Breaking away Studio Inferno moving its Bywater glass works to Arabi theater

Glass artist Mitchell Gaudet stands at the door of a former movie theater on St. Claude Avenue and looks out. To his right, he can see the refurbished Jackson Barracks complex.

Across the way, he notes the two-pump gas station with a tile roof, still in business. And to his left, a block or so away, is Gerald’s Donuts, a favorite haunt. Gaudet is in Old Arabi in St. Bernard Parish and the one-time movie theater behind him is the new home of Studio Inferno.

“I sold the Inferno building last spring,” Gaudet says of the hulking structure that he and his former partners bought back in 1992 to house glass furnaces and artists’ studios. “I’m leasing space there now, but this will be Inferno’s new home. Our goal is to be able to light up the furnaces here by June 1 of next year.”

Bywater without Studio Inferno? The idea seems almost heretical, for when Gaudet bought the building at Royal and Montegut two decades ago, the mere presence of the artful enclave helped launch and then supported the revival of Bywater and its transition into the thriving and colorful neighborhood that it is today.

“My dad told me we were crazy when we bought in that area back then,” Gaudet said. “Now look at it.”

A New Orleans native who grew up in the 9th Ward and attended high school at Holy Cross, Gaudet studied art at Louisiana State University before earning a Master of Fine Arts degree from Tulane University.

His one-of-a-kind cast glass objects appear in exhibitions at Arthur Roger Gallery and he offers works from his production line at various emporia, including the shop at Inferno. Gaudet has taught and exhibited internationally, as well.

He is frank about his reasons for selling the Bywater building and moving his operation to Arabi.

“I really couldn’t afford to stay there,” he said. “Property taxes went up to $14,000 a year, and here they are a tenth of that. I was going to have to raise the rents on the studio spaces for artists and I didn’t want to do that, so I put three pieces of property I owned up for sale at the same time and told myself that whichever two sold first, the third one I would keep. I knew that would be this building.”

The Arabi Movie Theater dates back to 1947. From the few images that Gaudet could find, it was not a frilly movie palace, but a no-nonsense community gathering spot.

“I like history, and the building has it,” Gaudet says. “I can’t tell you how many people I meet down here who tell me their first date was at the Arabi Movie Theater or that they had their first kiss here.”

Gaudet is equally enchanted by the history of Arabi, part of which was once the easternmost edge of New Orleans and home to the city’s abattoirs, or slaughterhouses.

“Arabi has so much going for it,” he said. “There’s a new arts pavilion and they’re renovating the old Maumus School on Friscoville into a community center. It’s a Waggoner & Ball (Architects) project and it’s going to have a planetarium — the metal infrastructure is already up.

“My wife has a place on Mehle that she uses for her metal sculpture, and the second floor is vacant, so we’re thinking we can put artists’ studios up there.

“There’s the LeBeau Plantation house, Domino Sugar, just so much.”

Gaudet’s wife, Erica Larkin, creates sculpture and furniture in her Arabi workshop.

However passionate he may feel about Arabi and its future, Gaudet realizes it’s a risk to move his furnaces and display room downriver.

“The Bywater is just so established now that we get great foot traffic there,” he said. “So it will take time for things to come together here.”

The one-time theater encompasses 12,000 square feet that Gaudet will use for a retail space, glass furnaces, workshop, office and storage. Although the building was solid, it needed attention to the roof, a work still in progress.

The interior spaces have been configured and painted, the terrazzo floor polished, and loading bays installed on the side. Gaudet’s office is finished, its bookcases lined with vintage glass and crockery he has excavated and the walls covered with religious objects and antique funerary pieces that inspire his work. A glass window enables him to look out and see what’s going on in the work spaces.

The furnaces at the Bywater Inferno were lit earlier this week for the last time. After Jazz Fest, they will be packed up and transported by a professional moving company to their new home just across the parish line.

But before that happens, Gaudet plans a series of tag sales at the Bywater location to clear out glass art and other items he has collected there, including close to 300 rusty, vintage bicycles.

“The goal is to sell as many things as possible so that there’s nothing to move,” he said.

R. Stephanie Bruno is a contributing writer. Contact her at rstephaniebruno@gmail.com.