Stepping into the illustrated café going in at the Acadiana Center for the Arts is a bit like stepping into the mind of Aileen Bennett.

The Lafayette illustrator's immersive public art project, to be unveiled in its entirety in October, will transform an existing, minimalist café into a black-and-white, real-life comic strip that people can populate and photograph.

"This is literally a different world you enter," Bennett said. "It's like stepping inside my brain or into someone's very posh living room with some hidden humor thrown in."

White tables and chairs will be outlined in black ink to go with two-dimensional backdrops and props. With a mix of 3D and 2D objects, it can be difficult to determine what's real and what's not.

The furniture, although it may look like it's made of paper, will all be real.

Other plans for the space include a real piano, a fake wedding cake and a real fireplace with a hand-drawn fire.

"This is a great space in the ACA that is underutilized," said Jaik Faulk, visual arts director for the Acadiana Center for the Arts. "We have beautiful, tall ceilings. We have a lot of space. It's all sunlit. It's basically a soft box that lights itself, so it's perfect for photography."

The preview piece went into place this week. Eventually, the entire ACA café will be illustrated. 

It's an extensive undertaking that requires sanding and painting furniture white then outlining it strategically in black and sealing with a protective coat that's sanitizer friendly. Bennett has wanted to do the project for years, but she quickly realized that she couldn't do it alone and enlisted volunteers from the community to help.

"They correct me if I call it my project," Bennett said with a laugh. "It's now their project. It blew me away, that there's like 100 people who are desperate to come and sand things and paint and donate."

Funded in part through an ArtSpark grant, the illustrated café could also bring attention to the downtown arts hub at a time when foot traffic has declined significantly in the area due to the pandemic.

It will be a different kind of tourist spot than most in Cajun Country, attracting those in search of something quirky and a little social media clout. 

"It's not Cajun," Bennett said. "It's just creative."

There's a plan to include postcards and guides to other spots in downtown Lafayette and Acadiana for visitors who may not be familiar with the area.

"So many of the cultural activities we have are really time-limited," said Sam Oliver, executive director of the Acadiana Center for the Arts. "They're a festival or a weekend event, so this could be helpful when you get a person who's just coming through town and doesn't really have a good guide for what to do and where to go and how to participate."

The public exhibit will be in place from October through January. Afterward, the illustrated café could find a new home somewhere else.

Because the project doesn't belong to Bennett or the ACA at the end of the day. It belongs to the community.

"People have been stepping forward and adding their ideas," Bennett said. "And I'm so glad that they feel like they can because creativity is not great in a vacuum."


Email Megan Wyatt at mwyatt@theadvocate.com.