The Synesthesiac

By Middlebury Campus

Author: Ashley Gamell

syn·es·the·sia from the Greek (syn-) union, and (aesthesis) sensation; is the neurological mixing of the senses. A synesthete may, for example, hear colors, see sounds – and taste tactile sensations.

The Principles of Maira Kalman
By Ashley Gamell

“Washing dishes is the antidote to confusion.” “Moustache Meatloaf Mother Mocha.” Such are the little delicacies to be found in Maira Kalman’s recently published “The Principles of Uncertainty,” her first book for adult audiences and of adult proportions (336 pages, $29.95). Kalman is an illustrator, designer, artist and author extraordinaire – the creator of 11 New Yorker covers and 12 children’s books, including the unforgettable series on Max Stravinsky the dog poet, and the aptly titled “What Pete Ate From A-Z: Where We Explore the English Alphabet (in Its Entirety) in Which a Certain Dog Devours a Myriad of Items Which He Should Not.” In 2005, Penguin published a deliciously colorful edition of “The Elements of Style,” illustrated by Kalman. “Elements” was, in some ways, the perfect medium for the artist’s sardonic wit – Kalman is interested in language as an attempt to maintain dignity amidst undignified circumstances.

Kalman’s color palate is her trademark – nearly edible, a shade flashier than pastel. Her handwriting is gangly and uneven, as in a child’s game of Hangman. A cast of thoroughly outlandish characters parade around her pages, wearing unbelievable accessories. Her self-proclaimed “eccentric aesthetic level,” a realm of haute couture hair and poeticizing poodles, might be considered misrepresentative – you find it only on the streets of Paris or New York. And yet, Kalman’s obsession with old-world idiosyncrasy is a delight to behold in today’s mass culture America.

“Principles” began as a monthly illustrated blog for The New York Times, which you can check out at However, be forewarned that Kalman’s newest work is one of the reasons why people will keep buying books in the 21st century instead of reading them on MacBook screens. This is a book you must own in the flesh. It is a book you must savor in hesitant installments, a book you must have on hand to read aloud to your mother after the funeral of her favorite uncle.

The standard existential crisis is at the center of “Principles.” Kalman quotes Bertrand Russell: “All the labor of all the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction.” She then asks, “So, now, my friends, if that is true, and it IS true, what is the point?” In search for an answer, she calls upon all of the Russians, (Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Pushkin, Oblomov) who make cameos in ice cream colors. And yet, the Russians seem antithetical to Kalman’s approach – she belongs more to Gertrude Stein’s school of language-for-the-sheer-joy-of-it (sweet sweet sweet tea) or to the Joycean tradition of life-affirming proclamations (yes I said yes I will yes).

According to Kalman, solace is to be found in people-watching, spotting “superlative tassels” and reveling in an all-consuming admiration of hats, which range from the commendably “jaunty” to the “completely sensational.” This is a religion of proper nouns and noteworthy ornamentation, one in which “the Ottoman on the way to the Proust room” and “the odd yet endearing guard guarding Proust’s room” warrant more attention than Proust himself. “The Realization that we are ALL (You, Me) going to die” is followed by a series of fruit-platter paintings.

At times we don’t quite believe Kalman- her sense of humor seems unchecked, her message of everyday sanctity a tad canned. Such suspicions arise when she tells The Times that “it would be as interesting to report on a morticians’ convention as it is to write a book for kids,” or when we learn that she has named her children “Alex Onomatopoeia” and “Lulu Bodoni,” after a vintage font. The January chapter of “Principles,” a series of pedestrian photos with inspirational captions, leaves something to be desired. And yet, we are happy to overlook her lapses in sanity in exchange for her unbridled humanitarianism. As Kalman puts it, “The heart breaks. Someone does or does not go mad. It is February. And all is forgiven.”

We can expect anything and everything of Kalman in the coming years. She shifts easily between mediums, from Faust-embroidered wall hangings to opera libretto, thanks to her iconic style. Running through all of her work is the fusion of the high arts and the mundane. At the debut of an opera based on her edition of “Elements,” Kalman’s friends and family played backup accompaniment on an array of kitchen appliances. At a recent gallery opening, her mother could be spotted ironing handkerchiefs. When asked whether she might pursue performance art in the future, Kalman replied with typical bravado, “The play, the gallery show, the store front, the Mark Morris, walking to the post office. I think that is one of the places I am headed.”