A Novel Idea for Art Camp

By Patty Wetli | Monday, August 9, 2010

Cartoonist Nicole Hollander teaches at Lillstreet's graphic novel camp. Photo by Patty Wetli.

What is the graphic novel besides an extended comic strip? So who better to teach a course on the subject than Nicole Hollander, creator of the syndicated cartoon Sylvia.

Last week, Hollander, a Chicago resident who has been crafting six strips a week for the past 30 years, brought her expertise to a classroom of 10- and 11-year-olds at Lillstreet Art Center. (Lillstreet’s week-long summer camps for kids run through September 3. Find more info. below.)

Having previously taught the graphic novel to adults, Hollander was keen to try the course again with children.

“Kids haven’t gotten solidified yet. They’re very imaginative,” she said. “Adults think a long time about the story and worry excessively. They’re not as open as kids.”

The first question she poses to students is whether they like to draw or write. “Most say ‘draw,’” says Hollander. The challenge then is to make the writing, particularly the dialogue, as compelling as the artwork. She was excited about a number of the story ideas concocted by her Lillstreet students.

“There’s one about a dog who eats a voodoo doll, and that puts the voodoo princess in pain. Then it turns into a cat mafia story.”

Though trained as a painter, Hollander now has a hard time imagining pictures without words. “Painting is very, very lonely. When you’re in college, it?s all about the bleakness of your soul,” she says. “I got tired of that. I like to make jokes.”

The next great graphic novelist at work. Photo by Patty Wetli.

Sylvia, which Hollander created at the age of 40, was born out of her desire to combine art with a connection to society. Given its often acerbic nature, and the dearth of female cartoonists, the strip was a hard sell in a landscape populated by Family Circus, Beetle Bailey, and Hagar the Horrible.

“I saw Doonesbury and I was an optimist,” Hollander recalls. ”I thought, ‘If he’s there?’” She anticipated a revolution in the medium, one that would have had the funny pages full of copycat Sylvias, but that never materialized.

Blame—or credit—Jon Stewart. The type of social and political commentary most similar to Hollander’s is now found on late-night TV, not in comic strips.

“The comedy goes where the audience is,” Hollander says. “The Jon Stewart crowd is not reading the newspaper. Newspaper readers want to feel comfortable; they don’t want you to mess with their head.”

So what’s the future of cartooning? Hollander points to the young artists she finds on the Internet who post strips on their own websites, as well as uclick Comics, which aims to discover new talent.

Hollander has a web presence as well. She’s on Facebook and has developed a fan page for Sylvia. She tried blogging a couple of years ago and stopped after a handful of posts, saying “I didn’t get it,” but intends to pick it up again. “I changed my mind. This is the future,” she explains. “I really like writing and this way I’ll do more of it.”

Though now at an age when the majority of her contemporaries are retired and enjoying their grandkids, Hollander continues to forge ahead, prepping for a book tour to promote The Sylvia Chronicles: 30 Years of Graphic Misbehavior from Reagan to Obama. “I feel lucky,” she says, “and tired.”

Lillstreet offers weekly art camps throughout the summer. Photo by Patty Wetli.

Look for Hollander to teach the graphic novel for adults at Lillstreet in the fall. Meanwhile the weekly summer camps, for students age 3 1/2 to 18, continue at the art center.

“It’s one week of focused art-making,” says Melanie Brown, Director of the Children’s Program at Lillstreet. New classes begin every Monday (August 9, August 16, August 23, and August 30), and there’s still plenty of time to sign up for the remaining camps. Some of the courses, such as wheel throwing, are skill-based, while others are more free-form.

“We let the kids be part of the creative process,” says Brown. “They come up with an idea and we figure out how to make it work.”

A sampling of classes includes Smart Clothes for Teens, which incorporates technology into wearable projects, and Ice Age, an exploration of mammoths, sloths, and more (through clay, paint and plaster, plus a trip to the Field Museum). More than 1,000 kids have participated in the camps so far this summer.

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