Muriel Gelato, the Santon as a modern fable

Marseille's Atelier Gelato has held the coveted title of maître artisan since 1992 and is a point of reference for santon art. The eldest daughter of the couple who founded the workshop, Muriel expresses herself through her passion for these small clay figurines from Provence.
By Mélissa Darré

Creating santons is part of your family history. Have you always wanted to continue this tradition?

Yes, for three generations. I grew up surrounded by santons from an early age, thanks to my parents, Rose and Raymond. I've always been attracted to manual activities and first thought of studying Fine Arts after finishing high school. But I had more to learn by staying in the workshop and became a santonnière (figurine artist) at the age of 18. My parents helped me a lot – I started creating alongside my father. It was he who taught me how to model the figurines. 

How does Provence influence your creativity? What attracted you to the profession of santonnière?

The further I go along, the more I need this job. It's essential for me to understand my roots, to better grasp the meaning of things. Although this profession has religious foundations, it is more than Jesus and the Nativity – it takes us to the heart of the Provence of yesteryear. When I sell my santons, I like the fact that my customers take a little bit of this region with them – its past, its history, its culture. 

Since I work on figures, I'm inspired above all by life and people, more than nature in itself. To me this is more the inspiration for a painting – if you look at a landscape in the morning and then in the evening, there is already a lot to say about it. My santons allow me to think more about human life.

Do you consider yourself an artist or an artisan?

Both. Creating unique pieces for exhibitions that will not necessarily sell makes me an artist. Working on santons revolves around modelling, decorating and colouring to give the figurines appropriate expression, while at the same time harmonizing the colours, like a painter.

I also look at my work with a critical eye – I'm never finished, never fully satisfied with a piece. That's certainly something I've inherited from my parents. But I also need to use this knowledge to earn a living, and selling my creations from my workshop makes me an artisan. 

What are the different stages involved in the creation of santons?

Firstly, the inspiration and manufacturing of a mould. This is a single piece used to create the santons. The clay is deposited in the mould and left to dry for 1 to 5 days depending on the size of the pieces. During this stage, the santons are biscuit-baked and the clay is transformed. After we remove the burrs from around the mould, they are put in the oven for around 12 hours, where the temperature slowly rises to 900°C.

We then take them out and decorate them. We use gouache, rather than the more modern acrylic paint, which is something becoming increasingly unique to our workshop. We buy the colours in powder form and they are worked directly here, which requires a high level of expertise. This goes far beyond what one might imagine at first glance!

Atelier Santons Rose Gelato
26 boulevard Michel
13013 Marseille
Tel: +33 (0)4 91 66 07 06
www.santons-gelato.com

Muriel Gelato, the Santon as a modern fable
Muriel Gelato, the Santon as a modern fable
Marseille's Atelier Gelato has held the coveted title of maître artisan since 1992 and is a point of reference for santon art
Photography: José Nicolas
Muriel Gelato
Muriel Gelato
The eldest daughter of the couple who founded the workshop, Muriel expresses herself through her passion for these small clay figurines from Provence
Photography: José Nicolas
A family history
A family history
"I grew up surrounded by santons from an early age, thanks to my parents, Rose and Raymond"
Photography: José Nicolas
The creation of santons
The creation of santons
"My parents helped me a lot – I started creating alongside my father"
Photography: José Nicolas

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