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A 'Love Letter To America' In Quirky Illustrations

Artist Maira Kalman set out on a yearlong adventure to paint and  write the story of American democracy -- and out of it came the book <em>And The Pursuit Of Happiness, </em>a quirky, graphic diary with vivid paintings and whimsical handwritten  text.
Franklyn Cater
Artist Maira Kalman set out on a yearlong adventure to paint and write the story of American democracy -- and out of it came the book And The Pursuit Of Happiness, a quirky, graphic diary with vivid paintings and whimsical handwritten text.

When artist Maira Kalman set out on a yearlong adventure to paint and write the story of American democracy, she ended up taking some detours. She painted a Jell-O light bulb, the first patented safety pin, Fred Astaire dipping Ginger Rogers. These are the kinds of things that excite her, along with fabulous hats and desserts — but government? Not so much.

"I don't believe in politics, I don't understand any of it," she says. "I don't listen to the news. I don't read the newspaper unless it's eccentric information — and the obituaries of course."

Kalman's visual blog started online for The New York Times; it's now out in book form as And the Pursuit of Happiness.

Kalman is no Alexis de Tocqueville, but what she came up with is a quirky, graphic diary with vivid paintings and whimsical handwritten text. Her style will be familiar if you've seen her New Yorker covers or her dozen children's books, many featuring Max the poet dog.

Kalman calls And the Pursuit of Happiness her "love letter to America," and it's filtered through her delightfully naive sensibility.

"This was a way for me to see a whole aspect of the world that actually was frightening to me — and to see whether I could go in there and find people that I liked," she says. "And I did."

She found them by traveling all across the country. She went to a town hall in Vermont, to a student council meeting in the Bronx, to military training at Fort Campbell, Ky., and to the Supreme Court, where she was smitten. "Move over Jane Austen as my imaginary best friend forever," Kalman writes. "Make room for Ruth Bader Ginsburg."

"You can't help but bond with somebody who's doing what she's doing, and it's really amazing," she says.

Kalman spent quite a bit of time trying to figure out the men who first shaped American democracy. She writes that George Washington had a dog named Sweet Lips. She writes of Ben Franklin: "I don't think he was ever bored." And, of Thomas Jefferson: "He woke at dawn. I don't think he took naps." But she says he did have migraines.

A Tour Around The National Mall

I met up with Kalman in Washington, D.C., to talk about a couple of her favorite subjects, starting with Thomas Jefferson. And where better to do that than at the Jefferson Memorial. But as we headed up the marble staircase to talk about our third president, we were stopped by National Park Police — who informed us there were no book interviews on federal property. So much for our pursuit of happiness.

So in the shadow of Thomas Jefferson, we talked about what Kalman found to love in the Founding Fathers.

"They studied Socrates and Spinoza, and read French philosophers and German philosophers and really had this incredible curiosity about everything — mathematics, science, architecture, music — it just never ended," she says. "And then you realize it's not just a couple farmers creating this country, they were really brilliant people. And I think [Jefferson] was probably the top in terms of genius. Maybe Ben Franklin — Ben and Tom."

Kalman says Jefferson's favorite vegetables were peas. He studied the Koran.

"I like Thomas Jefferson, though he intimidated me an awful lot," she says. "I thought he would have been very tough to be around. I don't know if he had such a sense of humor. I'd want Lincoln. Lincoln's my guy."

As we amble from the Jefferson Memorial to the Lincoln Memorial, around the Tidal Basin, toward the National Mall, Kalman is watching and converting the visions into paintings.

"I'm actually seeing the texture of paint and the shading and the color — and sometimes, when I'm in midst of painting, when I'm in the midst of a project, then everything is a painting. It's really kind of crazy," she says.

Walking from Jefferson to Lincoln takes you through the open-air Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial with its cascading waterfalls and red granite walls. And it's there, as we're walking and talking, the same park police officer we saw before rides by on his bike. He warns us that next time he's writing us up with a citation under CFR-- the Code of Federal Regulations.

So we head toward the Lincoln Memorial, but we don't go in because we're scared of the park police denying us our pursuit of happiness.

To round out her knowledge of Abraham Lincoln, Kalman says she had a dream.

"I was hoping that in this new adventure, political adventure, I would be able to sleep in the Lincoln bedroom in the White House. They really went for it, big time," she says with sarcasm.

So instead, she contents herself with imagining setting up a cot at Lincoln's feet at the Lincoln Memorial — drinking tea and embroidering.

"First of all, you look at him," she says. "And you cannot stop looking at this man's face. I don't think there's anybody on earth who's looked like him before or after — such pathos in the face and such intensity. So there's something about his aspect and of course everything he did in his life."

Kalman says she falls for Lincoln in a real way.

"Sorry Mary Todd Lincoln, but he would have been happy with me," she says. "I like the brooding man — a brooding man with a sense of humor. He was a good raconteur, and he liked parties, and he liked to dance, and he wasn't a somber man. He had the weight of the world on him, of course, but that was not the essential person."

She says painting him is wonderful because everything about him is graphic — his hair, nose, eyes, ears, chin, beard, even the way he dressed.

"It's so focused and compelling that you can't go wrong," she says. "You're always doing something fulfilling when you're painting Lincoln."

A Great Respect For American Democracy

So at the end of her yearlong plunge into American history, what has Kalman — who doesn't listen to the news or care about politics — come away with?

"I really liked the country and I had great respect for the history and just for the nature of the country," she says. "You know, we came here in 1954 from Israel — and my parents had fled Russia — so there was some kind of voyage to get here. But I never thought about that. I became an American citizen when I was in my 30s, but it never meant anything to me. And now — apart from the fact that we're gonna get arrested for having this interview, which leaves me a little bit bitter — I do [think] this is an extraordinary country."

This self-described optimistically naive person ends up with great respect for American democracy.

"But still keeping my distance, because I truly understand that this is not something I could ever engage in," she says. "And I'll just be happy to sweep in Central Park and help out. You know, the small way has to be the way that I can do things."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

As special correspondent and guest host of NPR's news programs, Melissa Block brings her signature combination of warmth and incisive reporting. Her work over the decades has earned her journalism's highest honors, and has made her one of NPR's most familiar and beloved voices.
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