After studying at Oxford University and at Central St Martins College, Joanna Walsh worked in publishing and for a literary agency before becoming an illustrator and writer for some of the world’s leading newspapers. Since 2006, she has also regularly worked in Paris, most visibly as Stylebible’s Paris editor. She also runs her own blog, Badaude, built around the experiences of her ‘cartoon’ second self.
We agree to meet in front of the Shakespeare and Company bookshop in Saint Michel where Joanna recently sketched a wonderful mural. I half expect the cartoon version of herself to turn up but instead I’m greeted by a perfectly normal person – who doesn't wear glasses! “That was a kind of joke” she tells me. “I was drawing a group scene and gave myself a pair of sunglasses, and that image kind of stuck. I like the fact that you don’t see my eyes”.
Amusing, and somewhat ironic too. If there is one thing that defines the creations of Joanna it is her very acute sense of observation. Her warm, quirky, and often acerbic sketches and text capture tiny moments in time in microscopic detail. This may be overheard conversations on the Eurostar, irritating people sitting near her in restaurants and cafés or simply anonymous people she follows in the street. An eavesdropper I suggest, and she readily accepts the description. “I'm fascinated by people” she tells me. “The way they talk, dress, behave - whatever the setting. More than its buildings, a city is its inhabitants” she continues.
So why is it the inhabitants of Paris who feature so prominently in her work? “I guess one of the reasons I write more about Paris is because it's easier to notice a place that's 'somewhere else'. I'm fascinated by writer, Amelie Nothomb's, concept of being a 'jamaisien'. As she said in a recent interview, ‘I’m living abroad and I feel it. I have all sorts of proof that France is a foreign country. And this makes life much more interesting’”.
An illustrator and observer, with the eyes and ears of a curious outsider. It’s not quite so simple of course. As Badaude, Joanna sketches herself as the anonymous onlooker, the eyeless axis around whom the action gyrates, but this is more for artistic reasons. In reality, she is just as much an actor as a spectator, as her creation on the wall of the Shakespeare and Company bookshop testifies.
The shop is crammed with books from floor to ceiling, but Joanna Walsh managed to find enough space on the staircase to sketch a series of illustrations. The current owner of the store, Sylvia Whitman, wanted portraits of English language writers and artists who had been connected with Paris, but Joanna Walsh was able to choose her own selection, as well as the James Joyce quotation that snakes around the pictures. The ensemble is a contrast of broad graphic blacks and sensuous swirls tinged with a rococo gold, and is a very evocative addition to the store.
Is it particularly satisfying as a creator to leave a trace in such a famous institution in Paris? “Actually I knew very little about the shop until quite recently. I was involved in a party for a magazine launch and found that I loved the atmosphere of the place. It wasn’t what I had expected at all and I immediately felt that I would like to do something there. Seeing the result on the wall today, and knowing the history of the shop, well yes I’m very happy to now have a little place in the story”.
Now that she has come out of the shadows and become a part of the city, does she envisage moving to Paris permanently? “I hope so” she replies, only to add more mysteriously “though of course you never can tell”. Tennessee Williams wrote that “some mystery should be left in the revelation of character in a play, just as a great deal of mystery is always left in the revelation of character in life, even in one's own character to himself”. If Joanna Walsh moved to Paris, and if the city became her simple everyday, would Badaude then fade away? Perhaps it is always best to keep our passions cloaked in dark shrouds of glamourous exoticism.