Dear Maira

Words and photos by Jenni Mazaraki

Dear Ms Maira Kalman,

I’m writing to you about your book. It sits in pride of place at home in the display cupboard with the glass doors so I can look at it and dust stays off it.

I bought The Principles of Uncertainty a couple years ago. When I found it, I had a sense of calm relief. That your book existed made the world pause and then align itself with my rhythms. Your book made my life make sense, even if it was for a brief moment.

Of course, your work is amazing. Your work appears in the New Yorker for crying out loud! You paint pictures of people, of places, cakes, moments in history and from your own life. You have pictures of ladies applying lipstick, a friend’s cozy kitchen and of a woman who is unwell, comforted by her little dog. You make these moments matter with brushstrokes and words. You make these moments endure. They exist long after they have happened.


There is nothing illusory in this tiny heaven. Image from The Principles of Uncertainty by Maira Kalman.


A seven layer chocolate cake with a cherry on top! Image from The Principles of Uncertainty by Maira Kalman.


The rain. Image from The Principles of Uncertainty by Maira Kalman.

I’d like to know how you chose to do what you do? How did you choose to be an artist and sit and draw all day long? Or did this life choose you?

There is a song that says that there are lots of people in the world to love, but just choose one. I like that. It has a simple way of making a complex task seem easy.

Like choosing yoghurts at the supermarket. I’m not sure what your local supermarket is like, but where I live, there are so many yoghurts. I stand in front of the open fridge, disliking the whir of the motor and the cold air and I can’t make a decision. There are too many options. It’s baffling.

Ultimately, I think you have to be a little bit like a horse with blinders – you have to focus on something, ignoring the rest. Otherwise we’d never get anything done (or choose yoghurt).

So I try to focus on my artwork. But there is so much out there to see, and to do (as I feel you may also have noticed). And all the time, I feel the tick, tick, ticking of time (again, something I think comes across in your book).


And pass a waterfall of pink bougainvillea. Image from The Principles of Uncertainty by Maira Kalman.

So, I’m writing to ask you, how did you do it, how do you keep doing it? Are you ever crippled with chronic self doubt? Do you ever sit at your desk/in your studio/in your kitchen and just feel…stuck? Like you have a backlog of images, creativity and words that want to come tumbling out, but like desperate shoppers at sale time who have rushed at the doorway and trapped themselves against the door frame, that you become, simply unable to move?


If something does go wrong here is my advice. From The Principles of Uncertainty by Maira Kalman.

I once worked in an art supply shop. It was a divine shop, not unlike something you would imagine in Harry Potter’s world. You see, it was a very proper art shop, for serious artists. You could buy a tube of oil paint for $125 if you really wanted to. The artists who came into the shop were serious artists, very proper who had local and international acclaim. They painted day in, day out, coming into the shop, I suspect, not just for materials, but also for a bit of social contact. The thing is, they all seem so lonely.

My hairdresser used to be a textile artist. She couldn’t bear it. She couldn’t bear the solitude, the quiet, the isolation of working in her studio day in, day out. Alone with her designs and ideas and no one to talk to. So now she is a hairdresser. She gets to talk to people all day long. She no longer makes art. She seems happy.


Including Lady Birley and her violet teas – gardening in her jaunty hat. Image from The Principles of Uncertainty by Maira Kalman.

So this is why I write, in the hope that there is another life for an artist rather than the life where you live in solitude, creating your art, slowly going a little bit mad, or whether you need to be selling yourself constantly and creating a product that the world wants. How do you create that balance for yourself so that you get to create your work and still feel like a participant of the world instead of simply a distant observer? Have you found a balance or is it a constant tension? I ask your advice, because your book made sense to me. Your book is more than just a bunch of words and pictures on paper. It is the whole point.

I admire your work and the way that your share your impressions of the world with others. I think about the things you have seen and then I think about you sitting in your studio and painting these scenes. I wonder if you are lonely or content in your art making practice.


The woman is very ill. Her little dog never leaves her side. Image from The Principles of Uncertainty by Maira Kalman.

And I think about that page. The page with the woman and the little dog and the bed and the sickness. That image breaks my heart just a little bit. The little dog never leaves her side. I wonder what happened to the woman and her loyal dog. Are they OK?

Yours sincerely,


(Feature image from The Principles of Uncertainty by Maira Kalman.)

See what Maira sees on her Instagram page.



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