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The Marginalian

Women Holding Things: Artist Maira Kalman’s Tender and Quirky Ode to the Weight of the World and the Barely Bearable Lightness of Being

Women Holding Things: Artist Maira Kalman’s Tender and Quirky Ode to the Weight of the World and the Barely Bearable Lightness of Being

“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.

woman in my dream walking through almond blossoms holding a giant boulder

She writes in the opening pages:

What do women hold?

The home and the family.
And the children and the food.
The friendships.
The work.
The work of the world.
And the work of being human.
The memories.
And the troubles
and the sorrows
and the triumphs.
And the love.

Men do as well, but not
quite in the same way.

woman holding red balloons walking through the park

women holding a grudge
my grandmother (in pearls) holding the weight of the world on her shoulders, her legs as big as tree trunks

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.

woman walking down the street holding her sick dog
woman holding her red cap after swimming across the Hudson River

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.”

Virginia Woolf barely holding it together

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.

girl holding violin
woman holding up

Ayana V. Jackson holding my gaze

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.

woman holding chicken
glamorous woman holding a can of worms
Gertrude Stein holding true to herself writing things very few people liked or even read

woman (Lotte Lenya) holding man (Peter Lorre)
mother holding the hand of her child as they are being killed by Nazi soldiers

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.

woman holding a pink ukulele under a giant cherry tree

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

hold on

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




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