why you have so many suitcases in your living room, in your New York City apartment. I don’t mean to put you on this paper. Do you remember why you remember what you wrote?

S10: Well, I wrote it. It looks like we’re back to sleep. And actually, when I left New York to come upstate now, it was one of those looking around, you know, fleeing Belarus in 1937. Like what? What am I going to take with me? But did I say that I love suitcase? Remember what?

S1: Well, you write about your affection for the suitcase. That’s the kind of object. But then you do say you are thinking about a man fleeing during the Second World War. And as we’ve covered in our conversation, you have fled from your New York City apartment to your home in the country, because we live in this extraordinary moment of, you know, fear and pandemic. And when I think of your work, I also think of the work of Charlotte Solomon, who was the great writer and artist. Her work seems to illuminate a very particular moment in Europe on the brink of the Second World War. And in fact, during the Second World War, through one sensibility and I guess maybe my point is that your work has, despite the beauty that it can offer us that has never been afraid to look at life as it is. And, you know, this particular moment I just thought of that your mention of the suitcases or I thought of your mention of even Alice Toklas and Gertrude Stein, couple of lesbians knocking around Europe during the Second World War and how some Jewish Jewish lesbians, by the way, I just let you both know and coming through it unscathed, which is a very complicated conversation.

S10: But, you know, it’s funny because I’m sitting in my studio now and I have the suitcase that I had painted of the man fleeing here, because that’s what I took. I took my art supplies in that to go upstate. And I was wondering, how long am I going to be here? You know, I my parents both left Belarus and came to Palestine. My father’s whole family was killed. That I was fed on that from, you know, from morning till night how horrific things can happen, horrific things will happen. And the question is, how do you deal with it?

S16: We were looming on know with the edge of some kind of phenomenal world change. And we just have no idea what’s going to happen. So, you know, what do you do in those times? And the only thing that I can think of is that you turn to your work and you turn to the people who you love and you say, you know, this is what I’m going to do to counteract the, you know, the terror and the sorrow for for all of humanity. And and maybe we’ll all come through it. I don’t even know in a better way. Maybe there’s no prediction to be made.

S11: But we can hope. So are you going to work today? Oh, yeah.

S16: I’m painting. And it’s interesting. I’m painting this book about my granddaughter being born and this sense of what’s what’s going to happen.

S11: And but, yes, I’m going to paint paintings of life with her.

S1: I mean, I think I guess what I’m getting at is that that’s one of the things your work has always reminded us, is that sense of we don’t really know what’s going to happen. And you can kind of look at what has happened. But, you know, I mean, it’s there. Even in the name of that book, I mentioned the principles of uncertainty. You know, uncertainty is kind of that’s sort of the feeling of the time.

S16: Right. And we’re we’re all subject to the uncertainty in, you know, in personal ways, in global ways.

S11: So it’s really important to not collapse into a, you know, a bath of pessimism, because, I mean, of course, that’s going to be there. But the only antidote is to do your work.

S1: That’s great advice. Myra, this was so lovely. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me during.

S10: I think it’s so. See you under that blanket. And to hear you lying on the floor of my office. It’s very, very sweet. Thank you for being in touch.

S8: Reman, before we listen to the interview, you brought this up and I was just really struck again while we were listening to it that she works on so many different kinds of projects. Children’s Books, an adaptation of Gertrude Stein, a curtain for a Broadway show, a collaboration with Kirsten Gillibrand. It’s really remarkable how many different forms her creativity finds.

S6: I like that Myra is so confident in what she does that she feels less need now at this point in her life to categorize it, to say that this is the project I’m engaged in. And, you know, I think that’s a perfectly valid way of existing in the world and being an artist. And it’s a lovely and confident departure. And I think I often kind of admire artists older than me. And I think that it’s because often age can bring liberation. And I mean, you heard Myra say in our conversation, it wasn’t like she just decided at some point, okay, knowing free to be who I am. I think you just sometimes you need to evolve into a place of saying, yes, I’m the kind of person who is going to make a children’s book with my friend Daniel Handler. And if David Byrne calls and says, I need a curtain for this production and brings Broadway, I’m going to do that, too. And if Senator Kirsten Gillibrand picks up the phone and says, you know what, we’d love to have you illustrate the senator’s book of feminist heroes. I’m going to say, yeah, I’d love to do that. That sounds great. You know, and I think that having that openness to the world, it just seems so enriching to me. It’s something I really admire.

S8: Yes. You know, I also think about you. I mean, you’re someone who has a lot of different projects. You’re a novelist. You’re doing two podcasts, including this one. You’re a critic. You just had that wonderful piece about Woody Allen’s memoir. And I was wondering, do you think of all of this as one creative practice or do you think of it as several traunches or something?

S6: I suppose I do. I think it’s all united by a single sensibility. I’m just that one guy. You know, it’s just me, regardless of what endeavor I’m engaged in. And so I think some would say that we’ve seen an erosion of these distinctions between high and low. Right. For example, and lament that. And I don’t really lamented I think you sort of have to accept that maybe things are not as tightly defined as once they were or as once we told ourselves.

S5: You know, I loved that point she made about trusting her interest, as you put it. It’s like, okay, you know, David Burns called me to do this curtain. I’m interested in that. I’m gonna go do it. You know, it’s funny because, you know, when I was studying theater directing, I was taught trust your boredom, which means if you’re not interested in it, the audience isn’t going to be interested in it, which is like the converse of that. But anyway, you know that that idea of just your interest and being confident enough to have that guide you. It just seemed like a really core part of her creative process. That’s really particular to her.

S7: I think you’re right. And I think that you can train you can train yourself on technical ability. Right. You can rehearse. You can go into the studio and work with wax or whatever your medium is. What you can’t necessarily train yourself toward is confidence. I think it sort of comes with time and comes with repetition. And again, I admire artists who have reached a certain point in their life where they’ve come by a kind of confidence, honestly. And I think Myra is at that point where she there’s no reason she should be confident because she’s really damn good at what she does and she is still learning and pushing herself. I think you heard her talk a little bit about a book that she’s doing now and her approach to it being stylistically different. So she’s still someone who’s committed to pushing that.

S8: I mean, she’s working with John Higginbotham and becoming a dancer.

S6: She’s you know, and I think she’s just someone who knows that if she tries something, it will lead her somewhere. And I think there’s no way to replicate that particular confidence beyond committing to a practice, you know?

S8: Yes, absolutely. I think that one thing we’re talking about in a lot of these interviews and you and I know our feeling in our lives right now, and one of the reasons why you wanted to talk to her specifically is about maintaining that practice or what that practice looks like now in these strange times. In these strange times. Yeah. And so in thinking about that, I was thinking about like, well, what works? Do we turn to you and I in this moment to think about how to remain creative and what the creative practice looks like. So I thought maybe we could do a quick round of recommendations.

S7: That’s a great idea. I would first defer to our guests because they think the way that she closed our conversation was with the imperative of going back to your work. And I found that so soothing to hear. I think, you know, as someone who is engaged in creative work yourself, if you’re waiting for the invitation to get back to your book, it’s never going to come. Right, because only you want that to be done. I mean, your editor wants. It’s the right. But I think the way that Myra posited it, which is just that it’s your work and you have to get back to it, was very helpful to me. And if you were a dancer or a musician or whatever in this moment, feeling adrift as we all are. Well, I think you need to get back to work. And I think that you will find something there. And for me, in this particular moment, I think a lot of people are having trouble reading. And I would count myself among those people in the last week or so. The one thing that I have found really soothing is to listen to music. Music doesn’t require your active participation. In fact, when you go see or when I go see the Philharmonic, I can barely stay awake. Part of the experience of it is the way that your mind floats away from you. It’s the tether of your mind breaks a little bit and it sort of begins to float away. And I find that so wonderful and rewarding. So many of our great performing arts institutions right now are, you know, they’re doing livestreaming of musicians, playing in a rehearsal space or in a home studio. They’re releasing archival performances. And so last week I watched the Peter Sellars production of Nixon in China The Opera by John Adams, which is an extraordinary piece of music that I absolutely love. And I had intended only to kind of play it while I was working because it’s a three hour approach. I can just sit there for three hours after the kids have gone to bed. But I found myself actually unable to not watch it and just lose myself in it. And so I would do that. If you feel adrift right now, I would turn to a piece of music that doesn’t require anything of you beyond your passivity and your willingness to sit with it and think about it and let it or not even think about it. Just let it sort of wash over you. What about you?

S8: I have a completely opposite recommendation, although I love your recommendation. It is it is not a critique of the recommendation. It’s just the opposite, which is if you feel like you are not having trouble reading right now, the question of, you know, how the hell do we move forward creatively or artistically as the worst things are happening around us is not a new one. And for many of us in this country who are of a certain age, we went through that very recently with 9/11 and the Patriot Act and the Iraq war and the feeling that particularly George W. Bush and what he represented was invulnerable. Things were never going to get better. Nothing was ever going to change. There was just nothing like what could we possibly do? And out of that, the theater director and Bogarde wrote this really beautiful book called And Then You Act, which is about this question, how do you make art in troubled times? Right. As we have in these troubled times, as we like to say. How do you make art? Some of it’s theater specific. You have my permission to skim that stuff. If you’re not interested in theater. But she’s so smart and has synthesized so many things over the course of her career. And in her mind, there’s actually someone who spent a lot of time interviewing other artists herself. So, of course, you know, game recognize game. But, you know, it was written not during this crisis and not during Trump, but during the last crisis. And so there’s a way in which even though it’s not that long ago, it feels like it speaks to us across generations as a really interesting, thoughtful theater artist and theorist is trying to answer those same questions. You might not agree with everything she comes up with, but it’s very interesting to just watch that thought process at work on the page.

S4: I mean, the truth is, of course, that much of our great art was produced in times of political or social unrest because there are more times of that sort of unrest than there aren’t. Right. That’s sort of the nature of civilization and we need our artists to keep going forward. Otherwise, what is the point of even having a civilization agreed, you know? So I suppose on that note, we should all get back to work and take care of it.

S2: You two remain. One of the things we’d love to do with this show is help solve your creative problems. So if you have any questions about creativity or writing, whether you’re trying to write a novel or symphony or just a really great email, please send them to working at Slate dot com. And if we can, we’ll put those questions to our guests. Thank you to Myra Kalman for being our guest this week. And enormous thank you’s to our wonderful producer, Morgan Flannery.

S7: We’ll be back next week for a conversation between Isaac and the jazz composer slash bandleader mewho Hauserman. Thank you for listening.