Artist Maira Kalman’s Painted Serenade to Attention, Aliveness, and the Vibrancy of Seeing the World with Newborn Eyes – Brain Pickings

by Joseph K. Clark

“The secret of success,” Jackson Pollock’s father wrote to the teenage artist-to-be in his remarkable letter of life advice, “is to be fully awake to everything about you.” Few things beckon our attention and awaken us to life more compellingly than color. “Our lives, when we pay attention to light, compel us to empathy with color,” Ellen Meloy wrote in her exquisite meditation on the chemistry, culture, and the conscience of color. And why else live if not to pay attention to the changing light?

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In Daring Baby (public library), artist Maira Kalman, a poet of chromatic tenderness, composes an uncommon ode to aliveness, to the vibrant beauty of life, a very new life, and old life.

As the baby teaches to look at this color, this shape, this quality of light, we see the grownup relearn to visit with those baby-eyes that are awake to the luminous everythingness of everything, undulled by the accumulation of filters we call growing up. What emerges is a celebration of attention as an affirmation of aliveness, a vibrant testament to Simone Weil’s exquisite observation that “attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” Page after painted page, a generous presence unfolds — a reality with the new life of this small helpless observer of the world, a company with the old life of sky and sea.

There are people dancing and geese swimming information and “a thousand tiny silverfish” jumping over the water in an arc and a lightning-sliced night and a full moon reflected in the gentle blue ripples and “a tree filled with sparkly yellow stars.”

Ideally, it all takes place on the edge of the ocean — that singular place of existential reckoning, the perfect stage for Kalman’s classic dual serenade to life and death, to the mortal as the precious crucible of wonder.

One day, a summer party celebrates the baby’s birth “and everyone’s birthday with cheery cherry pie,” which a man takes home in his hat. “Everyone is born. That is true.” Another day, the grownup protagonist stumbles upon the still relaxed body of “a big mossy-green turtle,” washed up from the ocean of life — a subtle, poignant intimation that everybody dies, too.

She tells the baby:

The water carried the turtle out to sea to be buried in the vast ocean. I think that is a good thing. At any rate, it is a thing.
I am telling you this because I know you will understand.

Throughout the story, there are echoes of Kalman’s love of dogs, echoes of her love of walking, echoes of her love of dance, and her lovely American Utopia collaboration with David Byrne. And all throughout, that wondrous overtone of Kalman’s irrepressible love of life.

Complement Daring Baby with an Italian illustrated ode to the science and strange splendors of pregnancy, then revisit Kalman’s tender painted love letter to Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas’s love.

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