The Cajuns of George Rodrigue
By 1975 George Rodrigue was painting forty canvases a year, all scenes of Cajun folk-life stemming from his first painting with people, Aioli Dinner (1971), and incorporating the distinctive oak trees from his landscapes as well. Although he had a gallery in Lafayette, Louisiana, he was selling most of his work on the road in Houston, Dallas, Shreveport, Birmingham, Jackson, and other towns, usually from the trunk of his car, to collectors he met on referral from various contacts, especially restaurant and jewelry store owners that hung his prints in their businesses.
But when his son André was born in 1975, George wanted to find new clients without having to travel so much. He tried to get gallery representation, but there just weren’t many options in those years, especially in the South, and his efforts in New Orleans were unsuccessful.
Out of nowhere, opportunity knocked. Oxmoor House, which publishes Southern Living Magazine among other things, approached George about a book. Based in Birmingham, Alabama, they were familiar with George’s paintings and thought they might work well in the large-scale format books they were printing at the time. (They had just published Jericho: The South Beheld, by James Dickey and Hubert Shuptrine, one of the greatest southern publishing success stories ever).
George jumped at the idea, despite the catches: He would have to write the book himself, pay for the paintings to be photographed and for transparencies, and fund the project with a $75,000 commitment in book purchases. It was late afternoon on the Friday of Labor Day weekend, and he had $400 in the bank. He wrote a hot check to the publisher and spent the weekend knocking on doors of collectors (paintings-for-sale in hand), knowing he had to cover the check by the time the bank opened on Tuesday morning. He made some of it and borrowed most of it, using his hometown connections.
George still pulls this kind of stuff off today ----figuring out how to make something happen even when the odds seem long (or impossible) to the rest of us. The new Rodrigue Gallery on Royal Street in New Orleans comes to mind, as does his former studio on Jefferson Street in Lafayette, Louisiana (pictured below, 1978..... be sure and notice Tiffany crossing the road), which he doubled in size by jacking the first floor up fifteen feet and building a new floor underneath, as does his successful career as an artist, including the Blue Dog paintings (everyone said he was crazy). Heck, even our marriage seemed like a long shot to many.
He spent the next week writing the book and hired a translator for the French text, which he incorporated alongside the English. The oversized book features more than one hundred paintings with George’s detailed descriptions. The Cajuns of George Rodrigue (1976) was the first book published nationally on the Cajun culture, and it caught the eye of the Director of the National Endowment for the Arts, who showed it to Rosalynn Carter. Mrs. Carter then chose the book as an official White House Gift of State during President Carter’s administration.
George was ecstatic. The book’s accolades were impressive, and he had elevated his resume considerably. But the $75,000 was a problem. At the time he was selling paintings on average for between $500 and $5000, and there was no way he could count on these sales to cover his debt. He came up with a plan.
In exchange for his investment, Oxmoor House sent George his share of the books ---2,500 copies to be exact. He would sell these to get the money. But where? There were only four bookstores in the entire state of Louisiana, and this was long before Barnes and Noble or the internet. And think about this ---- 2,500 large-scale hardcover books weighing four pounds each, delivered all at once on giant wooden pallets to his house by a semi-truck. It was daunting.
But George Rodrigue is creative in all things, and this is just the kind of situation he relishes. He found and purchased a mailing list for every French teacher in the country and put together a mailer and order form. He recruited several friends and their kids to process the payments (again, no computers…so there were a lot of envelopes and a lot of checks), as well as pack and ship the books. The orders poured in.
At the same time he convinced area banks to offer the books for sale alongside their teller windows, with a special price for new checking accounts (remember the days before drive through windows and automatic tellers, when we all went inside the bank on a regular basis, and they gave away free toasters?).
Within two months he had made enough money to repay his loans. Within six months he felt the book’s effect on his painting sales. It impressed potential buyers and oftentimes helped him close a sale. He sold more paintings than ever. And he raised his prices.
Also because of this book, George was commissioned in 1976 to create a painting as a gift from the state of Louisiana to the President of France, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, an honor that increased his reputation internationally. (Pictured below: George Rodrigue with French President d’Estaing and former U.S. Congressman James Domengeaux, President of the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana (CODOFIL))
Most important, because of The Cajuns of George Rodrigue, George learned the power of publishing. It was books that would sell his paintings. It was books that would make him famous.
In March of 1992 journalist Bridget O’Brian interviewed George Rodrigue and wrote an article for the front page, center column of The Wall Street Journal. Although George had no control over the content, Ms. O’Brian did ask him if he had any one special request. George said,
“Please say that I’m looking for a publisher.”
And so she did.
I remember the day this article came out. It was called “How Many Dogs Can Fetch Money?” and it caused the gallery telephone to ring off the wall for a month. It also meant my home phone in California was ringing by 5:00 a.m. that morning. I ran to the Carmel Drugstore and bought ten copies. Two men in line asked me about it, and I beamed as I showed them the Blue Dog on the front page. They asked me to sign their newspapers. It was my first autograph request, and I was flabbergasted.
In addition to clients and reporters, we received dozens of calls from publishers and one call from an agent, Rosalind (Roz) Cole. George made an appointment and flew to New York.
He also was intrigued by her client list, Andy Warhol and Olivia de Havilland to name a few, as well as her residence, the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. And then there’s her phone number, which she rattled off as 212-ELdorado 5- 5555.
Mrs. Cole had several interested publishers lined up, and the challenge began: What kind of book should this be? Will people really want a book of just Blue Dogs? What is a Blue Dog? Is this a children’s book? Who will write it? What kind of text should it have? How much will people pay? How many should we print?
I wasn’t in on those meetings, but after years of working with publishers I can imagine what it was like. George was frustrated and he had no idea how difficult it would be to convince the New York book world that his concept --- specifically his Blue Dog paintings reproduced in book form --- was marketable to a large audience.
Finally, Viking Penguin made the commitment. By this time more than a year had passed. George and I were dating, and I found myself in on meetings and decisions.
The first was at Viking’s offices in New York City in the fall of 1993. They had agreed with George on a concept, a book called Blue Dog, featuring his paintings along with a mostly fictitious story dreamed up by George and author Lawrence Freundlich. We sat in a boardroom at a large rectangular wooden table (I had no way of knowing that, between publishers and attorneys, I would sit at dozens, maybe hundreds of these tables in the coming years). Also at the table with us was Roz Cole, Lawrence Freundlich, and a whole team of editors and art directors and project coordinators and marketing strategists, and who knows who else from Viking. They began to tell us about the book.
It would be small, with a heavy paper cover, and it would retail for no more than $20.
The Rodrigue group looked at each other. George wondered if he’d gone through all of this effort for nothing. They still didn’t get it, and now his big opportunity was fizzling into a cheap reflection of their inability to see.
And then something amazing happened. The back door opened and this larger-than-life, boisterous man burst in. He was holding a blue dog stuffed animal, something he’d ordered from a friend who manufactured toys (and something George has never made nor wanted to make, but at the time was quite effective). He was Peter Mayer, the publisher and founder of Viking Penguin, and he was overcome with enthusiasm for the Blue Dog book. His team sheepishly repeated their plan. They barely got past the words, “paperback and $20,” before Mr. Mayer interrupted and declared,
“You’ve got this all wrong. This guy’s art is fantastic! He deserves the best book we can produce. It will be hard cover and $50. It will have a slip case and special features inside, maybe even a hologram.”
He slapped George on the back and left. Mr. Mayer was probably in the room for less than five minutes, and yet he changed the entire concept into something innovative, sophisticated, and utterly artistic.
Blue Dog's first printing was 5,000 copies in the fall of 1994. To date, it's been printed in five languages and sold more than 200,000 copies. It is a phenomenon and indeed a legend in the world of art book publishing --- something people still talk about when we visit New York and meet new publishers.
Since Blue Dog, George has worked with publishers Stewart, Tabori & Chang (STC), Harry N. Abrams, and Sterling to produce nine more books. He’s grown confident in the publishing arena and embraces the books as works of art in and of themselves (my favorites, in addition to Blue Dog, are Blue Dog Man published by STC in 1999 and the gorgeous chrome tome Prints published by Abrams in 2008).
Producing these books is as integral to George's career as painting itself, and with the book The Art of George Rodrigue (Abrams, 2003), he finally saw the publishing world take him seriously enough to print an art book in the traditional sense, a career retrospective with a critical text by art historian Ginger Danto.
Overall, even with its challenges the publishing experience has been a good one. We’ve made lasting friendships, worked on some significant projects, and look forward to our yearly New York pow-wow with Roz and the publishers. There's no doubt that the books have enhanced George's career and reputation.
As a matter of fact, we’re in New York now for a book signing event and various meetings. I leave you with a picture of the great publishing agent, author, artist, and relationship advice columnist Roz Cole (taken last winter, but it's my favorite). None of this would have happened without her.