Literary style manuals may not be the first things that come to mind when considering vehicles for creating collaborative art. But for everyone who's ever doodled in the margins of a book they adored, the exhibit of drawings by Maira Kalman that opens this weekend at the Frist Center might inspire a burst of ambition. E.B. White's seminal re-examination of William Strunk Jr.'s classic 1919 volume on writing style, which was published in 1959 under the Strunk & White moniker and became one of the only books about writing to hit bestseller status, might not be the most logical starting point for a contemporary art show. But Kalman, who took the slim volume and illustrated it with visual one-liners and quirky renderings in 2005, has never been one to go along with the logical.
"When I bought the secondhand copy of The Elements of Style in a church yard sale," Kalman tells the Scene, "I knew after I read one page that I was going to illustrate it. Funny, eccentric, episodic, disjointed — my kind of book."
Through Sept. 1, the gouache-on-paper illustrations from her illustrated Elements of Style will be on view in the Frist's Gordon Contemporary Artists Project Gallery, and on Saturday Kalman will give a public talk about her work and the exhibit. She's sure to speak about her history as a writer and illustrator for books for adults and children, as well as collaborations with everyone from her late husband Tibor Kalman, the graphic designer who rose to prominence in the 1990s as editor of Colors magazine, to Rick Meyerowitz, with whom she created what is arguably the most memorable New Yorker cover in recent memory — 2001's "New Yorkistan." She's also collaborated with Daniel Handler, better known to young-adult readers as Lemony Snicket, and their Why We Broke Up was one of 2012's most recognized books for young readers.
"I spend a lot of time in my studio alone," Kalman says, "creating and listening to music. So it is a delight to work and exchange ideas with people I admire. Daniel is brilliant and hilarious, so who wouldn't want to work with him? A good collaborator is so much fun."
Of the Elements of Style illustrations, the twin scenes for "Here today" and "Gone tomorrow" most cannily show Kalman's ability to turn ordinary ideas into the kind of powerful imagery that can stick with you like the refrain in a pop song, but without any of the saccharine elements that might be unavoidable in less capable hands. "Here today" is a vignette of people congregating in a room without paying each other much attention, like an old-fashioned group portrait that's at once haphazard and posed. In "Gone tomorrow," you see that the five-person group has become a four-person group, but little else has changed.
"That is a particularly poignant one for me," says Kalman of the set of images. "My mother had just died. I adored her, and she is pictured — and then not." It's that simple subtraction of a body from a place that so perfectly embodies the disorienting feeling of grief. A person is there — and then not.
"I really love every painting in that book," she says, "which is an unusual thing for me to say, because I can be very critical of my work. I was just carried away with great joy and delight during the painting. It is something that can probably be felt by the viewer. It just felt right."
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