The first was an elementary school in Lake Charles, Louisiana. I pulled into the parking lot, really having no idea where to go, and spied blue balloons attached to a sign, “Welcome Mrs. Wendy,” marking my parking space. From there my feet followed Blue Dog paw prints into the school, past walls of children’s renditions of Blue Dogs in colorful and imaginative settings and materials, and continued into the library, where several hundred kids awaited me, in chairs, or cross-legged on the floor, and peaking around stacks of books.
I didn’t bring a slide show, worried that it would be too much like ‘school,’ and besides, I wanted the lights up. I was a bit nervous, and I wanted to see their faces.
An art discussion, however, doesn’t mean much without visuals. I brought a few original paintings from our home --- an Oak Tree, a painting of Cajuns, and a Blue Dog, as well as a collection of Rodrigue books for their library.
It was time for questions, and the hands shot up. I motioned to a small girl on the front row.
“He’s really your husband?”
“What’s he like?”
I lost control fast: How old is he? Young enough. How old are you? Old enough. Do you have a dog? No, but we have a cat, Diana. Do you have kids? George has two boys. Do they paint? They painted in school, like you, but not so much anymore. Is he funny? He likes Cajun jokes. Does he laugh? All the time, like Snagglepuss. What do you mean? Kee hee hee.
George the celebrity overtook George the artist and try as I might, I couldn’t steer it back.
I spoke to the wall: Tell me about the artwork hanging in the hall.
"But what kind of car does he drive?"
"How big is your house?"
"Do you know Britney Spears?"
Over the years I do think I’ve gotten a better handle on things, however the kids still throw me for a loop on occasion (at the Rodrigue exhibit at the New Orleans Museum of Art, their intuitiveness and ability to see astonished me).
Teachers are a different story. We (the entire Rodrigue group) have come a long way in this area, especially since we established the George Rodrigue Foundation of the Arts, a venue for both students and educators, with scholarships, lesson plans, school events and more.
In the spring of 2008 I spoke in George’s place to more than 800 art teachers at the National Arts Education Association Convention. I stood on a stage in the auditorium of the New Orleans Convention Center with giant screens behind me, spotlights in my face, and prompters at my feet. I had neither a written speech nor notes (having found out that morning I’d be speaking); I did have George's slide presentation, but I insisted they turn up the lights. I was scared to death.
Yet once again the more I spoke about George, the more I wanted to share. The fifty-minute lecture turned into ninety minutes, as the teachers asked questions (art questions, fortunately), sent me on tangents, and firmly, comfortably, solidified my smile, as I gushed with pride about my husband.
As a result, the New Orleans Museum of Art had its biggest day of the Rodrigue show, and to my surprise I gained a respectable reputation as George’s understudy.
In addition to children and educators, George and I spend a lot of time presenting his work on the road for both book tours and non-profit events. Usually he paints while I speak, with him interjecting on occasion just to set me straight (or throw me off!). It’s a fun ‘performance,’ an opportunity for George’s fans to not only hear about his career and history but also, most exciting, watch him at work.
For these events he paints quickly, using large brushes and paint right out of the tube, finishing within forty minutes or so. The audience sees a blank canvas become the product of his impulsive but concentrated approach, a finished painting to their eyes (but ironically a mess to George’s, who never fails to completely repaint the entire work over several days in his studio).
We are most creative with these events during our Rodrigue Client Weekends, held every other year since 2002. The first was in Carmel, California, where we introduced one hundred guests to George’s Hurricanes at our home. He hung these mostly round, swirling canvases throughout the rooms, as well as the outside of the house, creating a colorful entrance and environment for these special guests. He created a painting in front of them and took their questions in his newly-built studio.
In 2004 and 2007 (Katrina threw us off a bit), we entertained George’s collectors with three-day riverboat cruises on the Mississippi River, including a visit with Governor Kathleen Blanco at the Governor’s Mansion in Baton Rouge, an afternoon with Hadley Castille and the Sharecroppers Band at Houmas House Plantation, Costume balls, and more.
These event weekends, limited to two hundred guests, give people an opportunity at receptions, dinners, and lectures to visit with George about his art. They watch him at his easel and learn first-hand about his current projects. They also meet people from around the world, all brought together in that wondrous city, New Orleans, by their interest in this Louisiana artist.
This year, March 19-21, we have a different angle, the Grand Opening of the new Rodrigue Gallery of New Orleans. In August 2009 George Rodrigue purchased a four-story, two hundred year old building, where he will move his gallery in the coming weeks and open with a celebration during “Rodrigue’s New Orleans.” For the first time ever he has an unrented space all his own, an historic location adjacent to St. Louis Cathedral in the French Quarter, an interior he gutted and re-designed specifically for his art. There is room enough to showcase artwork spanning his entire career, as well as oversize pieces (some as large as fourteen feet across) and works from his private collection.
In addition to the gallery’s Grand Opening, the weekend includes a reception-in-blue at the recently re-opened Blue Room at the historic Roosevelt Hotel; a 1940s party at the National WWII Museum’s Stage Door Canteen (featuring the museum’s recent $350 million renovation and Rodrigue’s historical painting of President Eisenhower and boat builder Andrew Higgins); a Mardi Gras party at the new Blaine Kern’s Mardi Gras World on the Mississippi River; George’s painting demonstration and lecture; and a visit to the 28-foot steel, aluminum, and chrome Blue Dog sculpture, recently installed on Veterans Boulevard in Metairie, Louisiana (a suburb of New Orleans).
Most important, George Rodrigue is in attendance for all of it, taking this opportunity to visit with his collectors --- something he did near daily for years on the road and now reserves for this special weekend.
Within each of these venues --- school visits, lecture series, book tours, painting demos, and event weekends (and this blog, for that matter) --- George and I strive for a connection with his fans, something that encourages them (you) to look at his art in a new way. We enjoy the fellowship and interaction that comes with these events and more than anything, we hope people will find a personal connection to the artwork, something beyond George’s intent, something inward and poignant in their own lives.
Update: For a re-cap of this year’s Rodrigue’s New Orleans (March 19-21) visit the post The Client.