About two years ago, Kalman was poking around a thrift shop on Cape Cod when she came across a copy of The Elements of Style, the classic writing manual by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White first published in 1959. Kalman, who had never used it in school herself, says that she plunked herself down and read it almost cover to cover. She was immediately taken not only by the book's sage rules (“Omit needless words”) but also by the delightfully absurd sentences and phrases used as examples throughout the text, which struck her as ripe for illustration. Kalman obtained permission from White's granddaughter to illustrate the book and began translating her favorite examples into images. She notes that Strunk, the book's original author (White was his student, who edited the book for publication after Strunk's death), had a subtly subversive sense of humor.
“I think he was a deeply funny man, and he enjoyed coming up with these sentences,” she says. Some of her illustrations are literal renderings of Strunk's words, while others add another layer of humor to them. The sentence “He noticed a large stain right in the center of the rug” (demonstrating Rule 20, “Keep related words together”) is accompanied by an image of guests decorously sitting around a living room, all but one oblivious to a man lying in a pool of blood.
The Elements of Style Illustrated (Penguin Press) is just one of a handful of Kalman projects debuting in October. The textile company Maharam, which has commissioned designs from such talents as Hella Jongerius and Bruce Mau, is unveiling its first collaboration with Kalman: a fabric made up of about 200 of her tiny hieroglyphic-like drawings, depicting everything from a rhinoceros to a jacket on a hanger.
Textiles are also the basis of her second gallery exhibition, opening at the Julie Saul Gallery on October 27. The show, titled “I Can't Stand All the Excitement,” will consist of about 30 works of embroidery. “My mother and my aunt embroidered, and I love cloth,” says the artist. The pieces, all based on photographs, have a meditative, homespun feeling and were born in part from the mourning of her mother, Sara, who passed away last year.
“A lot of this kind of work is critical commentary about women's work, and that sort of thing,” says Julie Saul, who mounted Kalman's first exhibition—works on paper—in 2003. “But Maira's is very natural, very unself-conscious.”
Kalman says that she's busier now than she was 10 or 15 years ago, which she attributes partly to the death of Tibor, her companion of 32 years, from non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in 1999. “There's this myth of a widow whose grief is so overwhelming that she can't do anything. But sometimes the opposite is true,” she says. “Sometimes your grief is overwhelming, but you have a million things you want to do.”