MELISSA BLOCK, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
When artist Maira Kalman set out on a yearlong adventure to paint and write the story of American democracy, she ended up taking some detours. She painted a Jell-O light bulb, the first patented safety pin, Fred Astaire dipping Ginger Rogers. These are the kinds of things that excite her, along with fabulous hats and desserts. Government? Not so much.
Ms. MAIRA KALMAN (Artist): I don't believe in politics. I don't understand any of it. I don't listen to the news. I don't read the newspaper, unless it's eccentric information and the obituaries, of course.
BLOCK: Maira Kalman's visual blog started online for The New York Times and is now out in book form titled "And the Pursuit of Happiness." Now, shockingly, she's no Alexis de Tocqueville. What she came up with is a quirky graphic diary with vivid paintings and whimsical handwritten texts. Her style will be familiar if you've seen her New Yorker covers or her dozen children's books, many featuring Max the poet dog.
Maira Kalman calls "And the Pursuit of Happiness" her love letter to America, and it's filtered through her delightfully naive sensibility.
Ms. KALMAN: So this was a way for me to see the whole aspect of the world that actually was frightening to me and to see whether I could go in there and find people that I like. And I did.
BLOCK: She found them by traveling all across the country. She went to a town hall in Vermont, to a student council meeting in the Bronx, to military training at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, and to the Supreme Court, where she was smitten. She writes: Move over, Jane Austen, as my imaginary best friend forever, make room for Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Ms. KALMAN: You can't help but bond with somebody who's doing what she's doing, and it's really amazing.
BLOCK: Maira Kalman spent quite a bit of time trying to figure out the men who first shaped American democracy. We learned that George Washington had a dog named Sweet Lips. Of Ben Franklin, she writes: I don't think he was ever bored. Of Thomas Jefferson: He woke at dawn. I don't think he took naps.
Ms. KALMAN: He didn't, but he did have migraines.
BLOCK: I met up with Maira Kalman here in Washington to talk about a couple of her favorite subjects, starting with Thomas Jefferson. And where better to do that - I figured - than at the Jefferson Memorial. But as we headed up the marble staircase to talk about our third president - oops - we were stopped by park police.
Unidentified Man (Park Policeman): Do you have a permit?
Ms. KALMAN: No, that's what I want to ask you about.
Unidentified Man: You're not allowed to be here, sorry.
Ms. KALMAN: So we can't do any of the...
Unidentified Man: No interviews on federal property.
BLOCK: And why is that, just out of curiosity?
Unidentified Man: I don't make the rules.
BLOCK: You don't know.
Unidentified Man: All I know is on CFR book there's no interviews on federal property.
Unidentified Man: Sorry.
BLOCK: So much for our pursuit of happiness. Well, in the shadow of Thomas Jefferson, we talked about what Kalman found to love in the Founding Fathers.
Ms. KALMAN: They studied Socrates and Spinoza and read French philosophers and German philosophers and really had this incredible curiosity about everything -mathematics and science, architecture, music. It just never ended. And then you realize it was not just a couple of farmers creating this country, it was really brilliant people. And I think he's probably the top in terms of genius. Maybe Ben Franklin - Ben and Tom.
BLOCK: Here's Tom Jefferson as viewed through Maira Kalman: His favorite vegetable was peas. He studied the Quran.
Ms. KALMAN: I like Thomas Jefferson, though he intimidated me an awful lot. I thought he would have been very tough to be around.
BLOCK: Because he did so many things so well.
Ms. KALMAN: He did, and I don't know if he had such a sense of humor.
BLOCK: You would want that in a...
Ms. KALMAN: I want Lincoln.
BLOCK: You want Lincoln?
Ms. KALMAN: I want Lincoln. Right, Lincoln's my guy.
BLOCK: Well, let's go see Abraham Lincoln then.
Ms. KALMAN: Okay.
BLOCK: He's not too far away.
Ms. KALMAN: Okay. Good.
BLOCK: An amble from Jefferson to Lincoln, around the Tidal Basin, toward the National Mall. Along the way, Maira Kalman is always watching.
Ms. KALMAN: My God, that's a nice reflection.
BLOCK: The Washington Monument...
Ms. KALMAN: Yeah.
BLOCK: ...in the Tidal Basin. In general, when you see things, are you converting them into paintings?
Ms. KALMAN: Yes, I'm always converting it, and I'm actually seeing the texture of the paint and the shading and the color. And sometimes, it's really - when I'm in the midst of painting, when I'm in the midst of a project, then everything is a painting. It's really kind of crazy.
BLOCK: Walking from Jefferson to Lincoln takes you through the open-air FDR Memorial with its cascading waterfalls and red granite walls. And it's there, as we're walking and talking, wouldn't you know that same park police officer rides by on his bike.
Unidentified Man: You're not doing this again, are you?
Ms. KALMAN: Oh, we're just walking.
Unidentified Man: I hope not, because next time, I'm writing you all up, okay?
Ms. KALMAN: Okay. We can't - okay. That's fine. We're just trying to get over to the mall.
Unidentified Man: Okay. I don't know if you were taping again, but if you do, next time, you're all getting...
Ms. KALMAN: Okay.
Unidentified Man: ...a CFR for (unintelligible).
Ms. KALMAN: Okay. Thanks.
BLOCK: What does that mean?
Unidentified Man: I'm not telling you again.
Ms. KALMAN: All right.
BLOCK: CFR, that's the Code of Federal Regulations. Yikes. We avoid a citation - this time.
Okay, Maira, we have left Thomas Jefferson. We're now near the Lincoln Memorial, but we're not going to go in because we're a little scared about park police denying us the pursuit of our happiness with this interview, right?
Ms. KALMAN: Right. Though I think it might be fun to get arrested because that might round out the whole interview and the whole discussion of freedom and democracy.
BLOCK: And to round out her knowledge of Abraham Lincoln, Maira Kalman had a dream.
Ms. KALMAN: I was hoping that in this new adventure, in this political adventure, I would be able to sleep in the Lincoln Bedroom in the White House.
BLOCK: Uh-huh. How'd that work out for you?
Ms. KALMAN: And, yeah, it was really good. They really went for that big time.
BLOCK: So she contents herself with imagining setting up a cot right there at Lincoln's feet in the Lincoln Memorial, drinking tea and embroidering.
Ms. KALMAN: First of all, you look at him, and you cannot stop looking at this man's face. I don't think there's anybody on Earth who's looked him before or after, such pathos in the face and such intensity. So there's something about his aspect and, of course, everything he did in his life.
BLOCK: You kind of fall for Abe Lincoln in a real way, it sounds like.
Ms. KALMAN: You know, as I say, sorry, Mary Todd Lincoln.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. KALMAN: But he would have been happy with me.
BLOCK: A brooding man.
Ms. KALMAN: I like a brooding man, a brooding man with a sense of humor. He was a good raconteur, and he liked parties. He liked to dance, and he wasn't a somber man. He had the weight of the world on him, of course, but that was not the essential person.
BLOCK: What's Lincoln like to paint?
Ms. KALMAN: He's wonderful to paint, and he's very graphic and his - everything about him is graphic - his hair, his nose, the eyes, the ears, the chin, the beard, the way that he dressed. It's so focused and compelling that you can't go wrong. You're always doing something fulfilling...
Ms. KALMAN: ...when you're doing - when you're painting Lincoln.
BLOCK: Well, at the end of her yearlong plunge into American history, what has Maira Kalman - who doesn't listen to the news or care about politics - what has she come away with?
Ms. KALMAN: I really like the country, and I have great respect for the history and just for the nature of the country. You know, we came here in 1954...
BLOCK: Your family?
Ms. KALMAN: My family is from Israel.
BLOCK: From Israel.
Ms. KALMAN: And my parents had fled Russia, so there was some kind of voyage to get here, but I never thought about that. And I became an American citizen when I was in my 30s, but it never meant anything to me. And now, apart from the fact that we're going to get arrested for having this interview, which leaves me a little bit bitter, I do - this is an extraordinary country.
BLOCK: So this self-described optimistically naive person ends up with great respect for American democracy.
Ms. KALMAN: Respect but still keeping my distance because I truly understand that this is, if anything, that I could ever engage in, and I'll just be happy to sweep in Central Park and help out, but my - you know, that best - the small way has to be the way that I can do things.
BLOCK: Maira Kalman, who actually does volunteer to sweep the paths in Central Park. Her book is titled "And the Pursuit of Happiness." You can see her paintings of Thomas Jefferson's patched red jacket and her buddy Abe Lincoln and more at npr.org.
(Soundbite of music)
You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.