Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Lectures, Painting Demos, and Events

As much as I enjoy touring with George and speaking alongside him about his work, it’s often a real kick without him. I remember my first solo school visit. Although I’d spoken with many children in the galleries over the years, it wasn’t until after George and I were married in 1997 that folks acknowledged me as an acceptable second place choice if he were unavailable to lecture on his art. I learned quickly that children make the best audience (because, when focused, they ask the best questions), and so I ventured as often as possible to any school that would have me.

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.

The more I spoke, the more comfortable I became, encouraged by the wide eyes and obvious interest in the room. (As Aunt Wendy there is no statement I fear worse than, “I’m bored.”)

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?”

“Yes.”

“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.

In 2008 we focused on the exhibition, Rodrigue’s Louisiana: Forty Years of Cajuns, Blue Dogs, and Beyond Katrina at the New Orleans Museum of Art, including private museum tours with George, as well as our own Mardi Gras parade and ball in the French Quarter. (pictured, George and Jacques Rodrigue with special guest "The Blue Lady;" a Rodrigue's New Orleans Second Line parade in the French Quarter)

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.

Wendy

Update: For a re-cap of this year’s Rodrigue’s New Orleans (March 19-21) visit the post The Client.

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Saturday, February 20, 2010

Clinton, Bush, and Obama: Portraits (or not)

In 1994 some connected friends with the Democratic Party invited George Rodrigue to meet President Bill Clinton. George invited me along and, truth be told, I was more excited about meeting Hillary. My mom worked at a printing company at the time, and she and her friend Bronwen Ross created personalized note cards for the First Lady, which I brought along as a gift.
(This picture kills me, but it kills George worse. We finally removed it from our wall because so many people thought I was Chelsea).


A few weeks later back at the gallery in Carmel, I received a call from Mrs. Clinton’s personal assistant requesting my address, and within a few days I opened a hand-written note of thanks from Hillary herself. I was shocked and impressed, and she became my first big time female role model.  Unlike many of my classmates, I never latched onto Jackie Kennedy.

Her letter surprised me not only because she’s the First Lady, but also because the Washington D.C. trip was nothing short of a fiasco. The Democratic National Party asked George to provide prints appropriate as official state gifts from the Clinton White House. He created a special lithograph of his Washington Blue Dog for this purpose, and he carried these prints to the President on this trip.


However, at the last minute Clinton stopped the presentation. He thought George Rodrigue was connected, if not the instigator, to the Blue Dog Democrats, the conservative side of the Democratic Party, and apparently a thorn in the side of any sitting Democratic President.

The truth is that the term is derived from the old “Yellow Dog Democrats” in Louisiana’s political history. Although a number of the Louisiana legislators collect George’s work and hang it in their offices, he is unaffiliated in anyway whatsoever with the Blue Dog Democrats or any other political group (keep in mind his long history of Republican Presidential portraits). In fact, when the Blue Dog Democrats tried using his artwork for buttons and other paraphernalia, he was quick to stop them. We do our best to discourage the connection in the press, however it’s tough, because they made the association years ago and still assume that George’s paintings provide a mascot of sorts for the group.

I cannot emphasize enough how careful George is not to align himself politically with any party. He is honored when asked to paint a Louisiana Governor or a President of the United States of any party, but he refuses the request until after the person is elected to office.

Several years passed and at some point President Clinton came to understand George’s history as a painter of Presidential and Governor portraits of both parties, as well as his neutral political status. The air cleared further with George’s Union Station exhibition in the summer of 1996 teasingly titled “Blue Dog for President.”  For more on this exhibition, see the blog Blue Dog Man, 1996-1999.


In December of 1996, the Democratic National Party commissioned George to create the official 53rd Presidential Inaugural Portrait and poster, featuring President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore, and called “Walking Into the 21st Century.” In a further gesture of understanding, the President himself requested that his portrait include the Blue Dog.

(For Rodrigue's history with portraiture, see the post Portraits: The Kingfish and Uncle Earl)

Honored by the request, George accepted, but his frustration mounted as the deadline tightened and the persons-in-charge dictated his direction. It was challenging in those days, remember, because it was just before any helpful computer programs. He sent photographs of his daily progress overnight to the White House.  I specifically recall problems with Clinton’s face, which they repeatedly complained was ‘too red’ in the painting.



At last all groups reached an agreement on the final work, but it was so late that we attended the Inauguration with only a handful of silkscreen prints for the President, rather than the several thousand initially ordered and delivered later. Our Washington visit was exciting, because not only did we attend the Inauguration with practically front row seats, but also we met in the Oval Office with President Clinton, Vice President Al Gore, and our old friend Leon Panetta, whom we knew from Carmel.



I remember thinking while standing in the most revered room in the country with the most powerful men in the country that I should be more intimidated by the whole thing. I should have shaken or perspired or something. But actually I was calm, partly brought on by seeing Panetta, but even more so because I hoped to see Hillary. I wore a special Blue Dog pin that George made for me, and I intended to give it to her.

When I learned she was unavailable, I gave the pin to President Clinton and asked him to give her my regards.  Hillary was already a Blue Dog fan, pictured here with Mr. Boutte at Mulate's in New Orleans.



In 2001 George heard from the Republican Party again, this time a commission from a Houston-based supporter for a silkscreen commemorating George W. Bush.

Honored once more to create a work for a sitting President, this particular piece held special significance due to George’s earlier portrait from 1989 of Bush’s father and grandchildren, as well as the positive memories surrounding that experience.



Most exciting, the Bush piece lead to a trio of works in 2008, specifically the artwork for the North American Summit held in New Orleans. This resulted in a presentation with President Bush, Canada’s Prime Minister Harper, and Mexico’s President Calderon, an event I missed because it fell during my annual sister-trip with Heather, something not even Presidents can change, because "without her I don't make sense."** (George, to my amusement, insisted I share with you the reason for my absence, lest you think I wasn’t included…)



(pictured, President George W. Bush, George Rodrigue, Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Mexico’s President Felipe Calderon)



So what about President Obama? No one has contacted George to paint the President since he entered office. One state’s Democratic Party officials requested that he paint Obama during the campaign. However, as I mentioned above, George has a strict policy against painting anyone who’s running for office, and so he declined. If he were to accept such a commission, promoting any candidate with his art, he fears he might offend his collectors.

I can’t imagine why.

Wendy

**Rose speaking about her sister Maggie in the movie In Her Shoes, 2005

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Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Traiteur

With nearly 60,000 visitors in two months at the George Rodrigue exhibition at the New Orleans Museum of Art in 2008, we received hundreds of letters, all positive, mostly from people who prior to NOMA knew little about the scope of George’s career. As a result, they were surprised at how much they enjoyed the show. There was one exception, however: an angry email from a woman who accused George of promoting voodoo and black magic through his art. Surprisingly, it wasn’t the loup-garou and early Blue Dog paintings that bothered her, “a good Christian woman,” but rather the painting Doc Moses, Cajun Traiteur (1974, 48x36, oil on canvas)

Ever sensitive to an offense, I thought about her words as I played docent to thousands of area school children. I looked for signs of damage in their faces as I told them about the Cajun faith healers and shared this form of mysticism with their young minds. Would they refuse a dose of bad tasting medicine next time they have the flu? Would they lay their hands on a friend’s bad cut, rather than go for help? I recalled playing ‘light as a feather’ as a kid, but I don’t recall any adults levitating their friends.

And then I thought that maybe it’s like Santa Claus or positive thinking or even Jesus to some (or for that matter, maybe it’s like voodoo!), and it allows us that suspension of those things we can touch and see in favor of those things we just know, or those things that we want to understand, like where we come from in birth and where we go in death, why we suffer, and what our dreams mean, or how to explain a déjà vu. Maybe Doc Moses is okay because, like ghosts and heaven and reincarnation, we want to believe and, if we really do believe, then it’s real.

"At the birth of Christ, the cry resounded through the ancient world, ‘Great Pan is dead.’ The animal mind was about to be subdued. Christ’s mission was to prepare the way for floral consciousness." (Tom Robbins, Jitterbug Perfume, p. 325)

A traiteur is a Cajun folk doctor with a special, inherited gift for healing one ailment. In George’s painting, Doc Moses heals earaches. He pours a ring of salt around the patient and touches his ears. Amazingly, only the healer must believe. The patient’s skepticism does not affect the cure.

George also knew of a woman in New Iberia famous for treating warts. She concentrated on one wart a day and could even work over the telephone if you described to her the exact location of the growth. However, the power did not work across water, and so if you lived on the other side of the Bayou Teche, you had to cross the bridge (or take a pirogue) to the opposite bank to make your call.

George’s cousin Catherine tried healing sprains after finding Tant Git’s prayer book, which doubled as her healer’s manual. Magitte, George’s mother’s oldest sister, was born in 1880 and inherited the book from her father. But somehow the power never passed to Catherine. Ironically, she became a nurse, healing in more conventional ways, a practice she gave up because her kind heart cannot bear to see suffering. (pictured, Catherine and Susan)

Catherine reminds me of Snow White, with the birds twittering around her head and the animals playing at her feet. During one visit to her home in New Iberia, a noise startled me in her powder room. When I pulled back the shower curtain, I found baby bunnies in the bathtub. (pictured Susan, Uncle Clifton, John Edward, Uncle Emile (from the Aioli Dinner), and Catherine)

Today Catherine and her husband Victor own Victor’s Cafeteria in downtown New Iberia, and the idea that she’s a ‘healer’ is long gone (although no doubt her delicious crawfish pies and pralines have cured a few ailments). She and her sisters Susan and Cheryl, along with their brother John Edward are the closest thing George has to siblings (for more on this, see the blogs How Baby George Became an Artist and Tombs in the Life and Art of George Rodrigue).

And indeed George does complain about Catherine as though she is his sister, most notably regarding the sign at Victor’s Cafeteria that says “Detective Robicheaux eats here,” based on author James Lee Burke’s famous character. George of course thinks the sign should tout a different local celebrity! (pictured, me, Cheryl, Dana (married to John Edward), Susan, Catherine)

(pictured, Catherine, George's mother Marie, George, Jacques at Victor's Cafeteria for Marie's 90th Birthday party, 1995)

I’ve never met a traiteur nor witnessed a healing. George saw it many times. His Tant Git, to heal a sprain, licked her thumb and traced three small crosses with it on the injury while whispering secret words from her prayer book.

One day John Edward, Catherine’s older brother, asked Tant Git (pictured below, 1955) about the process and how she heals. At ten years old, he was convinced that he should be the next family traiteur. (light as a feather…)

She agreed to share her secret, as long as he promised to tell no one. Meanwhile, John Edward had a secret of his own: he planned on a healing demonstration at school for show-n-tell. Magitte showed him the ritual and said the secret words out loud. John Edward, not speaking French, didn’t realize that Tant Git fooled him, as he repeated to his class three times in French: ‘dog poo, pig poo’….. But his teacher, who understood French, was horrified!

George has painted several traiteurs over the years. If you follow this blog, you might remember Evergreen Lake as a Native American model for the healer from the story Rosalea Murphy, the Pink Adobe, and Paintings of Evergreen Lake. He hasn’t addressed the subject on canvas in quite sometime, but he’s been known to entertain at dinner parties, particularly over injuries, with three little crosses and the magic words…

Caca Chien, Caca Cochon, Caca Chien, Caca Cochon, Caca Chien, Caca Cochon….

Sounds like voodoo to me-

Wendy

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Monday, February 15, 2010

Mignon’s Flowers

We are six weeks into 2010 and already it’s touted, certainly around New Orleans, as the year in which dreams come true. We’ve been celebrating since New Year’s Eve, and today, Lundi Gras, is no exception as the Kings of Rex and Zulu land at the riverfront amidst fireworks, live music, and record-breaking crowds.

George and I attended a friend’s annual Lundi Gras party at Commander’s Palace this afternoon, where we donned gold paper crowns, listened to Dixieland jazz, and dined on turtle soup and bread pudding soufflé. It was decadent and joyous, and the famous restaurant echoed with song and laughter. But unknown to anyone around me, I was thinking of neither Carnival nor Super Bowl revelry, but rather of a party far more important in my world: a birthday party.

Mignon McClanahan Wolfe, my mom, was born seventy years ago today. She grew up in New Orleans, lived in Sumter, South Carolina, Dover, Delaware, the Orient and Europe, moved to the beaches of north Florida’s gulf coast for twenty-five years, followed another dream to Highlands, North Carolina, and returned finally, in 2003, to a jewel box Acadian house in Abita Springs, Louisiana.

Her parents named her ‘Felix’ because they wanted a boy, and the day she turned eighteen (and received a draft notice) she changed it to ‘Mignon.’ “I’m named after a French actress,” she used to say.

She was a Chemistry major at LSU when her pony tail flipped over her head onto her bunsen burner and caught her hair on fire. And she gained fame as the first student ever to use the lab shower, when her experiment exploded, disintegrating her clothes before her classmates and burning the skin under her watch nearly down to the bone (prompting her switch to the ‘safe’ major of Fine Arts, despite the fact that she had never picked up a paint brush).

She was the kind of person who named her clothes ‘The Mermaid Outfit,’ ‘The Marilyn Dress,’ or the ‘Renaissance Blouse.’ Her tooled leather belts said “Mignon” amidst roses and bluebonnets; her jazz class leotards were turquoise and purple with matching frilly skirts; and she prided herself on the way her ‘heart-shaped behind’ looked in her Gloria Vanderbilt jeans. She wore flowers in her hair, bows on her sandals, and rhinestones on her fingernails. I wanted to be exactly like her.

She was single from the time I was six years old, and her dating life was a regular part of the drama around our house. There was Captain Napp the pilot (oh how I wanted her to marry him!), Russ the psychiatrist, Tom who owned a magnificent sailboat, Bob the Lt. Colonel, Mike who drove the monster truck (and carried a step stool in the back just for her), Pete the brown-noser (always trying to win over me and my sister with gifts of prom dresses and such), and I guess that’s a long enough list, lest I tarnish her reputation. (pictured, Key to My Heart by Mignon Wolfe)

She listened to Don Williams, Charlie Rich, and Donna Summer as she brushed her long hair, and once dressed, she sat at the piano, playing as she awaited her date:

Starry Starry Night

Paint your palette blue and grey

Look out on a summer’s day

With eyes that know the darkness in my soul.*

Once I reached dating age, we’d meet afterwards for late night horror movies in her bedroom, sharing the details of our dates on commercials during The Fly (as we squirmed in chorus, “Help me, Help me….”), Night of the Living Dead, or The Raven. We laughed ourselves silly despite the plotlines, as she reminisced about the rather repulsive (but beloved) Morgus the Magnificent, while convinced that our current hostess Elvira would pop out of her low-cut black gown at any moment.

She wanted to be tall and thin, but instead she was five feet, four inches and struggled with her weight all of her life. Rarely was she as disappointed in me as when I slouched. At five feet, ten inches in the tenth grade, I fought with my mother about what I saw as an awkward, freakish height. Yet somehow she convinced me to parade around our house in her heels, with a book and glass balanced atop my head.

She was immensely clever and generous in all things. She couldn’t type or sew, but somehow she managed to pluck out my school papers on a typewriter from a board over her bathroom sink (lest the typing wake me and my sister if she sat all night at the dining room table), and my Girl Scout patches magically appeared on my sash within a day after I earned them.

When I called her crying from school one day because a wounded bird lay beneath a bush at my bus stop, she canceled appointments and left work to race home. I found the bird later that day nestled in a towel in the corner of her bathtub, where it remained for several weeks until it felt well enough to fly out our window.

And when she went into the hospital with pain in her hip, she took me aside before her x-ray and told me that if she didn’t make it, I should find Chesley Adler (whom she knew from Chesley’s father’s jewelry store, where my mother worked) and tell her that her jewelry designs are beautiful and that my mother believes in her talent and potential.

….and so I did.

(pictured, Spring Bouquet an oil painting by Mignon Wolfe, followed by George Rodrigue's tribute to her, Mignon's Flowers, a mixed media and silkscreen based on her painting)

Here’s the confusing thing: if I couldn’t even share this invisible birthday girl with our table of party-goers today, then why share with you? I guess because I owe it to her. And because I should have written about her when she could read it. And because I’m vain (I mean, who do I think I am, Rick Bragg?). And because the therapy and psychics and meditation just made me hope for closure. And because I should have taken her to Ireland and Egypt. And because I thought it was all routine, and because I didn’t question the doctors. And because I mocked her belief in fairies and angels and UFO’s. And because I rolled my eyes behind her back over something stupid that last week. And because as my sweet sister managed to choke out and yet state succinctly on the day of our mother’s funeral:

“You know, Wendy, Mom was really neat.”

And because you too are invisible, and there’s a chance that some of you, maybe all of you, who read this in a room as quiet as the one in which I write now (blissfully filled with only the soft sound of my husband, now the same age as my mother when she…, breathing in and out as he sleeps beside me), knows exactly how I feel.**

“But I could have told you Vincent

This world was never meant for one as

Beautiful as you.”*

In 2010, the year that dreams come true, my dream is the impossible one. And yet…

There is a painting I found among my mother’s things that I’d never seen before. It’s only two hands, painted in blue. It hangs in my closet, and sometimes I place my hands on hers and I think she’s there.

Happy Birthday, Mom. God I miss you.

Wendy

** "What’s the matter with you? I mean, you think you’re the only one to ever shed a tear” (Loretta speaking to Ronnie, Moonstruck, 1987)

*Lyrics from the song Vincent, by Don McLean

For related posts see "West Jeff: Passing the Hours" from Gambit's Blog of New Orleans and "Looking Back" from Musings

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Sunday, February 14, 2010

Blue Dog: The Silkscreens

George Rodrigue’s newest silkscreen* print, We Blues Dem Away (Ain’t Dat Super) is a typical example of his print process. In recent years he uses the computer to design his silkscreens so that the print itself, as opposed to a painting, is the original work of art. (pictured, 2010, 33x26 inches, partially a benefit for the George Rodrigue Foundation of the Arts)

*note that George uses the word ‘silkscreen’ in place of ‘serigraph,’ intending the same meaning.

Since his first Blue Dog silkscreens beginning in 1990, the prints in most cases are unrelated to the paintings. In other words, most paintings are one-of-a-kind images without reproductions in any form, and most prints are original images, without a painting of origin. To put it as simply as possible: there are no paintings of the prints, and no prints of the paintings. (pictured: Gallery Edition II, 1990, silkscreen, 28x25 inches, edition 90)

Andy Warhol laid the groundwork for this type of print-making both for George and for other artists such as Roy Lichtenstein, Jim Dine, and Robert Indiana. You may recall from the post Art School: Lafayette and Los Angeles, 1962-1967, that George first saw Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans and other works at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles during the mid-1960s. Although dismissed by his professors, the Pop Art style and process impressed George and remains a strong influence today. (pictured: Hot Dog Chili, 2000, silkscreen, 32x18 inches, edition 120)

Prints of George’s Cajun paintings are for the most part inexpensive offset lithographs, mass produced, and intended for sale at festivals and poster shops. He did try silkscreening a landscape, Oaks on Bayou Teche, in 1970 and a Jolie Blonde, Morning Glories Blonde, in 1988 (both pictured below). However the dark landscape did not translate well into silkscreen form, and so he stopped with one small run. The large scale (37x28 inches) and more than seventy colors of Morning Glories Blonde proved awkward, expensive, and prone to damages.

Although George first painted the Blue Dog in 1984, it wasn’t until 1990 that he silkscreened the image. He approached this print-making carefully, because he knew that he had something special in the Blue Dog designs, and he worried that mass-produced, cheap posters might ruin his art’s longevity and alter its perception in the public eye before he had a chance to explore the concept.

George often says that had he discovered the Blue Dog earlier (before his lessons with the Cajun paintings and prints), he might have ruined it. For more on this see the posts: Blue Dog: Out of Control, 1993-1995 and Blue Dog 2000: The Year of Xerox.

In those early years, before the advanced computer tool, he drew a sketch on tracing paper for each color within a print. When stacked, the tracing paper formed a complete image. In the beginning he created simple designs and chose flat paint colors, providing corresponding numbers to his silkscreen printer, who then ran a proof. This involved a lot of guesswork, because the colors appear different when applied to the paper, and oftentimes the prints from the early 1990s included numerous trial runs and color changes until George achieved his desired result. (pictured: Codex Blue Dog, 1991, silkscreen 28x22 inches, edition of 90 with screen proofs)

In some cases, to save money and damages (after all, his printer pulled by hand in those days), George actually painted certain areas of a print, rather than run an additional color. (pictured: Dogs in Space, 1991, silkscreen with hand-painted eyes, 33x25 inches, edition 25)

Those early years also challenged George because he used paint, as opposed to silkscreen ink, to create his prints. The color is very thick on the paper, leaving the print susceptible to damages, particularly scratches, chips, and dings. In those days the price point was $75 to $150, meaning that prints were rolled in tubes, thumb-tacked on dorm room walls, or even dry-mounted (glued down when framed). The frequent damages, combined with an average edition size of ninety prints, means that only a fraction of these early prints remain in good condition. (We hold ours in Rodrigue’s archives and no longer offer them for sale). (pictured: Sometimes I Feel Like a Blue Dog, 1991, silkscreen, 22x28 inches, edition 200)

Within a few years silkscreen techniques advanced, and George and his printer grew more adept at the process. Most significant was the switch from paint to silkscreen ink. This resulted in fewer damages, and it preempted the computer in advancing George’s use of color in these prints. Beginning in 1993 his prints are much brighter, and the thinner ink allows more complex designs. (pictured: Junkyard Dog, Chicken in a Basket, Strato Lounger, all from 1993, editions of 90)

George also became adept at using both clip art and his own photographs within his designs. (pictured: Lunar Buns, 1995; Big Apple Blues, 1995; Tiger Paws, 1997, editions ranging between 50 and 90)

By the year 2000 George had created more than three hundred editions of Blue Dog silkscreens, all with unique designs. He continued growing in this process and made his largest leap yet as he came to understand computer programs such as Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop. He writes in the book Prints (published by Harry N. Abrams, New York, 2008):

“By this time I was experimenting with the computer as an integral part of my creative process. The Rat Pack (2002, 25x50 inches, edition 25, pictured below) is one of the first images I designed using the computer. Although the computer in art is controversial in some circles, for me it is a tool no different from a paintbrush or paint. For many artists the computer allows a flexibility that actually increases their creative output of original works. Because I see my ideas develop quickly on the computer screen, I have a completely different experience and journey in creating the final artwork.”

He continues…

“Without a doubt, the most exciting change for me with regard to having computer capabilities is the large selection of colors at my fingertips. Before the computer, the only way to show the printer my desired colors was to paint a color swatch in the area where that color was to be printed. But today’s technology allows the artist to select from millions of colors, each with an individual number, and put that color swatch onto the area where the color should appear on the print. I can see what a print will look like and make changes to color and design before the first print is produced. This sheer volume of choice essentially eliminates trial and error. It’s easy to see what one set of ten colors looks like versus another set. There are literally countless choices. This gives me (and any artist) the flexibility and capability to produce things that I might never have thought of before.” (pictured: Sand Dollar Beach and The Magnificent Seven, both editions of 90 from 2009).

Without meaning to confuse matters, I should mention that there are exceptions to nearly everything I’ve written above. George enjoys experimenting, and he does not adhere to hard and fast rules when it comes to his art. For example, I made a big point at the beginning of this blog entry that his Blue Dog paintings and prints are mutually exclusive. However, works for Neiman Marcus, Xerox, and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival are exceptions to this rule. Those works are silkscreens based on paintings. A computer breaks down their colors based on George’s original paintings of those images. Again, this is not the norm, however in some circumstances it makes sense with regards to the final use of the work, particularly when the image commemorates a specific event or person. (For more on these works, including images, see the posts Blue Dog Man, 1996-1999; Blue Dog 2000: The Year of Xerox; The Jazz Fest Poster)

If you look back at images in the posts Blue Dog: In the Beginning, 1984-1989 and Blue Dog: The Ghost of Tiffany, 1990-1992, and compare them to silkscreens of the same years, as pictured in this entry, you’ll notice that, particularly in the early 1990s, the paintings and prints look as if they were created by two different people. Paintings from those years tend to be complex, while the silkscreen prints are very simple.

I find it interesting that George’s paintings of recent years look more and more like those early silkscreen designs, while the silkscreens grow more complex. Unlike the early silkscreens, however, these new paintings are large scale, some as wide as ten feet, a product of not only George’s passion for applying thick paint on canvas with large brushes, but also his excitement over his new French Quarter gallery space (opening this March), where he has the room (for the first time ever) to display these larger works.

George’s silkscreen history is complicated and dense. I’ve barely touched on it here and hope that, nevertheless, in this day and age of mass produced posters, cheap prints, and giclees (all of which George avoids), you, my reader, will come away from this story with a better understanding of his process. It is print-making as an art form.

Wendy

For a detailed history of all Rodrigue prints, including the Cajun posters, as well as a complete catalogue raisonné of the Blue Dog silkscreens, I recommend the book George Rodrigue Prints, published in 2008 by Harry N. Abrams, New York, available through your favorite independent bookstore or on-line bookseller.

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