Cover Story

Arnaudville Renaissance

An artists community led by George Marks is changing the face of Arnaudville ' despite resistance from the mayor.

It's Friday night in Arnaudville, and artist George Marks' Town Market is hopping. Painters, sculptors, town leaders and families mingle among crafts, handmade jewelry and sculpture, and New Orleans guitarist Marc Stone's music fills the air along Bayou Teche. Mama Marks' old dining room table in the market's kitchen area is covered with crab stew, potato salad, sausage, fried chicken and jambalaya. Miss Betty, president of the Chamber of Commerce, hands out her stuffed bread from a basket. Out in front, five musicians jam on handcrafted furniture for sale.

The market is the new gathering spot in town and also the site for Tuesday lunch meetings, where townspeople discuss local issues. These meetings have sparked the development of a monthly farmer's market at Arnaudville Feed & Seed and zydeco concerts in a grassy lot next to Russell's Food Center. In the past year, more than 10 artists have either relocated their studios or moved to Arnaudville permanently, and it's only a taste of what's to come if Marks is successful in giving the town new life as an artists community.

An abstract painter who exhibits all over the United States and is a co-owner of Lafayette's Grand Contemporary Gallery, 37-year-old Marks returned home to Arnaudville from Baton Rouge three years ago to be with his family when his father died. He got hooked on the simplicity of life in the rural area and stayed. About a year after moving back, Marks and his sister, Roxanne, and nephew Jeramie Rivette, also a painter, decided to try and jumpstart development in town to bring Arnaudville back to some semblance of its earlier days as a hotspot with dance clubs, hotels and two train depots. Rivette purchased the former Western Auto building for the artists' Town Market, and Marks bought the gas station next to it for his residence and studio. The original idea was to give artists a place to store and possibly sell their work, but the market soon grew into studio and teaching space.

Most people in town have embraced Arnaudville's new face. Melanie Robin Olivier at Russell's Food Center has provided artists with rent-free studio space, while T.J. Bergeron, owner of Arnaudville Feed & Seed, is hosting the farmer's market every third Saturday morning. Betty Arnaud Roy, president and CEO of the Chamber of Commerce, is compiling a local artists directory and researching how to establish a historic district.

But the town's mayor, Kathy Richard, hasn't given Marks and the artists community a warm welcome. She refused artist William Lewis' attractive offer to buy the town's defunct water tower and long-shuttered jail, and many citizens feel she's unwilling to participate in dialogue regarding the artists community. Some say she's holding an old grudge against resident Debbie Lagrange, but others believe she's trying to hold on to her political power. She openly attacked Marks after the March town meeting, accusing him of trying to sabotage her campaign for re-election this fall; he responded by sending her a three-page letter explaining his motives for "rebuilding" his community and requesting she put aside personal feelings and unnecessary politics.

Without the support of the mayor, Arnaudville could lose its second major resident artist and appear unwelcoming to other artists looking to move in.

On a recent Monday at the market, Marks is wearing his signature green long-sleeved T-shirt and paint-splattered tennis shoes and sitting in a rocking chair in front of a picture window overlooking the bayou. "I feel like I'm a better person and a better artist [in Arnaudville]," he says. "I don't feel like I have to sell now. I can take more risks with my work, not feel guilty that I'm not painting and not just send work off anywhere." After coming back home, he says his work became more minimal, and he realized the lines in many of his pieces were inspired by power lines running along Hwy. 31 from Arnaudville to Lafayette. He wanted other artists to experience that feeling.

The Rhode Island-based Alliance of Artists Communities defines an artists community as "places where artists can go simply to work on their art." According to the alliance's Web site, 60 percent of artists communities are located in rural or small-town environments. While the organization focuses mostly on artists residencies and not entire communities, Executive Director Deborah Obalil says that trend is changing. "We actually do have a number of cities attracting artists to live and work, adding that creative spark," she says. "A lot of the different research has pointed to smart communities, creative economy."

Asked what he sees in Arnaudville in five or 10 years, Marks says he'd like to have an independent bookstore and art supply shop. "I can tell you what I don't see," he notes. "I don't see a cute village. I don't see touristy shops. I don't see huge droves of people all the time. I do see people walking, because that's starting to happen already. I see a place where it's still genuine, real, rural, green. It's cleaner."

Upon first glance, it might look like Marks persuaded friends and other artists to move to Arnaudville and share his idea. But most who are investing in the community and relocating there say it was something about the town itself ' with its junction of two bayous, ridges in the landscape and genuine townspeople ' that brought them there.

Lori Henderson and her husband, Tom Pierce, both musicians and zydeco dancers from the northeast, first started coming to Acadiana 10 years ago for the festivals. "One time Tom and I came down, and we got lost coming through Grand Coteau and went through Arnaudville," says Henderson. "It's a peaceful place." When she met Marks several years later at Grand Contemporary, she says, "He talked about the artists community I've always wanted."

Henderson, who's also a sculptor and painter, secured one of the Town Market's four studio spaces; she chose the one in back overlooking the junction of the two bayous. Fran Clark, an art and music psychotherapist, will soon move into the space next to Henderson; Alex Nunez, a silkscreen artist evacuee from New Orleans, occupies the space in the middle, and filmmaker Michele Boulet has the front spot.

Henderson and Pierce also purchased a building down the bayou on Fuselier Road for a fiddle shop, music jams and permanent studio space for Lori. They partnered with Marc Taylor, a Cajun fiddler whose father was born and raised in Arnaudville. Their Cajun Fiddles sign in the shape of the instrument sways in the wind, while Cajun music blares from the back screened porch overlooking Bayou Fuselier. Lori plans to move into her studio in May and rent out her Lafayette house to make a permanent move. "We want to be real members of Arnaudville," she says.

Fuselier Road is quickly becoming a row of development. Resident Debbie Lagrange has purchased a white and green clapboard building to be used for literary retreats, and John and Toni Daigre, owners of Cypress City Antiques in Lafayette, are working on Turtle Cove Studio next door. William Lewis' temporary residence is also on this strip, his collection of paintings and sculpture displayed for passersby on the street behind glass picture windows.

Closer to the market, a short walk across the town bridge, two men from Seattle are renovating the old Teche Club for a film and music production studio and performance venue. Across the street, Roxanne Marks has purchased a blue house for What a Woman Wants, her gift shop. Hiddenwomen of the sea jewelry maker and painter Kathleen Whitehurst is waiting on land clearance for an artists village next to Roxanne's location. Whitehurst is planning two galleries and a gourmet café. She's been looking for a spot for her village for years and says that Arnaudville just feels right. "Back in the early '70s, that's where we [artists] congregated, in Cecilia and Arnaudville," she says. "We all branched out and moved on, so it's like full circle. There's room to grow." Whitehurst is also helping Marks by going to the courthouse and compiling a list of property owners who might be willing to sell to artists.

Marks always wanted to live in an artists community. "But I never thought that it would work here," he says. "I never thought that it could thrive here. You always hear that art exists in the big city. It ends up there, but you don't see the process there."

When his market opened on the weekends last November, artists and local customers started showing up at the door. About 23 artists are currently members at a cost of $30 a month and 10 percent of a sale. The perception of an artists community is that it brings in artists from other parts of the country, which has happened to some degree, but for other artists it's given them an outlet close to home.

"I think there were already a lot of those people here," says Marks. "I just don't think that they had any type of venue or any type of place where they could come together.

"There was a certain level of desperation here for something, and it could have been Martin Mills honestly," he continues. "It just so happened that I moved back, and they started buying into the idea."

Now that he's jumpstarted development, Marks says he just wants to paint. "I'll always give my 2 cents," he says, "but to have to be hands on? No. There's some cool stuff happening, and I had nothing to do with it other than wave the wand a little bit."

Investing in Arnaudville hasn't been easy for other artists. Sculptor William Lewis has been trying to purchase the old waterworks building from the city of Arnaudville for the past year. He finally moved to a temporary live/work space in the old Napa Auto Parts building last summer to prove he was committed to the town.

Lewis first came to Arnaudville several years ago to pick up a friend whose car had broken down. "There was something about the town, even in spite of the big, giant metal buildings," he says. "It had some kind of charm or energy about it that I just liked." Lewis and Marks had met in art circles, so when Marks moved back home, he came to visit. Lewis had lived in Lafayette for 14 years and had no plans of moving until Marks showed him the old water tower, across a green field from the market.

"I'm like, I'd move here in two seconds flat if I could have that place," Lewis says. "It was just this big, blank canvas waiting. My second love is architecture. It's just waiting for someone to do something with it. So I got stuck on that."

But after meeting with the mayor, Lewis got the impression she didn't want to sell the building to him, even thought it hadn't been used in more than 27 years. "She was all smiles," he says, "but it seemed there might not be much possibility. I got the idea she wasn't interested."

The plot of land that the tower is on also contains a reservoir, the old jail and former town hall. Lewis made a proposal to purchase all of the buildings for $30,000 and use the tower for his residence, the town hall as a studio and open the old jail as a bed and breakfast. Richard denied the request, arguing that the town should not sell its property in case it needed the space some day. More recently, she claimed the water tower contains mold and would be a liability to the city.

"She lied from the get-go with the whole thing," says Mayor Pro Temp Chad Hebert. "She goes back and forth saying she's all for what's right. I just don't see that."

Richard did not return multiple phone calls or respond to interview requests for this story.

Hebert says the mold claim was just a stalling tactic. "To be perfectly honest, I don't think it was really ever an issue," says Hebert, who drafted an ordinance to sell the buildings to Lewis. "I think it was just made into this unbelievable thing." After visiting the building, Lewis, Hebert and Alderman John Ray Taylor say there was no mold, only dust on the walls, and that clear standing water in the basement contained some algae.

Despite doubts about the mold, the town has moved forward with a plan for cleaning the building ' but the sale has dragged on because of discrepancies in bids for the cleanup. At the February town meeting, Hebert brought to the table a bid from Acadiana Clean Sweep for $915, but Richard countered and said her bid from Jani-King for $1,473 was a better deal because it included a clean air test. Hebert then proposed an amendment to his ordinance to sell the building to Lewis for $30,000 after the mold had been cleaned and the air tested by Jani-King, and it was approved by a 4-1 vote.

But after making a call to Jani-King a few weeks later, Hebert discovered there was a problem with the bid. "A month later nothing was done," he says. "I called Jani-King and found out they bid the job wrong. He said he didn't know there was water that needed to be pumped out. It was misrepresented by the mayor."

The Jani-King bid has now increased by $650 to pump out the water, and Hebert is beginning to lose his temper. "If she had been honest with me and the whole town, we'd have gone with my bid of $915, and it would have been done," he says. "I'm extremely upset about that, 'cause she lied again."

Alderman Ricky Lagrange voted against the sale and is the only one siding with the mayor. "I was opposed to the selling of town property from the beginning," he says. "The town shouldn't sell to certain individuals." (Lagrange has publicly stated he'd be in support of a sale to Wal-Mart.) "I'm not opposed to the art moving in," he continues. "The buildings aren't worth much. I can't understand why the guy wants to live in it."

Lewis says he never asked that the building be cleaned and was ready to purchase the tower as is. "I was going to do everything myself," he says. "I started getting all excited and started actually working on architectural ideas for the place." His plans for the water tower include mounting relief sculptures of water symbols on the outside of the building. He admits he's gotten frustrated over the past year, but is undeterred. "I want it more than I will walk away," he says.

The Alliance of Artists Communities' Obalil says it's natural for towns to experience some growing pains. "It's difficult to inspire that kind of change without seeing the community change too," she says. "The local community needs to have some real frank discussion with itself about what they're willing to see change and not willing to see change, and how attempting to attract any kind of new population is going to impact that."

Marks and his market group say that even without the support of the mayor, the artists community is moving forward. And their plan could allow the town to follow the example of Breaux Bridge and New Iberia, which have historic districts and Main Street developments.

Arnaudville is ripe for restoring its old buildings and creating a downtown area. Dickie Breaux, known for his work in helping restore Breaux Bridge and most notably Café Des Amis, was a guest at the February town meeting. He admitted his interest is partly out of selfishness, because he'd like to invest in the town, but also praised Arnaudville for its efforts.

"You've accomplished in my opinion, the impossible," he said. "You took a very wonderful community and made it a destination. Art is economic development. I'm excited about what you're doing. I could be a potential investor." He advised the town to create a historic district for tax credits so it can compete with other towns for investor dollars.

Mayor Richard sat stonefaced during Breaux's speech, passing a note to her secretary at one point.

Artist Henderson admits that the political tension is draining. Collectively, the group agrees the struggle needs to be resolved. But while Richard has publicly said the fight is tearing the town apart, Marks doesn't agree. "It got people involved, and it's OK to have a difference of opinion," he says. "We have all these people that have an interest in town that are going to these town meetings. They're not even residents yet, and that kind of says something about all this." Before the water tower issue, town meetings drew a handful of people. February and March meetings were packed with standing room only crowds.

Chamber President Roy is being proactive and taking inventory of the streets and buildings for a historic district. "I think this should be a town thing, but just in case it lags too far behind, I'm proceeding as though it was my baby," she says.

Like Roy, longtime Arnaudville resident Debbie Lagrange can envision far-reaching effects from the artists community. Lagrange is as an advocate for positive development in town; in the past she's worked to keep the bayou free from motorboats and jet skis to avoid noise pollution and soil erosion and was instrumental in getting an ordinance passed that prohibited the sale of drive-thru liquor in the parish. She's also butted heads with the mayor over the years, and some say she's the reason Richard is fighting them now.

Lagrange first came across Marks' work at a silent auction four years ago. She bought a painting and later found out he was an Arnaudville native. When she heard Marks moved to town, she picked him up and brought him to her house to show him his work hanging in her living room. "It was just a no-brainer that I would keep coming [to the Town Market] and visiting," she says. It's become a popular joke that she told George more artists like him could transform Arnaudville, and he said, "How many do you want?"

To Lagrange, an artists community means more than just new blood in town and increasing her art collection. "This is a wonderful opportunity to turn the town around and get the children interested in something other than drugs and alcohol ' art and music and wonderful, educated, intelligent people," she says. "We want to keep Arnaudville rural, we want to keep the small-town atmosphere. We don't want new, large subdivisions popping up everywhere. By taking the existing buildings that we have, they've fallen into disrepair, the artists can come in and improve the area. It's at no expense to the town, at no expense to the community."

Roy was born and raised in Arnaudville and moved back 12 years ago. "It's hard for me to imagine why we're not jumping up and down and hurrying up to put this in William's hands and do anything we can to help this movement," she says. "Because it is the most exciting thing that's happened to Arnaudville in a long, long time."

She remembers when Arnaudville was just a small farming community dotted with cotton gins. "We used to be farming, but it's not the little farmers anymore, like my father was 50 years ago when we planted cotton, corn and potatoes," she says. "Now, the new seed is the artists. George has planted that. The new crop in town is artists."