Zibby is joined by critically acclaimed artist and bestselling author Maira Kalman to discuss Women Holding Things, an extraordinary visual meditation on women and the objects they carry in their hands, hearts, and minds. Maira explains the origin of this project and analyzes many of its paintings, anecdotes, and themes (including motherhood, the constraints of time, and the inevitability of death). Finally, she describes her artistic process (it involves classical music and falling in love with people on the street), her next big project, and the books she is currently reading!


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Maira. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Women Holding Things.

Maira Kalman: Thanks, Zibby.

Zibby: This book is so moving on so many levels and also so visually beautiful given its many illustrations and the combination of text and language and color and all the rest. Tell me about your decision to do this book in the pantheon of your many projects and productions.

Maira: During the pandemic, my son and I were upstate with his very tolerant wife also. We decided to make little booklets, self-published, that would raise money for organizations and for causes that we believed in. One of the booklets was Women Holding Things, a little one, a little sixty-four-page pamphlet. The idea just held. It felt important. I am clearly engaged and obsessed with my family, with my history, the women in my family, and then the women all over in my life, fictional and real.

Zibby: You wove in, as you said, historical figures, like Cezanne and other figures, but also your own family members. You tell one story about your aunts who are twins — tell me about that — who hated each other.

Maira: That’s my dear mother-in-law. It’s funny because the stories, some of them, are, maybe you could say private. I don’t want to use the word secret. Yes, one of the women holding grudges is my mother-in-law and her twin sister, who clearly had an antipathy to each other for their whole lives. Then as the story evolves, there were betrayals and, as I mentioned, Casablanca-like situations. They were Hungarian, which explains a lot in and of itself. Very, very beautiful women. That is one way to hold. There is the holding a grudge. Probably, every one of us holds some kind of grudge, but we won’t linger there.

Zibby: That section was interesting, too, as it talks about love and finding love even at age ninety. Can you talk a little bit about that and how people died in different people’s arms? It was such a sweet story.

Maira: That’s from the same story. That sense of, as we’re getting older, some of us are getting older, that feeling of, what’s important? What is meaningful? What do we hold? What do you really want to hold in your life? It changes, of course. It flows. There’s a balance of things. Basically, what you want to hold, I think, is your love and your work, however that’s defined, and your sanity. In the case of Virginia Woolf, it didn’t work that well. You want to hold onto your sense of optimism.

Zibby: I really like this notion of holding onto things when so much of the narrative around women is about all the things that we are juggling. It makes it sound like we’re constantly dropping things or that we’re trying to hold too much or we can’t do it. Your book is a celebration of the fact that, no, we’ve got this. We’re holding so much. It’s really okay. We don’t have to be circus acts. This is life. This is beautiful.

Maira: Sometimes we fall. The sense of doing many things and having to take care of so many different things, and I say, is just utterly exhausting. The common thread of everybody I talk to is they’re completely exhausted. How do you balance that, again, with just focusing very specifically on what you’re doing at the moment and what you’re doing that really means something? There’s a lot of noise that you kind of have to get rid of.

Zibby: Can I just read the last couple pages when you talk specifically about this? Of course, these are absolutely beautiful illustrations, which people listening can’t see. You’ll have to just go buy the book. “Objects around us hold our attention and our love. It is hard work to hold everything, and it never ends. You may be exhausted from holding things and be disheartened and even weep if you are very emotional, which could be anyone on any day with good reason, but then there is the next moment and the next day, and hold on.”

Maira: You have to show the painting of the girl. “Hold on,” also, there’s a girl with a scowl on her face clearly unhappy about something holding a bunch of balloons. That’s the truth. We can’t be some kind of happy-go-lucky thing all the time. We suffer.

Zibby: Did you paint these to go along — what was the order? Did you have these already in your back closet? Did you paint them all afresh for this project or what?

Maira: Most of them are new for this project. Then there are some that I just can’t resist using and I have in other projects. I bring them into the book. It’s a mix, but mostly new and mostly a desire to explore what it means to paint and to use color and how that expresses the emotion. I’m very lucky to be able to write and paint. When the painting is not sufficient, I can write, and vice versa. I think that’s pretty great. I can jump back and forth. It’s a little bit like writing music and writing the lyrics and composing the music too. There is a fluidity about that that goes back and forth. Everything is just snippets that I find from my life and from waking up in the morning and not knowing what I’m going to do. I kind of know, but not completely.

Zibby: I’m going to accidentally make this beautiful book called Women Holding Things. Who knows? That’s what happened.

Maira: I didn’t know I was doing it. It’s actually a wonderful thing, the not knowing. That’s something that I think about a lot. Obviously, we all don’t know a tremendous amount. We’re aware of it because we are bombarded all the time. It’s kind of amazing to say, I don’t know, but to be curious and to have a certain way of wandering around and looking at the world, which is what I do. I really do wake in the morning, of course, as you know, and have coffee and read the obits and then go on my merry way. What’s merrier than reading the obits? I don’t know what I’m going to see during the day, but I know I’m going to see extraordinary things. I photograph and collect the images that hit my heart and that I fall in love with.

Zibby: I love that, the images that hit my heart. That’s cool. Cool is the wrong word. That’s beautiful. You wrote about this concept of time as well. Can I read one more paragraph?

Maira: Sure.

Zibby: You said, “My mother would ask us, what is the most important thing? We knew that the correct answer was time. You could say that my mother lost a great deal of time to an unhappy marriage, but how unhappy was it? Shakespearean level? Run-of-the-mill unhappy? Impossible to say. I can’t ask her because she is no longer alive, but she ultimately left my father and found her time. Finding time is all we want to do. Once you find time, you want more time, and more time in between that time. There can never be enough time, and you can never hold onto it. It is so strange. We live, and then we die. So unutterably strange.”

Maira: I can’t imagine that that doesn’t consume everybody, the duality of, we’re alive, and then at one point, we’re not going to be, and that our mortality is a driver, obviously, on many levels of what we do. It either, as I say, stops me in my tracks and makes me freeze or propels me into wonderful activity. I’ve accepted the fact that both are true and valid and part of the day. We can’t have one without the other. You can’t have the joy without the sorrow, and so sometimes frozen and sometimes jumping.

Zibby: I personally feel this sense of time all the time. I constantly feel like the hourglass is pouring through. How can I get all the things done today that I need to do before that day runs out? Knowing, of course, that any moment it all could end, so what can I do? Would I feel good today if this was it? I kind of envy people who don’t have this top of mind all the time because it’s sort of stressful.

Maira: I can’t believe that they exist, but they do. I know.

Zibby: They do.

Maira: They do. I don’t leave the house without making my bed and making sure the place looks reasonably good so I won’t be embarrassed in case I never return. I don’t want to be that morbid, but why not be that morbid?

Zibby: I totally relate to that. I can totally relate. Everywhere I go, I’m like, okay, but would anyone know that I’m here in this random coffee shop? If there’s an explosion here, how long would it take? I’m always going backwards. It’s terrible.

Maira: I do that too. Sometimes I’m on the subway, and I think somebody’s just going to turn to me and kill me. I think, oh, okay, that’s not bad. I actually think the idea of how you end and that if you have this unexpected demise — hopefully, you’ve had a very long and happy life. You think, okay, that’s not bad. I don’t know if we should stay with that topic too long.

Zibby: We can transition to something equally horrific, which is your mentions of the Holocaust here in your own family and what’s happened, which, of course, gives context to this attitude, perhaps, or worldview, this collective loss, and your family in particular and for all Jewish people, the sense that everybody’s life was going a certain way, and then this catastrophe on such a massive scale can happen at any moment that nobody saw coming except for little signs. There’s groundwork laid prior to this cultural awareness that anything can change. Life is not set. You write about it. You say, “You know what happened, of course. You have heard it a thousand times before. They all perished, shot and dumped into a mass grave.” This is about your father’s family. How do you hold onto that narrative? How do we hold onto the memory of all of those lost and still move forward?

Maira: That’s the inexplicable mystery of everything, that we do move forward. We do move ahead. We do find humor. We do laugh all the time and tell stories. I don’t know what forces within us, what mechanism within us has made that possible, but it is. As I say, we carry the inexplicable, unutterable sorrow of personal losses in our lives — nobody’s exempt from tragedy — and the sense of the wonder and the awe of it all constantly colliding. We muddle ahead. I don’t know. The answer is, once again, I do not know. I’m happy that we do have those forces in us.

Zibby: Holding onto questions is still something to hold onto. You had a page towards the beginning, “Woman holding book,” which I’m holding up again, which is absolutely beautiful, this illustration of a woman lounging on this green chaise with these beautiful, sumptuous red curtains parted just to see her reading. Of course, I am now a woman holding a book looking at a picture of a woman holding a book and words that say “Woman holding book.” I feel like I’m definitely in this relationship here too. Tell me about this illustration. Are you selling this as one-off prints or anything?

Maira: No, I think that the original was sold. I have a wonderful new gallery, Mary Ryan Gallery, which is really wonderful in selling the paintings. It’s from a photograph of a woman reading a book in a beautiful hotel in Morocco. Again, those moments that I encounter somehow really just fill me with so much joy and such a sense of purpose. Oh, I know I’m going to do a painting of this woman. I’m going to go to my studio. I’m going to work and forget everything and listen to music. It’s glorious.

Zibby: What kind of music do you listen to when you paint?

Maira: Mostly classical. I was on a loop of all of Bach, which could be a loop forever. leave him. A lot of classical music.

Zibby: Wow, what an image. It sounds so peaceful.

Maira: It is.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, meditative state. How did you decide which one of the many to put on the cover? Why this one?

Maira: I do a lot of collaborations with my son. We did Sara Berman’s Closet together and a lot of other projects. We were designing together. It’s really fantastic to have a dialogue with a relative who likes you. We happen to like each other tremendously and also just have a sense of an aesthetic dialogue, the vocabulary of all of the things that we’re interested in. This is a woman that I saw on the street. I stopped her. I said, “You are just so beautiful.” I only stop people, as I told you, who I fall in love with. It’s never out of cynicism. It’s never out of mocking anybody. It’s just like, oh, my god. What I’m seeing in a person is the courage that it takes to get up in the morning, which I think, obviously, is considerable, and to go through the day doing what you’re doing. Then you decide what to wear. You decide what to do. It’s just fantastic to go to those micro-moments. When I stopped this woman, I said to her, “I just love how you look. I’m going to do a painting of you.” She was very thrilled. Not everybody is delighted. There was the one painting, the irritated woman holding the cabbage, which I saw at the farmers market. This is during the pandemic where nothing is going on. Nobody’s seeing anybody. When I asked her, I’d like to take her picture, she was so irritated, as I say. I thought, where’s she going? What is she doing? This is a great moment in your life. Isn’t it nice that somebody — at any rate, I also admired her for her honesty. There’s a lot of complicated stuff going on during the day with a good night’s sleep after watching a good murder mystery. The day ends early, and murder ensues.

Zibby: Wow, kind of a contrast to the charming peace of your work. Now you’re scaring yourself silly, but okay.

Maira: You know what I’m doing? I’m engaging with somebody who’s solving problems and making everything okay, which is not that far from reading the obits, which, as we say, is about life and about getting a jolt of importance in the decision-making. To me, that’s kind of the bookends of watching a very smart Hercule Poirot or, of course, Miss Marple. Go to the standards. Solving things while knitting or making a nice dish.

Zibby: Lovely. I’d never thought of shows that way. What’s the last photo you took of somebody, yesterday or this morning or something, that inspired you?

Maira: A photo that made me — I haven’t stopped drawing her, is a woman that I saw at The Met. I was at the Tudor show. The fashion at The Met with what people are wearing to the museum is often as good, sometimes better, but certainly as good as — well, not as good as, but extraordinary. She was at the Tudor show, which is completely amazing. In there, I’m really thinking a lot about guilt and remorse because when you see the paintings from the Tudors, from Henry and Elizabeth and Mary, they all killed each other for power. Everybody killed everybody in some machination, even very directly or surreptitiously. I think, look at that. They don’t seem to have any cards on the wall saying how guilty they felt. I think about that. What is the level of responsibility? This is five hundred years ago. Are we too polite right now? No, that’s not true. Of course, it’s good to be kind, I guess. At any rate, there was a woman there wearing this huge necklace of lapis lazuli on a black sweater. She was teeny, teeny, teeny. She was walking with a cane. She had fantastic bangs and a pageboy. I thought, this woman is stupendous, so I took a picture of her. Now I’m thinking about guilt and jewelry.

Zibby: I love that. That’s awesome. After Women Holding Things, what is next on your publication schedule here? You must have other books slated.

Maira: What’s next on my agenda is an installation of Sara Berman’s Closet, which will be in Florida, in Sarasota, in the winter. In the next iteration, I’m doing a book about knowledge. Who can believe it?

Zibby: I can. I can absolutely believe it.

Maira: It’s multi-volumes. It’s a compendium of knowledge. It’s too vague right now, but that’s where I’m going.

Zibby: I love it, like a box set, like an encyclopedia.

Maira: It could be. Exactly. A door-to-door salesman is going to come to your door. Salesperson. That’s what’s happening. Hopefully, more booklets with my son, and surprises. The phone rings. The text comes. Whatever it is now.

Zibby: I love that. Are you reading anything good?

Maira: I’m reading so many good things that I don’t even know what to do. That’s one of the things about time. I’m in a Proust group. I’m reading the whole seven volumes again. I did it with a reader, so eight years together. Now we’re starting again because I thought, it’s either a mental institution or reading Proust. I’m not kidding. I highly recommend it for anybody who’s having any problems with anything, which is everybody, to read Proust. We have a Shakespeare group with the same wonderful woman, Bridget Bryan. In between that, I’m reading Sophia Tolstaya’s diaries, which are amazing. They had thirteen children and a tempestuous life together, of course. As you know, he famously ran away from her at the end after he’d gone a little bit mad, perhaps, or they drove each other mad. I just read Claire Keegan. I’m reading Natalia Ginzburg. I’m reading Clarice Lispector. There are a lot of side dishes to my Proust and Shakespeare. They’re not side dishes at all. I have so many stacks of books. Some of them are mystery stacks, like we all have. It’s a great thing.

Zibby: Amazing. You’re just so vibrant, your mind and your creativity and these colors. That’s all I can think to say. Everything about you seems so vibrant and intellectual and curious. It’s wonderful, really wonderful.

Maira: Usually. Sometimes.

Zibby: On a good day.

Maira: On a good day. Exactly, which there are many of. Thank you.

Zibby: There was something in here about holding onto a bad mood. Wasn’t there something?

Maira: Yes. That’s the way it is, holding onto a bad mood, and holding onto a bad mood after having a bad dream. Dreams can set you off for days after you had one. You think, what is that? Now I’m looking at it more as cinema. I’m going to a double feature that I didn’t know what I was going to see. I’m not taking it so personally. I don’t even know what that means. I’m trying to view it as, where’s my popcorn and soda this movie?

Zibby: Love it. Interesting. Sometimes, like the weather, it just comes in and out. Got to just stand your ground. Maira, thank you so much. It’s always a delight to chat with you. This is going on all my gift guides this year, what to give and what I’ll be giving. It’s just such a beautiful ode to women and all the many aspects of who we are and what we do and that it’s okay to crumble at times as well.

Maira: Absolutely. It’s essential. That’s wonderful. Thank you. The holiday season is upon us. That’s a nice thing. Baking shall ensue.

Zibby: Yes. Thanks so much. Take care.

Maira: Take care. Bye.

Zibby: Buh-bye.


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