Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Crossing West Texas (and the Moo-Cow Blues)

“You just can’t live in Texas unless you’ve got a lot of soul.” – Waylon Jennings

I believe the hype: Texas is bigger and better than anyplace else. As we drive I-10 and listen to ‘Willie’s Place’ on Sirius Radio, I enjoy the long stretches of flat land and occasional hills, the seemingly abandoned towns, and the (today) raging 'dry' creek beds. I’m reminded of Texas pride, about people who recall,

“There is no denying that Lubbock is a wonderful town. That’s where Buddy Holly went to see Elvis!”*

I’ve got Texas in my blood. My grandparents were originally from Fort Worth, and Grandma Helen, shocked at my reluctance to attend LSU, reconsidered her support provided I choose a school ‘in San Antone,’ which I did.

It’s a state of big dreams and even bigger ideas, where my relatives, although dirt poor, named their children after American Presidents: Thomas Jefferson McClanahan, John Adams McClanahan, George Washington McClanahan and more. They lie alongside each other in the tiny town of Stephenville, their important names chiseled on their tombstones to impress future generations.

(pictured: Grave of Robert Clay Allison, 1840-1887, Pecos, Texas: “He never killed a man that did not need killing.")

George and I drive across Texas at least once, usually twice, each year, taking one of two routes, with occasional detours if time permits. This week we took the southern route, a bit regretful to my mind (although I didn’t tell George), knowing we would miss the buried cadillacs, the Big Texan, and the smell of cattle in Amarillo, along with the junk shops and grain silos west of Wichita Falls in Vernon, Quanah, and Childress, their steel structures standing like some Bernd and Hilla Becher sight-seeing tour, stark and outlined against the moody Texas sky.

Those photos are for another day, however, because today we traveled George’s favorite route, from Houston to San Antonio to that pivotal (to his mind) Texas town located deep in the heart of nowhere: Fort Stockton.

In the seventeen summers that I’ve traveled across the country with George Rodrigue, I’ve probably spent more time than most American adventurers (truckers aside) with Fort Stockton as the long-distance driver’s nirvana. (pictured, photographing the swimming pool at the Fort Stockton Motel)

He speaks about it as though it’s a desired, dreamy destination, all because it’s where two highways meet, where our route inevitably turns north (so that we by-pass El Paso and, more important, Van Horn – a frequent stop on our northern route), where the cafes and motels never change, and most of all, because he likes to hear himself say it:

“Tomorrow we’ll get to Fort Stockton;” or “Let’s stop for gas in Fort Stockton;” or, “Remember that diner across from the old motel in Fort Stockton?”

People in Texas are extremely proud of their state, as though they can’t imagine why anyone would live outside of 'the accommodating high 90’s,’ combined with the wafting smell of cattle. A homegrown Texan makes a person feel silly for preferring Honolulu over Kerrville, and they make fun of their own cities with an endearment reserved for locals:

“It’s so dry in Lubbock that the trees were chasing the dogs around.”*

George and I tell Texas stories in our truck. I reminisce about chasing tumbleweeds with my college roommate Debbie and her dad on the outskirts of El Paso:

“It was the first time I’d ever seen one! We left the car in the middle of the street and went running after this mass of twigs into the desert.”

George talks of his long drives on Route 66 back from Art Center in Los Angeles. He relives the dramatic visual change from Texas’s big sky to Louisiana’s tiny horizon, an observation that shaped his landscape approach and resulted in the ‘Rodrigue Oaks.’

We stop at Dairy Queen for coconut and pineapple blizzards, which we slurp down to the music of our favorite Texan, Waylon Jennings, sending us on another tangent, as we recall the day he died. Distraught, we hid our selves and our sadness from our house full of company. And in the laundry room amidst piles of separated clothes, we danced silently and slowly, before returning to our guests as though everything was fine:

“Amanda, light of my life.

Fate should have made you a gentleman’s wife.”

As we approached Santa Fe early this evening, after twenty hours on the road, the glowing light of our favorite time of day sent long, thin shadows from the short, fat pinon pines, checkering the red and green hills against the bluest sky in America.

I would write even more about our drive, but I’m distracted. We’ll be in Santa Fe for three nights, visiting friends and making memories, before moving on for a lengthy stay near Four Corners. Tonight, although exhausted, we tune in once again to Willie’s Place for a riveting special report, one they’ve touted for the past two days:

‘Runaway Truck Ramps: Are They Doing Their Job Correctly?’

Happy Trails-

Wendy (Walking across Texas?)

*Bill Mack, 'Willie's Place,' Sirius Radio

Pictured throughout this post: Various screen proofs of Moo-Cow Blues, an original silkscreen by George Rodrigue, 1993

All photographs taken 6/29/10 by George Rodrigue (or by Wendy, directed by George)

For George's history and paintings inspired by Santa Fe, see the post Rosalea Murphy, the Pink Adobe, and Paintings of Evergreen Lake

For more on our hopelessly politically incorrect truck, see the post, If Not Painting, Then Cars.

Coming this Saturday: “America the Beautiful: Crossing New Mexico and Arizona”

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Friday, June 25, 2010

The Blue Cat

It may surprise you to know that we do not have a dog. In fact, George Rodrigue has not had a dog since Tiffany, an unwitting participant in the Blue Dog Series, died in 1980.

He's had several dogs over his lifetime, beginning with Lady and Trixie in 1950s New Iberia. However, it’s never been a priority for George to own a pet. He travels often, and he understands the responsibility that goes with such an undertaking.

Although I wouldn’t really call him a ‘dog person,’ it wasn’t until I came along that he even glanced at a cat:

“I hate cats,” he told me when he met my Romeo and Miss Kitty in Carmel, California in the early 1990s.

And indeed, when we married and moved to Lafayette, Louisiana in 1997, my two kitties went on to live with my friend Sandra (who works today at the Rodrigue Gallery, New Orleans), a mother to cats everywhere, as though a giant catnip toy hangs from her roof, along with a blinking sign:

“Abandoned Cats Welcome Here!”

It was September that same year, as George and I made our nightly power walk around our circle in Bendel Gardens, that a kitten, barely weaned, came out of nowhere and tried to keep up.

“Mew” she said.

I turned around, resulting in a minor newlywed spat:

“Keep on walking, Wendy. Don’t look at the cat!”

But she followed us, falling behind and then running to catch our heels, even as George grumbled and threatened me with his glances. When we reached our long driveway and slowed our pace, she slowed hers as well, and when we opened the kitchen door, she ran between our legs and into the house.

Why this was my fault, I’ll never know, but over the following week, after dozens of fliers and knocking on doors, I learned a great deal about how to keep the peace in my marriage and still get my way. We called her Diana, after the Princess who had lost her life two weeks before.

Over the years, George grew attached to Diana, although he denied it every chance he got. I knew I had him when late one night after she didn’t come home, he leaped out of bed and into the back yard in his underwear at the sound of cat screams and fought off an excited tom with the garden hose.

(pictured, George Rodrigue in 2010 with Bayou Blue Cat from 1994)

Diana’s been gone for a few years now; however, even today, when people ask him about her, George says,

“She was different. Not a cat at all, really.”

He never did paint her, nor did I ask him. I learned long ago the fruitlessness of approaching George with an art request. As his family, I should know better than to invade that personal space, that creative mind that lives to approach his canvas with freedom and nothing between his own thoughts and his paint.

But I overhear others ask him,

“Why don’t you paint cats?”

He’s answered the question many times over the years, so I have a pretty good understanding. Basically, it’s a problem with shape. Remember, even if you go all the way back to George’s oak trees, he focused on shape and design above all else. He’s admired today as a landscape artist and yet it’s ironic, because his oaks bear little resemblance to the actual trunks and branches of south Louisiana. He created a design and shape utterly his own, just as he did with Jolie Blonde, the Hurricanes, and the Blue Dog.

A cat, George says, no matter how you stylize it or exaggerate it, is not an interesting shape:

“The head is too small!”

This doesn’t mean that he hasn’t experimented over the years. To date, there are exactly six paintings, two silkscreens, and one poster of cats by George Rodrigue, and they are all featured in this blog post. They range in date between 1993 and 2010, so it should be obvious that he felt no big rush to paint a cat. 

(pictured, My Friend Felix, 1993, acrylic on canvas, 24x36)

In 1997 George painted a cat with the Blue Dog for a poster called Friendship, benefiting the Broward County Humane Society. (Even though this cat looks nothing like her, I like to think that Diana played a role in this one-)

And just this year he painted Cat Tie, an original painting that raised $180,000 for Friends For Life, the first no-kill animal shelter in the city of Houston, Texas.

George’s friend, collector, and cat-lover Don Sanders waits in the wings, with hopes that any day now George will make the Blue Dog-to-Cat shift, but I think he knows deep down that he’ll be waiting forever. In the meantime Don, George says, makes the cat paintings look good, like this installation in his Houston office, featuring Cool Cat from 1998, along with George’s Blue Lady from 2005 and a Blue Dog Pilgrim Glass vase of 1995.

George painted Dream World this year, a large painting of 30x40 inches, and based his silkscreen The Three Amigos on the image to jumpstart his programs for arts integration in education, The George Rodrigue Foundation of the Arts.

In 2007 he painted Friendly Cats, a painting inspired by his latest children’s book, Are You Blue Dog’s Friend? (published in 2009 by Harry N. Abrams, New York).

Perhaps his most popular cat image is the silkscreen Mardi Gras Cats (from 1997, the year of Diana). However, while the cats embody Carnival with their colors, it’s the Blue Dog that gives strength to the design.

So will George paint another cat? Oh, probably. But in all likelihood it will remain a secondary design element, something naturally juxtaposed to the Blue Dog.


Just last week George’s son Jacques, who lives in the house behind ours in New Orleans, opened his door to find a five-week old, one-eyed kitten curled on his stoop. He took her in and called her ‘Schnickahs’ (something about Jersey Shore) and she hung out with us around the pool on Father’s Day.

As expected, George made a big production while he ignored the cat, complained about his allergies, and suggested we dunk her in the pool for fear of fleas. But I saw the real George when he thought no one was looking. He picked her up ever so gently and whispered in her ear:

“Don’t worry, One-Eyed Jackie, we’ll get you a patch-“


For more on Diana, read about the Hurricane Paintings-

For more art and discussion, please join me on facebook-

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Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Remembering Lafayette's Advocates for the Arts, Circa 1969

This post is dedicated to Mrs. Frances Love (1926-2010), a friend of the arts.

When George Rodrigue speaks of supporters during the early years of his career, three names always come up: Rita Davis, A. Hayes Town, and Frances Love.

Between them they spent just a few hundred dollars on his canvases, however their influence in the community contributed greatly to George’s direction, reputation, and fame.

It was Rita Davis (pronounced Ree-tah, with an emphasis on ‘tah’) who introduced George to A. Hays Town. The famous Louisiana architect assessed George’s paintings in the late 1960s and transformed his approach with this advice:

“Treat each painting like a jewel, because if it is precious to you, it will be precious to others as well.”

Young George returned to his easel with this abstract concept shaping his method, and he never painted the same way again. Both Davis and Town purchased the resulting Rodrigue landscapes, now dark, seemingly antique, painted with care, and sparkling like jewels.

(Pictured above, one of two 11x14 inch paintings purchased by Rita Davis in 1969 and later returned to George by her son, who requested that he “lighten them up.” George instead exchanged the paintings for a later work and retained the landscapes for his personal collection. My apologies for the terrible photo; however these canvases are nearly impossible to photograph. Also of note is the frame, an original molding finished years ago by George himself. For more see the post Painting to the Frame).

It was A. Hays Town who introduced George to the Reilly Gallery in New Orleans, the only gallery other than his own to ever display his work in Louisiana. An example from that show, pictured above and in the newspaper article below, remains in George's private collection. (For more info, see the post A Gallery of His Own).

In 1969 George also met Frances Love, director of the permanent collection of the art museum for the University of Louisiana at Lafayette Foundation (then called the University of Southwest Louisiana) from 1965 to 1983. In 1968 Hays Town designed and built the art museum that would house the university’s collection of works, compiled from gifts to the USL Foundation for the Art Center for Southwestern Louisiana.

(pictured, A Toast to Cajun Food, 1973, 30x40, collection of the University Art Museum, donated by Mr. and Mrs. Robert Shelton of Lafayette, Louisiana)

Modeled after Hermitage Plantation (1812) near Darrow, Louisiana, the impressive building stands today on St. Mary’s Boulevard in Lafayette, adjacent to the campus, and shares property with the Paul and Lulu Hilliard University Art Museum (2004). Although the new climate-controlled contemporary museum houses the art collection and rotating exhibits today, for years Town’s plantation-style ‘Pink Building’ (now painted white; photographed by Stephen B. Chambers) serviced the community as the Lafayette Museum.

It was Frances Love who dedicated her efforts to this institution for nearly twenty years and who, after a long line of outside shows, chose 25-year old George Rodrigue as the first local (and living) artist to exhibit at the museum. The 1969 exhibition was hugely successful, and it was a milestone for George who could have no way of knowing that it was the last time the university's museum would devote their major galleries to his work.

The museum and the university’s foundation together own more than twenty original Rodrigue canvases, largely donated due to the persuasive efforts of Mrs. Love and the generosity of local collectors such as Mr. and Mrs. Robert Shelton and Dr. and Mrs. John Straub. However, with the exception of a small exhibition in 2009, not since Mrs. Love’s retirement in 1983 has the art of George Rodrigue hung on the walls of the museum.

(pictured, George Rodrigue and Dr. John Straub looking at The Cajuns of George Rodrigue, the first book published nationally on the Cajun culture; Bernice's Calf, donated by Straub to the university's museum, hangs on the wall, 1976)

This irony was not lost on Frances Love, who supported George’s career throughout her life and encouraged local support of the arts. I asked George for a few words in her honor:

“Mrs. Love brought new talent to the museum and got local people involved in the arts --- neither of which had ever been done before. She put on many shows, not necessarily dedicated to traditional painting and sculpture, but rather to things that attracted a wide audience. She was heavily involved in the Louisiana Gulf Coast Oil Exposition (LAGCOE) and geared museum exhibitions towards attracting its participants. She created a yearly design fair for exhibitions, bringing in artists, interior decorators, and fashion. She also produced periodicals and books about the museum and its collections and was instrumental in getting local participation for industries to support the university’s art programs.

"Mrs. Love worked tirelessly for the arts, the university, and the community. She acted not only as the museum’s director, but also the lead public relations person in exposing the arts to Lafayette, something that had never been done before.

"After my show in 1969, she became one of my closest, best supporters, and there’s no doubt that her devotion to my art established my strong early beginnings in and around Lafayette.

"Mrs. Frances Love was a true promoter and supporter of local artists in the Lafayette community for forty-five years.”


All paintings in this post are oil on canvas by George Rodrigue

Pictured above, Bernice's Calf, 1972, 24x36, from the collection of the University Art Museum, donated by Dr. and Mrs. John Straub of Lafayette, Louisiana; photograph of Frances Love with Marvin DuBos and Ivan Boudier of the Lafayette Art Association; photograph of Ann LeJeune, Gloria Vanderbilt, and Frances Love

For related ULL posts, see the story “Paintings for the Flora Levy Lecture Series” and “Art School: 1962-1967”

Coming this Saturday: “The Blue Cat”

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Friday, June 18, 2010

Eagle Scout

It was probably our first date when I asked George Rodrigue,
“How would you describe yourself? What are your best qualities?”
Without hesitating, he rattled off a list:
“I am trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent.”
“Goodness,” I said, secretly hoping I could measure up.
It wasn’t until months later, after he’d repeated this list a number of times for various reasons, that I learned it was the Boy Scout law, something he memorized nearly sixty years ago and has taken seriously ever since.

(pictured, Eagle Scout, 2004, acrylic on canvas by George Rodrigue for the National Scouting Museum)

George’s older cousin Donald LaBauve was scoutmaster of Troop Number 136 in New Iberia, Louisiana, part of the Evangeline Area Council. George and Donald’s son Red spent every Monday evening throughout the 1950s working on their merit badges and planning for outings to Camp Thistlethwaite.

It was in Boy Scouts that George first painted monsters, images so popular among his friends that he transferred them to t-shirts, selling them to earn money for gas.

He also learned to play a musical instrument, the bugle, specifically to perform as the ‘echo’ for Taps during a special scouting event. He hid in the bushes and mimicked the older player, who stood in front of the troop and guests. He recalls that when his fellow scout missed the high ‘G,’ George echoed the note perfectly from the shadows, thereby securing his promotion as head bugler going forward.

He played baseball as a Boy Scout, following in his father’s footsteps, a minor league pitcher (Big George, pictured below, in New Iberia).

Equally rewarding was the year George won a full scholarship to Philmont Scout Ranch in Cimarron, New Mexico. It was at the National Junior Leader Training Camp that he learned the skills, specifically the ability to teach younger scouts, that eventually earned him the prestigious rank of Eagle Scout.

It was hard for me to understand at first George’s pride at this achievement. I was a Girl Scout and earned badges by playing the harmonica, selling cookies door-to-door, and plaster-casting squirrel tracks. I spent a week or more each summer in a tent or cabin somewhere in the north Florida woods, cooking over the fire and stringing our food high in the tree, lest the bears get to it. 

It was a wonderful part of my childhood, but by the sixth grade I didn’t care anymore, and today I’d be hard-pressed to put my hands on my sash, and I’m sure the harmonica went to Goodwill years ago.

And yet within the curio cabinets of George Rodrigue’s studio, carefully placed among the numerous awards and keys to cities and photographs with presidents, are his merit badge, his bugle, and his Eagle Scout pin.

He does speak with regret about the ceremony he missed:
“It was a big deal, Wendy. Everyone gathered at the Iberia Parish Courthouse.”
But in 1960, sixteen-year old George, home sick with the mumps, missed the Eagle Scout presentation. His cousin Red stood in for him at the courthouse and afterwards the entire troop visited George at home and pinned his pajamas.

In 2004 the Boy Scouts of America asked George to commemorate his experience with a painting. They specifically requested the Blue Dog; however George, as with his Jazz Fest posters of 1995, 1996, and 2000, wondered at its relevance. In the end, he focused on the American bald eagle as the painting's subject and incorporated the Blue Dog as a neckerchief slide.

George was honored by this commission not only because of his past, but also because he joins the great tradition of artist Norman Rockwell and his Boy Scout paintings. Selections from the Boy Scouts' collection, including both Rodrigue's Eagle and Rockwell's Pinning (pictured below), tour U.S. museums. We attended one such special exhibition, on view during 2008 in the Great Hall of the New Orleans Museum of Art.

Today, when not on tour, George’s painting remains on view with the Rockwells and other fine original works at the National Scouting Museum in Irving, Texas.

Finally, I’m reminded of a story George often recounts as pivotal. It was his last summer at Camp Thistlethwaite near Opelousas, Louisiana, where he worked in the general store. His enthusiasm for scouting waned that summer, as he looked towards college and concentrated on his art studies. He tells of his last day as an active scout, recalling clearly his thoughts as he swept the dust out the door of the store:
“This is the last time I will hold a broom; and I will never work for someone else again.”
It was a personal and symbolic pledge, for better or worse, which he kept.

It was scouting that gave George independence, confidence, and pride. Sometimes I think even today that he approaches a project as though it results in a merit badge. Although it appears on the outside that he moved on after high school, inside George remains ‘trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent.’ He remains, always, an Eagle Scout.


For a related post see "A Distinguished Eagle Scout"
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Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Class

My nine-year-old nephew William said to me, as I headed out the door to my 25th High School Reunion in Fort Walton Beach, Florida this weekend,

“Why would you want to see all those old people? I mean, you could swim at the pool with us!”

I tried (and failed) to explain to him about a class, about this mass of people bound together by a common goal (an education) and yet each shining as individuals, as distinct personalities. Although we have our separate memories, we also exist as a unit, a group that shapes and defines a certain part within each of us. It's the same part that now, all these years later, dissolves the insecurities and shyness, the adolescent angst, so that even if we don’t recognize a classmate, we still embrace her with genuine goodwill, because…

“You were in my class!”

Perhaps I would have had more success in explaining this to William had I shown him a George Rodrigue painting.

George painted a number of classes over the years, beginning with his mother’s Mount Carmel Academy graduating class of 1924 in New Iberia, Louisiana (pictured above, painted in 1972). His mother, Marie CourregĂ© Rodrigue (bottom row, third from the right) stands out no more than her classmates.

And yet, in George’s design she’s part of a distinct and strong shape, one that doesn’t exist if even one person leaves the group.

He further emphasizes this concept with the bushes behind the girls, echoing their heads and locking them into the landscape of southwest Louisiana.

The same can be said for Miss Arcenaux’s Girls’ School (pictured above, painted in 1973), a Rodrigue fabrication from a New England yearbook, of a class removed from its original school gym setting and placed outdoors and miles away, transformed as a unit by an artist’s imagination into a Cajun tradition.

Unlike his mother’s class, here George dresses the students alike, reinforcing their existence as a group, again framed by their landscape, no head touching the sky, and in this case floating almost like ghosts, like a glowing white ball settled beneath the oaks, unaffected by shadow.

In his mother’s class, George painted each person with distinct visages and clothing; however, in paintings like The French Society (pictured above, painted in 1973), the group itself is more important than the individuals. It’s no longer possible to recognize a face. The class, rather than its members, is the subject. In this case, the girls bond through their interest in speaking French, a purpose that makes the group as a whole, as opposed to the individual members, unique.

In each of these paintings, the oak tree is as much a subject as the class. It’s as though George cut out and pasted this big shape, this gaggle of students, onto a landscape painting. Indeed, if one were to pluck them out, the tree, cut off at the top, with the light shining beneath its branches, holds its own. (for more Rodrigue landscapes, see the post Early Oak Trees).

I easily picture George’s own class, posed in their photograph in front of their school, St. Peter’s College (later Catholic High) in New Iberia, Louisiana, as a single design element in a Rodrigue painting, as though they too could just as easily exist as a unit beneath the oaks.

(Young George stands in the center of his class, 1954; and top row, third from the left at his reunion).

Although George never painted his class, he did paint his school in 1984 (the same year, incidentally, of the first Blue Dog painting).

My high school class was large, more than two hundred students, and nowhere are we photographed or painted together as a unit. But we exist as one just the same. Whether as a large group or just a few friends, there is something about us twenty-five years later that is recognizable beyond our individuality, something that links us so strongly in this imaginary giant shape, that we are locked together, as though pasted onto the landscape of our past (the beaches of the Emerald Coast?), each person equally important in preserving not just the memories, but that unique entity known as our class.


Coming this Saturday, in honor of Father’s Day: Eagle Scout”

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