Maira Kalman, the illustrator who creates covers for The New Yorker magazine, writes whimsical children’s books and has designed sets for dance troupes and opera, was on hand at the Youth Wing library of the Israel Museum this week, putting the final touches on “Beloved Dog,” her black ink mural of dogs and their owners, inspired by illustrations of dogs from Kalman’s books.
Having worked on the mural for the last four days, “it just seemed like the nicest thing would be to paint it while I’m here,” she said.
This is Kalman’s first installation at the museum, an art institution she has visited many times. Orna Granot, the curator of the Ruth Youth Wing for Art Education, has tried more than once to lure Kalman to the museum, and it finally happened with the “Cats and Dogs” exhibit.
Given Kalman’s penchant for the four-legged creatures — characterized in several books, including her beloved Max series — it was the right subject at the right time, she said.
“I knew it wouldn’t be anything with cats, but I would do something with dogs,” said Kalman, her pet of preference.
When considering the museum mural, Kalman noted the exhibit’s collection of dog photographs by documentary photographer Elliott Erwitt, a favorite artist of hers, and thought she could “have a conversation” with her drawings and a selection of his photographs, which will also be on display in “Beloved Dog.”
“I love his photographs,” said Kalman. “It’s a counterpoint of my photographs, his photographs, drawings, a little bit of text and there you are.”
So Kalman and Granot decided to have her create a mural, alongside an installation of two dog pushcars and giant wooden blocks covered with Kalman’s dog drawings that double as puzzle pieces, all set in the cozy Youth Wing library.
The exhibit, said Granot, starts with the notion of dogs and cats in popular culture, looking at who’s a dog person and who’s a cat person, and using videos, sculptures and paintings that focus on cats’ and dogs’ connection with humans.
Kalman’s contribution is her collection of dogs, and they’re an iconic bunch, noted Granot. “This illustration is an interesting kind of dialogue between story and images and people, and in that sense, Maira’s natural talent of telling a story without words,” she said. “The mural has a dominant presence without language.”
There is some text, including a paragraph explaining Kalman’s relationship with her own dog, Pete, an Irish Wheaten terrier. “My illustrations and words usually work together, it’s a joy to have them completely connected,” she said.
But the mural is mostly an homage to dogs, to the “humor, love, pathos, whimsy and sense of friendship you have with a dog,” said Kalman. “That sense of companionship is extraordinary.”
Kalman and her husband, Tibor Kalman, the noted American graphic designer who died of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1999 at age 49, bought Pete the dog several years before his death in order to lighten the mood in their home. They never regretted the decision.
“I think that there is a commonality of human experience,” said Kalman, “of longing to be loved and to find meaning and to have a sense of humor and have a good time and in expressing that with dogs. They’re really universal connectors.”
On this trip to Israel, Kalman’s “500th,” she joked, given that she was born here and still stays at her parents’ apartment in Tel Aviv, she will meet up with Israeli writer Etgar Keret, who invited Kalman to collaborate with him at an upcoming residency at the Mishkenot Sha’ananim literary and culinary festival.
The two met last year when they collaborated for The New Yorker on “To Be A Dancer,” based on Keret’s fable “The Inconsistent Pedaler,” written with his wife, Shira Geffen.
After their festival appearance, they’re going to “travel a bit,” said Kalman, heading to the Banksy Hotel in Bethlehem, and to visit friends down south, and wander around Israel.
“I’m always curious about this country I came from,” said Kalman, 68, who has lived in New York for most of her life. “I left when I was four, and the relationship with family, Belarus and Palestine are very present for me and rich in what I write about and think about. I’m always interested in the past of the family and in other peoples’ families.”
Her own mother was the focus of one of Kalman’s most recent projects, the Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibit, “Sara Berman’s Closet,” an installation of her mother’s carefully curated Greenwich Village closet of all-white clothing, created with her son, Alex Kalman.
But books are still at the forefront, and Kalman’s next projects are a cookbook about cake and food memories, written with Barbara Scott Goodman, an illustrated edition of Alice B. Toklas and then a book about the New York Public Library.
For now, it was “natural and delightful to come here in an official capacity,” said Kalman, “because it’s always nice to have a job to do.”
On Friday, June 2 at 11:30 a.m., the museum will unveil the large-scale mural created by Kalman in the Youth Wing Illustration Library. During the opening, the artist will give a lecture in English about her work. Pre-registration at the museum website is required to attend the event.