Women Holding Things: Artist Maira Kalman’s Tender and Quirky Ode to the Weight of the World and the Barely Bearable Lightness of Being
By Maria Popova
“It troubled me,” Emily Dickinson wrote, “how an Atom fell and yet the Heavens held.” The Heavens hold, and so do we. We hold still. We hold hopes. We hold our pain and the world’s pain. We hold each other. We hold up our values and hold down our tasks. We hold on, and this might be the single most defining feature of human life. We hold on.
In Women Holding Things (public library), artist Maira Kalman — an uncommon philosopher of the quietly magnificent in the mundane — celebrates all the things we hold: flowers and lovers, grief and children, grudges and balloons, a stranger’s gaze, the barely bearable lightness of being, the weight of the world.
She writes in the opening pages:
What do women hold?
The home and the family.
And the children and the food.
The work of the world.
And the work of being human.
And the troubles
and the sorrows
and the triumphs.
And the love.
Men do as well, but not
quite in the same way.
Populating the pages are strangers and friends and friends of friends; Maira’s mother and grandmother in Belarus, her daughter and granddaughters in America; her imperfect father holding her, her beloved son holding one of her paintings of women holding things; ordinary women glimpsed in some blooming buzzing corner of the world and extraordinary women who have changed the way we see that world — Virginia Woolf, Louise Bourgeois, Gertrude Stein, Rose McClendon, Edith Sitwell, Ayana V. Jackson, Natalia Ginzburg — refracted through the lens of this particular artist, the way we all refract our heroes through the subjective lens of our lived experience and its saturation of values.
The tender, infinitely expressive paintings are captioned with spare words that lend each vignette an extra air of human fragility and resilience.
“My mother holding her sister the day of her ill-fated marriage,” says one such miniature novel drawn from real life.
“Virginia Woolf barely holding it together,” says another miniature biography.
“Sally Hemmings holding history accountable.”
Coursing through it all is the indivisible totality of existence, its beauty and terror entwined in an eternal helix — the guns and the violins, the mass graves into which the Nazis dumped the bodies of her grandparents and the blue skies into which a bouquet of red balloons tries to escape from a stranger’s hand as Central Park blooms its cherry blossoms.
Punctuating the paintings are brief meditations partway between poetry and philosophy. In one, evocative of Seneca’s taxonomy of time spent, saved, and wasted, she writes:
My mother would ask us
“what is the most important thing?”
We knew that the correct answer was Time.
You could say that my mother lost a great deal of time to an unhappy marriage.
But how unhappy was it? Shakespearean level? Run of the mill unhappy? Impossible to say.
I can’t ask her because she is no longer alive.
But she ultimately left my father and found her time.
Finding time is all we want to do.
Once you find time, you want more time.
And more time in between that time.
There can never be enough time.
And you can never hold on to it.
It is so strange.
We live. And then we die.
So unutterably strange.
If you meet the Holocaust, you can never escape its grip. You are obliged to feel it reverberate through all things for the rest of your life.
The terrors of the world exist.
And we are wounded.
It would be so nice to never be afraid.
But I am afraid that is just not possible.
Coursing through it all is Maira’s singular species of optimism, bearing the feeling-tone of an overcast afternoon after the storm, the last layer of clouds backlit by the low sun, casting the world in a numinous light.
You may be exhausted from holding things
and be disheartened. And even weep if
you are very emotional. Which could be
anyone on any day. With good reason.
But then there is the next moment
and the the next day and
Complement Women Holding Things — a gem of a book to hold dear — with the subversive time-capsule Women in Trees, then revisit Maira Kalman’s illustrated love letters to dogs and Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein’s love, and this painted poem of perspective.
Artwork by Maira Kalman courtesy of the artist
Published October 26, 2022