Maira Kalman

The Principles of Uncertainty

“How can I tell you Everything in my Heart? Impossible to Begin. Enough. No Begin.”

With the impossible task of emptying her heart, American artist Maira Kalman (born 1949) begins The Principles of Uncertainty. This collection of drawings and writings from a curious, observational mind is equally soothing and engaging.

There is nothing illusory in this tiny heaven. I am silent with gratitude. I will go and bake a honey cake and that’s all.

Kalman has illustrated so many books—several New Yorker collections and, my favorite, a wildly delightful update of the classic The Elements of Style. She writes simply, vigorously, and clearly, “I am silent with gratitude.”

principles of uncertainty
Sculptor Barbara Hepworth once wrote “At an early age I began to observe the movements and behaviour of people, to study their posture and gestures and anticipation what was about to happen.” Illustration by Maira Kalman.

She says familiar things: “My brain is exploding. Trying to make sense out of nonsense, trying to tell you everything.” Her illustrations are playful, uneven to reality, yet complex.

I photograph my sister and think she looks so beautiful in her pink hat. What will happen to her? What will happen to all of us?

I have a place in my heart for those who walk about through their worlds, observing and calling proudly “Look at this!” A wonderful quality like Marianne Moore’s poetry celebrating octopods and snails and Oliver Sack’s end-of-life reminiscences.

Environmentalist Rachel Carson observed, in her concise paean to the joys of wonder, that a rainy day was a wonderful time to walk. And indeed, the particular moods of the space around us allows various sights. In The Principles of Uncertainty, Kalman goes out into the world and paints what she sees with vital immediacy.

Angels walking on the earth. Cherubim and Seraphim. I take pictures of people but not everyone is pleased to be photographed. I suppose not everyone is that angelic. Fine by me.

Like authors E. B. White and Dorothy Parker and filmmaker Sidney Lumet, Kalman’s primary space of inspiration is New York City. She takes what she calls a “life-affirming” ride on the New York Subway.

Whether we see the same things she does in New York or elsewhere isn’t relevant; she teaches us how to see, not what.

principles of uncertainty
Illustration by Maira Kalman.

You might notice that there are many objects displayed around the apartment. Collections. Tangible evidence of history, memory. Longing, delight. There is my empty box collection.

No merely a box collection. An empty box collection. What is it about collections that brings out our specificity? Because we care.1

principles of uncertainty
Illustration by Maira Kalman.

By stretching out each day in the world and reflecting on what she sees in The Principles of Uncertainty, Kalman shows us above all we are all intimately connected to a human continuum we don’t understand and rarely see. But we’re part of it all the same. That much is certain.