Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Curating with gasps

I recently discovered the artist and writer Maira Kalman and am utterly charmed. In the first glances at her work I wondered if I was looking at a child’s art project because her drawings are folky and simple. But what quickly emerges is cunning truth about the subject and a subtle humor that reveals a mature hand behind the work. Her gift is to give you pause. To reconsider what you nearly passed by, what you so quickly consigned to the trite and ordinary, to pause for a minute and find unexpected meaning and/or beauty.

BrainPickings describes her work as having: “a spartan sincerity … an elegantly choreographed spontaneity – words meticulously chosen to be as simple as possible, yet impossibly expressive; drawings that invoke childhood yet brim with the complex awarenesses of a life lived long and wide.”

She has published a number of books but the one I discovered first was My Favorite Things. I had to get past the title  – at first, all I could hear was Julie Andrews droning on … “these are a few of my favorite things… da-da, da, dah..” But the book quickly invites you to look at her list and think in new categories. At the same time she asks the reader a serious question: “How do you curate a life?” I ask, how do you curate your life? Or mine?

 “…We begin with a portrait…” she writes.

In her hand-written, plain prose she tells us she has been chosen to curate an exhibition for a small museum in New York City, the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, and what a dilemma it is to choose from among centuries-worth of objects! Post cards from the Hotel Celeste in Tunisia. Hats. A fragile vase carefully painted in red and green and signed – someone loved it enough to keep it over a lifetime then pass it on.

This is why her work captured me: It struck me that her filter is one through which we could all strain our own collections. She writes: “The pieces I chose were based on ONE thing only – a gasp of DELIGHT.” Then she asks, “Isn’t that the only way to CURATE a LIFE? To live among things that make you GASP with delight?” (p. 9)

Of COURSE, not everything is going to make you gasp. What inspires me may quietly turn you off.  (If you are kind you won’t mention it. And I promise your inspirations won’t make me sign you up for an exorcism.) I began to realize that is why some of the very things others pass over will make another “gasp with delight.” It can be quite an individual matter. For example, I could see by the cover illustration on her book that Kalman enjoys photos of dandies from the 1930s. The way they dressed and paraded across the sand in their garish red and white stripped suits on the beach at Coney Island looking all satisfied with themselves. They make me smile.

I understand that not EVERYthing needs to make me gasp. I don’t want to have an asthma attack when I climb into bed at night. I mean. There needs to be calm scenes. Functionality. Quiet colors. Soft beds. Crisp sheets. Most of my bedroom is not required to make me gasp. We understand. But there are things I might now keep and others I may shed because she has named this way of curating.
I am intrigued by possibilities. By a new way of thinking about what everyday things can delight. What causes us to gasp? In this world with so much that is broken, broken, broken, I wonder if we could keep some of those good things, and also share a little. Like the annoying “Little Drummer Boy,” (oops. I guess he’s not on my gasping list.) perhaps I can give you what I have, which isn’t much, I admit. I can give what I write this year. I can keep on trying to stay focused long enough to make something of it. If my writing can cause you to, well, if not GASP with delight, but perhaps give a slight twitch in your nucleus accumbens (look it up.) that would make me very happy.

1 comment:

PW said...


I am often delighted into the nucleus accumbens by what you write (and I DID have to look that up). Grateful for your insights.

And thanks for the books you suggest; they often resonate with me. I reserved copies at the library of two of the books you mentioned on the site.

God bless,