Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Spotlight on Sandra

Two years after opening The Rodrigue Gallery of New Orleans, George Rodrigue followed in 1991 with Galerie Blue Dog in Carmel, California.* That first summer, as he installed his paintings and established himself in the tiny seaside community, a southern gal walked in smiling and reminded him,

“Don’t you remember me? We met years ago in Baton Rouge, and I’ve always been a big fan. Need any help with your new place?”

Sandra Constantino Crake is a woman as proud of her Italian heritage as she is of her Southern one. She’s an Arkansas native who grew up in Lubbock, Texas and moved in the late 1950s to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where she remained for more than thirty years. She attended LSU, raised a family, partnered with her husband in running a successful business, and designed, decorated, and self-contracted her family estate, “The Crake Myrtles.”

(pictured, Grace, 2003, 46 inch diameter, from the Hurricane Series, a Rodrigue painting from Sandra's personal collection)

She’s a chef, a gourmet in every sense of the word, with the kind of confidence that reproduces complicated cover recipes of chocolate butterflies alighting on pears. She attended Roger Verge’s Moulin Cooking School in the South of France and struck up friendships over the years with star chefs Jacques Pepin and Hubert Keller.

(pictured, Sandra Crake with her long-time companion, Greg Rivet)

She’s the kind of person who shows up for beach parties with Cornish hens skewered on broom handles. She orders live crawfish from Louisiana, boils them in her tiny Carmel kitchen, and pulls out of the pot (and relocates to a pond) any shellfish with enough energy to tap for its life on the underside of the lid.

(pictured, Seven Lives of a Wallflower, 2002, 16x20, a Rodrigue painting from Sandra's personal collection)

She hangs Blue Dogs on her walls, but she rescues cats, harboring half a dozen or more at one time and giving them names like Kikiboo (below left) and Contesta Prieta Escondio Crake (below right, a Japanese Bobtail that stole her heart in Mexico).

In the twenty years she’s been with Rodrigue Studio she’s cultivated some of George’s biggest collectors, even one of the very chefs that helped hone her culinary skills. The vast majority of Sandra’s clients remain consistent as buyers and have shown her loyalty and respect for years, trusting both her intuition and knowledge as they expand their Rodrigue collections.

She remembers not only their purchases, near-misses, and tastes, but also their birthdays, names of their children and pets, and whether or not she should give them a hard time following an LSU victory.

As much as George and I appreciate her as an individual, however, it is her contribution as a dedicated, enthusiastic, glass-half-full member of our staff that we most cherish. After all of these years, she takes initiative and goes the extra mile, treating our business with the same care that she treated her own. Sandra would be the first to share this credit and a similar sentiment with her co-workers: Mary in Carmel; Lawrence, Rhonda and Amanda in New Orleans; Dickie in Lafayette; and the many behind-the-scenes people that make the sales of Rodrigue paintings and prints run smoothly.

Here's to you, Sandra, with admiration and gratitude-

Wendy and George

Pictured: Sandra Crake and George Rodrigue, 2010

*For a history of George Rodrigue’s galleries from 1967 to present read “A Gallery of His Own”

Coming this Saturday: “Wendy and George: The Best of Musings and Paintings,” celebrating one year of Musings of An Artist’s Wife

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Friday, August 27, 2010

Blue Dog Relief

As I’ve mentioned before, it was many months before George Rodrigue returned to his easel following Hurricane Katrina, and when he did, the paintings were dark and fragmented, far different from the bright colors and strong designs normally associated with the Blue Dog Series.

Not only was he without a studio space to work, but also he felt little motivation to paint in his normal fashion. George has always said that his favorite painting is the one he’s working on now, and that in order for him to be happy, the work must be exciting for him. There was no happiness to be found in the months following Katrina.

That does not mean that he stopped creating. To the contrary, he devoted his efforts to a series of original silkscreen prints designed to raise money for Gulf Coast humanitarian, education, and arts needs following Katrina, and on-going for the next two years.

The first of these pieces and certainly one of the most successful was We Will Rise Again, a print that raised significant funds for the southeast Louisiana chapter of the American Red Cross. (pictured below, and already detailed in its own post)

After the initial shock of Katrina, like many people George became angry, a rarity for this good-natured Cajun, and he responded with a somewhat unusual (for him) series of artistic political statements, the likes of which we hadn’t seen in him since the painting No More Dukes, in response to former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke’s campaign for the U.S. Senate. (for more on this, plus an image of the painting, see the post “The Painting in the Closet”)

He called the prints following Hurricane Katrina “Blue Dog Relief,” and used the money from their sales to help support not only humanitarian organizations such as the Red Cross and United Way, but also Louisiana’s struggling arts programs, many of which were unable to operate and generate funds for months.

This included the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, the New Orleans Museum of Art, the New Orleans Book Fair, the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, the Artists on the Fence (surrounding Saint Louis Cathedral), and many more. In one instance, Blue Dog Relief funded a Washington D.C. trip for an entire school class from the Lower Ninth Ward, so that they had the opportunity to see our government first-hand and share the needs directly of their neighborhoods and schools.

In response to our government’s failure to protect our city, George created To Stay Alive We Need Levee 5, a succinct phrase describing the importance of levee protection able to withstand a category five storm.

Not only did he sell this fine art silkscreen to benefit local programs, but also he delivered one print, along with related buttons, bumper stickers, and even t-shirts (something he’s otherwise avoided), to each member of Congress, with hopes that seeing the message in these formats and hanging on their walls might drive home the importance of levee protection.

He created Cut Through the Red Tape for use by the United Way for national promotion of its 2-1-1 dialing system, eliminating the red tape involved in reaching human service agencies following disasters such as Hurricane Katrina.

Throw Me Something F.E.M.A. was probably the most popular Blue Dog Relief print among the locals, echoing the Mardi Gras yell, “Throw Me Something Mister!”

He adopted the design for You Can’t Drown the Blues from an old jazz photo, reinforcing the importance of our culture, the very heart of New Orleans, and the reason why our city is not only worth saving, but also worth protecting.

And finally, the most successful of all of the prints from Blue Dog Relief was We Are Marching Again, the strongest sign of optimism from George in this series, timed well with the parallel hope and pride reverberating through a city desperate to look forward and pull itself out of its depression.

In retrospect, Blue Dog Relief began not with We Will Rise Again and Hurricane Katrina, but with God Bless America, George’s response to September 11th, 2001. (pictured here, and detailed in its own post).

It continued in 2003 with Honesty, a silkscreen collage from paintings of peace by children from around the world. (pictured below and detailed in the post “Eisenhower and Higgins”)

But it was after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 that the series became a daily part of George’s efforts and our lives. Following We Are Marching Again, Blue Dog Relief continued when he collaborated in 2007 with Drew Brees (pictured below) to raise funds for the Brees Dream Foundation through sales of prints of the Quarterback's portrait.

This partnership grew out of our relationship with the New Orleans Saints football team, especially Rita Benson LeBlanc, who championed George’s efforts with Blue Dog Relief with extensive and enthusiastic promotion of the print We Are Marching Again during the 2006 football season. There is no doubt that we owe the tremendous success of this print to the Benson family and, of course, to the generosity of the Saints fans.

So how much money are we talking about? All together Blue Dog Relief raised nearly $3.5 million for humanitarian organizations such as the Red Cross and United Way, arts organizations such as the New Orleans Museum of Art and the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, and educational programs, such as the International Child Art Foundation and the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities. In addition, we gave money away to nearly every needy cause that came calling, whether a musician who lost their instrument, an artist who couldn’t pay their rent, or a family in need of food and shelter. Frankly, as long as we had it in the fund, it went to good use.

Furthermore, through Blue Dog Relief we not only supported our staff, which was hard at work processing, packaging, and shipping these orders, but also we encouraged and noticed a change in them, as the program filled their own needs to help New Orleans, even as they struggled with their personal losses.

In a way this mindset transferred to the thousands of people who bought these prints as well, along with the New Orleans Saints and the many publications, websites, and other media that promoted the program. Through Blue Dog Relief, many people found an outlet for their generosity and their need to help.

(pictured, George Rodrigue with Owner/Executive Vice President of the New Orleans Saints, Rita Benson LeBlanc)

Eventually George (along with the rest of us) felt it was time to move on, and Blue Dog Relief faded from our day-to-day efforts. Its impact, however, remains, and in its place George founded the George Rodrigue Foundation of the Arts (GRFA), promoting the arts in all areas of education through scholarship programs, art supplies, and various opportunities such as lesson plans, exhibitions, and school visits.

Through GRFA, George focuses on something close to his heart and constantly in need of attention: education in the arts. In the past eighteen months we’ve been approved for non-profit status, hired a full-time GRFA staff, launched a scholarship arts contest, honored our first award recipients, held student exhibitions, developed lesson plans, and hosted thousands of students with programs both in George’s gallery and in individual schools. We've also joined with hospitals and donors to install artwork, teach art therapy, and visit with patients at children's hospitals in Texas, Tennessee, and Louisiana.

(pictured, Texas Governor Rick Perry, artist George Rodrigue, and Houston businessman and philanthropist Don Sanders, with a Blue Dog mixed media on chrome, destined for Dell Children's Hospital in Austin, Texas)

In addition, although we no longer offer the Blue Dog Relief prints to the general public, we do make them available to non-profits through GRFA. In this way, we raise funds not only for our programs, but also for many other worthy causes. (for information, see GRFA’s print donation web page)

GRFA is a full-time commitment and, best of all, a way for George Rodrigue to contribute to a meaningful and personal cause, with an on-going and positive result. The disasters that inspired Blue Dog Relief, unfortunately, seem to keep coming. However, thanks to GRFA and its programs, we’re no longer waiting around for the next one.


For information on donating to the George Rodrigue Foundation of the Arts, see the headline “Do You Enjoy Musings?” to the right of this post.

Visit the post "We Will Rise Again" to read in detail about that important Blue Dog Relief print

To see Rodrigue’s paintings following Blue Dog Relief, visit “Blue Dog: The Dark Period”

For our personal story following Hurricane Katrina, visit here.

And for stories about our fabulous New Orleans Saints, visit the posts Who Dat?! (one of my favorite posts of the year) and, following the Super Bowl, A Happiness Epidemic

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Monday, August 23, 2010

We Will Rise Again

Following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, like everyone on the Gulf Coast, our lives were in turmoil. In addition to the logistics of basic needs such as shelter, phone service and, most important, tracking down friends and loved ones, there was a business and a staff, several of whom lost everything they owned, to consider.

Although the gallery was undamaged, it would be months before it regained basic business necessities such as electricity, plumbing, phone service, mail and fedex delivery, an available staff and, needless to say, customers.

This was something people outside of the area could not understand:

But the French Quarter didn’t flood! Why aren’t you open? Why isn’t George painting?*

As I described in our post-Katrina story in an earlier essay, we were the lucky ones. Our home was damaged but far from destroyed, and our business, we knew, would open again.

However, there were hiccups. Our warehouse was basically a total loss. And although we saved most of the artwork, we lost millions of dollars in silkscreen prints, in some cases entire editions wiped out. Furthermore the structure was no longer viable as a place to house art. Before George could address returning to his easel (which meant painting in his son’s TV room in Lafayette), we needed a new home for our inventory and archives. And we needed it fast, because Hurricane Rita was on its way.

Within two weeks we moved a career’s worth of artwork from a crumbling warehouse in New Orleans to a new space in Lafayette, Louisiana. We found a temporary gallery location (also in Lafayette), arranged housing for our staff, and put everyone back to work. And by the end of September, George Rodrigue was committed to a relief print.

We Will Rise Again originated, oddly enough, from an earlier tragedy, September 11, 2001. On that horrible day George painted God Bless America, surprising everyone, including himself, when the one thousand prints raised $500,000 for the American Red Cross in just a few weeks. (For the image and story, visit here).

We discussed how much more money we could have raised had we not limited the edition!

Like so many people after Katrina, we were devastated for our city, for the loss of lives, neighborhoods, and communities, for the suffering of thousands, and we felt desperate to help.

Following the lesson of God Bless America, George produced an open edition of We Will Rise Again, limiting the offer instead by time rather than number, so that people felt an urgency not only to help, but also to help now. Within a few months this one print raised nearly $700,000 for area relief, mostly for a special designated fund for the southeast Louisiana Chapter of the American Red Cross but also later, combined with six more prints (initially called ‘Blue Dog Relief’ and now the George Rodrigue Foundation of the Arts), for numerous humanitarian, education, and arts organizations, totaling more than $1.5 million for Gulf Coast causes, and more than $2.5 million in all (details in my next post).

In addition, creating a print for Katrina relief was far different for George than creating a print for 9/11, because he was personally affected. He faced this tragedy in his own backyard, suffering along with the rest of his beloved state and the Gulf Coast, and he struggled to express these emotions on his canvas.

Once he formed the concept (detailed below), he faced the challenge of effectively producing a silkscreen without access to his studio, supplies or printer. In addition, his initial attempts at painting the water resulted in a marble-type effect, something he rejected even as he tried painting it numerous times.

In the end he photographed the water in a friend’s swimming pool, printed the image on a large canvas, and then painted the flag and dog on top.

Rather than describe the work any further, I reproduce here George’s own words, written late September 2005:

“Those of us from south Louisiana grew up with the aftermaths of hurricanes Audrey, Betsy, Camille … and now Katrina. As in times before, “We will rise again.” Tears and rising water threaten to drown us. But don’t be deceived. The land may be under water, but the spirit of New Orleans and the culture of Louisiana hold their heads high.

We Will Rise Again shows the American flag covered with water. The blue dog is partly submerged, and its eyes, normally yellow, are red with a broken heart. Like a ship’s SOS, the red cross on the dog’s chest calls out for help.

Katrina hit me personally at ground zero. My immediate thought was for the safety of people I know, followed by the shock of seeing helicopters and boats alongside familiar street signs, as rescuers assisted people from rooftops and attics. For the second time in this young twenty-first century I sat at my easel weighted by personal sorrow and my desire to help, this time also reflecting on the devastation of my city and the suffering of my neighbors.

New Orleans has been home to my gallery and studio for sixteen years; it is where the Blue Dog was born. My wife is a third generation New Orleanian, and the Big Easy remains the “big city” to my Cajun hometown of New Iberia. Wendy and I join thousands of New Orleans residents in our pledge to go HOME, to rebuild our city, and to pay tribute to those who lost their lives with a commitment to care for our citizens, embrace our culture, and make the good times roll … again” – G.R.

Finally, George and I want to thank the thousands of you who purchased We Will Rise Again and the other prints from Blue Dog Relief, as well as the many publications, websites, and other media that promoted our efforts. You helped a community rebuild; you contributed to the truth in the statement,

“New Orleans is back and better than ever.”

That said, few would describe our city as perfect, and there are certainly those still struggling with rebuilding, with insurance claims, and even trying to return home. These days, in my opinion, the best way to help New Orleans is by visiting the city and having a great time. You'll feed our economy, ensure our jobs, and stroke the pride of one of the most unique, diverse, and downright gratifying cultures in America.


*Or the opposite: One day in the spring of 2006 not long after we re-opened, I happened to answer the phone when a woman called the gallery and asked if we were still under water … as though I were tending to business while floating on a raft (I remember thinking).

Other than Blue Dog Relief, it was many months before George returned to his easel. To see these post-Katrina paintings, visit “Blue Dog: The Dark Period”

For our personal story following Katrina, see the post “For New Orleans”

For a few comments about the upcoming fifth anniversary of the storm, see last week’s post, “A Sentimental Mood”

To contribute to current GRFA programs (formerly 'Blue Dog Relief'), benefiting arts education throughout Louisiana, see the headline "Do You Enjoy Musings?" to the right of this post.

Coming this Saturday: “Blue Dog Relief”

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Saturday, August 21, 2010

A Sentimental Mood (in New Orleans)

After six weeks on the road, we are back in New Orleans for a few days before returning to California until the fall. Although a whirlwind visit, I settle in with that same feeling I get when meeting up with an old friend after years apart, picking up where we left off with the comfort that comes from familiarity.

As George checked on his new gallery and hung his new paintings, I drove through the French Quarter yesterday on my way to a meeting (okay, a much-needed hair appointment). I noticed the architecture, the hanging ferns, and the decorated bicycle baskets, realizing now that after long periods here, I forget to see. Perhaps the time away serves a purpose more important and less indulgent than escaping the heat.

We’ve been away from the city for a while, and so maybe this fifth year Katrina anniversary is a topic of everyday conversation without our knowing it. However to us, after seeing friends and running errands, the buzz is vocally absent. It’s on everyone’s mind, in the face of every person I see, but evidently for many, that’s enough. There is nothing to be gained in rehashing the pain, even though it lingers in the background of conversations, an anniversary not worth celebrating, agonizing to remember, desired, but impossible, to forget.

We can’t see the Mississippi River from our back porch. But the tops of the ships and barges float by as though drifting along the rooftops, warehouses, and levees so that, even several blocks away, we know the water’s there. I think people visit New Orleans and forget about the river, a presence so ingrained in the local population that, like Katrina, it flows subconsciously behind every thought. The river is the reason for this city’s existence, the reason for a purchase adding fourteen states to our country, the source of Tom Sawyer and “Ol’ Man River,” the front yard to Oak Alley and Houmas House (pictured), the division between East and West Bank.

My mother, Mignon McClanahan Wolfe, grew up in Algiers on the West Bank and rode the ferry across the Mississippi River everyday to New Orleans, where she attended Rugby Academy in the 1950s. I hardly recognize her, a true 'sashay-by' New Orleans lady, in the military uniform of the formerly all-boy’s school.

My uncle, Jack McClanahan, her younger brother, met her at the ferry landing after school, and together they raced to the hot tamale stand before heading into the double feature, a routine they followed for years until they were banned from the movie for draping their gooey hot tamale wrappers along the theater’s back row of seats. (Ironically, this fun wouldn’t have lasted much longer anyway after the vendor’s owner was arrested for killing and making use of the neighborhood cats).

I’ve never ridden on the ferry. I sat in bridge traffic for years, however, before they doubled the size of the Crescent City Connection, making me (and a lot of other people) late for nearly everything. I remember panicking after leaving class uptown on Friday afternoons that I wouldn’t make my 6 PM Bertucci’s dinner date in Harvey with Grandma Helen, who I found many times in her Gretna home, already in her nightgown and fast asleep by 7:00.

And I remember my terror when riding the gondola during the 1984 World’s Fair. I thought of it as a flying coffin, high over the river, destined to slam into the concrete barricade on the other side (I took a taxi home). Although we wouldn’t meet for another six years, perhaps George Rodrigue and I crossed paths at this time. Somewhere at the fair he unveiled an exhibition of his work and celebrated the publication of the book Bayou, a collection of forty ghost stories, including the first Blue Dog painting.*

As we traveled following September 2005, more people than I can count asked us why we would stay after Katrina. Even more wondered, Why live in New Orleans at all? Like many people when it comes to home, we can’t help it. New Orleans is the kind of place that inspires sentimental moods, that embraces reminiscences. Even better, the memory-making experiences just keep coming, with outstanding cuisine, art exhibitions, Mardi Gras, music and more.

But truth be told, it’s the little things that make New Orleans the perfect home. For example, I was delighted to see the words ‘afternoon thunderstorm’ predicted in today’s Times-Picayune. And so as the raindrops begin their light knock on these old windows, I leave you for another pressing and important appointment…

….with my pillow.


*For the story behind the first Blue Dog painting, see the post “Blue Dog In the Beginning”

In case you missed it in April, our story and George Rodrigue's photographs following Katrina are here.

For a look at paintings following Katrina, see the post "Blue Dog: The Dark Period"

Coming next week: “We Will Rise Again” and “Blue Dog Relief”

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Wednesday, August 18, 2010

A Flurry of Activity

...a sneak-peek at new projects

The woodpeckers are crazy today, flying into the windows, boring holes into the house, and twirling together as though spring, and not a cold and foggy Carmel summer, is in the air.

As I watch twenty or so, doing everything at once, barely pausing for rest in the oak tree outside our window or for a sip of water atop the granite fountain, I think of George Rodrigue, sleeping finally after a marathon of creative multi-tasking.

“My brain is exhausted,” he sighed last night.

Over the past few weeks he immersed himself in projects, all thought up on his own and pursued with fervor, his delegation limited to ‘edit this’ or ‘print that,’ before he’s on to the next item on his mental checklist.

He wrote and designed a children’s book application for Apple’s iPad, a clever combination of paintings with added elements such as butterflies or flowers or doughnuts, designed to teach colors, shapes, and numbers using Blue Dog paintings and an artsy, Louisiana-inspired text.

He reworked one of his early Cajun paintings within his computer, increasing its contrasts of light and dark, and breaking down its colors for a silkscreen,* the first print he’s ever made of Cajun Bride of Oak Alley, to be released next month.

(pictured, a silkscreen proof for the new edition of five hundred prints, size 28x38, based on the 1974 painting.)

He shipped his newest paintings to New Orleans and arranged through video, photographs, and over the phone for their installation prior to Dirty Linen Night so that, even though he couldn't be at the artsy French Quarter party himself, he was there in spirit.

(pictured, the crowds at the Rodrigue Gallery on Dirty Linen Night, August 14th)

He spent more than a week composing a poem, a many-stanzaed description of his new exhibition, premiering October 30th in the new New Orleans gallery. He also designed the catalogue, chose related paintings, created a new Blue Dog silkscreen, and began a series of mixed medias on black, all connected to this show.

He fielded offers on more than a dozen outside projects, ultimately rejecting them all.

He devoted hours to art discussions with me, not only for last week’s blog post, but also just for fun, including tuning in to our favorite television program, Ovation’s Art Land, and debating current trends:

“There’s no doubt to me that nobody has made the leap yet with technology in the arts,” commented George.

“I keep thinking about Sister Wendy,” I only half-joked. “She introduced a whole new audience to art through what seemed like a unique medium at the time, television, just like Justin Wilson and Cajun cooking.”

“Yeah, but she was selling books,” George replied. “I think that whatever it is, it’s got to work with the Blue Dog paintings and with Van Gogh and with any classical, recognizable piece of art --- so that it’s not unique to the Blue Dog. It has to translate to all of it. The Blue Dog in technology makes sense if we include it in a broad art context. So far all that’s out there is Andre’s world domination games.”

He also hooked me up with an iPod, so that we finally, reluctantly, abandoned the CD’s for good; he tuned in for pre-season football, debated politics with his friends, and kept me company in the garden, where we have our best crop of cutting flowers and herbs in years.

He also painted a masterpiece. (that's right, cats...)

And sketched out a new one, preparing for one last day at his easel before we go home.


*To learn more about Rodrigue's print-making process, specifically his recent fine art silkscreens of early Cajun paintings, see the bottom one-third or so of the post "The Aioli Dinner."

For more on George's Carmel studio, see the post "Not Painting in Carmel"

Coming this Saturday: A Sentimental Mood (In New Orleans)”

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Saturday, August 14, 2010

There is No Bacon in Space (Having Fun Discussing Art)

For several years I hosted an art discussion group in the Rodrigue Gallery of New Orleans. Composed of gallery staff and the occasional friend or family member, we spent a few hours once each month covering everything from the latest show at MOMA to the current buzz on Julia Street.

We related at least one artist each meeting to the art of George Rodrigue. For example, as he worked on the figurative series Bodies, we looked at artists Philip Pearlstein, Lucien Freud, and Eric Fischl. We looked to Chuck Close for comparisons related to large-scale printmaking techniques for both Bodies and Blue Dogs, as well as the (literally) in-your-face repetitive heads, so similar and yet so different from piece to piece. And of course it took two meetings to banter the phases of Andy Warhol’s imagination, production, and business.

We were not a sophisticated group* (nor do I purport to be a sophisticated art-blogger), but we held open discussions in which we pondered the work of contemporary artists on both the American and global scenes, sometimes as it related to George Rodrigue, and sometimes not.

I mean, What happened to the Italians?, someone sighed one meeting. Since when did the self-taught Francesco Clemente (b. 1952) replace Caravaggio?

(pictured above, Clemente’s Perseverance, in which the artist himself carries the Roman Pantheon as excrement rains from the sky)

Eventually show-and-tell took up a good bit of our time, usually involving Rhonda’s latest artsy find within Vanity Fair or The New York Times, or Douglas’s craze over a Matthew Barney project, the Metal Museum, or the latest Joseph Beuys felt-and-fat installation, a show he feels compelled to see as often as possible before it disintegrates, prompting regular and whirlwind art trips to Houston for a few hours spent with a display case full of garbage (literally).

At Douglas’s insistence George and I visited (and enjoyed, I might add) the Beuys show at the Menil. We did experience an awkward moment in the bookstore when I inquired about the video showing the famous artist locked in a gallery with a coyote, a performance lasting three days and nights. I thought the movie would be the perfect on-going backdrop for Douglas’s office. The offended beatnik behind the register responded:

“That is a piece of art. There were only seven copies made. It’s priceless. You can’t buy it!”

(As I blushed and apologized, I remember wondering if they’d been able to place the seven copies. Today I notice that excerpts of the film are widely available for free on-line.)

Art makes us look at things, at life, in a different way.

To this day I can’t drive Highway 287 between Wichita Falls and Amarillo without thinking of Bernd and Hilla Becher and their photographs (pictured) of factories and grain silos, a popular topic during one discussion group.

It wouldn’t surprise me if the German Bechers are unaware of this stretch of West Texas, and yet thanks to them the steel structures stand (to my eye) as more inspiring than utilitarian, especially on a grey, no-shadow day. (For related posts, including George's photos of grain silos, visit "Big Dog in Texas"; for more of our favorite Texas landmarks, see the post “Crossing West Texas and the Moo-Cow Blues”)

After two years, our art discussions ended in 2004. But the art we studied remains with me, and I do believe with at least some of the others. I’m not sure that they weep at the sight of water towers, but I feel fairly sure that they remember.

We had a few treasured vignettes and stolen catch phrases worth sharing even now.

The artist James Rosenquist’s failed Miami Airport commission unwittingly inspired hysterical laughter in our group. We all related to it with regards to George Rodrigue and his disdain for such projects.** Commissioned in 1980 by Eastern Airlines to paint a forty-six foot mural for their new terminal, Rosenquist created Star Thief (below), only to have it rejected by Eastern Airlines President and former astronaut Frank Borman, who insisted,

“There is no bacon in space!”

And then there’s John Chamberlain, who supposedly can’t throw away a paper coffee cup without someone grabbing it from the trash and requesting his signature, because

“No one crumples like Chamberlain.”

(pictured above, art collector Don Sanders and George Rodrigue in Sanders’ Houston office, featuring a large metal Chamberlain and Rodrigue’s painting High Places for Me)

And finally, we had no end of fun with the description attached to the otherwise sobering work of Eric Fischl (below):

“Psycho-sexual suburban drama.”

Admittedly I enjoyed shocking the group with Damien Hirst’s giant ashtray of actual cigarette butts (below), Jeff Koons’s life-size photographed sex scenes, and Jim Dine’s collection of ordinary carpenter’s tools.

Every once in a while George joined us, weighing in, and usually shaking his head:

“They’re doing the same thing that Duchamp did one hundred years ago. They’ve been on that forever. They just can’t get off of it. So anybody doing anything like me, like Andrew Wyeth, like Norman Rockwell, nothing is going to happen in their lifetime. It just won’t. You’ve got to die, and then they look at the whole body of work, and then they say ‘he’s a genius’.”

“But George,” I countered recently, “ a lot of people would say that you’ve made it.”

“Like who?”

“The New Orleans Museum of Art, for one,” recalling his extremely successful forty-year retrospective exhibition in 2008.

“That was ninety percent you charming them and making it happen,” he retorted.

“Well, my charming and talented husband, maybe that’s what it takes.”


*It was actually my mom, an active participant in our art discussions, who talked me into hosting this group. For more on her influence, see the posts “I First Loved Picasso” and “Mignon’s Flowers”

**It is only with regards to a commission, which he rarely, if ever, accepts anymore that I’ve heard George describe painting as work: “I feel like I’m chained to my easel,” he says.

Pictured above, George and Wendy at the Big Sur River Inn, Summer 2010

For more on John Chamberlain, Jeff Koons, Marcel Duchamp and George Rodrigue see the post “The Collector”

For more on Norman Rockwell, visit “Eagle Scout”

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Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Color Me Happy (At the Easel)

I spent this week watching George Rodrigue at his easel. Although I’ve seen him paint hundreds of canvases over the years, the process still amazes me, as he takes a blank canvas and turns it into something else. The subject is not a still-life he interprets or a posed model; rather, he invents something from thin air, painting what comes up inside of him, as opposed to the view from his studio window.

“How do you know what you’re going to paint?” People ask him.

“I don’t. Even if I know it’s going to have a Blue Dog in it, I don’t know how many, or what colors, or what interesting shapes evolve. That’s what keeps it fun. That’s what keeps it interesting for me.”

And remember, the Blue Dog is something he created from his imagination. Even after hundreds of paintings, it is still something that started within George’s head. (see the post: Blue Dog In the Beginning)

Months ago I wrote about George’s Oak Tree paintings, specifically that he never painted an actual tree. Rather, even though he used both staged photographs and images from his mother’s album for the Cajuns, the trees, just like the Blue Dog, come from his head.

And so I watch him, wondering Why this shape here, and why that color there? As the painting develops, I see not just the interesting design of the dog itself, but also the ones around the dog and between the shapes, so that there’s no real background or subject stronger than the whole completed picture.

What seems at first like a mistakenly pale blue shade to my eyes, becomes the anchor for a new palette of colors, resulting in another painting of Blue Dogs --- but one completely like no other.

It is this endless variety, the same process that inspires him to paint hundreds of imaginary oak trees over the years, that keeps the Blue Dog exciting for George. At this point he’s broken so many rules in art that there are none left worth worrying about. He found his own path years ago, resulting in several unique series of works which, whether Cajuns, Blue Dogs, Hurricanes, or Bodies, are recognizable as paintings by George Rodrigue.

I’m reminded of a copyright dispute over George’s art in the 1990s. The argument was made that he had lost full copyright ownership (retaining only partial) to anything that was ‘in the style of a Rodrigue.’ George argued that all of his paintings are different except with regards to style:

“If I lose this case, then I’ll never paint again,” he commented, a direct challenge to the original intention of copyright protection.

“But why?” asked the judge.

“Because that’s the only way I know how to paint.”


Throughout this post: Color Me Happy 2010, acrylic on canvas, 42x78 inches

Coming this Saturday: "There is No Bacon in Space (Having Fun Discussing Art)"

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Friday, August 6, 2010

The American Blue Dog

If you follow this blog, you have a good understanding of the Blue Dog’s history (and if you don’t, check out the links under ‘Popular Musings’ to the right of this post). From the loup-garou to Tiffany to Blue Dog Man and the Abstract, the image has developed in style and meaning along with George Rodrigue and his interests. If something affects him in life, it probably shows up on his canvas, sometimes, as with the Dark Period following Hurricane Katrina, in more obvious ways than others.

Throughout, however, the Blue Dog retains an underlying quality more consistent than its Cajun roots, its repetitive and hard-edge “Pop” style, and its predictable stance. The Blue Dog, after twenty-five years of development remains, always, American.

(pictured, I Live For My Country, 1999)

This was possibly subconscious on George’s part. His Cajun paintings already focused on patriotism, as detailed in last week’s post. The American flag appears in a large portion of those works, a trend that continues into the Blue Dog Series, such as Tee George on the Bull from 1996, a life-size (six foot) canvas adapted from George’s childhood photo of 1949.

(This painting always reminds me of an early review of George’s paintings from the French newspaper Le Figaro, in which they describe him as the “Louisiana Rousseau,” an ironic recollection given the nature of this post).

The early Blue Dog paintings from 1984 and into the early 1990s were not the strong bold blue of today’s image. Rather, as detailed in the post “Blue Dog In the Beginning,” the dog is a pale grey-blue, as affected by the night sky.

As George tightened the image and strengthened the design, however, he also saturated the dog with color, as though the blue could not be intense enough. The same can be said of the typical American blues and reds on the Fourth of July, so much stronger today than those on our early American flags. George’s use of our patriotic red, white, and blue is a natural meld with the Blue Dog.

(pictured, Paul Revere, 2000, 30x40)

There are dozens, maybe more than one hundred, Blue Dog American themed works highlighting these symbolic colors, including the hand-painted banner hanging on the wall behind me as I type this post, a piece that originally hung for three weeks (along with four other American Blue Dogs of this size) on the outside of Union Station in Washington D.C.

In addition to the Blue Dog, George has painted Red Dogs from the beginning, as well as the occasional White Dog referencing Tiffany, three concepts easily combining into a patriotic palette. (pictured, Brotherhood, 2005, 30x40)

But it’s not just the colors that inspire George. It’s the American spirit, as alive in him as it is in most Americans. It’s that love of our country that sends us on our cross-country drives each year, exploring the land, studying the history, and meeting the people.

(As Honest as the Day is Long, inspired by a visit to Mount Rushmore a few years ago)

In addition, the American musical, specifically the Yankee Doodle-type, sing-your-heart-out, tap-dancing enthusiasm of post World War II Hollywood, stirs George’s patriotism, as in his portrait of Gene Kelly below (1993, 40x30).

Perhaps George’s most significant American-Blue Dog images are those following September 11th, 2001. I share with you the painting Wave Our Flag, 40x40, below; however, his most profound work is, unquestionably, God Bless America, a painting I’ll describe in detail next month, including the story of its print and a shared and panicked desire to help one’s fellow Americans.

Similarly, We Will Rise Again following Hurricane Katrina taps these emotions and is better spotlighted in its own post. Other than works for Blue Dog Relief, it was many months before George returned to his easel after ‘the storm,’ and when he did, as described here, the paintings are fragmented and rooted in confusion, no different than George himself and certainly every person affected by those times.

He held onto his patriotism, however, while struggling with his depression and disappointment, with hopes that tomorrow’s America would beam brighter, ever deserving of its red, white, and blue.

Finally, I'm reminded of an incident. While I was working at a Rodrigue exhibition in Munich maybe fifteen years ago, an American family passed by the window and peeked in. The man shook his head and grumbled,

"Only in Germany!"


Pictured above, The U.S.A., 2007, 28x22, from the post-Katrina “Dark Period”

The images in this post are of original, one-of-a-kind paintings. However, Rodrigue created many silkscreen editions over the years celebrating America. For images visit here, and for the complete collection, see the book George Rodrigue: Prints (2008, Harry N. Abrams, New York).

For more original paintings inspired by America, read about the Washington Blue Dog and Blue Dog for President

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