5CT for June 2018

Delighted to be back after a long absence. Dog lover and New Yorker, Maira Kalman clearly has it all going on. Totally. Unfair. Alexander Chee is a beautiful writer from Maine and San Francisco, and is someone worth reading and thinking about. The great Emmet Gowin, who studied with the great Harry Callahan at RISD in Providence, RI, began by photographing his family in Danville, Virginia, and now he’s onto…. moths. A Bukowski poem inspires a brilliant young English animator. Carolyn Drake’s collaborative photographs in China are cryptic and amazing.

Maira Kalman|Word & Image

Maira Kalman, My Favorite Things

How do I combine this writing and this art to say as much as I can with as few words as I can.” Maira Kalman

Aside from wanting to live in her apartment, there’s a part of me that wants to be her. To be able to illustrate like that and write too? One can only dream. Rumaan Alam has written a great piece in New York Magazine, on Maira Kalman, who, I’m embarrassed to say, I’d not heard of before. How can you not love this, from one of her illustrations: ‘I want to say that wonderful ideas can come from anywhere. Sometimes you make a mistake, or break something, or lose a hat, and the next thing you know, you get a great idea. My idea was to eat.’ 


Illustrations from the republished edition of Ooh-la-la (Max in Love). Copyright © Maira Kalman; 1991. From Ooh-la-la (Max in Love).


Illustrations from the republished edition of Ooh-la-la (Max in Love). Copyright © Maira Kalman; 1991. From Ooh-la-la (Max in Love).

Excerpt: In her work for adults — My Favorite Things, And the Pursuit of Happiness, The Principles of Uncertainty primarily — Kalman lays bare the movements of her mind, the way doors make her think of Wittgenstein and the impossibility of certainty. But she is reticent on the matter of her private life. A fan might not know that she has children, but to hear her talk about her experience of motherhood illuminates all of her work.

“When Lulu was born, I said, ‘Now I know why I’m alive.’ Everything before that seemed pretty fine, but to have a child seemed … Now I know what this is all about. So when Alex was born, the house was just fantastically imaginative, and we’d turn all the furniture upside down and make forts in the room and things that would last for days. There was a sense of play that was very active and very real for me.”

Here are a couple of selections from one of her ‘adult’ books, Beloved Dog.

If you want more, and how could you not, Maira Kalman’s website is here >

How to write your autobiographical novel | Alexander Chee

It’s impossible not to love this book. It’s revelatory—full of wisdom and stories and tips and poignant vignettes. Alexander Chee’s family story (in Maine) is really something quite extraordinary and his ride to becoming a writer is fascinating to watch. There are stints as an AIDS activist in San Francisco, and as director of a homeless meal program in New York. I’ve often thought that people who love and read fiction, but who have no designs on becoming a writer (I’m talking to you, JM and you LM) could reap huge benefits by reading books like this. You get a deeper understanding of how writers become writers, what is going on on the page, and so forth. For instance, Deborah Eisenberg told a young Alexander, then a student at the famed Iowa Writer’s Workshop, that in his first-person story, he needed to create a more independent, wholly separate being for his narrator and, that a writer has more control over material that is invented versus borrowed. The joys of reading rise with close reading, the ability to see into the process a little bit and understand what’s actually going on. His novels are Queen of the Night and Edinburgh.

What would you read to someone who was dying? Annie Dillard had asked our class. She wanted this to be the standard for our work. ~ Alexander Chee

Like a moth to light | Emmet Gowin

“You’re always working at the margin of what you don’t understand,” that’s the only exhilarating place to be.” ~ Emmet Gowin

What is it with Virginia and photographers? Sally Mann ranks as one of the preeminent photographers of the modern era, and Emmet Gowin is right there with her. Both from Virginia, he in Danville, she a couple hours away in Lexington. His early-in-his-career pictures of his family in Danville, Virginia were, as they say, deeply felt, profoundly original and unforgettable. (As were Sally Mann’s) Standing still was never going to be his thing. So now here is Emmet Gowin taking the measure of the moth. The New York Times seems to love Emmet Gowin, and has at least two terrific explorations of his work. Have a look here > and here, too >

From Gowin’s early work.

Emmet Gowin, Nancy, Danville, VA 1969

Charles Bukowski, Monica Umba

{ The Blue Bird, by Charles Bukowski, animation by Monica Umba }

There’s a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I’m too tough for him,
I say, stay in there, I’m not going
to let anybody see
there’s a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I pour whiskey on him and inhale
cigarette smoke
and the whores and the bartenders
and the grocery clerks
never know that
in there.

there’s a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I’m too tough for him,
I say,
stay down, do you want to mess
me up?
you want to screw up the
you want to blow my book sales in
there’s a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I’m too clever, I only let him out
at night sometimes
when everybody’s asleep.
I say, I know that you’re there,
so don’t be
then I put him back,
but he’s singing a little
in there, I haven’t quite let him
and we sleep together like
with our
secret pact
and it’s nice enough to
make a man
weep, but I don’t
weep, do

Carolyn Drake

China. Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Hotan. White Jade River. 2013. A message about the soul of jade written by a Chinese jade carver.

“I brought prints and invited people to draw over them, thinking that maybe we could have a covert conversation through images.” ~Carolyn Drake


China. Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Kashgar Old Town. 2011. “Its the street I was born on. It is a beautiful street. My son drew his dream. A person is running after this thief. My wife wanted to draw a beautiful girl.”


This is quite a fantastic story about a project, Wild Pigeon, by the photographer Carolyn Drake. From the Magnum Photos website:

Between 2007 and 2013, Carolyn Drake traveled in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, a remote province of China, 2,000 miles from Beijing, staying in Uyghur villages and cities on the edge of the Taklamakan Desert. The Uyghurs are a predominantly muslim Turkic people, one of China’s recognised ethnic minorities, with their own distinct language and writing systems. She found that the landscape changed on each visit as historic Uyghur neighborhoods were being torn down and rebuilt as modern Chinese cities, a result of government development policy.

As Drake tried to ask Uyghurs about these changes, the translator she was using quit, saying her questions were “too political”. So instead, she invited people to communicate through drawing. The resultant body of work is titled ‘Wild Pigeon’, so named after a folk tale about a bird that would rather die than be caged by humans, a story banned from publication by the Chinese government but passed on by word of mouth.

CHINA. Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. 2013. Image burned into photo by an artist who sells carved gourds to tourists. His father used to carve elaborate horse saddles, but nobody does that job anymore, he said.


  • Tom Trimbath
    June 10, 2018

    “What is it with Virginia and photographers?”

    I spent several years at Virginia Tech (VPI&SU when I was there) getting my bachelors and masters in engineering, but learned a lot about photography in the surrounding green, folding hills. Chilly and icy in winter. Blossoms in spring. Primal colors in the fall. My camera helped me relax and be rather than think. Hmm. A good reminder.

  • Terry Reed
    June 10, 2018

    There’s something going on. Something extra special about this issue. A thing that really resonates for me.Thank you for locating and sharing – making me want to share; wish the world could share and feel the soul in things you reveal.

  • John Simmons
    June 11, 2018

    That animation by Monika Umba is heart-achingly beautiful