I first found the multi-media and prolific artist Maira Kalman through her collaborations with authors that reveal other interests of mine: The Illustrated Elements of Style (with William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White) (2008) and Food Rules (2011) by Michael Pollan. Here were texts with and of which I was otherwise deeply familiar and fond, newly revealed and expanded through her visual art, including frequent use of her characteristic handwriting throughout her illustrations. (Everyone’s handwriting is idiosyncratic, which is one reason I love it so much, that recorded movement of hand against page, pen or pencil gripped in bent fingers, the thoughts and the heart recorded, all the weight of training and timing met in that moment.) Kalman’s latest book, Women Holding Things (2022) is a collection of her paintings of famous women, family women, anonymous women, and also men and things (a chair, a room, a bed, etc.), holding things both tangible and not to accompany—and converse with—her own poetic, philosophical, and hand-scripted text.
The cover portrait is one of two women, on facing pages, included about 2/3 through the unnumbered pages of the book, with the accompanying text:
eyebrows in common
My favorite portrait is a two-page spread, a saturated riot of summer’s fully bloomed beauty, with an arrangement of welcoming outdoor furniture and another artist figure on the lower far right, described on the upper far left:
in her garden
There’s “Gertrude Stein holding true to herself” and “Sally Hemings holding history accountable,” “women holding grudges,” “women holding malicious opinions,” various women holding various dogs (a favorite subject of Kalman’s), a “woman holding the wolves at bay,” and a “woman holding up.” There are many tender portraits of women holding sisters, mothers, children, men. And in addition to Kalman’s encouragement of her readers throughout the volume, she directly addresses us, her readers, on the front flap of the hardcover’s jacket: “You hold in your hands a thing I hold most dear. A Book. If there was ever a time to hold onto something, this is it. Hold on, dear friends. Hold on.” On this day that marks a year of gruesome (when is it ever not?) war in Ukraine from Putin’s invasion, this holding on for me comes through faith, family and friends, nature, and art—practicing and witnessing it and finding in its perspectives more possibilities for wholeness and wisdom.