Gently slooping down the Coteau Ridge to sea level along Hwy. 93 from Grand Coteau, the hills give way to the Atchafalaya flood plain where bayous Fuselier and Teche, and parishes St. Landry and St. Martin, meet. Until a dozen or so years ago this place, a typical Cajun town called Arnaudville, wore on its hide the depressing story of late 20th century small-town America — boarded up businesses, abandoned houses, the exodus of youth.
Then NuNu died. And George came home. “Back in ’87, when I was a senior in high school, you started seeing a real decline,” George Marks recalls of his hometown. “Most of us, if we hadn’t left already, we were planning on leaving.”
It’s a crisp, chilly December morning in a low-slung sweet potato kiln turned dance hall/event center sidled up against fallow soybean fields. Marks sits on a chair turned backwards, not entirely comfortable being photographed. The 47-year-old artist, a painter by trade, is the youngest of six born to Elridge and Rita Marks. He’s about as native to Arnaudville as native gets: He was born in the nearby and now-abandoned St. Luke’s Hospital, which, if the stars continue to align, will become sometime in 2017 or the following year the locus of an ambitious French immersion component to his hometown’s burgeoning renaissance. He attended elementary, middle and high school on the same Arnaudville campus. Like many of his schoolmates, graduation meant moving away from Arnaudville for adventure and opportunity in bigger places. His home town was already sinking into the decay and lack of opportunity that smoked the life out of small towns across America by the late 20th century.
After high school Marks left, living for a time in Houston where he worked at Astroworld, then studying fine art at LSU and working at LSU before eventually becoming a full-time artist.
Twelve years ago his dad, known among family and friends as “NuNu,” died, and Marks moved home to be close to his mother. The decline he noticed as a senior in high school had calcified into decay. Arnaudville was sinking fast.
“It was easy living somewhere else not to notice what was happening here. But when I moved back, it was hard. Total decline,” he recalls. “I knew that if I was going to live here and be happy here that I was going to have to figure out a way to change that in some way.”
He moved into an abandoned gas station and later into an old Western Auto store — two of the many vacant commercial buildings in town — and he and a small coterie began doing things: art openings for private clients, music programming.
“We started piecing the community back together through events,” he says.
But Arnaudville wasn’t ready for this kind of community building, or for the artsy types it attracted.
“We got push-back — lots of it — from those people who were stuck in those old ways,” Marks recalls.
“It was very slow in the beginning because the town didn’t want any progress; they wanted everything to be the way it was,” says Tom Pierce (no relation to author), a luthier and owner of Tom’s Fiddle & Bow. Pierce’s shop is one of several that have revitalized Arnaudville’s downtown area, and his monthly Cajun and bluegrass jam sessions/potluck dinners have become a go-to event. “They didn’t want us — they didn’t want artists. They didn’t want diversity. George just kept pushing, and we stayed, and they couldn’t neglect us.”
Yet Arnaudville’s fledgling arts community realized it needed to slow things down, to let change come gradually, organically.
“We decided to keep the door open and allow them to come in when they were ready, and for them to help us move forward,” Marks notes.
Then Hurricane Katrina blew in.
Displaced artists from New Orleans started showing up, looking for studio space.
The old Western Auto — home to Deux Bayous Art Gallery, NuNu’s Nightlife & Café, Frederick l’École des Arts and Frederick Stage — began to hum at a frequency at least as loud as the tongue clicking of that dwindling clutch of locals. Grants were flowing in, programming was robust, artists were selling. (Frederick L’Ecole des Arts, as the nonprofit community arts group was then known, honored in its name the local real estate-holding family that agreed to favorable lease terms with Marks on the property.)
And then it burned down. In the summer of 2010, between Saturday’s final fiddle note and Sunday’s percolating coffee, fire destroyed the building. Uninsured artists lost everything. Coincidentally, a meeting was scheduled for the next day with representatives from the state Office of Cultural Development to discuss expanding on the concepts Marks and company were promoting in Arnaudville. Marks called to cancel, but the Baton Rouge folks wanted to meet any way. What came of that was a kind of phoenix on the Fuselier — a rebirth from the ashes and rebranding into what is today NuNu Art & Culture Collective.
“As a result of that we knew that we wanted to focus on creative placemaking, partner building and on cultural sustainability — focusing on using the arts and French and culture as the glue that connects us,” Marks says. “But not just to look at cultural development; to look at economic development, social development, and try to address them.”
“I try not to keep talking about Arnaudville because I don’t want to sound like a broken record, but it’s impossible not to because it’s such a perfect example of how places can literally revitalize through art and cultural development,” says Gaye Hamilton, manager of Louisiana Cultural Districts, a subdivision of the state Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism. Hamilton oversees Louisiana’s 83 cultural districts, Arnaudville among them, and she holds up Marks and his work in Arnaudville as the embodiment of placemaking done right. “It’s hard to narrow it down to one thing because he’s just this nice guy, and out of that he has an underplayed charisma that is irresistible; people like to be around him, they appreciate what he’s doing. He has this low-key approach, but he’s relentless. If he has an idea that he thinks is worthwhile, he figures out the connections to make it happen. He is visionary, unifying, partnerbuilding — he does it all.”
“I view Arnaudville as almost like a social sculpture of sorts — like sculpting the community,” Marks says between sips of coffee in the former feed store that replaced the Western Auto building after the fire.
But his sculpting isn’t subtractive, no chipping away material to coax out form; it’s additive — piling on layers: community events, festivals, quilting bees, potluck suppers, tiny houses (a story unto itself), immersive French centered around cooking and other culture-craft, yoga, a space for artists and artisans to show and sell their work.
NuNu, the phenomenon, is operated entirely by volunteers — both artists with some skin in the game and locals who have come around to the idea that arts and culture can be catalysts for economic development. It all revolves around creativity and connections. Marks connected a boutique bath product maker/collective member with other companies that now sell her products under their label; next year she’ll open up her own storefront in Arnaudville and expand production.
“Now she’s doing anywhere from $7,000 to $10,000 a weekend in soap sales. Out of Arnaudville,” Marks notes.
Same with local beekeepers, whom Marks enlisted to produce encaustic wax used in art production. They now have a side businesses selling the wax to artists.
NuNu has also expanded into custom framing, offering extra work to locals and teaching artists how to do their own framing.
“That’s kind of what we’ve become — a connector or bridge builder,” Marks says, “not just for local culture but for international culture.”