Who is Sylvia? A Woman Ahead of her Time!

What to Expect

One woman's odyssey through the Trump presidency. My focus is centered on the many issues affecting women--but what doesn't? There's a new post every week.

Check out Nicole’s website, badgirlchats.com.

Nicole and her friend, June Huitt, are performing “Sideswiping Normal” at Martyrs in Chicago, May 15 and 22. If you live anywhere nearby, don’t miss it! Here’s the link!  

I’m Nicole Hollander.
I’m 76, though I’m still getting used to saying that because my birthday was only yesterday.

I don’t really remember when I went through menopause; I do recall that I had my first period when I was 11, which very young, and I remember certain symptoms I had during menopause, like hot flashes and insomnia. I finally asked my physician for hormone replacement therapy to help me sleep, and I got a lot of criticism for doing that; there were some huge arguments around how I was jeopardizing both my own health and that of other women by setting the example of relying on hormones, and suggestions that I was less than courageous for falling back on them. I will say, there’s some validity to all of that, because there isn’t much doubt hormone therapy can be linked to an elevated risk for certain kinds of cancer in both women and men.

People have viewed me as an artist since I was a child, and that eventually grew to become my place. Since I was raised in the culture of the 1950s, there was no serious consideration that I’d have a working career—even going to art school was more of a path to getting married than anything else, so why not let me go ahead and do what I liked. After graduating and being a graphic designer for non-profits for several years, I met the editors of a national feminist newsletter called The Spokeswoman; it was all articles, solid copy, and they wanted it to look more like a real magazine, so I redesigned it and also started to include some of my own illustrations in their layouts. Then one day I did a cartoon strip for them, and the woman who showed up in that strip was an early version of my character Sylvia. At the beginning she was just a tough Chicago woman with her own ego, but she didn’t have the politics; I made that part of her later on.

Nicole has a few cartoons referring to Donald Trump. They all read just as well today as they did 25 years ago!

Nicole has a few cartoons referring to Donald Trump. They all read just as well today as they did 25 years ago!

My syndicated cartoon strip gave me a kind of life that was very exciting for thirty-five years because I had to be on top of events in a special way. I was highly political, and all my work had to be submitted four weeks in advance, which meant that when I wrote about political topics they had to have a kind of extended shelf life. You needed to find something fresh and pertinent and funny that had within it some form of political corruption in a larger and a smaller sense. Jokes are observations, they have to be quick and they have to touch people, and hitting that mark was both difficult and fascinating for me. And then the world changed, and lots of newspapers began dying, or rather their base of readership slowly but steadily shrank. I was in a syndicate and made my money based on how many papers my strip appeared in and how many subscribers those papers collectively had, and one day I realized I was working the same amount of time as I always had but was generating much less income, so I quit.

Then I began to think about what else I could do, and the idea of teaching and doing workshops and lecturing about my career came to me as something I would love to try. I enjoy being in front of an audience, and I believe that almost everyone has it within them to create a kind of combined visual and writing memoir. So I would get people drawing in workshops in whatever awkward, wonderful, emotionally moving way they did, and then I would have them put their drawings up on a wall with their own writing, like a graphic life story. But it was tough to get these jobs, and hard to talk people and get them involved, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to be out there selling myself again in that way. I’ve had to be a hustler all my life but I’m actually a very shy person, and I didn’t want to do that any more.

At that point, I decided I was going to have to face the fact that I was old, so I went to a local senior center and stuck around there doing exercise classes. Then they offered a class in personal narrative taught by a fabulous man from the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, and I worked with him for the next six years. At first the people in our classes were self-protective and frightened, but as time went on we got to know them and hear what they were saying. One woman in the class was an excellent writer; a very different person than I am, and yet I felt an incredible identification with her stories. She was raised on a farm by her Pentecostal grandparents and relatives, but she was quite brilliant; she’d attended the University of Chicago for a time, but that really didn’t speak to her, so she dropped out and became a professional editor. I told her I liked her work and felt our writing was uniquely connected and that we should do a project together, so we wrote a story and read it out loud to the class; later there were readings at the conclusion of the course in one of the Goodman Theatre’s little spaces, where we’d make presentations to all the senior centers in the area. Then we read at a music venue called Martyrs on Lincoln Avenue, under their ongoing program called Louder Than a Mom, where people tell their family stories on stage. We were remarkably well received there, and so now we’re continuing on with it; we’re showing childhood pictures of our fathers and mothers and brothers, and our cartoons—we keep trying it out in different ways. Our next performance is on Sunday, May 15th. It’s called Sideswiping Normal: An Afternoon of Stories with Huitt & Hollander. They’re also videotaped and available online on YouTube.

I was accepted for a residency at a wonderful place in Lake Forest called Ragdale, an interdisciplinary artist’s community, where I’ve been working for the past two years on a graphic memoir of my childhood. Now that I have to flush out this whole project I’ve had to start thinking about Sylvia’s origins. As I drew her she was saying to me I knew you when you were a little girl, so in that sense she was a composite of my mother and her best friend who had known each other since they were 14. Their lives followed similar paths in many ways, and they were incredible talkers. As little girls we would just sit there and listen to our mothers talk, because their conversation was a heck of a lot more interesting than anything we could think of. I absorbed the way they talked about other women and men; they noticed things about people, and they were mildly mean about them. And I absorbed their kind of underground humor.

It’s interesting that your blog puts such a big emphasis on menopause and I put nothing on it. I don’t even think about it, but of course there was a point where I started to achieve a vision of what I wanted to do with myself, and it certainly had to do with being older. We mostly refer to menopause as a milestone, and in that way it’s handy as language. Nowadays, if you’re a cartoonist you don’t do what I did, you don’t follow that same path—you go online and cultivate a fan base. No matter what, you have to follow what it is you really love, and find some way, whatever you have to do, to make it happen.

Nicole often uses other worldly beings to illustrate human foibles, the Devil (who makes some whimsical deals to get someone’s soul), and a couple of alien friends and lovers.

Nicole often uses other worldly beings to illustrate human foibles, the Devil (who makes some whimsical deals to get someone’s soul), and a couple of alien friends and lovers.

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