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By Jane O'Donoghue  

Marseille is France's second largest city after Paris, but whilst Paris has crowds, high prices and pretentiousness, Marseille is characterised by sunshine, a laid-back attitude, and artistic opportunities.

The city is currently preparing to become the European Capital of Culture in 2013, so for the moment, cranes dominate the skyline as construction work is undertaken, and ironically, the enthusiastic preparations have even caused the temporary closure of several museums in order for improvements to take place.

Despite this, Marseille remains a hive of artistic activity, with dozens of museums, galleries and artists' studios or ateliers scattered throughout the city. Illustrators constitute a high proportion of the artists working in these shared ateliers, so what is the secret ingredient that makes Marseille such an attractive place for illustrators to work?



One studio, the Atelier du Baignoir , is an apartment in the heart of the city that has been converted into studios for six artists, five of whom are illustrators. The six met at art school in Strasbourg, and are now sharing the studio space, which has a bright and convivial atmosphere. The walls of each room are covered with postcards, packaging, posters, drawings, and other titbits of inspiration that are personal to each artist, but as a whole they make the apartment seem like a work of art in itself. A communal area in the hallway equipped with comfy chairs is the perfect place to take a break, and the artists often eat lunch together there.

Atelier du Baignoir

Hélène Georges in the Atelier du Baignoir

Despite all studying at the same place and sharing a studio space, the five illustrators all have diverse and distinctive styles: Hélène Georges works on ‘la Bande Dessinée', comic books which are hugely popular in France among adults and children; Arno builds his images from cut-outs; and Amélie illustrates children's books.

Amélie and Arno in the Atelier du Baignoir

Amélie Jackowski is an illustrator who has created artwork for children's books in French and English. Her illustrations depict another world which is often strange but always beautiful, where fish can swim through the forest and musical notes fall from rain clouds. Amélie's illustrations often experiment with scale, with tigers the size of babies and fish as big as trees; and many of the images are inhabited by bizarre creatures which only exist in the imagination and on the page.

Amélie was drawn to the magical possibilities of illustration as a child. Her aunt worked in a publishing house and therefore had access to many wonderful books, which she left in the cellar of Amélie's grandmother for Amélie to discover and enjoy.

This library nurtured Amélie's love of books, and now she is responsible for creating the artwork that captures the imaginations of a new generation of children, and bringing authors' stories to life on the page. When illustrating a story, Amélie selects a palette of colours and keeps it throughout the project: “I use quite a large palette each time, and I have one palette for each book.” Each set of colours creates a certain atmosphere for the story, however, when the palette is sombre, Amélie likes to add a dash of colour. “It makes the image come to life and creates contrasts; if that contrast wasn't there, the image could be a little dull.”

Amélie Jackowsi in the Atelier du Baignoir

Some of Amélie Jackowski's artwork

The latest project is a limited edition fortune telling game which Amélie describes as ‘divination by illustration'. The game consists of 30 cards and instructions on how to use them to tell the future: “You have all the letters of the alphabet, and the words all start with the same letter in French and English.” The images on the cards are a slight departure in style from the book illustrations, as they are bolder and more graphic, as Amélie explains, “I made the images very simple, or rather, with very few colours, which I'm not used to doing. I enjoyed it so much and I'm really happy with it.”

Madame Duberckowski's Fortune Telling Cards' by Amélie Jackowski

Amélie Jackowski's desk

The final surprise in Amélie's studio is a painting which looks ordinary enough, but when the lights are switched off you see the glowing outline of an elephant. Amélie is delighted with the effects of the hidden surprise: “It's phosphorescent. I like to do things like that, things that are a bit unusual; it becomes a painting-show.”



Not far from the Atelier du Baignoir , on one of the little streets leading down to Marseille's old port, is the Atelier Pan! Home to a further four illustrators and three arts professionals, the entrance hall of the atelier doubles as a cosy communal area with a large dining table, and the studios all lead off from this hall. Atelier Pan! is decorated with posters for arts events and samples of the artists' work, although it seems to have a more business-like ambience than the Atelier du Baignoir , perhaps because it is in a building with offices rather than residences, or perhaps because the décor is a little more sober.

Catherine Chardonnay is one of the illustrators with a studio at the Atelier Pan! A huge bookcase filled with books and journals covers one wall of her studio, and the desk is littered with letters and postcards, while a leaflet for Catherine's latest exhibition sits on top of the computer. Catherine recently made the decision to take her artwork in a new, more personal direction after becoming somewhat disenchanted with her freelance work, most of which was creating disparate illustrations for children's magazines and books.

This decision has affected many aspects of Catherine's work, including the materials that she uses. After a long time spent pleasing the publishers with her child-friendly illustrations, for which she used a process of colouring in hand-drawn images with a computer, Catherine left technology to one side. She experimented with various media and has found the tools that work best for her: “I only use coloured pencils, and as it is important that the paper should be very smooth, I only use Moleskine. Since it is so smooth, you don't have to press as hard, and the finished drawing looks more attractive.”

Catherine spends her evenings drawing in small Moleskine sketchbooks, called carnets : “I work at home at my little table, and always in the evening. When I do it in the studio during the day, it doesn't work at all. It's a bit like automatic writing, but with drawing; that is to say I don't think about it first, I just draw what is going through my mind.” The inspiration for these highly personal drawings can come from films, exhibitions, or something Catherine has seen during the day, but she is particularly inspired by movement and dance.

Le Mordcul book cover illustrated by Catherine Chardonnay

One of Catherine's recent projects was illustrating a children's book, Le Mordcul . Unlike some of her past freelance work, she worked closely with the author, who always had her in mind for the project. She had the freedom to work in her own style, with coloured pencils, and to choose her colour palette. This was especially important to Catherine because in the past she was expected to use a large range of colours, with the emphasis on variety, and as a result she found herself using colours that she “didn't like at all.” When illustrating Le Mordcul , Catherine was discerning in her selection of colours, choosing three or four that she really liked. Catherine says that she works “more intelligently” with coloured pencils, and her work is artistically more successful as a result. She gives the example of the night-time scenes in Le Mordcul : they are all worked in blue, but the tones vary as the book progresses, from blue-grey to blue-mauve, and in this way Catherine builds a particular ambiance, while varying the tones so the illustrations aren't monotonous.

Catherine is hoping to do more projects like this, and she may even write and illustrate her own children's book; she has done both writing and illustrating in the past, but never in the same project. It is a challenge that Catherine is eager to take up, as she believes that author-illustrators are more recognised.

A scene from 'Le Mordcul' by Catherine Chardonnay

A night-time scene from 'Le Mordcul' by Catherine Chardonnay



Amélie attributes the number of illustrators in Marseille to the beautiful weather and low cost of living in comparison with Paris, but she also says that it is partly by chance that they have congregated there. For Catherine, the people in the various districts of Marseille are a particular inspiration; some are impassive while others are very expressive, but they show their emotions and are never neutral. Yet there is also a sense of tradition about the move to Marseille, as many of the illustrators in the Atelier du Baignoir , Atelier Pan! , and a third studio called Atelier Venture , hail from the same art school in Strasbourg.

The fantastic amount of galleries and venues in the city and the surrounding area give plenty of opportunities for artists to exhibit their work and draw inspiration from each other.

Amélie recently exhibited her work in her colleague Arno's apartment as part of his venture to turn his home into a gallery for one weekend every three months. The weekend-long exhibitions are called Les Bons Week-ends , and they are an opportunity to view the work, relax, and meet the artists in an intimate and informal space. This seems to be an appropriate setting for the artwork, as illustrators' work is informal by nature, and they do not exhibit predominately in art galleries, but rather in books, comics, and magazines, on posters, leaflets, album covers, and many other places.

Marseille is also home to an organisation called Fotokino , which promotes visual arts, and has a lot of links with the city's illustrators. Its exhibition space is easy to miss, tucked away on a busy street with no visible signage to announce its presence, but it is worth the search. The gallery recently hosted an exhibition of Catherine's work, which was based on a project looking at masks from around the world, and the exhibition included drawings as well as masks, two of which now hang in Catherine's studio, and which represent a rare foray into textiles for the artist.

A tremendous amount of energy clearly goes into promoting the work of illustrators in the city, and Catherine described a less successful project which was set up in the old town on the opposite side of the port to Atelier Pan! “A girl from Strasbourg set up a gallery in the Panier district, just for illustration, but it doesn't work because it is too isolated. One would need to find somewhere lots of people walk past, and do a lot of publicity, so for the moment it isn't a success.”

On a national level, both illustrators agree that their artform is particularly appreciated, as there are many publishing houses in France, as well as subsidies for libraries and literature-related projects. Naturally this leads to a vast choice of books, but surprisingly this can be a negative thing. Catherine mentions that she knows of children who do not like to go to bookshops because they find themselves overwhelmed by the huge amount of books to choose from.

On the other hand, Amélie believes that French authors and illustrators have more freedom than their counterparts in other countries, because fewer subjects are taboo for children's books. “In children's books in France, you can talk about lots of different things, which is not the impression I had of the United States, for example, where there are lots of things that you can't show.” French storytelling for children has evolved away from the classic fairytale with clear-cut morals, and stories have become more realistic and diverse. Nevertheless, Amélie and Catherine both cite British illustrators as inspirations for their work; Catherine particularly admires the work of John Burningham.

With all the opportunities in Marseille for finding inspiration, exhibiting, and meeting other like-minded illustrators, one would imagine that 2013 will be an important year for illustrators. With just * over a year to go, so far there has been very little information about how artists will benefit from their city hosting the Capital of Culture event. Amélie is more enthusiastic about the unofficial events that will doubtless proliferate throughout the year, and she hopes that people will take more of an interest in the marseillais community of artists when the spotlight is on the city. Catherine is also positive about the potential for finding inspiration during the festival, although she too is more enthusiastic about the unofficial side-shows than the official events.

The cultural life of Marseille is immeasurably enriched by the presence of the artists who benefit from and contribute to the city. Even though it is not always easy to get to see their work, when support is lacking they invent new ways to develop and display their work, such as Arno's Les Bons Week-ends . The individual ateliers are pockets of creativity and imagination where the artists support and inspire one another. The result is a community of illustrators which is surely unique to Marseille.



Jane O’Donoghue


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