My fascination, respect, and appreciation for all things handmade began in my hometown, Baton Rouge, Louisiana. As the capital city of Louisiana, Baton Rouge is the largest anchoring “Cajunland” and offers a fascinating melange of academic, cultural, and political influences. The Mississippi River borders the city as a muse throughout history for creative expression in all its forms—art, craft, food, literature and music.
To understand Louisiana art and craft is to appreciate its visceral expressions of place, history, heritage, and culture. As I travel the world telling stories of people making things with hand and heart, my passion for handicrafts leads full circle back to the city that planted the seeds for my work as a design journalist.
Wherever I go, my aim is the same as a DesignTourist— to keep craft alive by showcasing the talents, skills, and traditions of makers, so let’s explore the creative soul of Baton Rouge by meeting its thriving community of artists and craftspeople.
A visit to The Baton Rouge Arts Market held on the first Saturday of each month puts you in the creative heart of this city. The outdoor market in downtown Baton Rouge takes place from 8 am to noon at 5th and Main streets and alongside the Red Stick Farmers Market.
On the day I visited, Keith VanDouglas, aka The Cartoon Man, drew crowds watching him draw his signature “Dat” character drawings. The New Orleans native is a retired art teacher who taught in the East Baton Rouge School system for 42 years.
“My latest creation is my character Dat, and right now, my copyright is pending on this,” Keith says. He got the idea for Dat from Louisiananians’ love of The Saints football team and the Fleur De Lis.
“I’m an illustrator artist, and I’ve been drawing all of my life. I’ve drawn over five thousand people. I love drawing cartoons because they are humorous. I draw a portrait in cartoon form, and if people laugh along with it, that’s an extra plus,” Keith says.
His humorous caricatures include the Booze Bird series of drawings; he calls his Twisted Audobon book with bird characters such as the Bourbon Street Buzzards, French Quarter Finches, Daiquiri Ducks, and Drunken Dodos.
The arts market offers opportunities to see artists in action, such as Byron Hall, The Cartoon Man’s stepson, drawing a portrait of his wife and daughter. During the week, Byron works at a nearby plant and, on the weekends, practices his creative craft.
“I’ve been drawing since I was a child. I’m an artist, and I love being around other artists. My passion is to do realistic drawings. I have a photographic memory, so I can copy what I see and redo it and make it my own,” Byron says.
He has been a regular at the arts market for several years now. “There are a lot of undercover artists who are not exposed or recognized yet. There are a lot of people you really don’t know until you come here because this is where they are all at.”
Susan Rodrigue shares her passion for pottery at her booth displaying handcrafted stoneware clay pottery. “My purpose is to add joy to everyday living and share the beauty of pottery and its everyday function,” Susan says.
Her handcrafted pottery collection includes travel mugs, pie plates, serving plates, and other stoneware items; all are safe for the microwave, oven, and dishwasher.
For many local artisans and makers, the arts market has kept them in business amid the cancellation of art shows, festivals, and events around the Southeast due to COVID-19. “Having a regular market like this has saved us through the pandemic because a lot of us do large shows throughout the southeast. Those art shows and events have been canceled, so being able to do a local market regularly has sustained business,” Susan says.
New Orleans native Mark Carroll finds creative inspiration in his city’s water meter covers that he casts in Raku pottery. “I moved to Baton Rouge after Hurricane Katrina, and I still have a lot of ties to New Orleans. The new Orleans water meter is symbolic of the city, and I create my art using a firing process called Raku to make clay look like metal. I juxtapose those two mediums,” Mark explains.
Comic book creators Antoine “Ghost” Mitchell and his wife Erica Ayxa Williams-Mitchell released their latest issue of “Sankofa’s Eymbrace,” an Afro-Fantasy comic book series.
“Sankofa’s Eymbrace” tells a story that dates back thousands of years after a catastrophic event called The Great Shattering. The Yurugu Moon appeared over the skies of lymbalynce, the name of our world, to signal the prophecy of a comic battle between Balance and DysOrder that would dictate the final fate of the world.
Representing Balance are the Sankofa children, the Mya’at child, the embodiment of creation and order, and the Yurugu Child, the vessel for Destruction and Chaos,” Antoine explains. His comic book series appeared in a special exhibit at area public libraries in 2021.
“Typically, it takes at least a six-person team to create a comic book. We are a team of only two people. I’m the creator, writer, penciler, colorist, and graphic designer. My wife is the editor,” says Antoine, who works as a graphic designer and visual artist.
Father and son artist team Pat and Andre Juneau, travel to the Baton Rouge Arts Market each month to showcase whimsical Louisiana motifs, folk art sculptures, and furniture, they craft out of aluminum from their workshop in Scott, Louisiana.
“We design our art objects on a computer then cut them out of aluminum using a CNC plasma table. The plasma cutter works like an electric torch. We hammer the pieces, weld them together and paint them,” Andre explains.
Andre is a trained welder, and his dad, Pat, is a skilled blacksmith. Together, they’ve been creating metal art since 1990.
Art takes on many forms at the market, including Catherine Talley’s artisanal soaps in a rainbow of colors and cornucopia of scents.
“I create my recipes of handmade soap using lye, oils, and natural glycerine, which is very moisturizing. These ingredients create a bubbly, moisturizing, nourishing bar of soap,” Catherine says.
Her company Fern Meadow Soap also sells handmade soaps at Mid-City Artisans market, where I meet up with artists and entrepreneurs George and Maria Harris.
The couple opened Mid-City Artisans on Government Street in downtown Baton Rouge as a store, art gallery, and community space.
“We were doing the craft shows and markets, and we felt like we needed a place that was open regularly throughout the week instead of weekends or a few times a month. We wanted a place that supports the arts, where makers could sell what they create,” George says. He is a woodworker, and his wife, Maria, is a floral designer.
“There are so many talented people that love to create, and they want to share it with other people, and they want to share it with us. They are working full-time jobs trying to do craft shows on the weekend. I feel that we have created a community of artists happy to have this space. May still do their shows, and this is another avenue to sell, “ Maria says.
Mid-City Artisans sells a wide range of creations by Louisiana artists and makers, including woodworking, paintings, jewelry, soaps, pottery, origami, paper piling art, and sculptures.
“In the store, we feature anything handmade by Louisiana people. That’s the only real requirement that we have, but we are not themed,” George says.
“Our vision is to promote the arts in the Greater Baton Rouge area and Louisiana artisans. We do that through sales. We do that through classes,” Maria adds.
“We want to work with the schools to provide art shows where the kids can exhibit their art in the store. We have an art learning center, classroom, and event space. We host special events, including regular poetry slams and meet the artists evenings where the public can watch them work on their craft,” Maria explains.
Mid-City Artisans displays works in a series of vignettes that mixes various art and craft items to show their creative synergy in a single setting. A visit to Mid-City Artisans feels like a warm welcome into the personal home of George and Maria Harris, two passionate craftspeople and Lousiana arts ambassadors sharing their love of handmade items and stories about the people who make them. I highly recommend a visit to experience Baton Rouge’s creative culture and shop for one-of-a-kind design finds.