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Lois learned from a master

PUBLISHED: 09:32 28 July 2015

Lois Cordelia working at Jan Pienkowski's London studio

Lois Cordelia working at Jan Pienkowski's London studio

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Artist Lois Cordelia could never have imagined where a speculative inquiry from a GCSE student to one of the nation’s best-loved children’s book illustrators and authors would lead. Sheena Grant reports

Lois Cordelia with Jan Pienkowski at his London studio Lois Cordelia with Jan Pienkowski at his London studio

There aren’t many artists who can say they’ve honed their craft with one of the country’s greatest illustrators, responsible for creating characters that have enriched the lives of generations of children.

But Lois Cordelia is one of them.

Since she was a GCSE art student, Lois has assisted Jan Pienkowski, writer and illustrator of hundreds of books for children but perhaps best known for creating the pictures that brought to life Helen Nicoll’s hugely popular Meg and Mog stories about a bumbling witch, her long-suffering cat and owl.

What began as a kind of work experience has turned into an professional relationship and friendship that has lasted 16 years and continues to this day. Lois usually travels from her Ipswich home to work with Jan in his London studio on a weekly basis.

Lois Cordelia demonstrates her paper cut art at at Holywells Park in Ipswich. Lois Cordelia demonstrates her paper cut art at at Holywells Park in Ipswich.

His influence on her life has been so pivotal that when it came to choosing a university course she couldn’t see much point in doing art, opting instead to study Arabic.

“It was partly the rebel in me that did not want to be taught to do something I could already do,” she says. “But really my art education has been working alongside Jan, a contemporary living artist. You can’t really better that. I have been exposed to creative ideas and challenged with new ideas. That, to me, has been a huge thing. I couldn’t have got that through being in art school.”

Even the most casual observer would be able to see why the young Lois was drawn to Jan’s work. Since an early age, she has been fascinated by silhouette cut-outs, which she now does in incredible detail, using the precision of a surgical scalpel.

The work has a kind of fluidity to it that is both dramatic and unusual. But there is enough of a similarity to Jan’s silhouette illustrations, executed with delightful simplicity in the Meg and Mog series, to see why she was so inspired by his work and why she chose to study it when she was doing her GCSEs and A-levels at Northgate High School.

“Jan (who was born in Poland) grew up in several different European countries, because of the war, and therefore a number of his books are inspired by traditional scissor-cut and silhouette art,” she says. “I also grew up with books of silhouette illustrations, including one of Jan’s books about the Christmas story, which became deeply imprinted on my mind. I remember being intrigued and captivated by it as a child. There was something very magical and minimalist about the pure black silhouettes.

“When I was studying his work at school I got in touch with him via Gallery Five, a greeting cards company he set up back in the 1960s and, incredibly, he invited me down to work in his studio. He has been a huge influence on me and has caused me to loosen up my whole style. The most important advice I have picked up from him was his philosophy towards art. If something goes wrong he will reinterpret it and say, ‘Let’s turn it upside down and try it again’. Jan’s view is there is no such thing as a mistake. You work through a ‘mistake’ into something creative.”

Over the years Lois has worked on a variety of projects with Jan, helping with cut-outs of many of his drawings, and, at the same time, honing her own style.

But it would be wrong to say Jan was Lois’ only early influence. Her mum, Erika Bulow-Osborne, also did paper-cut art using tiny scissors when Lois was just a child.

“I remember seeing her do it when I was about seven or eight,” she says. “I suppose that too must have made an impression on me.”

In the last few years, it’s the technique she has focussed on most and although she still does more traditional drawings and paintings, the cut-outs are increasingly taking precedence.

And they seem to be getting noticed.

Last month, she was elected an associate member of the Society of Graphic Fine Art, joining the ranks of more than 120 professional illustrators, painters and printmakers recognised for their high level of ability in drawing.

And there is no contradiction between her work and membership of a society whose sole aim is to promote drawing. If you were to turn over one of her delicate, exquisite silhouettes you would see that they all start life as drawings. The paper bears witness to how she draws - and paints: in fast-moving, arcing lines, put down with lightning speed and energy.

This pacy drawing, which can be completed in a matter of minutes, is in stark contrast to the time it takes to produce a paper-cut.

“I am terrible perfectionist,” says Lois. “I start with the most detailed piece when doing a scalpel cut-out. It’s kind of counter-intuitive, the opposite way you would expect someone to work. Painting, for me, is quick but the cuttings are like a spider’s web. They are very delicate but hang together.

“The designs evolve as I am working on them and they take on a life of their own. I don’t often know how they are going to evolve but I love the precision of them.

“When I look at many other paper-cut artists’ work the thing that troubles me about them is that they are very static and almost lifeless in a way. The connection for me between the very quick sketching and painting I do and labour-intensive paper cutting is that the cuts are based on very free flowing lines.”

These days, Lois is increasingly combining paper cuts with computer graphics and, as well as moving into book illustration in her own right, has done some art work for album covers and bespoke paper-cuts for people celebrating personal events, such as wedding anniversaries.

She loves to do live demonstrations of her work (she and Erika did one together just last week at the reopening of Holywells Park Visitors’ Centre), feeding off the energy that interacting with an audience gives.

Even the Arabic she studied in Edinburgh has come in handy in her work. She spent several months in the Middle East as part of the course and by the time she returned could speak the language “fairly fluently”.

“I did the course out of curiosity because I thought it was fascinating,” she explains. “I still do the odd translation but it’s also linked into the art because of the beautiful flowing script and the way it cascades down the page.

“The most important principle in illustration for me is to go beyond the story told in the text, to add my own interpretation to it. My inspiration comes from anything that evokes dance, movement and metamorphosis and so my subject matter varies widely. I particularly like to explore the expressive potential of Arabic, allowing the words to evoke further layers of poetic symbolism.”

But wherever her creativity takes her, Lois knows she will always owe an “eternal debt” to Jan. “I will always consider him my guru,” she says.

To find out more about Lois’ work visit www.loiscordelia.com.

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