BRATTLEBORO—Long before she created her popular daily newspaper comic strip “Rhymes With Orange,” Hilary B. Price was fired from her job as a pizza waitress. As her boss explained, “You’re a lovely girl, but slow, and you attract trouble wherever you go.”
Price brought some of her trouble to Brattleboro last Saturday when she delivered the keynote speech at Scholastic Art & Writing Awards ceremony at the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center.
“I love to do talks,” Hilary says. “My job can be very solitary. I probably have the wrong personality for the profession I have chosen, since thinking up and drawing cartoons requires a lot of time alone. And I love to be with people. So giving talks is a great opportunity to go out and meet people, and they are lot of fun for me.”
Her recent appearances at Bellows Falls Union High School and the Rockingham Free Public Library attracted the attention of Susan Calabria, education curator at BMAC. She contacted Price about speaking at the Scholastic Awards ceremony at the museum.
“Honestly, I wasn’t aware of the awards before,” Price confesses, “but when I saw all the student work on display in the gallery, I was astonished at these kids. They are so gifted. Their work is in the right place; it belongs in a museum.”
Price spoke to the students about why art is important. “But I do it in a funny way,” she says. “I like to consider why we do art in our time. How does it help us? People sometimes treat art as though it were an elective, but actually it is great for teaching us life skills.”
These concerns are common to most of Price’s talks, but often she presents the message in different ways.
For instance, at her keynote speech at BAMC, as she delivered her 15-minute talk, she also drew cartoons right before the audience’s eyes.
“While I was talking about the power of art, I began drawing on a document camera, which is really just a fancy new style of those old overhead projectors we had in school. I had to get familiar with this new technology to figure how to draw on it, which is a little different than on a page. I discovered how it flowed. In the end, I was excited by this new medium which I found fun and engaging. I think Scholastic winners enjoyed seeing my work right as it happens.”
Price has been drawing and writing “Rhymes With Orange” since 1995. It was twice named Best Newspaper Panel by the National Cartoonists Society, and appears through King Features Syndicate in more than 200 papers internationally. Her work has also appeared in Parade magazine, The Funny Times, People and Glamour.
When she began drawing “Rhymes With Orange,” she was the youngest woman to ever have a syndicated comic strip.
Price says she never expected to end up a celebrated cartoonist.
“Doodling was something I always did but never planned to make anything out of,” she says. “I was never considered an artist in high school. When I went to college I majored in English. I took a year off and moved to Dublin, Ireland, working to support myself as a cocktail waitress and as that pizza waitress where I got fired.
“In Dublin, James Joyce is the city’s patron saint. Images of him are everywhere. In the center of town there is a big bronze statue of Joyce, with his trademark glasses. When my parents came to visit me in Ireland, my mother got a look at the Joyce statue and exclaimed, ‘My God, it’s Elton John.’
“I made my first cartoon based on that incident. I sent it to an Irish humor magazine, which not only accepted the cartoon but actually paid me for it. You can not imagine the thrill of actually receiving money for making a cartoon.”
She said that in talks she often tells the story of how she became a cartoonist.
“But I have to change that part a bit since kids often don’t know who James Joyce is, and for that matter, can no longer recognize Elton John.”
But with a little rearranging she still makes the story work, especially the part about getting fired as a pizza waitress. Everyone likes to hear where a little trouble can get you.
It ultimately got her to creating “Rhymes with Orange,” which she has authored for almost 18 years.
“My aunt once told me that no single word in the English language rhymes with the word orange,” Price writes on her website. “I chose the title to show the singularity of the strip’s perspective, one that highlights the trials of my own life and that of my friends. I do not think these trials are traditionally represented on the comics page.”
But while she enjoys drawing the strip, she stresses that doing it is “my vocation, my job. Creativity doesn’t magically appear, you have to make it work. I subscribe to the philosophy of ‘derriere in the chair.’ I sit down and tell myself it’s time to work. Creativity becomes a muscle just like anything else. Picasso says that its more like that you visit creativity than creativity visits you.”
What cartoonists and writers over the years have influenced Price’s work?
“Dr. Seuss for the rhymes, Shel Silverstein for the clever wordplay and black-and-white illustrations, and The New Yorker cartoonists Roz Chast, Sam Gross and George Booth. I’d like to think like Roz Chast, draw like George Booth, and have the chutzpah of Sam Gross,” she says.
The dearth of female role models in cartooning persists, but they were in even shorter supply when Price was growing up. Sandra Boynton, best known for her greeting cards, became perhaps Price’s greatest influence.
“Her work was huge when I was in the eighth grade, and it was a defining moment for me when I learned that Boynton’s first name was Sandra. Up to that point, I had assumed she was a he. The fact that a she was doing funny drawings opened up the possibility that I could, too. I encourage all female artists to sign their full name on their work: whether or not you realize it, it can be a powerful and inspiring statement.”
Since Price’s domestic partner of four years lives in Brattleboro and teaches at Bellows Falls Union High School, she has come to know Windham County quite well.
“Brattleboro is one great town,” she says. “I almost feel like a resident. I mean I am even on the Brattleboro Women’s Hockey team. And what can make you more a member of the community than that?”