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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Friday, March 13, 2015

Swimming Upstream

This morning George joined me in the bedroom after painting all night.  We stood at the window and watched the sunrise.
     “There’s only one owl,” I whispered.
     “Maybe they split up,” he replied.
But we both knew better.


We wanted to see the bears.

In 2003, while in Alaska, George Rodrigue and I flew in a seaplane to a remote shore area near a trailhead.  Neither of us were hikers; we preferred walking in the woods. This particular day we followed the trail while clapping and singing (Jimmy Swaggart spirituals, as I recall) lest we surprise the locals, finally reaching a small cabin-type structure over a river. 

Now quiet, we hunkered low in the lookout and waited.  

Immediately, we were distracted---not by bears, but by fish---so many salmon that to pinpoint one, much less count the many, was impossible.  They swam furiously in a sea of themselves, an undulating phenomenon.  I whispered to George,

“I’ve never seen anything or anyone fight so hard for something.”  

He nodded in silence and, amazed, we studied the situation, barely noticing the bears as they stuffed themselves at the buffet.


(pictured, Baby George and Boogie Bear, 1995 by George Rodrigue, silkscreen edition 90, 30x21 inches)

We learned later that the salmon, born in a small freshwater pond, swim with the current to the ocean, where they wander far and wide in the saltwater for several months or several years, depending on the variety, until an alarm sounds somewhere inside and says, That’s enough, Time to go, at which point they take a hard turn into that same freshwater stream, for an even harder fight, this time against the current, complete with boulders and raging water and bears, to reach the very place where they were born.

What’s the big deal with salmon fishing?...George and I wanted to know, realizing we could grab the fish with our hands.  Turns out, however, that by the time the fish begin this journey in earnest, they are already decomposing, a detail that makes no difference to a bear, but turns the stomach of us humans.


(from Why is Blue Dog Blue?; click photo to enlarge)

Of the millions of fish, approximately one percent reach the end or, depending on one’s perspective, the beginning.  Of those that do, the females, just prior to their deaths, lay their eggs in the shallow water.  The males, decaying all the while, use their last ounce of virility to fight over fertilization rights.  It’s no wonder, we mused, that a diet rich in salmon is recommended for increasing testosterone levels in humans.

At sunset, following a full day with the fish, we stood on the shore awaiting our return flight and, as a bonus, spotted the bald eagles.  In my memory, it seems that there were hundreds of them, a bird we seldom saw before, and only singularly, in the Big Sur Wilderness near Carmel.  Yet on this late summer’s day in Alaska, the most revered of America’s birds crowded the tops of the pines, no doubt attracted, like the bears, and like us, by the distracted and unsuspecting fish. 


(from Why is Blue Dog Blue?; click photo to enlarge)

Since visiting Alaska twelve years ago, we often recalled the salmon, especially during the last few months of George’s life. Their story unfolds like a Shakespearean drama, a metaphor for existence, really.  It’s dust-to-dust, with the will to live and the desire to love falling somewhere in between. 

Once, a few years ago, after several misdiagnoses regarding a skin discoloration on my torso, I became a class project (a lab rat) at a university hospital where the professor, standing over me, explained my rare condition.  As I reclined on the table while George and half a dozen interns looked on, the doctor stated, matter-of-factly,

“Your epidermis is decaying.”

In horrified unison and to the confusion of all, George and I exclaimed, 

 “Like the salmon?!” 

Followed by...

“Will I (she) smell?!”

(The skin condition, by the way, is called morphea; my case is painless and relatively mild, and it provides the excellent service of keeping my vanity in check.)


For all of his paintings of oak trees and one dog, George was not a naturalist or nature-painter.  Therefore I have no paintings of Alaska ---- or of salmon or bears (excepting stuffed bears) or eagles to share with you.  He did enjoy photographing nature. However, with a few exceptions, those images remain within his files, a place I can’t yet face.  So we’ll all have to wait and, as George would expect me to do anyway, revisit the salmon another time. 

As I’ve shared often within lectures and essays, although George admired plein air painters, he was not one himself; nor did he paint nature from his photographs, even though he used photography as a tool, usually cutting and pasting elements from the photographs to create fabricated designs on his canvas. 

He also used photography for inspiration.  In fact, in the late 1960s, before he painted Louisiana, he photographed it. After studying his slides he realized that no matter what or whom he photographed, “Every picture contained a tree.”

It was this realization that lead him to choose the Oak Tree as his shape and symbol, not based on a particular tree in nature, but rather on his tree, the one “in here,” he used to say, while clutching his chest. He developed a style of painting the tree, with hard edges and dissected by the canvas, so that the sky and light create interesting shapes beneath the branches, rather than overhead.

“If you stand here, Miss Wendy,” noted a wise child, as she took my hand during a school fieldtrip at the Besthoff Sculpture Garden, “the light shines from underneath the trees, just like in Mr. George’s paintings.”


(pictured, The Road Back, 2008 by George Rodrigue, water-based oil on canvas, 18x24; click photo to enlarge-)

These days, when I awaken at night, I don’t find George, as I did before, at his easel.  But I do feel him in these ‘fish stories’ and, although I’m rarely in Louisiana anymore, in nature.  I sense him on the white sands and green waters of Okaloosa Island, in the long shadows cast by the short New Mexican pinons, and within the eyes of animals he never painted ---- such as Zoey, my sister Heather’s family dog.


George and I felt linked to a pair of great horned owls that joined us for years to watch the sunrise from behind our home in Carmel Valley.  The giant nocturnal birds, however, always left in the morning mist, long before the light allowed a decent photograph.

On Thanksgiving Day 2014, in the golden afternoon sunshine of Galisteo, New Mexico, an unlikely visitor moved a small gathering to silence.  He remained a long time, maybe half an hour, watching these family and friends, among them myself, George’s son André, and, as a group, the artist-peers George most admired, the closest thing he knew to a Blaue Reiter or Vienna Secession, and the reason he visited Santa Fe every year since this artists' community first welcomed him with a solo exhibition in the mid-1980s.  One way or another, I heard from almost all of them over the following weeks, each one believing the owl to have been a mystical occurrence or visitor of some kind.

-click photo to enlarge-


I don’t know if George has tried to contact me or not.  I don't even know if I believe in such things.  I feel sure, however, that the owl is more likely a sign than the salmon, which is found, in my new southwestern home, only at select restaurants.  What I do know is that I’m still swimming upstream, looking for him, despite the odds ….. everywhere.

Wendy

*With this return to blogging, I realize, at last, that I’m the keeper of the memories, and that if I don’t write them down and get them out of my head, then the stories end.  I also have journals of notes and half-finished essays based on conversations with George.  No promises on how often I'll post, however, because, well, reliving us without him is ….

*The companion images of George and of me within this post are digital collages (2013, 20x20 inches, editions 50; click photos to enlarge), a combination of paintings and photographs arranged and colored by George in his computer, then printed on heavy rag paper. Wendy is his last artwork that includes me; and Rodrigue is his last self-portrait-

*Our owl visitor was photographed by George's friend, artist Douglas Magnus. Over a 25-year period, the two collaborated on numerous unique buckles and jewelry designs, such as this belt, which they made for me in 2012-



*In recent months, the Rodrigue family took on personally both George's Facebook page and the foundation’s, expanding the posts to feature not only his art, but also quotes, stories, and photographs.  Please join us on Facebook at The Art of George Rodrigue and The George Rodrigue Foundation of the Arts.  Also, find us on instagram-





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