Inside the Studio
Interview with a legendary Chicago artist
by Jessica Young | Photography by Jazmin Corona
Nicole Hollander is a Chicago legend and a nationally known cartoonist and artist. She’s the creator and artist behind Sylvia
, a cartoon strip about a wise-cracking feminist that was nationally syndicated. She’s also worked as an artist, a graphic designer, has taught classes at Columbia College Chicago and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and her cartooning work has been in numerous books, most recently, 30 Years of Graphic Misbehavior from Reagan to Obama
. She currently blogs at Bad Girl Chats
. In celebration of her new installation, “Will You Step into My Parlour: Nicole Hollander’s Living Room”
opening this week at Lillstreet Art Center, The Urbaness sat down with Nicole Hollander and Jessica Mott Wickstrom of Lillstreet to talk about creativity, comics, and a career in the arts.
Q: One of the things most interesting about your story is how self-determined you are as an artist, a cartoonist and a businesswoman. What kind of challenges or adversity did you encounter, especially as a woman in an industry where there aren’t many women?
NH: It’s not a woman-friendly industry. It’s changing, but not because people’s attitudes are changing, but because of the internet. Many women can be on the internet and they can form and encourage and entice their own audience, and so they do. Take someone like Kate Beaton: her site is called Hark! A Vagrant
. What she does is play with history. She does historical figures and then puts them in odd situations. Hyperbole and a Half
is another one that’s wonderful, and these are women. The audiences you can get online are enormous. I do a blog now. Everybody knows newspaper’s dead; what happens is you get fewer and fewer papers to carry your strip, and my strip is always very odd. I was always the one, when they took a survey, I was always the one that was most loved or most hated, and mainly most hated. Because I was very political and very feminist, and feminism has never been tremendously popular. Because I felt that I had such a small place, I felt I could say anything, and that was enormous freedom. I was in enough newspapers that I could go on, and as soon as it seemed to me that I was working really
, really hard and not making any money, then I left. By that time, I could retire. I’m not attached to money; I’ve never had money drawn to me or me drawn to money, so I’m okay. The blog is not monetized, but the blog has the most wonderful community. I can write about anything, and people will respond to it and they will talk about it, and no one’s nasty.
The other thing that’s really important to me is, when I was doing the strip, I read a lot. I was for weeks ahead of the strip, so I really had to think about it and plan it out. I knew that I would miss that when it was over. Doing the blog makes me have to read. Not as much, but the blog still satisfies that.
“It’s very interesting to me because cartoons were the shabby step-sister of art. And suddenly, of course, cartoons are very ‘in’ and important.”
Q: Tell us a little bit about your living room and the installation.
NH: It’ll be like a living room. Here, this is my character, Sylvia. I have a couple of Sylvia dolls that I’m going to raffle off, so people can take one home without spending an enormous amount of money. I came to decide, what I do is make is little narratives. They’re kind of like dioramas—and I write about them. So when all [my things] are there, there will be stories attached to them. Then I’ve decided that I would offer this whole arrangement to someone, that they could buy the whole thing.
Q: So these spots will be empty in your home, once the installation is done!
NH: They will be; and that will be odd! Talk about giving things away, the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum just built a new building. It’s very interesting to me because cartoons were the shabby step-sister of art. And suddenly, of course, cartoons are very ‘in’ and important. There are only three libraries in the country that handle cartoons. So this wonderful library in Ohio, they have an enormous collection but no one has paid any attention to them and they were in this little building and it was always very cold in there because they have to keep the cartoons protected. Suddenly people started laying money on them, and so now they have a new building and it’s opening this month. They will get all my cartoons. The library wants everything: they want letters; hate mail, fan mail; they want the business because I ran the business before I was syndicated. They want all the business papers because they’re librarians.
“One thing is Nicole’s life as an artist is all day long. So separating art pieces and taking parts from her life is an interesting challenge in itself. To build that story but not do it too selectively, to be aware of the things that you’re choosing.”
Q: Do you imagine that people who come to see this installation will be able to pick things up and sit in things?
JW: They’ll definitely be able to sit in things. We may have to be a bit careful letting people pick up some of the smaller things. But I don’t think the idea is to discourage that. I don’t imagine that anyone who walks over to these tables is going to pick things up and start throwing them around. They’re definitely going to be encouraged to sit down and spend time in the space.
Q: Jessica, what have you found challenging about the installation process of a piece like this?
JW: One thing is Nicole’s life as an artist is all day long. So separating art pieces and taking parts from her life is an interesting challenge in itself. To build that story but not do it too selectively, to be aware of the things that you’re choosing. Also the logistics: bringing everything in and figuring out what we can pull and what Nicole can live without. For crying out loud we’re taking her furniture!
NH: It’s been like, ‘Do you mind? Well, what do you think about the coffee table? How will you feel if you don’t have a coffee table?’ Maybe forever I don’t have that coffee table. Maybe [this installation] means that I run out and buy new things or find new things.
JW: Most artists are making pieces and then living in the space. Nicole’s making things, she’s collecting things and it’s all part of the artwork. So it’s an interesting process. We’ve gone through and selected additional things, Nicole’s been making new things; we keep adding on and revising. That editing process [will] go on until the day of the show.
Q: Nicole, it seems the kind of artist that you are really gives you the opportunity to play in a way that is freeing by also studied and thoughtful.
NH: I hope. I hope it’s more sophisticated than a kid messing around with paper.
“There is always somebody interested in what you do, and who steps out of their own self—their own class, society, whatever it is that’s holding them back—but they see something that they respond to.”
Q: You’re local, you’re from Chicago. What are some of your favorite spots, to get a meal or to go and think? Your home is so interesting, I can’t imagine wanting to leave, but where do you like to go in the city?
NH: I’ll tell you what neighborhood I like very much, if I moved, that would be my neighborhood: that would be Lincoln Square. I dream of living in a neighborhood where I can go to the movies and the Davis Theatre is there. They have the Old Town School of Folk Music, and I’ve seen wonderful things there. And of course there are great restaurants there. There is Gene’s Sausage. Gene’s has a rooftop deck. One night I went over and watched the Black Cats, right over near [Café] Selmarie there’s a little area and they were playing a concert of ‘40s music. Everybody had their kids there, and the kids were dancing. This neighborhood is pretty good, Roscoe Village. This is a neighborhood where you can sit outside at a restaurant and there are trees. There’s a place called Victory’s Banner, which is a vegetarian place, I’m not totally vegetarian but I like the place. Turquoise is another restaurant on that street, on Roscoe. I have a standing date there with two good friends.
Q: What kind of advice would you give to young women who want to determine their own career path, whether it’s in the arts or business, but maybe don’t know how to begin?
NH: I did start out working for someone; maybe you do have to do that, you have to have that under your belt. But I immediately got fired. I then went out and freelanced, but by then I knew how to do things. I didn’t train as a graphic designer. I had a master’s degree in painting, which has nothing to do with graphic design. I was doing freelance graphic design, and I made the decision that I wanted my politics and my work to be the same thing, so I only worked for nonprofit organizations. Someone saw my design work and they called me. They were two women who were editors of a magazine called The Spokeswoman
. This was the ‘70s. I realized that it was in the ‘70s, it was the atmosphere wherein a lot of feminist periodicals appeared. They called me, and they wanted their newsletter to look more like a magazine. They were amusing and smart and I was in an office with another company and I tried to get there to come there, and they said, ‘No, no, no, we’re never leaving the South Shore.’ I was downtown. The next week they got evicted from the place they were, and suddenly they were in our office, and I started to work with them, and to do drawings. If it wasn’t for The Spokeswoman
and the kind of drawings that I did, and being a feminist, I would have never had my career. My work appeared there, someone in New York saw it, and they interviewed me. Through that, someone approached me to do a book, and that’s how it began.
There is always somebody interested in what you do, and who steps out of their own self—their own class, society, whatever it is that’s holding them back—but they see something that they respond to.