Maira Kalman’s new book, Beloved Dog (Penguin Press), illuminates her friendship with her first dog, Pete. Kalman, who movingly writes, “It is very true that the most tender, complicated, most generous part of our being blossoms without any effort when it comes to the love of a dog,” grew up being terrified of them.
Featuring her fanciful paintings and handwritten text, Beloved Dog details a life of love, loss and companionship. It also includes numerous examples of her work, including New Yorker covers and several of her Pete-inspired children’s books. As long-time fans of her delightful, quirky and just a bit offkilter work, we were particularly happy to snag some phone time with her recently. Following are highlights from our conversation.
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Bark: Early in the book, you say that you are “besotted by dogs”—what a great term.
Maira Kalman: I used to be afraid of dogs, and that switch-over to realizing how important they are in my life and how completely besotted I am was a wonderful revelation and a great moment.
B: That discovery is pretty magical.
MK: It is, and it really does change the world. It opens things up in ways that were incomprehensible before. I don’t want to liken it to having children, but next to having children, it is that kind of relationship.
B: Tell us about Pete.
MK: I had always thought that if I got a dog, it would be a dog that jumped up— shpringeny—on all four legs, a scruffy kind of animated cartoon. And there he was. From the beginning, he was not only a beloved, beloved companion and an easer of sadness, but also a damn fine model.
B: Having a dog to guide you through the streets of New York must be a great entree into the world.
MK: Yeah, because when you have a purpose, which is “I am walking my dog,” you are already calmer and you have a companion. Of course, when you walk a dog, you have to add at least another half-hour to get to any destination because you meet people, the dog stops, you stop. You’re engaging in ways that you just didn’t do before. People who are walking their dogs usually are delighted to chat. It’s a friendlier world when you have a dog with you.
B: Can you talk about dogs as a subject matter for your paintings and books?
MK: Sometimes the dog is a human character and (of course) a stand-in for me, or a composite of me and other people. The dog is a conduit to emotions and humor, all those universal experiences. The other way that I work is to depict dogs as secondary characters, or digressions—my work is always about digression anyway. So, they populate the landscape the way people do, and contribute to the emotional quality of my paintings. They surprise me— they’re funny. The paintings are really observational journals of my life and the dogs who live in my world.