Zoë Cull

Portrait of Zoe CullBaptismal Font by Zoe CullKnot Bench by Zoe Cull
Standing Stone by Zoe Cull
Jurassic Coast Roundel by Zoe Cull

Dorchester-based artist Zoë Cull designs and makes a range of items in stone, working with her partner Alex Evans. Her pieces include sculptural objects, architectural details, garden and interior features and carved inscriptions. All are hand-made using traditional stone-working techniques, and infused with Zoë’s own contemporary style. She says, ‘Even when making something traditional like a fire surround, there’s no need to revert back to the old style sheet. I like to start from scratch: picture the object in the context of its surroundings, think about what it is for and then design accordingly. The contemporary aspect then comes naturally.’


What first attracted you to working in stone and what do you like most about the material?

Ever since I was a child I knew I wanted to be an artist and I initially trained as a graphic designer. But after a while I realised that graphics didn’t really satisfy me and at the age of 29 I decided to re-train as a stone carver. I had always been interested in form – my childhood drawings were all about making things look three dimensional rather than about pattern or colour – and architecture, particularly architectural detail, and so it was a coming together of several different strands.
I love the tactility of stone and I aim for that quality in my finished work - it’s a shame that in most museums you’re not allowed to touch the sculptures as people love to touch stone. The contrast you feel when you run your hand over a smooth slab of stone worked with deeply cut letters is really wonderful.

What are the main challenges of working in stone?

Stone is a really intractable material and you have to develop a feel for it. Different stones have to be worked in different ways - for example some sedimentary stones are full of fossils. It has great compressive strength but no tensile strength and can be surprisingly easily damaged so you have to be careful how you use it. You have to be aware of the qualities of the material and its suitability for the purpose you have in mind. Sometimes I find it frustrating that there are things like fine jointing that you can’t really do with stone, or if I want to make something very delicate, but you just have to find other ways to achieve what you are trying to do. For example, in Norman cathedrals you get a feeling of great solidity from the massive stone columns, but in the Gothic era they are given the illusion of lightness through the use of many slender, clustered shafts. I enjoy using illusions such as this in my own work. When I made my Knot Bench I tried to make the stone look as though it had been twisted into shape. I enjoy the visual paradox created by making stone look flexible – it’s about responding to the qualities of the material without letting it dictate to me completely!

Do you find your work physically demanding?

When I first started training I found it exhausting, especially as I had been used to a desk job, but you [soon] adapt quite quickly and it doesn’t feel like a strain any more. Stone carving’s really more about brains than brawn.

Your output is very varied, which part of your practice do you enjoy most and which is the most challenging?

The reason I enjoy what I do so much is its sheer variety. When you run your own business you have to take responsibility for every part of it and I find that really stimulating. Most of the work I do is commissioned and I am always on the lookout for interesting opportunities. I am almost more interested in answering a brief than having a completely free hand. I see myself as a designer more than an artist, and solving particular problems for a specific commission - looking at the functionality of an object and how it will sit in its environment - brings out my creativity best. Having said that, I would dearly love more time to produce speculative work. I’d like to make more pieces like my Knot Bench, perhaps developing a range of everyday, contemporary-style objects in stone. I also really enjoyed the church work I’ve done, for example the baptismal font for the church of St Anthony of Padua in Radlett, Hertfordshire. The rich symbolism of Christianity provides so much inspiration.
I find letter cutting one of the most challenging parts of my work, especially when compared to learning the process of architectural carving which is all about knowing your geometry and following a formula. Letter cutting is so much more involved and requires great attention to detail and a self-critical approach. It has taken me years to build up confidence in this side of my practice and I still have so much more to learn.

Do you think your background in graphics has had an influence on your work as a letter cutter?

I think it has fed into my letter cutting as I’ve long had an interest in letterforms and typography. But when I started letter cutting I had to forget all the typographical rules I knew as the cut letter looks completely different to the printed letter because of the role light and shade play. I don’t carve type fonts as usually the spacing and proportions just don’t work in stone. Most letter cutters devise their own fonts – some use calligraphy as a starting point, but I prefer to draw in outline.

How much work do you have to do before you are ready to start working the stone?

With my sculptural pieces I often make models from clay or paper and then I scale up from the maquettes. You have to be very careful because unlike working in clay where you can correct your mistakes, there is no going back with stone. When I’m working on larger lettering pieces I will set the words out on paper first, but with smaller inscriptions I like to draw the words on to the stone directly; it’s fresher and more immediate. I think you lose a little in the process of copying from paper to stone as the first draft always represents the most direct transfer of an idea, although, of course, a skilled letter cutter should be able to compensate for this when cutting.