Saturday, September 18, 2010

The Ragin’ Cajun (The Art of the Trade)

Granted I’m biased, however I’ve witnessed over the years that most people, men and women, find George Rodrigue downright charming. It’s something about that Cajun accent combined with the Snagglepuss laugh and his down-to-earth demeanor that reels in both friends and strangers alike.

This is a handy character trait regarding his business. For years George sold his art himself, either on the road from the trunk of his car or from his gallery in Lafayette, Louisiana. Even today, although our capable staff handles the transactions, on rare occasions he still turns on the charm to close a sale (and, frankly, because it comes naturally as he describes his art).

(note: among other things, the photograph above, circa 1984, features the original painting that inspired the 1984 Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival poster; also notice that George is wearing a t-shirt featuring his 1974 painting of Jolie Blonde)

Although he avoids trading in recent years, early on this wheeling and dealing was a regular part of his business. Oftentimes this was because the person walking through his door had no more money in his pocket than George. If they loved the painting enough and in turn had something interesting to offer, the barter was complete.

George tells a story of a young man who visited his gallery on Pinhook Road* during the 1970s. He remembers these early clients because they were scarce. (It was not unusual for an entire week to pass without a person walking through the door.) This shoe salesman from Yazoo City, Mississippi traveled through town once each month, always stopping in for a dose of this charismatic Cajun and his jewel-like black trees. Eventually the two struck a deal. George gave him a painting and received in turn (over the next several years) thirty pairs of shoes.

(pictured: Rodrigue Gallery on Pinhook Road; see the post "A Gallery of His Own")

Several years later in a similar scenario, George traded a newly completed painting for a set of shiny chrome rims.

As I said, those were the old days, so I haven’t seen much of this Wild West-type bartering in person. However, one incident does stand out regarding another artist. George and I admired his paintings, and he seemed flattered with the attention, as he followed George’s career for years. We offered him a trade in exchange for one of his large canvases. When George delivered his own large-scale painting, however, the artist exclaimed,

“But you can’t give me the same size! Your paintings bring more money than mine!”

To which George replied,

“But we’ll enjoy yours just as much. Size for size; it’s only fair.”

Turns out he made a number of these art-for-art trades early on in his career, and as a result we have a wonderful collection not just of art, but also of artist-friends.

On one occasion, George got such a kick out of a trade that he painted a picture of the transaction. Rodney Fontenot, known as the Ragin’ Cajun,* was an antiques dealer from the tiny town of Ville Platte, Louisiana, specializing in architectural elements such as plantation shutters, fences, and flooring.

George first met Rodney in the 1970s at his junk shop located off a then-questionable section* of Magazine Street in New Orleans. The two Cajuns hit it off right away, and the Ragin’ Cajun became George’s source for all kinds of (according to George) necessary oddities.

This included an old Coca-Cola icebox, which he decided was perfect for storing paint. Strapped for cash, he offered a painting in exchange, and the deal was done. A few years later, in 1978, he recorded the transaction in a painting. (40x30, oil on canvas)

The image became well known, joining a collection of twenty Rodrigue paintings in the highly successful Lafayette Junior League Cookbook, Talk About Good II, published in 1979. (George’s son AndrĂ© modeled for the cover painting, Kiss Me I’m Cajun)

The Ragin’ Cajun does remind me of a later Rodrigue painting, this one featuring George’s son Jacques with the Blue Dog, Paint Me Back Into Your Life.

(To learn more about these paintings of André and Jacques visit here)

Up and down on his luck, Rodney Fontenot moved his junk shop from New Orleans to Opelousas, then Lafayette, and finally home to Ville Platte. Several times a year he closed up shop and traveled the country in a gutted out motor home in search of antiques. George tells of one instance when the Ragin’ Cajun called from a small town in North Carolina:

“George, you still lookin’ for a fence?” (knowing he wanted an original rod-iron fence with the bolts for his gallery on Jefferson Street)

Rodney returned to Lafayette, towing the fence on a beat-up trailer. Upon inspection, George discovered that the fence too was mangled. Turns out the Ragin’ Cajun negotiated his purchase from the crooked caretaker of a graveyard, who also loaned him an old trailer, complete with missing rear lights. Late one night as he drove home to Ville Platte, an 18-wheeler, unable to see, drove right over the trailer (and the fence). According to George,

“We renegotiated the price.”

Other memorable Ragin' Cajun acquisitions include an original 1950s barber’s chair* and a Coca-Cola machine, complete with the 7-cents sticker, added when the price of a coke increased by a penny.

(note: the image above features George's actual Coca-Cola machine and is a preliminary design for a silkscreen due out later this fall)

Today this coke machine sits on display in George’s Lafayette warehouse, a reminder of long lost friends and good ol’ days.

Wendy

*although the label ‘Ragin’ Cajun’ is fairly common today, Rodney Fontenot (pictured above) claimed to be the original

*before I-10, salesmen traveled Pinhook Road, formerly Hwy 90, which followed the Old Spanish Trail from New Orleans to the West

* regarding the ‘questionable section of Magazine Street’: One time Johnny Cash and June Carter stopped by on a hot summer’s day. When they wanted a coke, the Ragin’ Cajun sent them to the corner store and told them,

“Make sure you buy two cokes each: one to drink and one to throw at the muggers.”

*for more on the barber’s chair and a related painting, see the post “Broussard’s Barber Shop”

Coming this Wednesday: "Nature Girl (The Art of Modeling)"


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11 comments:

  1. Thanks Wendy - your blogs are always entertaining and informative!

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  2. Darn, I just typed a few hundred words about the Ragin' Cajun and my family's experiences with him, and then when I tried to post it, it disappeared. Trying again!! What a great guy! We're from Ville Platte, too, and Mr. Rodney would crunch into our driveway to get some help from one or two of my brothers, and would always stay to tell the most outrageous stories, a naturally gifted raconteur! I loved his brightly colored cajun leisure suits (the zip up coverall) and that incredibly thick black beard, wild hair and engaging huge grin! One or the other of my two younger brothers would go off on those summer-time trips with him to South Carolina and all points in between, coming home with some awesome stuff. He had this huge vat of chemicals into which he could place an entire white iron four poster bed, to clean off the old paint and rust, and then lovingly refinish them. I was fascinated that you could pull off the toppers and hide your valuables inside the posts! (My grandmother never let me look inside hers!) I remember a few iron fence stories, too, including the mangling by the 18 wheeler!

    Thanks for posting this story, Wendy. A lot of wonderful, wonderful memories came rushing back for me.

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  3. Thank you, Rebecca. I'm always delighted to know that I have loyal readers out there!

    And Jennifer -- WOW, What a story! I read your comments to George and he laughed out loud. It made him so happy to hear these great memories of his good friend. Thanks for sharing your stories of 'Mr. Rodney.' Sure wish I'd known him. He sounds like quite a character.

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  4. Wow, thanks Wendy! I'm glad I could get "Mr. George" to laugh out loud!!! I was telling my husband about this post and my comment, and he, a Houstonian who never met Mr. Rodney, said, "Why didn't you tell her about the Hershey PA fence story?" I did not know about that story!! Apparently my brother told my husband about it, and he didn't tell his own sister! Huh! I'll try to wring it out of him soon!!!! My husband can't remember the particulars, of course!

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  5. Sounds good, Jennifer. It would be wonderful to have another Ragin' Cajun story added to the post!

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  6. My Mom knew this guy. Hey there is no "questionable" area of Magazine St.lol. for years we all laughed together.many artists friends and stories. Yes we had some problems at our shops too! I have a funny story about a gallery opening there..Not sure it's ok to post but will. My friend was having an art show in that area, and the NO AIDS TASK force brought a fishbowl of condoms to promote the prevention of the new disease AIDS. While we were watching the artist talk, a group of teens ran in, snatched the fishbown and went running towards St. Thomas..10 guys took off on foot after them in hot pursuit. I who am a nurse by education, a writer and artist by heart, ran out in hot pursuit of the 10 shop owners/artists screaming..No no let them GO , It's a good thing It's a GOOOOODDDDD THING..So they all came running back and we went on with the Good Friday religious painting show. You have to know it and love it. No Place like Lousiana..

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  7. Hey - I agree with you! No longer any questionable places on Magazine Street (heck, maybe there never were) - one of my favorite locations in New Orleans, in fact. I lived for several years in a carriage house on the corner of Magazine and Terpsichore. It's where I fell in love with the city. Thanks so much for writing in. LOVE your story, and in honor, I'll get back to Bryan Batt TODAY regarding his recent request for a donation to the NO AIDS TASK force. Wendy

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  8. Wendy,

    Earlier this my wife, Ann, purchased and restored a blue dig riding a motorcycle. I think she may have even posted this on your blog earlier this. It is so beautiful and has become the art centerpiece of our home. I also really like the coca cola blue dog. How do I get one?

    We would like to visit the NOLA studio one day next year. If you are available, Ann and I would very much like for you to join us for lunch.

    Kind regards,
    Tom Johnson and Ann Jones
    Birmingham, AL
    P.S. --- We recently purchased a bottle Absinthe......haven't tried it yet......aaaaahhhhh.......eeeeeeee!!!!!

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  9. Hi Tom and Ann! Thank you for writing in and for reading --- and collecting! The Coca-Cola print is available by calling the gallery - (504)581-4244. And if George and I are around, we always enjoy lunch or, at the very least, a drink (of Absinthe? HA). Thanks for the kind words- Wendy

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  10. There was a Coke machine like that in 1960 at Mt. Carmel in Lafayette. Cokes were 6 cents, and candy (Red Hots, Boston Baked Beans, Fireballs, Necco Wafers) was a nickel.

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  11. There is a 1950s era Coke Machine at Hub City Diner (HCD), that has been there for years...we've had many meals there, and seeing that Coke Machine (and many like it during my family's travels in the '60s, in our family station wagon, brings back many nice memories...thanks for sharing, Wendy, and others...

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