Monday, January 4, 2010

Blue Dog 2000, The Year of Xerox

Although most collectors and fans know by now that George Rodrigue avoids mass-production, products, and other projects that might be described as ‘sell-out,’ there was a period of time when I (and I daresay much of the gallery staff) approached each day on the defensive.

The late 1990s brought a flood of projects his way, and to many on the outside it looked like George was grabbing at everything --- Neiman Marcus, the Chicago Cow Parade, books like Blue Dog Man, Blue Dog Christmas, and Blue Dog Love, posters for the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, the inaugural poster for President Bill Clinton, and numerous smaller projects for non-profits such as the Red River Revel in Shreveport and the Shaeffer Eye Center/Beam’s Crawfish Boil in Birmingham.

However, behind the scenes, although we were very busy, it just didn’t feel like a sell-out. Every project was unique and chosen for some purpose other than money. In fact, in looking at the list above, not one thing even brought in much money --- not directly anyway. Rather they were all interesting projects, things to be worked out, that excited George both artistically and, there is no denying, promotionally. Each one of these helped increase his fame in certain arenas on a positive level, while at the same time challenged his creativity.

And yet, I was shocked at the number of projects he turned down. People often asked him, “How did you get the Blue Dog paintings on the show Friends?” or “How did you get to paint Bill Clinton for his inauguration?” It was clear that most people thought we sought out these projects (or even paid for them!) when in fact, they poured in. Many nights we sat on the couch going through that week's stack of offers. And ninety percent of the time, before I barely outlined the proposal, his answer was “no.”

He turned down (and continues to turn down) everything from cartoons to major motion pictures to stuffed animals to needlepoint to clothing lines to mascots for major league football teams and women’s roller derby to the more obvious ---- t-shirts and magnets and baseball caps and posters.

I’m amazed at the number of licensing companies that still contact him, thinking that because they’re not out there, surely he never thought of making t-shirts or posters.

To George’s mind, while he’s here on this earth, alive and painting, any of those projects might ruin his art. That’s not to say that there won’t be posters on every street corner one day, but it will be long after he’s gone, after his art reaches that elevated status that comes with a complete oeuvre and a lifetime’s achievement, so that the gap between the original paintings (and silkscreens) and the ‘products’ is so wide as to be insignificant.

There was one project, however, that appealed to George not only creatively and promotionally, but also financially: Xerox.

When we received their letter sometime early in 1999, although he was intrigued, George initially turned them down. He had hesitated in favor of the project only because the letter came not from Xerox, but from Young and Rubicam, the legendary New York advertising agency. His years at the Art Center College of Design in the 1960s focused heavily on advertising design, and in fact as a student George considered this as his profession (for more background see the post: Art School: Lafayette and Los Angeles, 1962-1967).

Unsatisfied with his reply, the Y&R team, specifically Barry Hoffman and Bob Wyatt, visited us at our then-home in Lafayette, Louisiana. They had with them designs for a world wide advertising campaign for their client Xerox. Each design featured the Blue Dog. I could see George was torn. On the one hand, he was like a child with excitement at the thought of working with these talented designers, and he was dreaming about what he would do with the generous payment they offered for the use of his art in their campaign; and on the other hand, he winced at their initial work. In all cases, they had removed the dog from his paintings, so that it stood on its own or appeared as a design-element in their lay-outs. In at least one example, the dog had a speech bubble attached to its mouth.

If there is one hard and fast rule for George regarding whether or not to allow the use of his artwork in any project, it is this:

The Blue Dog exists only within a complete painting of George’s design.

He turned them down again.

Within a week, they flew us to New York and tried again. I’ll never forget that meeting, because I knew then that it was going to happen, and admittedly, the thought of that big pile of money, the likes of which we’d never seen, was like winning the lottery. Y&R agreed to George’s terms regarding his art. They would give him tag words, and he in turn would design the complete painting and ad, so that the campaign was more about his art as a whole than the Blue Dog (or, frankly, Xerox). (pictured below, paintings based on the tag phrases "A Faster Breed," "Taking Care of Business," "Family Business," "A Smarter Breed," and "Service Business")

This included not only print ads and billboards for the United States and Europe, but also television commercials filmed in museums, as well as unexpected locations throughout rural America, with George’s paintings as the focal point. (pictured, a barn in western New York, photographed by Theresa Kraft)

That meeting’s icing on the cake was a last minute arrival. Aldo Papone, the legendary advertising genius who coined the phrase for American Express, “Don’t leave home without it,” popped in because he wanted to meet George in person. You would have thought George had met Elvis himself.

The Xerox campaign gave George the opportunity to work with America’s advertising giants. He became friends with these men and looked forward each day to exchanging ideas and sharing his work. He painted on the Xerox campaign throughout the year 2000, working on little else. Rarely have I seen him so excited about a project.

So was this a sell-out? I don’t know. I do know that it was not a mistake. Whatever flak he took over the campaign was mostly in Louisiana --- a product of that usual hometown attitude that comes with anything successful in one’s own backyard. The national press was, well, impressed. And indeed, I’m not sure that the nine-month world-wide promotion didn’t do more to promote George’s art than it did Xerox.

The naysayers made the obvious analogy that George paints the Blue Dog as though he’s running it off on a copy machine.

But those of us close to it never saw it that way, especially given the complexity of these works. Also, remember, this was one man sitting in his studio at 3:00 A.M., Hank Williams turned down low, a glass of milk beside him, completely lost in his thoughts, his designs, his paints. For a project that came from The Big City and from The Big Time, in the end it was just George sitting in Lafayette, Louisiana at his easel. High art or low art? You decide.

And so what about the money? He got a big hunk of it, and we were beside ourselves with excitement. To the dismay of our accountant, there was no way it was going into savings. We decided to take the whole chunk and do something we could never do before --- buy a house in Carmel, California. And so that’s what we did. We found a property on eighteen acres in the country, in Carmel Valley. Even better, there was enough space for George to build his dream studio. It was the first (and only) studio he ever built, always before taking over back bedrooms or offices or a TV room. Let’s face it, he deserved it. Even though we now live most of the year in New Orleans, it is in Carmel that he does most of his painting today. (For photos, see the post Not Painting in Carmel). I guess you could say that it’s our Xerox house and, no question, sell-out or not, it was worth it.

Wendy

*all images in this post are acrylic on canvas, size 48x36 inches, painted for the Xerox campaign in 2000

**for a history of the Blue Dog Series visit Blue Dog: In the Beginning, 1984-1989

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17 comments:

  1. Wendy and George, I think it's GREAT! Who says artists should not make their art work for them?? You kept the integrity of the art, got it out there for the masses to see and made some money too. Yippie! What could be better than that?
    Linda

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  2. Wendy, I love this story. This is an awesome great American success story! George's dream of working with the legendary advertising agency became reality without him chasing it. It pursued him in response to the many years that he followed his heart and did what his creative soul led him to do and achieve. And he enjoyed the work and rewards without betraying his values. This story should inspire others to stay the course!

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  3. wendy and george, I love the blue dog on the bike! so the old neighbors thought it was a "sell out"? tell your old neighbors that you are living your dream thru george's hard work and brilliant vision. and tell your ass sniffing neighbors to kiss your ass. from carmel, of course! i am a coon ass by birth and proud of it. enjoy every minute of life!!! ann jones

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  4. Thank you for the wonderful comments, everyone! I never know how people will take the Xerox story, but the post is truthful, so what the heck- Wendy

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  5. majones1957@att.netJune 19, 2010 at 12:25 PM

    I just bought the "The Faster Breed" serigraph from the Lady that George gave to her personally. she was in need of resources and very reluctantly sold him. what a nice lady too! I just happened to live about 90 miles from her. we made the deal with the brokerage firm and was trying to figure out how to get it shipped to me. the broker happened to notice how close we lived together (Alabama) so I just asked if she would call her and let me meet her and pick it up. it happened. we are sooo excited about this beautiful piece. this is my first jump into purchasing a "real" art piece. it has the signature and artist proof written. she said that George was such a nice man that he gave it to her personally. I am so proud of my own Blue Dog! ann j

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  6. Congratulations, Ann! That's a wonderful piece --- one of my favorites too. Thank you so much for your enthusiasm. And I really appreciate your taking the time to read my blog and comment.

    All best to you - Wendy

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  7. This is a great story.How wonderful that an artist can be excited about their work and love to create it! And I love that George was able to make the dream studio he always wanted. Isn't that what us artists would love to do!! Yes, yes, I think it's pretty cool.

    good thoughts,
    Lindy

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  8. Thank you, Lindy! I shared your comments with George as well, and he was most appreciative of this positive feedback from a fellow artist-

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  9. I bought "Family Business" when these first came out (no. 5) and it was the first nice/expensive item I ever bought for myself after struggling for too many years in NYC. I am now about to hang it over my fireplace in a house I am renovating. I cherish it and it's priceless to me, no matter how they came about...thank you!

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  10. Thank you for writing in, Derrick. 'Family Business' is one of my favorites as well! It is also a special piece in that it ties together both the Blue Dog and Cajun series, referencing George's painting from 1971, the Aioli Dinner (look for its history under POPULAR MUSINGS to the right of this post). I'll be sure and share your comments with George. All best to you- and many thanks again-

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  11. I'm thrilled that George has taken on the Youngsville Oak preservation challenge!!
    What a trooper.

    I am vice-president of Louisiana's longest and continually established art association, The Lafayette Art Association and was curious as to whether George or yourself would ever consider being a judge for our annual art competition "Eye of the Beholder".
    I'm young blood in the group (at 50!!) and have a tendency to dream big.
    I draw but my passion at the time being is artistic photography. I'm focusing on "The Big Easy" and have numerous images that aren't your typical N.O. cookie cutter images.
    Most of my prints are on a high-tech metallic paper the greatly enhances the image giving it a nearly back-lit, 3D nature.
    You can see my portfolio at MyEyePhotos.com
    Keep in mind that these images have four times the impact when viewed matted and framed.
    I'm dieing to break into the New Orleans area!

    I only have one of George's silkscreens, Mike the Tiger, that I purchased from the N.O. gallery.
    It is number 5,000/5,000. About all a starving artist could afford.

    Thank you for your consideration, I'm sure you get nuts like me requesting all kinds of favors daily. I had to at least try...

    Kerry
    My Eye Photography
    MyEyePhotos.com
    337-278-7252

    www.lafayetteart.org

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  12. Hi Kerry, Thank you so much for your enthusiasm regarding the oak tree project, along with the rest of George's art. We so enjoy these comments from the Lafayette community especially!

    Regarding the art competition, please email the date and details to info@georgerodrigue.com, and I'll check with George and see what we can do. Many thanks for thinking of us!

    It's late this evening, but I look forward tomorrow afternoon in taking my time perusing your website and enjoying your 'artistic photography.' Thank you for sharing, and All the best to you-

    Wendy

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  13. Fascinating article, Wendy. Say Hello to George.

    Alan Folsom

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  14. Can you tell us the breed of the original model for the Blue Dog? Thanks!

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    1. Hi Anon- Tiffany, the original model, was a mutt. She died four years before Rodrigue painted the first Blue Dog, a loup-garou legend in 1984. For the complete story, look to the right of this essay, under POPULAR MUSINGS / BLUE DOG / BLUE DOG IN THE BEGINNING, 1984-1989. You'll find there also a photo of the original dog.

      Thank you for your inquiry- Wendy

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  15. I love the Blue Dog.... my first experience was seeing the Absolut ad. I was spellbound. Then working at a Law Firm in Houston, they had Blue Dog paintings. I BEGGED for deliveries to that place. To me what captures me about the blue dog is that it says everything and nothing all at the same time. I agree never a speech bubble on that. Each time I look, as I age or my outlook changes, or my mood... the dog seems to say something different each time. I will probably never tire of examining myself or the world through the evocative nature of the blue dog. Thanks Wendy, for sharing with us.

    Darleene

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  16. Thank you, Darleene. Great comments. I especially love what you said about the changes you see in the art as you age. George and I both relate to that sentiment completely. All best-

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