Off the beaten path – Artists and art enthusiasts travel to Arnaudville for a cultural experience in the making

Nestled off Interstate 10 in Arnaudville, about an hour’s drive west from Baton Rouge, sits a historic 5,000-square-foot barn in the middle of a flat, open field. One could pass it by without thought. But this simple structure, once the home of Singleton Lumber Company, has emerged as an artist co-op that has some Capital City painters hitting the road with canvas in tow.

“It’s very inspirational to me, the pastoral part of it,” says Lisa DiStefano, a Baton Rouge artist. She uses the center, named NuNu’s Arts and Culture Collective, with its 17-foot ceilings as her studio space. DiStefano says the serenity of the small-town landscape stimulates her creativity.

“It is perfect,” DiStefano says of working in Arnaudville. “I started traveling back and forth about once a month to paint. Then, I got hooked on the whole Arnaudville thing.”

The ‘Arnaudville thing’ seems to have widespread appeal. Artists say they gain inspiration working in the small town, away from the commercialization and distraction of the city. It’s worth the drive.

And NuNu’s is more than just a place to paint and buy art. Also known as the Arnaudville Experiment, the center serves as a town hub for locals who sing, play the guitar or the banjo, sew, write poetry, or want to sample fare at the café. It’s where the women of Les Coudre Points get together weekly to quilt and try their best to speak only French. And on a Friday night, it’s where sweet jazz sounds of the Big Band era escape to the Bayou Courtableau Highway out front.

“We’re providing a place to be creative without having to be so formulated,” says artist George Marks, creator of the Arnaudville Experiment. “People are hungry for community.” 

Marks saw a need for such community after Hurricane Katrina brought displaced artists to the area. In 2005 Marks simply tapped into the existing talent pool. He says from there, the response has been overwhelming. Although most of the New Orleans natives are now gone, NuNu’s continues to thrive.

Baton Rouge artist Scott Finch says for him, Arnaudville is “fascinating as a kind of scale-model Utopia in the making.”

“It is the flourishing of the best kinds of intentions,” he says. “There’s a respect for tradition, culture and the landscape; but that never stops the individual impulses of artists to be as free and expressive as they desire to be. You don’t often find that blend.”

And the inspiring nature of the Arnaudville Experiment results in great work. DiStefano, Marks and Jill Hackney, also a Baton Rouge artist, recently collaborated to produce Louisiana Landscapes: Air, Earth and Water. The show, presented by Ann Connelly Fine Art, premiered at the Shaw Center’s Manship Theatre in December and ran through January. A majority of the artwork featured was painted at NuNu’s in Arnaudville.

In addition to visting the center, out-of-towners can find a place to sleep at Maison des Artistes Guest Cottages. DiStefano and Finch both have cottages named after them and decorated to reflect their style. These two separate cottages can be connected as one, if so desired. Marks says that the cottages are not reserved for those who create art but are open to anyone who appreciates it.

“Living with the work, even for a short time, can enrich the connections and deepen the appreciation for an artist’s point of view,” says Finch.

Hackney, co-developer of the initiative, says that NuNu’s success is causing other local businesses to grow as well.

“Art plus culture equals business,” Marks says. “We live by that and pride ourselves on that.”

The town is part of the Deux Bayous Cultural District, which offers no sales tax on original works of art. But Marks believes the best part of the Arnaudville Experiment is something you can’t purchase or even paint. It’s the family atmosphere that has been created.  

“There’s not a hierarchy,” he says. “At the end of the night, the performers and audience both are picking up trash and putting the tables and chairs away.”

Hackney agrees. “The staff of volunteers rolls up their sleeves day after day because they’re passionate about wanting to see this happen,” she says. “Which, really, is the most incredible part of the whole thing.”