How to Illuminate The Elements of Style

General / People / Places / April 28, 2014

Illustrator Maira Kalman has created covers for the New Yorker, illustrated blogs for The New York Times, and develope children’s books that are “irrepressibly adorable,” says Susan Edwards, executive director of the Frist Center for the Visual Arts in Nashville.

But it’s her wry and witty illustrations for a 2005 edition of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style that have raised the eyebrows of more than a few writers.

And in June, all 56 of those illustrations – each of them gouache on paper – will be on display at the Frist, thanks to Edwards’ efforts.

“She demonstrates incredible whimsy and delight – she illustrates the sentences used by E. B. White, but also the whimsy in his language,” Edwards says. “When a sentence is given as an illustration she gives a visual interpretation with it.”

Edwards, who taught art history at a number of institutions of higher learning, regularly assigned The Elements of Style to her students.  So she has more than a passing appreciation for the illustrations.

“She brings a major text for clear writing into greater prominence and accessibility by giving another way of looking at it,” she says.

Renowned as an authoritative treatise on clear and effective writing, The Elements of Style has offered distinctive guidance to readers since its debut in 1919 as a classroom text by Cornell University professor William Strunk Jr. In 1957, author E.B. White, a former student of Strunk’s, was asked to edit what was known around the Cornell campus as “the little book,” for the general public. Today, after many printings and editions, The Elements of Style is a delightful and famously idiosyncratic handbook for writers.

“It’s a great match for her painting style, because The Elements of Style is so focused on clarity, and you realize her work also has a clarity,” she says. “It’s very straightforward in the way the paint is applied.”

The illustrator also has an innocent eye that’s also highly curious, which makes her a good match for the The Elements of Style.

“At the same time, she’s extremely sophisticated,” she says. “So when Strunk and White say to see something clearly, her art reduces that to its lowest common denominator, to the essence of it.”

In doing so, she takes a masterful text and magnifies its meaning.

The exhibition opens on June 6. For more information, go to

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Mike Welton

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