Aesthetics of Everyday, Part One: Maira Kalman

04 January 2012


Close-Up of Purple Stock, January 2012;

Close-Up of Purple Stock, January 2012; © Sally W. Donatello and Lens and Pens by Sally, 2012

Gerber Daisy, January 2012;

Close-Up of Gerber Daisy, January 2012; © Sally W. Donatello and Lens and Pens by Sally, 2012


Our lives are filled, stuffed really, with the mundane and ordinary. But I am convinced that much of what we do not “see” is really more intriguing and substantial. Be it: a row of cars, a shelf of bottles, a stack of books, a clutch of pencils, a pile of coins, a pair of windows. I believe that we can find a touch of beauty–yes, beauty, in the everyday. So I’m going to explore this premise. One of the best ways to delve into the ordinary, which can become much more, is to peruse artists’ interpretation. Artists help us see what we tend to miss, raising the eye and mind to new levels of understanding. One image can change our perceptions of what art is; one image can rearrange our notion of the visual; one painting can steer us on a new course.

If you have not seen Maira Kalman’s art, you’ ve missed an aesthetic and whimsical experience. When the New York Times commissioned her to create an online column for the Opinion section of the paper, some of us found her for the first time. Over the course of a year (May 2006-April 2007) that it appeared, my admiration soared. And for me, my fascination with her Renaissance-like talents has never ceased. Author, artist, humorist, writer, traveler, researcher, voyeur, and storyteller are a few descriptors of her oeuvre. She’s really a polymath of the arts. See her website to learn more about her art, writing and projects:

My copy of Kalman’s The Principles of Uncertainty (2007), which brings together that year-long romp in the Times, is already showing its use. Her work never seems old, each time that I open the book’s pages I see more and laugh more and even shed a few more tears. Her narratives are often personal (biographical), combining language with imagery with observation with humor with wisdom with pain with joy with hope. But they can also be eccentric, historical and posh. She dwells in people and places plus the small and large pieces of a day or event. She is a national treasure.

Many are familiar with her covers for The New Yorker or her illustrated books (both adult and children’s) or “And the Pursuit of Happiness” (a 2009 twelve-part blog in the New York Times and a book by the same title). Her most recent art can be found inside the covers of these newly released books: Daniel Handler’s Why We Broke Up (young adult literature, 2011) and Michael Pollan’s Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual (2011).

So why am I going on and on about her? In much of her work Ms. Kalman takes the ordinary and raises its stature: accessories, clothes, furniture, shoes, food, tags, suitcases.  Her folk-like illustrations are introspective and meaningful. Even in her more elaborate works, they are still commentary about the aesthetics of everyday life. Simplistic renderings nudge us to direct our attention to the meaning of her images and words. Isn’t the best of art the work that forces us to think in new ways, to open our vision to another point of view, to realize what we have not.

Here is an example of Ms. Kalman’s art:

Cherry Pie

"Cherry Pie," from the blog and book "And the Pursuit of Happiness" (2009)

The aesthetics of everyday are filled with objects of our experiences and heritage. They can be elevated to express their angles, colors, contrasts, designs, interiors and exteriors. And light can infuse them with splendor. The human condition often prods us to miss much of what is in front, to the sides, or in back of us. Often we need a push to see, really see. Artists (such as Ms. Kalman) help us open our vision to the unnoticed, the invisible.

Remember the Pop Art movement of the mid-50s, which seems in many ways very much alive in our current visual culture. David Hockney, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and Andy Warhol forged a place in art history by using everyday objects as their subjects. After Warhol painted a can of Campbell’s Tomato soup, it’s place in consumerism would always be edged with its other fame. Today’s artists can use software to recreate Pop Art quite effectively, and our media culture is aptly absorbing the objects that we dust (But copyright and fair use laws are mounting issues.).

Current generations are bombarded with a visual culture that will not ease up. Pictorial language is so pervasive as to force us to invent more and more short cuts for eye-to- brain-to-object recognition. One way to pull back is to begin to appreciate everyday forms and shapes, and to witness their originality and ubiquity within our vast visual landscape. The aesthetics of the everyday is worthy of this attention.

Note: While the photographs in the Lens section are flowers from my favorite florist, flowers are usually placed in the top-tier category of aesthetics. Still, I decided to post a few close-ups to celebrate the memories of last year, and the human need for introspection at this turning point. My next post will take the true ordinary and envision another way to “see” it. As always I welcome comments about any part of this post or blog.

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10 Responses to Aesthetics of Everyday, Part One: Maira Kalman

  1. Great post, Sally. I love looking at the ordinary and taking an interesting photo, so this post was most interesting. Great photos too. Beautiful. 🙂

  2. Love your photos!! Thanks so much for sharing. They’re much more professional than mine ;P but feel free to check out my blog as well

    • Thanks Sara, I appreciate your kind words. Just viewed your “new” blog–congratulations. I signed up to be a Follower. One of the beauties of this “blogging” life is meeting people inspired by what they see. Photographers abound on WordPress, and that’s a good thing. We talk back-and-forth. Mostly, you learn and share and share and learn. Good luck with your blog. Come back and visit me, Sally

  3. Gracie says:

    Beautiful photos, Sally! Since no amount of clothing (layered or otherwise) can make me brave the occasional -26 temperature outside, I will focus more on photographing simple objects (those that I would not normally pay attention to) and hopefully bring out some of my creative juices.

  4. Paula Turner says:

    Love, love, love your photos.

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