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Dorset lives – Chipping away

Zoë Cull is one of Dorset’s most talented young artists working in stone. Hester Viney has been to meet her.

For a girl from the city, Zoë Cull looks remarkably at home in a dusty studio just outside Tincleton. Acres of countryside roll out beyond the smattering of farm buildings which are now home to a number of small businesses. One of them is Stoneform, run by Zoë and her partner, Alex Evans.

‘My Mum and Dad were both designers,’ she tells me. ‘They went to London to work, so I grew up there, but I never particularly liked it as a kid. I stayed there until I was twenty-nine and that was when everything changed in my life and I thought – what the hell am I doing here?!’

Zoë Cull at work

Zoë Cull at work

The jolt in her otherwise stable background and ‘unthrilling’ first career in graphic design came in the form of serious illness. It did not affect her own health – in fact, perhaps due to lugging around large lumps of stone or chasing after her toddler, Zoë looks fitter than many thirty-somethings – but sadly, the life of her best friend. ‘I lost him only three years ago,’ she says, ‘but he was diagnosed with cancer some years before that. It really made me re-evaluate my life and realise that I’ve got this one chance to live. He saw me make the move. I told him it was all down to him and I was so grateful for that.’

She embarked on a course at Weymouth College in Applied Architectural Stonework and Conservation. When she visited the college she was impressed by the ambition and enthusiasm of the course tutors. She loved the examples of architectural stonework on display and asked how long it took to reach that standard. ‘The tutor said, “You’ll be doing that next year” and I thought, that’s the place for me!’

An elegant birdbath of Portland stone and Cumbrian green slate

An elegant birdbath of Portland stone and Cumbrian green slate

The leap from the somewhat virtual world of graphic design into the hands-on one of stonework is baffling even to Zoë herself. She toyed with the idea of architecture, which had been a long-term interest, but was put off by the prospect of doing seven long years of training only to end up designing ‘awful commercial buildings’. ‘And it was the detail,’ she decides as we chat, ‘it was actually the detail that I was interested in more than anything. Hence the stonework, I think.’

It may be a revelation to her, but to see the delicacy and precision in her work makes the link between graphic design and carving no surprise. We look at a headstone that is almost complete. Naïve about the process, I assume she has used stencils or some sort of clever tool to help achieve accuracy of shape and form in the type, but not so. Each letter-form is designed specifically by hand for the job, with the context of the piece and its surrounding environment influencing her decisions from the off. ‘The cemetery where this is going is full of big imposing pieces, so it had to hold its own amid the others,’ she explains. ‘We didn’t want the lettering to be painted so it has to be quite deeply inscribed. I was also aware that the names were potentially very linear, so it was a deliberate choice to make the Es take a curved form, to soften it a bit.’ The result is elegant, modern and very personal.

This sign for Westfield Technology College, Weymouth, is Portland stone and is an example of raised and sunken lettering

This sign for Westfield Technology College, Weymouth, is Portland stone and is an example of raised and sunken lettering

Zoë is an artist who works best to a tight brief, not only working closely with the clients behind the commission but, in the case of a headstone, often in dialogue with the church as well. With every church and every diocese having its own rules and preferences, it can be a long process before a commission is finally ready for the workshop. The original design for the top of the stone she shows me was for a depiction of the cosmos, but the vicar was not happy with her sketches; they were too pagan. ‘I actually spoke to the vicar,’ she laughs, ‘and he said, “That’s the sort of imagery I’d expect to see in a tattoo parlour!”’ So they settled on the star of Bethlehem, which rises polished out of the rough stone on the finished piece.

It can’t be an easy partnership, I suggest to Zoë; does she enjoy working in and for the church environment? ‘I love it,’ she says, not missing a beat. ‘I think that was one of the things that switched me onto this. Much earlier in my childhood, my grandfather lived in North Dorset and his house backed onto a churchyard. I’d get up early in the mornings and wander around. People would think “morbid child” but it wasn’t that, it was just that I was fascinated by the stonework.’ She was less than ten years old. As it happens, her work is now to be found in many of our local churchyards and she has also produced a baptismal font, a plinth and pedestal for a statue of the Virgin and Child.

It all sounds very ancient, sacred and serious, but Zoë and Alex’s work is so broad that it is impossible to pigeonhole. Between them they have produced a trademark ‘knotted bench’, lent their talents to large construction companies looking for a twist or a detail in the design of a building, and have created many a sleek fireplace. Then there is the public art, like the war memorial they are working on together, with Alex carving the county crest on one side of the column and Zoë working on the intricate military badge on the other. It is obviously a collaboration that works.

Where possible, there is often a touch of the modern about their work, which sets them apart from the rest. The tendency among the competition to stick to the classical is something that strikes Zoë as odd. Her designer’s approach to stone is unusual in a material steeped in history, but she does not let that hold her back. ‘You see it in interior furniture, don’t you – an amazing range of beautiful modern pieces, cleverly thought out and well executed. But why isn’t it happening in stonework?’ She encourages her clients to think afresh. ‘I think the thing is, when people come to you, they only know what they’ve seen before, and unless you can show them something different that grabs them, it’s almost like they can’t visualise anything different.’ In her workshop in rural Dorset, Zoë is chipping away at the status quo. The result looks good.

[Zoë and Alex will be running introductory workshops in stone carving/lettercutting at Upwey Village Hall, Weymouth on 11 and 12 December as part of a weekend of craft ‘taster’ sessions. For full details email or phone 01305 848884.]

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