by Tim Gilmore, 10/18/2018
When Noli Novak was a little girl, playing in the ancient Roman ruins in her hometown of Zadar, it seemed she was the only child not finding Roman coins. “All the other kids playing in the forum were finding coins and shards of pottery. I didn’t understand why I couldn’t find a damn coin myself!”
In her second-floor studio in Riverside, Noli and I discuss numismatics, her Croatian childhood and the new book On Point: Life Lessons from the “Columnists” Interviews in WSJ. Magazine. The book contains more than 200 of Noli’s stipple portraits, including likenesses of writers Margaret Atwood and David Sedaris, comedian Kristen Schaal, architect Zaha Hadid, fashion mogul Donatella Versace, musicians Questlove of the Roots and Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth, actress Isabella Rossellini, director Christopher Guest, and Muppet Miss Piggy.
She hands me a bowl of heavily encrusted bronze coins. Before a window behind her, strips of dozens of stipples catch the light of sunset.
In a sense, the work she does assiduously cleaning the ancient bronze, layering down through the accretions of time to the portraiture underneath, resembles the hours a day she spends creating stipple portraits for The Wall Street Journal. Both efforts require great patience and gradually reveal the face of her subject.
“I’m all about portraiture,” she says. “The difference would be the faces on the coins in profile. In the portraits, you’re looking into this other pair of eyes. When you look at a face that’s even somewhat abstracted, you’re immediately attracted to the eyes.”
Her career with The Wall Street Journal is a matter of magical happenstance, taking her from Diocletian’s Palace in her native Croatia through European and American tours singing for the punk rock band Gluegun, watching the second plane crash into the World Trade Center on 9/11, and working in almost Zen-like concentration on tens of thousands of stipple portraits at her Oak Street studio.
Noli Novak grew up in the 15th oldest continuously occupied city on earth, Zadar, an hour-and-a-half drive up the Adriatic Coast from Split, the town developed from the sprawling palace of the Roman Emperor Diocletian. Her love for the ancient reflects in her collection of Roman coins.
“I don’t care about their monetary value. It’s about being the first person to attribute this coin, about no one else having touched this coin since 2- or 3,000 years ago when it was lost.”
When she first came to the States in 1984 to see her father, who was living in New York, she felt “the opposite of culture shock.” Used to the depth and density of culture back home, America seemed cultureless, like the air was too thin.
She’d studied music pedagogy at the University of Split, but most wanted to attend art school. In New York, she happened to meet some people who worked for The Wall Street Journal, who gave her a tour. She was 20 years old and couldn’t believe there were people who made their living drawing portraits. It seemed too good to be true.
“So I bought some copies of the Journal and tried to imitate the style,” she says. A friend showed the art director, who asked her to fill in for someone who was out, assigning her work on a trial basis.
Ironically, though Noli Novak never got to attend college for visual arts, she learned a form of portraiture, now quite rare, that isn’t taught at university and can only be taught by other stipple artists. When a longtime illustrator left the paper in 1987, Noli joined full-time.
She shows me copies of old “gray ladies,” the yellowish gray news sheets from a century ago, a Wall Street Journal with several stipple portraits on its front page. Prior to and in the early years of photography, all newspapers employed staff portraitists. While portrait engraving might take months, newspapers needed portraits done almost immediately. Because newsprint was grainy, stipple, the illusion of a full image achieved by composition of small dots or points, became the preferred method for The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post.
As photography replaced drawing and advanced technologically, The Wall Street Journal became the last major paper to use stipple. As such, stipple, once common to all the great papers, became the signature look, often called the “hedcut,” of the Journal, with “hed” referring to the Journal’s slang use of “hed” for “headline.”
Noli is one of a handful of stipple portraitists who make their living as such anywhere in the world. Besides working for the Journal, she does frequent freelance work.
The last sunlight of the day slants through windows behind her and from the brick balcony to her south. This studio space, in which she often spends 10 hours a day drawing meticulously, seems her personal bodily extension. On the walls hang framed hedcuts of the Hasidic rapper Matisyahu, of President Obama, of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who framed Noli’s portrait for the justice’s chambers.
Shortly after moving to New York, Noli met George Cornwell, who’d escaped to New York from Jacksonville, part of the artistic and intellectual Jax Brain Drain of the 1990s. Before long, the couple had formed a punk rock band, Gluegun, with Noli as vocalist. When the German label SPV, Schallplatten Produktion und Vertrieb, signed them to a record deal, the band changed its name to Novakseen, since a Los Angeles band shared their original name.
Novakseen cut three records and played two European tours. Critics compared Noli to a blend of Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders and Bjork.
The couple’s art and music careers proceeded well until September 11, 2001. That day cut so violently and deeply across their lives that everything slipped off balance, fell “out of true.”
Noli was getting ready for work that morning when a friend called, said something had happened, you should probably leave early, “and I thought, ‘Oh no, not again. There’s always something.’” A week earlier, a man parachuting around the Statue of Liberty had gotten his lines tangled in the torch. When she turned on the tv, she saw the first plane fly into the World Trade Center.
She saw the second plane crash into the second tower from her front yard in Weehawken, New Jersey, just across the Hudson River. The blast blew in the windows of The Wall Street Journal’s tower offices in the nearby World Financial Center.
Everything changed, meaning disrupted, timelines discontinued. The Journal’s illustrators began to work from home. George looked for studio space for his own screenprinting, but New York rents, prefacing the great artistic emptying out of NYC in the new millennium, had already become unsustainable.
Increasingly, George’s hometown offered itself as an option, and then the answer. Triangulating Croatia, New York and Florida, Jacksonville became the place for Noli and George to make art. They traveled back and forth between New York and Florida for years, then settled permanently in their 1922 two-story brick house on Oak.
It was 2008. The sculptor Dolf James was seeking out artists for studios in the old industrial buildings in North Riverside soon called CoRK, Corner of Rosselle and King.
In fact, Noli Novak named CoRK. George Cornwell had worked studios down in DUMBO in New York, the Brooklyn neighborhood called Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass.
“DUMBO,” Noli says, “is where the best art festival in New York took place, where the best studios were, so when Dolf invited us to these new Riverside studios, I said let’s call it CoRK, a Jacksonville homage to DUMBO.”
At last year’s CoRK Open Studios, Noli and George presented childhood portraits of notorious people—villains and tyrants and dictatorial creeps—on backgrounds of tablecloths and other heirloom fabrics. The portraits named no names. Participants had to scan QRC codes with their phones. Otherwise, they’d never discover the innocent and pure childhood image before them was that of Adolf Hitler, Jim Jones, Benito Mussolini, Charles Manson, Joseph Stalin, Saddam Hussein, Bashar al-Assad, Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump, or Idi Amin.
“You look at the children, and they’re so cute and innocent,” Noli says. “The idea came from George’s fascination with an image of Stalin’s mother. How does the child in each image become the historical figure we know for bringing such suffering to the world? We can assume, maybe not in every situation, but the natural situation is their mothers and fathers loved them. So what happens?”
Noli Novak creates, on average, two stipple portraits each weekday. She hates to be rushed. When she’s allowed to take her time, a portrait takes perhaps five hours. This punk vocalist needs not strive for patience. She loves the unwinding of time. She calls the process “tedious,” but finds it “relaxing.”
With a trophy deer’s head made of paper overhead, old cameras hanging by straps from the wall behind her, Noli, fine-featured and porcelain-skinned, with dark hair and eyebrows and eyes, wearing a wristband of skulls, discusses the challenge of getting ethnic characteristics just right.
There’s a fine balance. She’s conscious, conscientious, of accurately capturing ethnic details without having verisimilitude possibly interpreted as caricature. It’s true comedian Mindy Kaling’s shading looks light, though her eyebrow and cheekbone and jawline structure looks rightly “Indian,” a vague conception in itself. Meanwhile a freelance stipple based on a photograph of the subject downplays the “dark under-eyes” apparent in many Indian photo-portraits. If Noli doesn’t lighten the effect, ironically, it might look over-emphasized.
Freelance subjects often want facial lines muted, and Noli says, “I can’t take out laugh lines, but crow’s feet I can ease.” Usually she works from a photograph, often lightening shadows in the original image to bring out details. Still, company policy requires her to edit out cigarettes, and though she rarely knows the story before she makes the drawing, when a hat or a shirt features an emblem, she needs to find out if the emblem is integral to the story. Freelance subjects prefer to send her studio photographs, which are often the worst images to work from. Meanwhile, photos taken in natural light often work best, though subjects are less likely to send them.
In On Point, Louise Erdrich’s thoughts suit Noli’s situation. Erdrich, American writer—meaning “Turtle Mountain” / Chippewa / Anishinaabe—whose novel structures resemble those of William Faulkner’s and Toni Morrison’s—calls “limitations […] a positive force in my life.” She says, “The imposition of rules spurs me to break free.”
Noli drew George W. Bush more than she did Obama, and was always conscious of the fact Bush often looked slightly cross-eyed in photographs. She felt it her responsibility to alter the president’s line of sight just slightly. Meanwhile, Martha Stewart wrote the Journal repeatedly, after each portrait, asking to be redrawn.
Noli’s favorite remembrance of anyone’s reaction to her work was that of a profoundly cross-eyed man. She had only one photograph to work from and didn’t know the subject. She thought about whether to draw him realistically, as she saw him, or whether to “correct” his image in hers. She obsessed over the details, the rights and wrongs, the possibilities. After all, obsessing over details is what she does for a living, what she does for art.
“I decided just to draw him as I saw him, to draw him extremely cross-eyed, but drawing him that way felt like a mockery. So I gave in. I moved one of his eyes just a little bit.”
Without knowing whether she’d made the right decision, she submitted the image, then received a letter. “And he said thank you for doing for me what so many surgeons could not.”
Noli steps out onto her second-floor balcony, brick-faced and brick-columned, having opened the double doors from her studio. The city walks back and forth beneath her. She needs it. She’s come, Croatia by New York by Florida, to consider it home. She doesn’t drive. She’d once thought she could live nowhere else in the States but New York. In Jacksonville she walks to her neighborhood grocery and collaborates with other artists.
“To me,” she says, “Jacksonville is just the city. Jacksonville is its urban core. It means nothing to me, the parts I can’t walk.”
Though the Metropolitan Museum of Art invites her annually to display her stipples, she says, “I don’t miss New York. It’s not the city it was when I was young. I don’t even need to go.”
She’s happy with how the book’s turned out. It’s a shame her name’s not on the cover, but appears only as the last two words of the book’s acknowledgements.
I’m trailing Noli’s ancient coins across the punk pics of hers and George’s band, early 1990s’ New York, or their Jacksonville band The Airstrikes, playing at the now-defunct Burro Bar. It seems now that no one knew, back in the early ’90s, those years were so good, a resurrection of certain cyclical rock n’ roll Mapplethorpe / Patti Smith aesthetics.
Then again, the decades of producing art must, in the end, be reducible to the moment of creation, especially if you sustain that moment for sittings of five hours, for meditations of eight to 10 hours of stippling a day.
Or, as On Point quotes Joyce Carol Oates, who perhaps could be describing Noli’s hours on each portrait, “The kind of writing I’m most interested in is the James Joycean approach: intensely examining a shred of memory—what the light looked like in Dublin at a certain hour on a certain day—and then filtering it through the prism of a character’s consciousness, so it takes on the coloration of that mind.”