Get a Life

Women rocked the main stage at the “Next: AIGA Design Conference” in Denver. The amazing babes who stood up to show their stuff ranged from renowned biologist Janine Benyus, who talked about how living forms can inspire new products, to Nichelle Narcisi, a young designer from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, who battled against six other talented newcomers to win AIGA's Command X “reality” design competition. The final assignment in Command X was to design a campaign that would compel people ages 18-24 to vote. Narcisi's feelings about this assignment were especially intense because, she explained, “My boyfriend doesn't vote.” Maybe he will now that his pint-sized girlfriend has blown away some of the biggest names in design with a dead-on message, full of insight and so brilliantly executed.

Get. A. Life.

(From left) Janine Benyus, Nichelle Narcisi and Marian Bantjes at “Next.” All photos: Stu Alden.

Two of the women on stage moved me to tears with their fierce pursuit of life. Marian Bantjes, who lives and works on an island near Vancouver, talked about the seemingly random path that took her from utter anonymity to speaking in front of over 2,000 people at the AIGA national conference. Bantjes wandered into graphic design when she saw a help-wanted ad for a typesetter in a coffee shop. Learning typography as a book designer/typesetter for Hartely & Marks, she ultimately started her own design business, producing hundreds of brochures, posters and other stuff for diverse clients

“I Want It All,” a personal project by Marian Bantjes made from wilting peonies.

Then poof, she quit it all one day, selling her stake in the business and becoming a “graphic artist” instead, stopping everything to create the hand-lettered pieces for which she is known today. That was just four years ago. At age 40, Marian had a “midlife crisis” and decided to pursue her own interests. It was a huge risk that paid off, delivering her a life in which she can focus on projects that are personally satisfying and have an impact in the design world.

Bantjes does not dwell on happy endings, however, because no one knows how one's own life story will evolve. The graphic design field chews up and spits out its self-made celebrities pretty fast. Bantjes wonders what's next. Will the widespread fashion for layered ornament ultimately detract from her own originality, leaving her in the dull dust of spent trends? I hope not. Her work clearly evolves from a real and authentic place. It hit the scene fast, but it grew slowly out of decades of personal experimentation with painting, printmaking and pattern design.

Maira Kalman comments on The Principles of Uncertainty at the "Next" conference in Denver.

Maira Kalman at “Next.” Photo: Stu Alden.

A different kind of experience is revealed in the life and work of Maira Kalman, the Israeli-born, New-York-based artist, author and illustrator, who addressed the conference the following morning. Whereas Bantjes had inspired the crowd with her tale of abandoning normal practice, risking it all and finding a new identity, Kalman's tale is dark with melancholy. A mother of two with her own career as an illustrator, she watched her charismatic husband, Tibor Kalman, die of cancer in 1999 at age 49. After that harsh and early end, Maira's own life continued on, as lives usually do. In the eight years since Tibor's death, she has honed one of the most highly acclaimed individual voices in the graphic arts. She is an author, an auteur, an instigator, a figure whose influence goes far beyond the professional borders of design and illustration. Her books and visual essays speak to everyone, not just to designers. They have entered the culture.

Illustration by Maira Kalman, from The Principles of Uncertainty.

A sense of loss pervades Kalman's new book, The Principles of Uncertainty, a visual memoir of a one-year period in her life. The book brings to mind Joan Didion's Year of Magical Thinking, the best-selling chronicle of Didion's first impossible year as a widow. Kalman's book is not, however, about being a widow (although she touches on that). The loss she conveys is huge and wide, encompassing the extinction of the dodo, the death of her mother, the fragility of Israel, the inheritance of the Holocaust and the inevitability, in the end, of everyone's solitary death. Heavy shit.

And yet the book is full of life, stuffed with Kalman's fresh, bright, but never over-sweetened paintings of all that she sees, from portraits of dead philosophers to studies of old people walking on the street. She pulls together an endless stream of images—drawn from books, photographs, paintings, and observation—and conveys them to us through her own sharp eyes, tersely captioned with grim, funny prose.

Like Bantjes, Kalman has learned how to make a life. Bantjes's story of buoyant optimism is edged with the fear that the bubble could burst, sending her back to ordinary anonymity. Kalman, on the other hand, has achieved fame and perhaps fortune; with little doubt, the career she has crafted will live as long as she will. And yet—it will always be colored with irrevocable sadness. Both of these women are an inspiration to any creative person who is thinking about life's trajectory and how to make the most of it.