Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Fairs and Festivals, Ducks Unlimited and the New Orleans Jazz Club

If you ask George Rodrigue what made his art famous in Louisiana, his answer might surprise you. It’s not the Blue Dog, Absolut Vodka ads, or Jazz Fest. Rather, it’s the small town festival posters.

Throughout the 1980s George created posters for dozens of festivals throughout the state. He sold thousands of these inexpensive offset lithographs benefiting each festival’s community. (pictured, a wall of festival posters, George's studio, Lafayette, Louisiana, mid-1980s)

He often posed his friends, dressing them in elaborate costumes for these compositions. In the 1984 Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival poster, for example, his Catholic High buddy Ed Vice, who you might remember as the giant Mardi Gras rabbit, stands in a crawfish suit; Lennis Romero of the St. Martinville Romero Brothers, featured in the Musicians blog, plays the accordion; Diane Bernard Keogh, who normally appears in Rodrigue paintings as Evangeline, poses as the festival Queen; and George’s old friend Ray Hay of Houston’s Ray Hay’s Cajun Po-Boys, peels the crawfish.

This painting, featuring these staged characters, is quintessentially Rodrigue, with the strong shapes of the oak tree and cabin framing these subjects, as well as the interesting pattern between branch, sky, and roof on the right side. But if you ask George, he’ll tell you that the best part of this painting is the zip code for Breaux Bridge, which he added as an after thought.

As I mentioned, these posters made George famous throughout Louisiana. They also garnered national attention in some cases. NBC News, for example, sent journalist Ken Bode to Breaux Bridge in 1984 for a feature story for the morning program TODAY. As I understand it, Bode was to ponder a question for his audience:

“Since everyone is at the Crawfish Festival in Breaux Bridge, will the Louisiana people show up to vote in the first ever Louisiana presidential primary?”

Ken and George met at Mulate’s, the Cajun restaurant and dance hall, and they began a friendship that resulted in major national press for George and his art --- a friendship that remains strong today. (pictured, Mulate's Breaux Bridge, circa 1985)

(In 1989 Ken Bode covered the unveiling of George’s portrait of Ronald Reagan for a national story for NBC Nightly News; and during Mardi Gras of 1992 he visited Lafayette, Louisiana for George’s reign as King of the Krewe of Xanadu, featuring Mardi Gras outside of New Orleans, also for NBC Nightly News. Coincidentally, George appeared that same week on the front page of the Wall Street Journal for a story about his Blue Dog paintings).

pictured, 2008: Billy Broadhurst, Kerry Boutte of Mulate's, Ken Bode, all standing; George Rodrigue, seated

Other posters include Lafayette’s Festivals Acadiens

New Iberia’s Cajun Fun Fest

(I stumbled on this corresponding photo and couldn't resist including it...)

Various small town Mardi Gras Celebrations

The National Sports Festival in Baton Rouge

And the Louisiana State Fair, as in the Shreveport poster below, featuring singers Shelly West (daughter of Dottie West), David Frizzell, and Boxcar Willie as models.

George also created three posters for Shreveport’s Ducks Unlimited at the request of its president, his good friend and collector, Carl Wiley Jones.

Following the success of the Shreveport posters, National Ducks Unlimited commissioned this poster for its 48th Convention in New Orleans in 1985.

According to George, this national poster did not go over as well:

"They complained that the hunters aren’t in traditional camouflage and that no one hunts for ducks in light clothing. I painted them all in white in the tradition of my Cajun paintings, but I knew that this explanation would never work for the duck crowd. Instead I tried to convince them (although I’ve never hunted ducks in my life) that it’s the smell of the people, and not the white clothing, that scares off the ducks. All the Cajun hunters I know wear white, I explained, since the Cajuns smell like ducks anyway!”

George designed several festival posters using the Blue Dog during the mid-late 1990s. These include three silkscreens (1997, 1998, 1999) for Shreveport’s Red River Revel, benefiting art education in north Louisiana. It was at this festival, on a stage beneath a large tent, that George and I honed our lecture and painting presentations.

In 1998, 1999 and 2000 George’s silkscreen posters promoted the Schaeffer Eye Center/Beam’s Crawfish Boil in Birmingham, Alabama, benefiting the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.

Without question, George’s most requested festival posters are his designs for the 1995, 1996 and 2000 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. To give this history its due, however, they require their own post, indeed a series of posts, all coming in the following weeks.

In the meantime, I share with you his poster from 1998 commemorating the 50th anniversary of the New Orleans Jazz Club, the oldest jazz club in the world. The club’s long-time president, Mrs. Frances Fernandez, approached George in early 1998. Recognizing their mutual respect and unable to resist each other’s charm, they became fast friends, and sales from the silkscreen poster saved the historical music society from bankruptcy. (For more on Frances and the New Orleans Jazz Club, see the article by Times-Picayune music reporter Keith Spera here).

In a relationship sparked by this friendship, Frances’s son Wayne Fernandez and grandson Gus Anderson, along with Educational Director Marney Robinson and George’s son Jacques Rodrigue manage the George Rodrigue Foundation of the Arts.

Today, George avoids these types of posters. His last one was ten years ago, a silkscreen of Al Hirt for the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. Mass-produced prints are hard to control, and they often end up in poster shops, in large quantities and with inflated prices, competing not only with George’s galleries, but also with the worthwhile organizations for which they were intended.

For George, it makes more sense to create high quality silkscreen prints, sold exclusively to non-profits through the George Rodrigue Foundation of the Arts, benefiting its educational and scholarship programs.

Coming next week: a two-part series on George’s history with the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival

Wendy

For a comprehensive collection of Rodrigue's fair and festival posters, including those mentioned in this post and more, see the book George Rodrigue Prints (Harry N. Abrams, New York, 2008), available at your favorite independent bookstore or on-line bookseller.

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4 comments:

  1. I have "Blue Dog at the Revel." It's my most prized possession. I think you and I actually spoke on the phone when I ordered it. I love your blog and your insights about New Orleans and George's work.

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  2. Thank you, Dorissa! I'm so happy to hear you're enjoying the Revel print. It is one of my favorites as well-
    All best to you-
    Wendy

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  3. I have Pop Goes the Revel and met George and he signed by print at the Red river revel in shreveport It was truly an honor to meet him. the next year I purchased the blue dog on the river. I think the Red River Revel had one other poster one year but i am not sure.
    Thanks
    Kelly
    Shreveport, LA

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  4. Hi Kelly --- Yes, there are three. The first one is "Blue Dog at the Revel," showing the Blue Dog on an easel and the Black/White Dog standing on the ground. It is featured in this post. Thank you for reading and for your comments. Hope to see you at the Shreveport events later this month-

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