From her home in Riverside, Noli Novak creates Wall Street Journal’s iconic portraits of famous, obscure
Article in The Florida Times Union, By Matt Soergel, 1/12/18
Noli Novak, working out of her home studio in Riverside, is one of just a handful of artists who supply the Wall Street Journal with its iconic stipple “hedcut” illustrations — the lifelike, hand-drawn head-shots made up of hundreds of dots and dashes and lines.
Over 30 years, she’s done thousands upon thousands of the portraits, of news-makers famous and obscure. Many people she’s done numerous times over the years, as they — and the times — change.
She offers some insights: When drawing a near-photographic likeness of President Trump, you might think it’s his rather unusual hairstyle that would be the hardest thing to capture.
No, says Novak. “He actually has crazy eyebrows. Nobody notices that.”
She is one of two full-time stipple artists at the Journal, where she was hired while still in her 20s, a recent immigrant from what was then Yugoslavia.
Though her newspaper work is uncredited, she’s well known in the world of stipple illustrations, sought out for freelance work from major corporations and exhibited in galleries. And on Friday she’ll be at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where she’ll showcase the technique and invite those in the audience to try it out themselves.
She’s not crazy about the cold anymore — never was — but it will be good, she says, to be back in New York.
Until Sept. 11, 2001, she worked out of the newspaper’s headquarters next door to the World Trade Center. On that morning, she was at her apartment in New Jersey, getting ready for work, when a co-worker called to say something had happened at the World Trade Center.
Novak turned on the TV, then looked across the Hudson River and saw the second plane hit the south tower. Then she watched as the buildings came down. It was nightmarish, unbelievable, she says.
The Journal’s offices were badly damaged by the collapse, and Novak lost years of work she’d stored there.
After that, illustrators began working from home. Within a few years, she moved to Jacksonville, where her husband, George Cornwell, had grown up.
They’d met in New York, playing music, and formed a band that ultimately became known as NovakSeen. They played at well-known New York clubs, were signed by a German record company, toured Europe. She sang, and he played the guitar.
She smiled: “We were loud guitars, drums, punk rock, metal, kind of a garage band. The ’90s were our era, up in New York.”
Even so, they’ve played occasionally in Jacksonville, and she has long black hair and dark-rimmed eyes that suggest both her artistic and musical lives.
After New York, Jacksonville seemed a good spot: warmer weather, no commutes, cheaper rent, more room for George’s fine-art printmaking studio. They settled downtown at first, figuring that was the spot, but soon grew disenchanted. “There was no central scene where I could find myself hanging out with people I had something in common with,” Novak says.
Moving to Riverside, a short distance away, solved that.
Cornwell now has a studio at CoRK, the artists’ studios in a warehouse on the edge of Riverside. Novak says she came up with its name — the Corner of Roselle and King — and enjoys spending time there. She needs the camaraderie of other artists and does some collaborative work there.
Her Wall Street Journal work, though, along with a steady flow of freelance work, comes to life at her home, a brick building she jokingly calls the ugliest house in Riverside.
She has a second-floor work-space, complete with a balcony, overlooking the street. From there, she can see people walking or biking or driving, can say hello to friends.
It’s no New York, to be sure, but it suits her need for an urban neighborhood. “I’m definitely not a suburban type of girl,” she says.
She doesn’t drive — never has — but from home she can walk or bike to Publix, stores, restaurants, CoRK and its environs.
She grew up in communist Yugoslavia, in what’s now Croatia. Her hometown, Zadar, is an ancient city that was largely destroyed by Allied bombing in World War II. Her father was a photographer, and she still has hundreds of negatives he shot of the damaged city; she’s trying to figure out how to preserve them and have them exhibited back in Croatia.
As a child, she studied music and art; when she was about 10, one of her pieces of art — a paper collage of men and women dressed in national costumes — was chosen to be a birthday president for Yugoslavia’s President Tito.
She keeps ties to her homeland: Every year, she and her husband return to a small stone cottage they built in the traditional style on an island in the Adriatic.
Novak continues her Journal work even from there. Each assignment begins with a photograph, sent by editors.
“I’m given this one photo. That’s all I know about this person. Sometimes the photo is very bad, yet I’m supposed to capture the person in this style,” she says.
From that photo, she traces the face’s major details, then, using three different Rapidograph pens, she begins creating the portrait in a meticulous process using dots, dashes and cross-hatching to create hair, clothing, shadows and light. Each hedcut takes between two to five hours, usually, to finish.
“This is the look of the Wall Street Journal,” she says. “It’s totally iconic for the Journal.”
As befitting the Journal’s focus on Wall Street, the stipple art is meant to resemble old-fashioned engraving found on currency bills. It’s designed to be uniform, but she can always spot the work of her colleagues: each person has his or her style.
It’s a craft that passed down from person to person, Novak says. She trained some of the freelancers that the paper uses, and says it takes several months to learn the process.
Many of her subjects are famous: Queen Elizabeth or President Obama, Steve Jobs or baseball legend Cal Ripken Jr., her subject on a recent day.
She drew Hillary Clinton numerous times over the years too, as a new portrait was needed with every hairstyle change. Martha Stewart, by the way, was never happy with any of her hedcuts.
Often though, Novak doesn’t even know her subject’s full name or their significance. All she has is that photo to work with.
“Sometimes I have to read their minds, looking at the picture. Maybe I have to cut down on the double chin, but I need to to make them look like themselves,” she says.
“I try to read their minds: What kind of person are they trying to show?”
Matt Soergel: (904) 359-4082
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