“The Askew and the Beautiful”: Maira Kalman on ‘Girls Standing on Lawns’ and Collaborating With Daniel Handler


If you’re familiar with their work, the fact that Girls Standing on Lawns, the latest collaboration between artist Maira Kalman and writer Daniel Handler (known best as the pseudonymous Lemony Snicket), lives up to its title won’t be much of a surprise. It is, in fact, a slender book filled with old photographs and Kalman’s brightly illustrated interpretations of them, depicting girls standing on lawns, along with text provided by Handler.

Kalman’s work has long been labeled “idiosyncratic.” Her illustrations are always pleasing to look at, but they beg the viewer to wonder about why she decided to draw a particular thing, be it person or object. What does Kalman see in something or someone that drives her to reinterpret it as an illustration? With this latest book, her hobby of collecting old photographs from flea markets and garage sales led to Kalman looking through the MoMA “vernacular photography” archives and finding other old photos of young girls doing what the book’s title says they’re doing.

We talked with Kalman about Girls Standing on Lawns, her work with Handler, her love of literature, and being in the middle of the greatest book she’s ever read.

Illustration from Girls Standing on Lawns (c) 2014 Maira Kalman

Flavorwire: You’ve based a good deal of your work around writers and their work, from The Illustrated Elements of Style to your collaboration with Daniel Handler on this book as well as 13 Words. How much would you say literature informs and inspires your work?

Maira Kalman: Literature is the driving force in many ways. I knew I wanted to be a writer once I read Pippi Longstocking at the age of eight. Books are my beloved objects and reading and writing them is my greatest pleasure — besides walking around and looking at things.

What draws you to work with Handler?

Daniel and I share many emotional sensibilities: a sense of humor amidst a deep feeling of pathos and heartbreak. We are both acutely aware of the askew and the beautiful.

Illustration from Girls Standing on Lawns (c) 2014 Maira Kalman

Where did the idea for Girls Standing on Lawns come from?

I collect photographs from flea markets and antique shops and realized that I had a large number of girls standing on lawns. They were courageous and funny and the women were often full of hope and self confidence. It is an intimate yet universal moment. I sent the photos to Daniel and he wrote the text. Then we went back and forth a but until we were happy. Then we went to MoMA and worked with photo curator Sarah Meister choosing from their archive and the archive of collector Peter Cohen to enlarge the project. A wonderful situation.

I remember you telling The Paris Review that you used to write fiction but gave it up after college. Do you ever think of taking it back up again?

The fiction that I write is in my children’s books. I might write episodic pieces for adults, but they would always be based on something that I saw or something from my past.

Illustration from Girls Standing on Lawns (c) 2014 Maira Kalman

You’ve drawn writers, too. There’s Dead Man, which I believe is the writer Robert Walser, and Young Nabokov. Then’s there’s the one of Walter Benjamin looking peaceful, writing at a desk with a vase full of flowers on it. What inspires you to make these portraits?

Since I admire these writers and think about them a lot, I have an interest in how they look. Painting a photograph is a way to have some kind of dialogue with the writer.

When you were writing fiction, were there any particular authors that influenced you?

Nabokov, of course. Gertrude Stein. Samuel Beckett. Jane Austen.

Illustration from Girls Standing on Lawns (c) 2014 Maira Kalman

Have you been reading anything good lately?

I have embarked on a slow reading of Proust with a Proust scholar. One book a year, 50 pages a month. We have just completed the second year — five more years to go. it is a celestial experience. Perhaps it is the greatest book that I have ever read.