Tuesday, August 25, 2015

For New Orleans

Ten years ago this week George and I were in Houston, Texas with most of our staff for an exhibition of his work.  None of us knew what was coming and that it would be many months before we returned home to New Orleans.  
In memory of those times, I share with you below a story I wrote in 2011 for the New Orleans weekly paper, Gambit, and integrated later within the book, The Other Side of the Painting (UL Press, 2013).  Honoring, today and always, a wonderful and unique city-
*Photographs by Tony Bernard and Don Sanders, September 21, 2005; click to enlarge-
For New Orleans
From the back porch of our Faubourg Marigny home, I see the west bank of the Mississippi River through the branches of our enormous tree, a live oak that Mr. Foche probably nurtured himself when he built this house in 1835.
God only knows what the tree has endured. Nicholas Foche, a free man of color from Jamaica, arrived long before the levees. That means that the Mississippi River rushed periodically through the ground floor, from the back door to the front. The water settled at times, I know it did. It delivered alligators, snakes, and lots and LOTS of rats, and it bred millions of mosquitoes, spreading fever, disease and death throughout this, a great American city.
As a series, I don’t think the HBO production Tremé (based on a neighborhood only a few blocks from ours) is fabulous, but on the other hand, the fact that I find it difficult to watch may be a testament to its insight. I recall the pilot as a misrepresentation, even a joke, on behalf of the Tremé writers to suggest restaurants and groceries and water bills and newly painted houses and dumpsters and taxis (and Elvis Costello and a limousine!) and Zapp’s potato chips and safe neighborhoods, and people who feel like singing — all just three months after the storm.
And yet right this second, six years to the day after George Rodrigue and I (the oh-so-fortunate) sat in a hotel room in Houston and watched on television as our city drowned, I sit on our 175-year-old porch and watch the tops of the ships go by. I see tourists wave to the shore of the river that made Louisiana the key state in Napoleon’s sale of 828,000 square miles of this country, and I watch our oak tree, now held together by steel wires and sprouting strong, near floating, swaying, and shaking its branches to the beat of New Orleans. Three months after or six years after — I guess it doesn’t much matter.

We were the lucky ones. Out of our house for only nine months. No flooding. But much of the old asbestos roof blew off, leaving our house wet, moldy, uninhabitable, and yet nothing to complain about. I’m ashamed, but nevertheless admit, that as we stayed with our former neighbors in Lafayette, George and I worried about our tree:
“What should we do? How can we save it?”
We couldn’t ask for help. It’s a tree!
Through the kindness of a police officer we were allowed into New Orleans three days before Hurricane Rita struck. We saw an abandoned city, a twilight zone, not a car, not a person, not a bird, not a sound, nothing. We walked through an empty and immaculate Jackson Square, perhaps the only place in New Orleans devoid of debris, the backdrop of our president's televised speech.
We found our back door wide open and our house remarkably, shockingly, without vandalism. In the 100-degree heat we climbed up and down the Creole townhouse's three flights removing paintings.
You see, we did not evacuate, but rather, by happenstance, were in Houston for an exhibition. Evacuation differs from weekend travel. Weekend travel is cocktail dresses, bathing suits and make-up. Evacuation, however, is paintings and photo albums and whatever that last little thing is that one dreams of having on a deserted island.
These are the things we grabbed. Silent and rushing, we observed our tree from a distance. Its roots raised our courtyard in places three, five, and six feet high, so that we couldn’t get close. The oak was split but standing, with George’s life-size painted fiberglass cow (from the 1999 Chicago Cow Parade) caught upside down, high in its branches. Pained for our entire city, we stared silently at our tree and ignored the complaints of our (later replaced) insurance adjustor:
“I can’t work in these hot conditions! Where can I get a cold drink? Don't you have a better way to pack those paintings? That bathroom is filthy!”
We have pictures of all of this, but I hate looking at them and share only the few in this essay.

Tremé misses a lot. But I think that’s okay. The show actually idealizes us in some important ways, too painful, too heady, and too political to detail here. However, I’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who wouldn’t fall on their knees to see a Mardi Gras Indian dressed and singing with conviction even now in their street.
And yet our oak, twice each year since Katrina, holds parrots, a whole hierarchy of them, from the top of the tree to the bottom, the macaws to the finches, a migrating flock of freed animals, perhaps the meaningful equivalent of a costumed tradition.
I realize that Tremé is a TV show; it’s reality-based fiction, not a documentary. It’s okay with me that the story is skewed. And it must rouse feelings for everyone here in New Orleans who watches it. Somehow Tremé makes us look wonderful and like a third world country, both at the same time. Heck, just three months after Katrina we’re downright beguiling! But then, maybe we always were.
I remember the first time I laughed after the storm: My friend Geri described the $200,000 worth of rodent damage to her house as "squirrels gone wild."
I remember the first time I sang: It was Lundi Gras 2006 (the day before Fat Tuesday), and the Chee Weez lead thousands of us, strangers from the entire Gulf Coast, people from Biloxi, Pass Christian, Slidell, almost all living in FEMA trailers, gathered together at Spanish Plaza and singing a capella as though we'd practiced it for months,
"Jeremiah was a bullfrog, Was a good friend of mine..."*
Treasure New Orleans. Go to Vaughn’s and hear Kermit Ruffins. Eat a po’ boy. Visit the New Orleans Museum of Art. Dance at Mulate’s.  Ride an airboat through the swamp.  Drink a hurricane. Take a cemetery tour. Admire the oaks. And if nothing else, walk on a levee.
Remember.
Wendy

*"Joy to the World" by Hoyt Axton

Note: Prints from George Rodrigue's painting We Will Rise Again raised $700,000 for local humanitarian relief following Hurricane Katrina.  See the original painting, on view through October 4th 2015 at Rodrigue Studio, New Orleans.  Full story linked here-


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Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Magic People


“I never thought before that I was interesting, but after talking with you, I realize that I’m fascinating!” –Roz Cole

In September 2013 I spent several weeks in a New York City hospital room with George Rodrigue’s longtime literary agent, Rosalind Cole.  Weak from his medication’s side effects, George couldn’t travel, and I remember well standing at sunrise on the curb of the tiny airport in Monterey, California, crying as he drove away. 

I didn’t want to leave him. 

George’s son André arrived later that day and remained throughout my absence.  Roz, on the other hand, was alone.  Intensely private and without any family, she trusted only us with her secret, telling no one in New York of her illness, a cancer that would take her life some six months later.  George and I both loved her; and although few others understood our actions, we knew that I had to go.


(pictured:  Rosalind Paige Cole, 1926-2014, with The Dog Who Lives at the Waldorf- )

As often happened with Roz, things were complicated.  She rejected modern treatments and medical teams, demanding instead the impossible:  “a cure” and “an old-fashioned doctor.”

The best I could do was listen and try, albeit with little success, to ease her distress in some way.  Usually this included distractions, whether a phone-call from "Georgie," a lengthy game of 22, or a walk down memory lane.


(pictured:  Roz and Georgie, New York City, 2010; click photo to enlarge-)

Because she insisted on privacy, Roz panicked if she caught me taking notes.  Yet the narrator in me revered her nostalgia.  I kept my notebook open on my knees beneath her hospital tray and scribbled without seeing the pages.  It’s a betrayal for which I have no regrets.


Roz Cole represented dozens of celebrity authors over the years, including legendary actors Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland, Irish poet and playwright Brendan Behan, and astrologer Sybil Leek, dubbed “Britain’s most famous witch” by the BBC.

I’ll trickle out the stories and notes one way or another over time.  But today I share with you below, exactly as Roz shared with me, a snippet recalling perhaps her most famous client and their legendary art world publication.

(pictured:  a ‘selfie’ by George Rodrigue, with a photograph of Andy Warhol with his camera by Annie Leibovitz, New Orleans, 2011; click photo to enlarge-)


I first met Andy at a dinner party. He was on one side of me, with Bob Colacello on the other.  We started talking and I said, “You should do a book called The Philosophy of Andy Warhol.”  I gave him the title right there.

He leaned across me and said, “Bob, she wants me to do a book, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol.  What do you think?”

He said, “Good idea.”

The next day I called Harcourt Brace and told them about the book and that Bob would write it.  The editor said, “I love it, I’ll buy it, we’re ready to do it, we’re on.”

I called Andy, and he said Great! I called Bob and he said Great!  And from then on Andy called me “A Magic Person.”

I wasn’t just talk, he said.  I made things happen.


That was the beginning; and we did a lot of books together.

He gave a birthday party for me at Pearl’s (Chinese restaurant on 48th).  He gave me a beautiful shawl from Halston.  Andy and I got along really well.

Patrick O’Higgins* was also Andy’s friend, and he had fifteen cat drawings (from Sam).  And when Patrick died, he left them to me.  But they weren’t signed.  I told Andy and he told me to bring them to The Factory, and so I did.

Andy removed them from the frames and signed them. 

“Did you hang them?” I asked.

No! They’ve been stacked on the floor in my apartment ever since.  On the wall I have a Blue Dog in a King’s robe.  It’s above my bed.  I love it.


How the hell are we going to get out of here, Wendy?

***
Rest in Peace, Roz.

Wendy

*Patrick O'Higgins, author of the hugely entertaining Madame:  An Intimate Biography of Helena Rubenstein (1971, The Viking Press) was also one of Roz's authors-

-pictured above:  Mardi Gras ’96, an original silkscreen by George Rodrigue; learn more here-

-George and I produced ten books with Roz Cole between 1994 and 2012, working with publishers including Viking Penguin, Harry N. Abrams, Stewart, Tabori & Chang, Sterling, and Rizzoli; see the collection here-




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Thursday, June 11, 2015

Boundless: Saved by Art

Early last year I retreated for three months to a tiny cottage in Seaside, Florida.  I was raised on nearby Okaloosa Island, and as I searched for 'home' ....alone... this community provided physical safety and comforting memories, especially during the quiet off-season between Christmas and spring break.  

Around 1980 I watched, with my mother and sister, this pastel Gulf front town arise from the white sand.

My temporary residence, a two-room carriage house behind a family's large second home, hinted of my grad school years, when I lived in a similar space behind an historic home in New Orleans' Irish Channel.  Yet even as the space seemed right; everything else was wrong ----not the least of which was the art.

The sand was too white; the water too blue; the sunshine too bright; the grocery store too domestic; the restaurants too romantic; the neighbors too happy.  Just two blocks from the too-beautiful beach, I remained exclusively indoors with my situation, my self pity, and my grief.

My sister helped me.  We emptied the walls of their vacation-home kitsch --- paintings of Seaside maps, palm trees, oversize coffee cups, and floral bouquets.

We replaced them with what became my "traveling art collection" (joined soon after by the "traveling crystal"), the space transformed by George Rodrigue, Hunt Slonem, and Mallory Page.

Weeks later, as I sat at the top of the stairs without any conceivable reason to descend, I realized that, by coincidence, Today I am Fuchsia, and I snapped a photo ---my first since my world slammed shut, tight.  Heretofore trapped within my screaming emotions in a tiny house, I began to open.  It was through these canvas worlds, as opposed to the real world, that my boundaries (and my fear) loosened.


(pictured:  February 2014, Somewhere in Seaside, Florida with Today I am Fuchsia, 2013 by Mallory Page, Mixed Media on Canvas)

Soon after, Page, who worked feverishly after having married in a fever, announced a new book of her artwork.  "Would you write the Foreword?" she asked.

I was honored, not only as a longtime fan of Page's work, but also because she became family when she married my stepson, Jacques Rodrigue.  She writes tenderly and admiringly of George within The Alchemy Never Starts or Never Stops, her award-winning monograph* published this spring:

"...he was a gentle and nurturing mentor, an artist himself, and was always generous with his pieces of precious wisdom."


Boundless:  The Art of Mallory Page
An essay by Wendy Rodrigue


An effective painting requires mystery.  

Recently, I overheard a group of gallery visitors searching for meaning within Mallory Page’s paintings.

“I see a window,” said one.

“I see a light in the window,” said another.


Page’s work, like all profound artistic statements, suffers this human preoccupation with imagery.  In her case, the obvious also complicates matters, as it’s hard to ignore the beauty of these works, often prompting mundane observations such as,

“Nice colors.”

 Furthermore, she inspires in viewers the need to analyze:

“Reminds me of Frankenthaler,” noted an art student.

“Agnes Martin,” added another.

The comparisons in particular peak my interest because Page accedes these influences.  Yet if we close our eyes and erase the connections to Abstract Expressionism’s legendary figures, no matter how flattering they are to Page or any artist, we might open our eyes and look, perhaps even see Page’s paintings anew.


All abstraction is not alike.  By its nature, if sincere, it reveals the artist.  If effective, it simultaneously mirrors the viewer.  In other words, the meaning vacillates, depending as much on the person standing before it as it does on the person holding the brush.

The great thing about Page is that all of it --- the search for imagery, the power of the obvious or literal, and the link to her predecessors --- is valid. 

Regrettably, at times this reduces meaning to meaninglessness, and artistic messages to the esoteric.  Yet surrounded recently at a museum by the figures, flowers, and still lifes of Matisse, Monet, and Cezanne, I overheard repeatedly, shouted by headphone-affected voices, “I love the colors!” and similar nonesuch, proving that it takes less than abstraction to blind us and more than the recognizable to transport us.


Mallory Page’s paintings, like all great Abstract Expressionist works, challenge finite descriptions.  In Page’s case, they are unique expressions of a single soul revealed, exposed, turned inside out.  The imagery, the “light in a window,” is no more real in Page’s paintings than the rabbit formed for a few seconds by the clouds in the sky.  Yet the vulnerability within her statements is raw and brave, creating something that, even if it does complement one’s decor, emotes the depth of her person and, just maybe, poses questions of the viewer, forcing us to look inward.

Most of us are slaves to meaning.  I recall years ago reading a book, found among a university library’s stacks, about Mark Rothko’s paintings for the de Menil Collection in Houston.  Despite Rothko’s insistence to the contrary, the author argued that the paintings, now installed at the Rothko Chapel, are the Stations of the Cross.  The author went further, breaking down the subtle brushstrokes and applied paint into the actual imagery of Christ carrying the cross. 

Even then, new to the academics of art, I wondered at this forced attachment, all the while pondering myself the meaning of these black paintings. 


Abstract Expressionism, however, exists as a pure assertion of the verbally inexpressible, a stripped rendering of color, shape (or lack of shape), and composition that, upon analysis, remains enigmatic and something other than those parts.

Mallory Page is a master of the mysterious and the now, drawing us into her works, utilizing a language that transcends time, gender, and place.  Yes, the colors are beautiful, and Page is for many decorators a dream.  Yet through her unique application, she exposes her soul in an intimate painterly act that reveals, in these atmospheric works, the universal.

If we allow Page’s paintings to exist on their own, further beyond our objectifications and comparisons, then we experience them fully, risking, blissfully, our ability to discuss them.  With the loss of the verbal comes the mystical and the boundless.  It is this heightened awareness that supersedes “nice colors” and sends us, helplessly, into the quiet, conscious expanse.

Wendy


*Mallory Page's monograph, The Alchemy Never Starts or Never Stops received a Runner's Up Award for Best Art Book at the 2015 New York Book Festival; learn more about this beautiful publication here-

-Visit mallorypage.com to learn of exhibitions, book signings and available paintings-

-All artwork in this post by Mallory Page, as listed below, mixed media on canvas:
     The Alchemy Never Starts or Never Stops, from "Broken Snow Globe," 2013, 72x96 inches
     Melting with the Moonlit Sky, 2014, 87x96 inches
     Venus at Rest Somewhere Beyond Understanding, from "Married in a Fever," 2014, 60x84 inches
     Truth or Consequences, from "Forces of Change and Challenge," 2014, 87x96 inches
     Maudeville, 2015, a series of works on paper, 22.5x30 inches










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Thursday, May 14, 2015

Circle of Life: Round Paintings

As I understand it, the bright-colored mandala represents the universe; its creation in sand and its inevitable destruction represent the impermanence of life.*

Some years ago I asked George Rodrigue if he would paint, for me, a meditative symbol.  He replied, naturally…

“I already have.”


(pictured:  Circle of Life, 2002, an original silkscreen by George Rodrigue, signed and numbered edition of 25, 40x40 inches; click the photo to enlarge this striking image-)

The Blue Dog stares at us, looking for answers; and we stare back with the same universal questions, the ones that have challenged humankind from the beginning:  Who am I? Where am I going? …and... the question that most haunted us (and now me) in recent years, whispered aloud, yet to no one, late nights in the dark…

How did we get here?


(pictured:   Wheel of Fortune, 2002, acrylic on canvas by George Rodrigue, 36 inch diameter; click photo to enlarge-)

The same can be said of most iconic artistic interpretations throughout history ---whether a painting of a religious leader, such as the Buddha or Jesus, a mesmerizing human, such as da Vinci’s Mona Lisa or Rembrandt’s self-images, or even a landscape such as Monet’s Water Lilies or Van Gogh’s Starry Night. 

If successful, the painting provides no answers.  Rather, it forces us to question and contemplate.  The imagery (or lack of, such as Rothko’s color fields or Pollock’s drips), as with life itself, transports us at once into both the here-and-now, as well as the anywhere-and-anytime.

-click the photo of this intense painting (always one of George's favorites) to enlarge-


(pictured:  The Future is Now, 2002, acrylic on canvas by George Rodrigue, 46 inch diameter)

Ultimately, for me (and I daresay for George, who also spoke this way), if the mystery endures, then the painting holds up.   I guess the same can be said for life itself; because, as we all know, the only thing we can truly count on is change.


(pictured:  Roulette, 2002, acrylic on canvas by George Rodrigue, 36 inch diameter)

Outwardly, George spoke of these round paintings in terms of color, shape, and line.  He referred to the works as abstract:

“You can’t take a Blue Dog from one painting and switch it with one from another.  The color changes according to whatever other color is alongside it.”


(pictured:  ‘Round the Mulberry Bush, 2002, acrylic on canvas by George Rodrigue, 36 inch diameter)

But behind the scenes, he spoke often of these round works as mandalas, or as metaphors for both the mystery and unity of life.

“The mandala,” wrote Carl Jung, “is an archetypal image whose occurrence is attested throughout the ages.  It signifies the wholeness of the Self.  This circular image represents the wholeness of the psychic ground or, to put it in mythic terms, the divinity incarnate in man.”

In the painting Consequences (below, 2002), George swirls his shapes and colors so that the abstract (the mystery) becomes more important than the dog. George was so obsessed with this near-cosmic swirling and symbol-of-the-whole that he challenged the composition further, making sure to incorporate, even if most viewers might not notice, his other inescapable iconic shape. His oak tree appears as an abstracted trunk-like presence in the upper left portion of the canvas.


“My paintings are like puzzles,” George often said.  “Once the puzzle is complete, then the painting is finished.”

(pictured below:  Puzzle of Life, as I photographed the canvas on George’s easel in the early morning hours, just after he finished painting it, 2002; Carmel, California-)


Perhaps the real chaos, the most dangerous discord, lies within our minds.*

“Stay close to the floor, Wendy...” 

...advised my meditation teacher many times in recent years.  

“Relax the struggle.” 

And in my darkest hours, when I can barely lift my head for missing George, I remember those words and move to my mat.


And afterwards, always, I feel better.

Wendy

*read also “Tranquility from Chaos," an account of when George and I watched the Drepung Loseling monks create and destroy a mandala in Santa Fe, New Mexico; The Other Side of the Painting, UL Press, 2013, pp. 377-380; details here-

-for a related post see "Blue Dog: The Abstract Paintings, 2001-2003"; see also "Hurricanes," another Rodrigue series painted primarily on round canvases-

-pictured above and below:  contemplating Rodrigue and a new book on his art while visiting the historically artistic Wyeth-Hurd property in San Patricio, New Mexico; click photos to enlarge-

-several of the paintings featured in this post are on view through July 19th at RODRIGUE:  HOUSTON, an exhibition of 75 original works by George Rodrigue spanning 45 years; details here-


-a beautiful new book (above), Rodrigue:  The Sanders Collection, features the painting ‘Round the Mulberry Bush as a striking embossed image on the cover (just the kind of special treatment George would have designed); learn more here-

-coming soon:  a Fine Art silkscreen print of George Rodrigue’s ‘Round the Mulberry Bush (pictured within this post); estate stamped edition of 90, 40x40 inches; contact Rodrigue Studio for details-


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Monday, April 13, 2015

Rodrigue On Stage

George Rodrigue and I worked as a team on stage for many years. Recently, especially after he became ill, I filled in for him occasionally on my own; yet he was always there, coaching me beforehand and quizzing me afterwards.

(pictured, at the Clinton Library, Little Rock, Arkansas, 2010; click photo to enlarge-)


This weekend, for the first time, I’ll speak in public truly without him.  I’ve thought a lot about my half hour presentation----how best to represent George and our foundation, and how best to honor Louisiana’s young artists, brought together for the 6th annual GRFA Art Scholarship Awards Ceremony.  (Details and ticket info here-).

I’ve also thought about how, during my first return to Louisiana in more than a year, to face and answer questions with both the sincerity George’s fans deserve and the discretion that I require.  It’s a complicated and emotional pursuit, and I doubt I’ll have an answer... even as my plane lands... even as I approach the stage.

(pictured: Soul Mates, an original silkscreen by George Rodrigue, Artist Proof, 1997)


As long as I knew him, George lived outside of the box.  This was true in his art, in our relationship, and in his joie de vivre.  He broke rules and took chances, and he taught me to do the same ---to live by instinct and heart over establishment and expectations.

He wasn’t afraid, for example, of criticism that might accompany a short painting demonstration:

“I watched him paint that whole canvas in under an hour!” 

...exclaimed on-lookers, some impressed and some, especially after learning the price, aghast.

(pictured: A painting demonstration for the LSU Museum of Art, 2011; click photo to enlarge-)


In 1997 George and I first entertained an audience with a painting demonstration at the Red River Revel in Shreveport, Louisiana.  As he painted, I shared George’s history, while clarifying his style and approach through anecdotes.  

“I can’t talk and paint at the same time,” he laughed. 

This began a tradition, and we found ourselves in demand across the United States.  We presented similar events at the National Arts Educators Association Convention, the Clinton Library in Little Rock, Arkansas, the Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art at Auburn University, the Phoenix Art Museum, and numerous book fairs and schools.

For these demonstrations, we geared our unscripted banter to the audience.  George used large brushes and paint straight from the tube, an approach he developed for public painting because, he admitted, 

“If I had to watch an artist paint for as long as it really takes, I’d get bored.”  

He wanted his fans to see what appears to be a complete painting materialize from a blank canvas in under an hour, even if, in reality, it was only a rough design.

Subject matter usually included both the Blue Dog and the Oak Tree ---visual aids that materialized before the audience's eyes. In the loose sketch below, for example, painted during a 2001 lecture in Houston, Texas, George illustrates the simple elements that are the basis for his paintings.

-click photo to enlarge-


Using one of his typical landscape compositions, he emphasizes three components, each of equal importance on his canvas:  tree, background, and foreground.   He used these elements to create infinite arrangements of shapes.  This was the reason, he explained, that his paintings, even as he repeated the same subjects hundreds of times, remained varied and interesting to the eye.

Note:  The number “3,” which should indicate the foreground in the sketch above, is trapped instead inside of the oak.  After the lecture, George extended the trunk of the tree so that it better filled the space, creating a new bottom line to the oak’s shape, and covering part of the original foreground space.


Following the demonstration, George returned the painting to his studio where he reworked it for anywhere from several days to a week.  In the photo above, he shares the finished painting, My Second Birthday, completed in his Carmel, California studio following a painting and cooking presentation with Chef Paul Prudhomme. (story here)

“People thought it looked good on the stage,” he said.  “But I was never happy with it and always repainted it afterwards.”

Prior to these public painting demonstrations, George’s brushwork typically was tight.  However, influenced by his style on stage, he gradually loosened his approach on some canvases in the studio as well.  As a result many paintings since the late 1990s reveal looser, freer strokes.  Eventually, George admitted that, despite hundreds of tightly controlled compositions, one of his favorite ways to paint is to simply walk up to the canvas without any preconceived ideas.  He enjoyed working out a successful design based on the circumstances of the moment, while reflecting with honesty, his psyche.

“I know it will have a Blue Dog,” he said, “but beyond that, the challenge for me is in creating and just letting it happen.  That’s why my favorite painting is always the one I’m working on now.”

It is this approach, rather than a formal speech with lecture notes, that guides me on my return to the stage this weekend.  I’ll also unveil a few rarely seen paintings borrowed from the wall of George’s home studio.  My hope is that these symbols will embody, with both their personal and historical resonance, my partner’s influence, so that I might represent him well, with genuine and heartfelt sincerity during this auspicious event.

Wendy

-please join me in New Orleans on Saturday, April 18, 2015 for the George Rodrigue Foundation of the Arts Scholarship Luncheon, honoring 15 finalists from more than 600 statewide entries inspired by this year’s theme, “Louisiana’s Music.”  11:30 a.m. at the New Orleans Sheraton Hotel.  Details and tickets here- http://www.rodriguefoundation.org/site479.php

-don’t miss “Rodrigue:  Houston,” a special Texas exhibition opening this month.  Details here- https://georgerodrigue.com/rodrigue-houston/




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Wednesday, April 1, 2015

The Petro Brothers

“Ya’ here to look or to buy?...”

…barked Bud Petro from the porch of George Rodrigue’s Jefferson Street gallery.  From a rocking chair, he watched the Esso station he owned with his brother Norman, while monitoring and, according to George, “scaring away” potential Rodrigue collectors.

“I couldn’t tell him to leave,” laughed George.  “He was part of my gallery experience!” 


(pictured, The Petro Brothers, 1978 by George Rodrigue, oil on canvas, 30x40 inches; Bud and Norman Petro with André Rodrigue, photographed by George Rodrigue, 1978; click photos to enlarge)

George Rodrigue loved to tell and retell stories about his friends, long gone, and the Petro Brothers were among his favorite subjects for storytelling ...and for paintings.

Bud Petro (1909-1985) and Norman Petro (1917-2011) owned and operated the Lafayette, Louisiana Esso station, sharing a busy corner with Borden’s Ice Cream and Rodrigue’s Jefferson Street home and gallery. 


(pictured, Petro’s Newspaper, 1987 by George Rodrigue, oil on canvas, 14x11 inches; rather than buy his own, Petro read George’s paper every morning, returning it to the doorstep before George, who painted all night, awoke-)

Although friends with both brothers, George spoke most often of Bud.  “Petro” was his traveling companion for many years.  They drove much of the southeast and Texas together in George’s van, carrying paintings to clients.


On one journey, while parked at a Dallas, Texas café, they returned to a broken window and missing camera equipment.  To George’s relief, the thieves left the large paintings; however, they absconded with something far more valuable (in Petro’s mind) ---- Bud’s suitcase.

“My clothes!” 

...cried Petro about his irreplaceable wardrobe.  I can hear George in my head telling the story and laughing, as he described the polyester suits and wide collars that remained Bud’s staple long past the disco craze.

“He was so upset that he wouldn’t go to dinner,” recalled George.  “I met with my collectors and didn’t get back until late. When I knocked at Bud’s motel room with a bucket of chicken, he grabbed it, shouting, ‘Well it’s about time!,’ and slammed the door in my face.”


(pictured, a photograph George labeled “Mr. Petro,” showing Bud Petro (center) with Frankie Mandola (L) and Ray Hay, photographed by George Rodrigue at Ray Hay’s Cajun Po-Boys in Houston, Texas, 1978; notice the poster of Rodrigue’s classic Jolie Blonde, 1974; click photo to enlarge-)

George wrote of the painting below, as pictured in the cookbook, Talk About Good! (pub. 1979, Junior League of Lafayette)...

“This painting portrays Ray Hay holding his Cajun Po-Boy sandwich, and beside him is Bud Petro of Lafayette, Louisiana.  The two are discussing one of the new items on the menu, Petro’s juicy fried rabbit.  The preparation of the rabbit is so secret, that Mr. Petro was flown in to Houston to teach the cooks how to prepare this Cajun delicacy.”


George often photographed and painted his son André with Bud Petro, posing them in his Jefferson Street backyard and manipulating the landscape around the figures on his canvas.

(pictured, two versions of Let’s Play Ball, 1980 by George Rodrigue, oil on canvas, 40x30; click photos to enlarge-)


George’s favorite Petro Brothers images, however, are slides from a day among the azaleas with Diane Bernard Keogh.  He photographed Diane often and painted her numerous times over some thirty years, as Evangeline from Longfellow’s epic poem, Evangeline:  A Tale of Arcadie, 1847. (See a selection of paintings here-)

George loved these photographs and viewed them repeatedly, always laughing about young, beautiful Diane with the older, indelicate brothers.  (Note:  I had difficulty choosing here, so you get all of them; be sure to click the images to enlarge-)


These too became paintings, the last one finished the year Bud died. 

(pictured, Two Uncles and a Niece, 1985 by George Rodrigue, oil on canvas, 24x36; click photo to enlarge-)


George’s favorite Petro story, the one he retold countless times, recalled a trip to Shreveport with Bud, as they delivered a painting to Palmer Long (1921-2010), son of Louisiana Governor and U.S. Senator Huey Long (1893-1935):

 “Don’t open your mouth...” 

...warned George, as they approached the Long house.

But as the door opened, George fell silent, stunned by Palmer, whose eyes were exactly like his father’s. 

“I knew those eyes well,” said the artist, “because I had just finished painting them.”


(pictured, The Kingfish, 1980 by George Rodrigue, oil on canvas, 60x36 inches; click photo to enlarge, and learn more here-)

"Howdayado, Mr. Long," 

...said Bud, thrusting out his hand before George could stop him.

Without breathing, Petro blurted out, fast.....

“I wanna tell ya how much I appreciate your daddy havin’ made the highway run in front of my service station.”

Upstaged already, George realized that Palmer Long was more fascinated by Bud Petro than he was with the painting.  The two shared hunting stories, which also left out George, who was never a hunter.

As the evening wore on, Palmer showed off his prized wooden duck call: 

“Petro made a fuss over it,”

...recalled George, shaking his head.  

“Then he reached in his pocket, cupped his hands at his mouth, turned his back, and produced a far superior sound.”

Curious and impressed, Long asked to see the duck call.

“Petro turned around, slow....” 

...said George, a bit quiet and with a build-up...

 “...and then he fanned open, like butterfly wings, his empty hands.”

video

“Aww man," 

 continued George,

"…. it was fantastic.”

Wendy

-above:  me, imitating George, imitating Petro-

-for more on the Petro Brothers, read Norman Petro’s obituary here-

- please join me April 18 in New Orleans for the 2015 George Rodrigue Foundation of the Arts Scholarship Awards; details here-

- “Rodrigue: Houston,” a special exhibition with original Rodrigue paintings spanning 45 years, opens April 25, 2015; details here-


(above, with Frankie Mandola, photographed by Diane Bernard Keogh, Houston, Texas, 2013; click photo to enlarge-)




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