I am sitting in the back of Burro Bar in Downtown Jacksonville, waiting for No Vaccine to begin their set. Noli Novak is dressed head to toe in black, her dark hair pulled back into two long, menacing-looking braids. Since it’s mid-June in Northeast Florida, there’s a 60-percent chance of rain today (and every day). The storm gods have made good, and a late afternoon deluge has left the streets damp and the night air mercifully cool. Inside the bar, a haze of cigarette smoke covers the assembled as the band launches into their first tune.
Before the performance, Novak was smiling and laughing with friends in attendance, mostly visual artists, many part of the CoRK Arts District scene. Now gripping the microphone, Novak is transformed, leering at the crowd, that same smile now an aggressive snarl. At stage right, guitarist George Cornwell is peeling off some worthy licks on his Gibson. Bassist Clay Doran swings his instrument around like it’s a rag doll as he plucks out distorted riffs. Drummer Jack Twachtman pummels out the rhythmic wallop. Now in full flight, Novak resembles the chimerical lovechild of techno polymath Björk and 1980s noise terrorist Diamanda Galas. Novak’s voice is impressive, operatic, clear, strong, void of any de rigueur rock raspiness, and surely reveals her music academy training. The band’s music is all descending scales with doomy turnarounds, a crunchy admixture of fuzzed-out raunch and subtle melodies. When the first song ends, the two dozen or so fans roar their approval. Novak turns on a weird noise loop between songs; the three other players glance at each other and engage the next assault.
Noli Novak never forgets a face. While she’s not good with names, years of drawing thousands of portraits at a breakneck pace have made her adept at recognizing the nuances of an individual’s features from the neck up. In addition to her life as a rock musician, for more than two decades Novak has been a first-call illustrator for The Wall Street Journal, specializing in a drawing style known as a hedcut.
Weeks after the raucous Burro Bar gig, Novak is sitting in an office-studio in the Riverside home she shares with Cromwell, her longtime partner and fellow artist-musician. Novak is direct about the diligence and philosophy that have made her a successful professional artist. “I am always ready to jump in and do the work. With any art, you can always improve,” she says, adding with a laugh, “and I still think in terms of making masterpieces.”
Novak was born in the town of Zadar, Yugoslavia. She grew up in a household that encouraged creativity. Her father was a professional photographer; her mother dabbled in visual arts and sang. Artists and actors were frequent guests. The communist country was fairly poor, and while Novak enjoyed arts classes during her grade-school years, actual art supplies were scarce. This led to her art teachers finding some resourceful solutions.
“We were taught which trees branches were the best to bake in our oven to make our own charcoal,” she says. “And to this day, I still make collages from newspaper because I never had oil paint.”
Contrary to the typical Western perceptions of 20th-century communism, Novak recalls a peaceful and even reassuring atmosphere in the country that eventually became the now-democratized Croatia. “I only remember communism as a kid, so I only remember it from a kid’s perspective. But the more that I think about it, the more I loved it, because there were no social classes. There were no rich kids, and there were no poor kids. In school there were no bullies. I think at that age, when you are learning to value what you are worth as a person, and not for what you have, it was a great thing.”
Novak’s homeland was equally egalitarian in its openness to the influx of popular culture. “A lot of people don’t realize that Yugoslavia wasn’t part of the Iron Curtain, and we kept our borders pretty open,” she says. While classical and European folk music were the prevalent musical genres, Novak heard her share of then-current pop artists from around the world. In her teens, Novak and her friends would travel to nearby Italy for afternoon record-buying sprees; she recalls the experience of first hearing Blondie’s 1978 album Parallel Lines in Italy. “That record just blew me away,” she says.
Novak enrolled in Pedagogy Music Academy in the Yugoslavian town of Split. The academy encompassed everything from music theory to choir singing, but Novak had initially wanted to go to an art school. She discovered that she hated college, and after two years moved to New York in 1984 to live with her dad. She put her academic career on hold. “I just wanted to take a break,” she says.
In Manhattan, she worked a series of odd jobs to perfect her English skills, including one as a fitting room attendant at a high-end department store. “That was a really shitty job, but I didn’t give a damn,” she says. “I just wanted to learn the language.” When not at work helping yuppies try on pantsuits, Novak was at home, drawing. A casual connection offered the possibility of greater things.
“Some friends knew a guy at The Wall Street Journal and they suggested that I contact him,” she says.
Novak visited the company offices and was pleased to see that the house artists simply used reference photos to do their illustration work. She went home and practiced the demandingly detailed work the WSJ portraits called for, ripping pages from magazines and trying to render the pop-culture celebs of the day. “I remember being so pleased when I drew a great picture of Max Headroom,” she says, referring to the early-digital robotic spokesperson for Coca-Cola. The WSJ’s design department was impressed, and took notice of her innate skills at rendering realistic portraits of the human face.
Serendipity kicked in. In 1987, an illustrator was leaving and the WSJ was desperate to hire a new charge. Novak changed her travel plans. She wasn’t going back to Yugoslavia.
“I wasn’t a political refugee or discouraged by communism,” she says. “It was more a matter of ‘Damn, I really don’t like college.’” Instead, Novak became a full-time artist for the paper.