Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Rodrigue vs. O’Keeffe: Choosing Magnus and Murphy Over the Great Modernist Painter

It's a snowy day in Santa Fe at last. George Rodrigue and I made the most of this past week’s clear weather, however, spending a day exploring an ancient turquoise mine owned by our friend Doug Magnus, a jeweler and artist in the area.

…And another day within the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. Once again, as with the recent Degas exhibition at the Morgan Library, I connected George to a famous artist; this time, however, relating him to one whose work he dislikes. Barely through the door, he grumbled,

“The only reason you look at some of this art is because it’s hanging here, in the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. Otherwise a person might walk on by. This museum is the worst collection of her paintings. She needed a good editor.”

“Except for this one,” he continued, gesturing to the painting above, Black Hollyhock Blue Larkspur, 1930. “This was a good accident.”

I’m reading O’Keeffe’s biography,* and I sought to convince George of her accomplishment by way of her conviction, an artistic drive similar to his and evident from an early age. I related her struggle with typhoid fever and the temporary loss of her hair to his bout with polio and the temporary loss of the use of his legs. Whereas O’Keeffe shared the family’s slight good fortune with her brothers and sisters, so that each had a turn at school even if it meant alternating academic years, George understood loneliness and misunderstanding as the only child of aging parents.

O’Keeffe embraced on her own the Prang Art Instruction Manuals, from which she gained “her first impressions of how nature could be reproduced in two dimensions,”* just as Rodrigue embraced the Art Instruction Correspondence Course, based in Minneapolis. In 1957, at age thirteen, George Rodrigue was the youngest person ever accepted into the program, and yet his parents had little understanding of the significance. O’Keeffe’s parents and academic community steered her towards teaching, while George’s parents pushed him towards illustration and advertising. The young people stayed the course and the unpopular path, however, becoming fine artists.

And you had it made, I reminded him. You’re a man!

In addition, just as O’Keeffe understood shape but admittedly “was not a prodigy … and had to work to improve her technical abilities,”* Rodrigue struggled with drawing from the beginning, knowing that his inherent skill lies in his ideas. These struggles in life and art empowered both artists. Their suffering, at whatever level, gave them the courage to look inward, to abandon the establishment, and to follow their childhood dreams.

I copied O’Keeffe’s words below from the wall of the museum, the same statement George Rodrigue repeats in various forms over the years, whether talking about his Oak Trees, his Cajuns, his Hurricanes, or his Blue Dogs:

“I have a single track mind. I work on one idea for a long time. It is like getting acquainted with a person, and I don’t get acquainted easily.” – O’Keeffe 1962

Rosalea Murphy, another artist who, like O’Keeffe, Magnus and Rodrigue,* succumbed to the land of enchantment, also could have written that sentence. Although best known for her Pink Adobe Restaurant and Dragon Room Bar, she spent her life (1912-2000) creating an impressive portfolio of original works, paintings of roosters, dragons, and poblano peppers.

George met Rosalea in the mid 1980s, and their friendship, rooted in their mutual respect for each other as artists, grew stronger with his increasingly frequent Santa Fe sojourns.

(pictured above, an invitation to Rosalea’s private exhibition of George’s Cajun paintings, followed in later years by his paintings of New Mexico and Evergreen Lake; for years George and I stayed as Rosalea’s guests in her apartment above The Pink Adobe, enjoying the view of the San Miguel Mission, the oldest church in America, through her sunflowers)

Through Rosalea, George met other creative individuals, discovering an artistic camaraderie that exists to this day.

(pictured below, Rosalea Murphy with artist Douglas Magnus, Santa Fe, circa 1985)

Magnus, a gifted artist and jeweler, owns the turquoise mines mentioned at the top of this post and detailed in the recent story “Turquoise Hill.” Similar to each of their friendships with Rosalea, George and Doug are bonded by their mutual respect as artists, as evidenced by George’s latest original silkscreen, a gift for Doug using his designs for the four hundredth anniversary of the city of Santa Fe, along with his photograph from Los Angeles 1968, featuring the peace sign he painted on his Volkswagen Bug.

Finally, I leave you with George’s thoughts as we exited the O’Keeffe Museum just a few days ago. Hoping he swayed a bit in her favor, I asked him once more about the famous artist. He shrugged his shoulders and replied,

“She loved this land and this place; I’ll give her that.”

Wendy

*Full Bloom: The Art and Life of Georgia O’Keeffe by Hunter Drohojowska-Philp, Norton Press, 2004

For more photos and stories from our recent visit to Santa Fe, including the turquoise mines, Georgia O’Keeffe, and the Dragon Room, see the Gambit post “Turquoise Hill”

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Wednesday, December 22, 2010

New York Art in West Texas

I could spend the rest of my life traveling and writing about the West.

That’s what I thought to myself as I sat with George Rodrigue in a café in Marfa, Texas and watched the barbershop across the street. The barber, visible past a single strand of colored lights and his barber’s pole, shaved his own face in the small window, framed by the deserted retail spaces on either side of his shop, before locking up and heading for his pick-up parked out front.

“It’s the biggest contradiction in the world,” said George about Marfa. “This isn’t Texas; this is New York. This is like I’m gonna get a stick stuck in my eye, and I can’t wait to get it, because it’s good for me.”

George’s comment does not refer to the barber, or to the flat roofs and Western architecture, or to the golden light and long shadows. It doesn’t refer to the lone dog walking down the middle of the street or to the fact that ‘all the guys who walk by look like the same guy.’

He’s talking about the deluge of contemporary art that fell, with increasing intensity, on Marfa over the past thirty years. He means that anyone who’s anybody in the art world has to visit Marfa, a remote Texas town near the Mexico border, in order to say that they’re in the know. They have no choice.

He has a point. A certain element of Marfa feels like the West Texas annex of Berkeley. If you ask the museums or galleries about restaurants, they name two, both organic, with homegrown veggies, free-range everything, and beautiful young people, sporting long hair or no hair and wearing eyeglasses with dark plastic frames.

“The locals must find this nuts,” continued George. “These poor people just had it done to them.”

(As he philosphizes, I overhear a Yogi Berra-ism from the bar: “Once you get to know a stranger, then they’re no longer a stranger.”)

Marfa, in a weird kind of way, is like looking at art on the set of High Noon. At the Chinati Foundation, Donald Judd’s tribute to his own work and other contemporary Minimalists, we walked between the buildings of a former Army base, experiencing a heightened sensory perception, an acute awareness of the wind and the light, the squeak of our shoes and the whir of the grass.

This will be here forever, an abandoned fort, windows walled up with impressions of where they used to let in light.

Inside the buildings, we faced the reality of contemporary art: the poems of Carl Andre (b. 1935), for example, five hundred pages of patterns made with a typewriter, or occasionally by hand, sometimes using nothing but one word or one letter. (George told me he used to do the same thing as a young man; regrettably he did not save the pages).

(pictured above, Carl Andre’s poems in a former military storage building; this installation reminded me a bit of The Shining)

Donald Judd moved from New York City to Marfa, Texas in 1979 and created a permanent installation of Minimalism.

"When you become famous," says George Rodrigue, "you tend to go hide somewhere. People (such as Georgia O'Keeffe) have done it before."
Yes, but why come to Marfa, where he’ll never be understood? I asked.

“He was making a statement by coming here. It’s out of the way, so it didn’t create controversy. Only people who thought it was cool and necessary came here. It’s like me having an art gallery on Pecan Island.”

So Judd didn’t really hide; he transformed a town and made it his legacy. A man who rejected painting with brushstrokes because “it’s already done and I want to do something new” (--D.J.) has his name on half of the buildings of a remote western high desert town.

George and I realized immediately that the idea is to have exhibitions …and that is all. The gallery and museum staffs have little or no interaction with people, no explanations, no nothing. Our guide at Chinati, for example, gave us a brief history of the place and how each artist came to be there. She showed no emotion as she spoke, as though any animation or enthusiasm might betray the artwork. She did not explain the art, because Minimalism is without meaning and requires no explanation.

Accordingly, she refrained from speaking once inside. We walked into the first building at Chinati (unfortunately I do not remember the artist's name; it was not Flavin) and everyone stood still in silence, first staring at ten fluorescent bulbs along a wall (I was waiting for it to do something, said one visitor later), and then at each other, at the ceiling, and out of the window, until George finally broke the agony and said aloud, “I’ve got it,” prompting a relieved eruption of laughter and our guide’s sheepish move towards the door.

The overall place is a work of art, combining the installations with old and seemingly (at first) incongruent architecture, purposefully changed to suit each installation, along with the land and sky of West Texas.

Judd related his concrete boxes to the boxes of the buildings. This doesn’t make much sense until you realize that the military fort, like Louisiana’s oak trees, was already here. Judd took it a step further and created the boxes on purpose, just as George Rodrigue adapted the oaks to his canvas.

According to George, the closest he came to Minimalism was a set of three twelve-inch square boxes he created in the late 1960s. However, he would not pass muster with the folks at Marfa, because he injects too much meaning into his sculpture, creating a warning sign with a STOP, along with a barricade and construction cone.

(pictured, a diagram of George’s boxes, as he remembers them)

From Marfa, we visited Marney – not the town, but the person. Marney Robinson (pictured below with her family and George) is Director of Education for the George Rodrigue Foundation of the Arts. She grew up in Hobbs, New Mexico, a small city with an impressive sign, located about two hundred miles north of Marfa, Texas.

We met her parents, brother and uncle, visited their family-run pharmacy, and enjoyed their wonderful hospitality.

Now that we understand from Donald Judd that where one places the art is just as important as the art itself, I leave you with a picture of the Robinson Family Christmas tree and the “Tylenol Torso,” covered with hundreds of pills, and created by Marney for a studio art class at Trinity University.

Like Marfa, the Robinson Family Christmas is one that cannot be replicated. It can only happen in Hobbs, under these circumstances and with these people. A painting or sculpture can happen in any number of museums, but not the Marfa experience --- It can only happen here, in West Texas, on an abandoned military base, now enchanted by one man’s vision.

Wishing you and yours a joyous holiday season!

Wendy

All photographs in this post by George Rodrigue

For more pictures and stories from our visit to Marfa, see the post “Rejecting the Metaphor: Discovering Modern Art in West Texas”

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Friday, December 17, 2010

Santa Claus: Paintings and Sculptures Inspired by the Season

In 1979 George Rodrigue painted his four-year old son André with Santa Claus. As with most of his Cajun paintings, he manipulated a photograph to suit his needs, in this case cutting the figures out of the staged snapshot and placing them outside. André posed with Santa not beneath an oak tree, but at Acadiana Mall, which opened in Lafayette, Louisiana that same year.

To create the painting, George projected the figures onto a 40x30 inch canvas and traced their outlines. He then formed the tree behind them, so that they appear to be pasted onto this symbol of Louisiana, leaving no doubt that this is a Cajun Christmas.

Recalling the story of a giant stuffed bunny one Easter and a terrified André, I asked George,

How did you get him to pose with Santa?

“He stood there, frozen,” George admitted. “That was long before digital cameras, and I had a hard time getting a good shot.”

Typical of George’s style, the sky is small and bright in the distance. The figures shine with an unnatural light, as opposed to the expected shadows beneath the branches and moss. The Cajun culture and the Christmas tradition are the subjects here, as André and Santa glow like ghosts, timeless in a Louisiana landscape.

Tell me about Santa and your own childhood, I asked George.

“I never saw a dressed-up Santa Claus as a kid. They just weren’t around. The cut-out Coca-Cola Santa from 1950 is the first one I remember. He was much bigger than I imagined.

“In the ‘50’s, the Sears, Roebuck building at the corner of Baronne and Common Streets in New Orleans had a four or five story Santa Claus. It was so giant that you could see it from Canal Street.

“During those days, all of the big stores -- D.H. Holmes, Kress, Maison Blanche – had massive Christmas decorations. We drove three hours each way to see the displays, unlike New Iberia’s five-block downtown, decorated with single strands of colored light bulbs strung between telephone poles.”

Inspired by these New Orleans trips, a young George Rodrigue entered the City of New Iberia’s holiday decorating contest in 1959. He constructed and painted a life-size manger scene featuring Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and the animals, all cut from cardboard and staged with bales of hay on his grotto-like front porch. For his second place win he received $25 and his picture in the paper. It’s the only contest of any kind that he won in his life. (see the post “The Art Contest”)

The following year he focused on first place:

“I got real ambitious and went for a giant Santa like the one at Sears in New Orleans,” he explains.

Because of his dad’s connections in the tomb business, George had access to huge cardboard boxes, used to transport and protect the caskets for Evangeline Funeral Home.

“It was heavy, beautiful cardboard, eight by five feet. I broke the boxes up and cut my figures from them each year. I wanted Santa to stand on the grass higher than the pitched roof of our house, but I was limited by the size of the boxes. Using wooden ladders, 2x4’s and plywood, I built a scaffolding first. Then I painted the Santa and nailed it up. It was very tricky.”

He attached Santa to his house in real life just like he pastes his figures on the oaks in his paintings.

To further complicate matters, he stapled a clear plastic sheeting to each section of cardboard, protecting Santa from the weather (a hard-learned lesson after losing a panel in a rainstorm the first night). The whole project took two weeks.

“In the end, it was like the Sears Santa,” George recalls. “You could see it all the way from Main Street. Must have been the biggest Santa Claus ever put up in New Iberia. I didn’t win anything and had no mention in the paper, but everybody came to look.

“Still, I got discouraged and never decorated the house again.”

Today our decorations are unworthy of a home-tour. That's because George leaves the responsibility of our holiday atmosphere to me. Stuck on traditional red bows and garland, plywood and twenty-foot Santas are out of the question. This year, for the first time ever, we forwent the tree, as we’re already on the road, heading West for a white Christmas in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

(pictured, Guapo* playing in the snow, photographed by Dana Waldon this morning in Santa Fe)

Before we reach the adobe houses, luminaries, and snow, however, we’ll stop for the weekend in Marfa, Texas, checking out the Chinati Foundation, a series of buildings housing a contemporary art museum founded by New York artist Donald Judd in 1979.

Attune to both the surrounding land and an avant-garde, minimalist mindset, the artist community of Marfa embraces the large scale and the ambitious. As I read aloud from their website, George mumbled,

“I wonder if they decorated.”

Wendy

*Guapo ('handsome' in Spanish) belongs to Dana Waldon and Doug Magnus. "I let Doug name him," jokes Dana, "because I thought it might give the dog a better chance of Doug not killing him!"

For a related post visit “The Ghost of Christmas Past”

This week from Dolores Pepper: “A Story of Bling” (by Wendy Rodrigue for Gambit’s "Blog of New Orleans")

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Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Greatest Gift

“And they sat there and they marveled

And they knew they could not tell

Whether it were angels, or the bright stars a singing”**

I was surprised by the large and heartfelt response to the recent post “The Ghost of Christmas Past,” a story I hesitated sharing. Obviously there is something about this season that produces nostalgia. Even though it comes around faster each year, there’s a collective sigh around our house at the sound of that first Christmas song and the smell of the pine garland, as I shake out the loose needles and drape the branches on the fireplace.

(pictured above, our fireplace in New Orleans’ Faubourg Marigny, with artwork by George Rodrigue and, dispelling the myth that artists do not collect the work of other artists: Jean-Pierre Serrier, Dan Corbin, Albert Paley, Robert Indiana, Fritz Scholder, and New Orleans artists Thomas Bruno and Juli Juneau; ceramic dogs by Jeff Koons and George Rodrigue)

It all comes rushing back this time of year: duets at the piano, re-runs of The Little Drummer Boy, friendly arguments over who sets up the manger scene and who places the angel on the tree.

Whether one believes in angels or not, in the birth of Jesus Christ or not, there is a warmth to this season that, if one gives it a chance, dwarfs the commercialism and anxiety. Even for folks like George and myself, who long ago abandoned the established religion of our childhood, there is the sense that something else is going on, namely a spiritual embrace of family, friends, and tradition. We look at our city anew this time of year, enjoying the lights at Jackson Square and City Park, along with the flocked trees on Fulton Street and the wreaths on the streetcars. Things we barely glanced at yesterday catch our eyes today and look special once again.

By ‘the season,’ I mean all of the season. Not just Christmas, but also Hanukkah, the first snowfall, and the approach of a new year. Following the traditional Jewish wedding of a friend’s daughter in Birmingham, Alabama a few years ago, I told George that I felt the lure of this ancient religion, this way of life. It is something I didn’t know growing up in the Methodist Church, a sense of family intertwined with faith and history. I wanted the whole package.

“The only problem is,” I explained (quite seriously), “if it’s to work, I have to convince our entire family, even our long-dead ancestors, to get on board.”

George replied (also quite seriously),

“My mother would never go for it.”

Of course he was right. When she died in 2008 at age 103, George’s Catholic-French mother still clicked her rosary beads and worried over his salvation.

(pictured above, a holiday family portrait; Marie Courrege Rodrigue displays a rare and rather adorable sense of Christmas spirit, 1997, Lafayette, Louisiana; also pictured, George’s sons André and Jacques)

When George and I married, the Catholic faith was an anomaly to me. Since that time, although I’m no expert, I’ve attended mass, weddings, and funerals, too many to count, and listened attentively to sermons, with hopes of understanding this important part of George’s culture, the Cajuns.

(pictured, a book of hand-written and typed sermons belonging to Marion Edwards, a Cajun from Marksville, Louisiana. As a young man Edwards and his brother, former Louisiana Governor Edwin Edwards, preached for the Church of the Nazarene; with appreciation to Marion for allowing me to peruse his sermons and take some pictures earlier this week at the home he shares with his wife Penny in Broussard, Louisiana; more on this coming in January)

It was one wedding maybe ten years ago in New Iberia that I sat between George and Dickie Hebert (pronounced 'a-bear'), his oldest friend, who works today in the Lafayette Rodrigue Gallery. As we listened to the priest, I hung on his every word, astonished at the spiritual pressure placed on the young couple.

“Dickie,” I whispered, “Is this the way it is in your marriage? Do you abide by everything this priest says?”

“Oh I stopped listening years ago,” said the sixty-five year old man who attends mass every week of his life. “What did he say?”

Perhaps this is the answer I should have expected from Dickie, a boy who made up for his small stature by shooting the neighborhood bullies with a bb gun from his hiding place under the house, and who rode up and down New Iberia’s St. Peters Street on his bicycle carrying a large Confederate flag.

Dickie’s happy-go-lucky nature and sense of humor belie his on-going obsession with firearms. In the late 1990s, this petite Cajun volunteered as Santa Claus at our neighborhood parties, stuffing his clothing with pillows and padding, so that the 140-pound man fooled both children and adults with his Ho Ho Ho. Around that same time, he nearly found himself arrested when, while shooting rats in a cane field, he shot a hole into a woman’s trailer, knocking a picture off of the wall, interrupting her breakfast, and narrowly missing her head.

George and Dickie have been friends for sixty years. Each Christmas, George inevitably spends long hours telling stories about their childhood adventures.* He also indulges my memories of favorite gifts of roller skates and Neil Diamond sheet music, as well as my awe over the twelve-foot flocked tree at my aunt and uncle’s house on the New Orleans West Bank.

These memories are the greatest gift. My family doesn’t sing around the piano these days, but we couldn’t replicate that exact experience anymore than George can revisit 1950s New Iberia. Thankfully we make new memories, replacing our childhood obsession of receiving gifts with an adult obsession of giving. This year more than any other, we’ve felt the joy of giving through the George Rodrigue Foundation of the Arts. We’ve seen first-hand the happiness of children, whether hearing a story, playing outside with their friends, or lost in their imagination as they paint a picture.

And we’ve seen the unabated joy as our nephews race to bed the second that, according to the computer’s radar, Santa’s sleigh hits North America.

“Words of old that come a traveling, by the riches of the times,

And I softly listened, as I stood upon the hill

And I softly listened, as I stood upon the hill”**

Wendy

**Lyrics from “Noel: Christmas Eve, 1913” by Robert Bridges, 1936

*For one such Dickie-and-George adventure see the tail end of the post “Swamp Women”

All Blue Dog images in this post are original silkscreens by George Rodrigue, editions of 150, 20x16 inches, printed in 2000

For a related post visit “The Ghost of Christmas Past”

I hope to see you at my new blog, a weekly column for the on-line version of the New Orleans paper, Gambit.

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Monday, December 6, 2010

The Art Contest

George Rodrigue entered two art contests in his life and failed at both. By ‘failed,’ I'm not talking about the fact that he lost, but more significant that he was disqualified or learned a hard lesson about cheating.

“Nothing in life is fair,” my mother used to say.

And maybe she was right. But in the end perhaps that's not a bad thing. In George’s case his contest experiences taught him life lessons; they helped him understand people and, most important, that no one reaches their star by proxy. Either you work hard and make it on your own, or it doesn’t happen.

The first contest George entered was in 1954 at the Sears Roebuck Catalogue Store in New Iberia, Louisiana. In those days, according to George, the Sears store was nothing more than a small room with a row of catalogues and a woman behind the desk. To shop at Sears, one visited the so-called store, chose their items from a catalogue, and placed their order accordingly. There was no merchandise on hand, no fitting room, and nothing relating to the department stores of today.

For some time, in an effort to widen its reputation beyond automobile tires, Sears hired actor Vincent Price as their cultural ambassador. He traveled across the country with art exhibitions for the store. In fact, it was one of these shows (in Baton Rouge) that first exposed George a few years later to paintings by professional artists. (Remember, there were no museums or galleries in southwest Louisiana in those days).

In keeping with this direction, the New Iberia store, too small for an exhibition, held an art contest for local grade school students. They produced a coloring sheet so that each child worked on the same image.

“I knew that no one colored better than me in my class,” says George. “I remember going to Sears with my mother to turn in my picture, and I remember staring at that tool set, knowing it would be mine.”

At age nine, recently recovered from polio, young George wanted nothing more than to win the child’s tool set offered as a prize. As described in the recent post “The Ghost of Christmas Past,” his mother was not fond of gifts, and if he didn’t win it, he knew he would never have one.

From an early age, if George wanted something beyond necessities such as food and clothing, it was up to him to buy it. By the time he was a teenager he earned money by working in his father’s tomb business and by selling his paintings of swamp monsters. He also took the occasional portrait commission, until the director of the local funeral home refused to pay him the agreed-upon price of fifty dollars (below, a hard lesson learned).

(pictured, Portrait of George Burgess, 1959, a painting that hangs in George’s studio today)

He didn’t win the tool set. Rather, the boy who sat behind him in the third grade and who “couldn’t color at all” took it home. His aunt, the manager at the Sears Roebuck Catalogue Store, presented him with the prize.

Ten years later, now in his early twenties, George Rodrigue entered his second and final art contest. It was in Morgan City, Louisiana, and he was disqualified from the start because the contest’s organizers thought he passed off antique landscape paintings as his own. (For more on this story visit here).

(pictured, Landscape with Cabin and Oak, 1970, 32x36 inches, oil on canvas; for the history of George’s landscape paintings see the post “Early Oak Trees”)

It’s ironic, given this track record, that George launched last year his own art contest for high school seniors through the George Rodrigue Foundation of the Arts. With sixteen winners and $35,000 in scholarship awards, the contest was an enormous success, as rewarding for George, I believe, as for the winners.

Remembering the rigged Sears contest, he avoids judging himself, ensuring fairness as much as possible with guest judges and nameless entries. Remembering his own academic struggles, he eschews G.P.A. requirements, test scores, and declared majors, hoping all juniors and seniors in Louisiana, regardless of their grades, will find confidence in their creative abilities and give this competition a try.

Launched a few weeks ago, this year’s contest offers more than $40,000 in scholarship prizes and includes cash awards for high school juniors.

(pictured, last year's first place winner, Sean Hicks of Hackberry, Louisiana, now a student at McNeese State University)

In some cases schools provide matching scholarships, as in the case of Alexandra Olivier of Gretna, Louisiana (pictured below with George Rodrigue), who attends Savannah College of Art and Design. Her $1500 GRFA scholarship quickly turned to $7500, as SCAD matched the award for four years.

George visits with these winners at a luncheon in their honor and follows their progress during the year, hosting an art show of their works within his Royal Street Gallery. The exhibition travels to several venues throughout the state, including the Louisiana Governor’s Mansion in Baton Rouge, the Old Courthouse Museum in Natchitoches, and the Louisiana State Exhibit Museum in Shreveport.

For more information on the George Rodrigue Foundation of the Arts 2011 Art Contest visit GRFA’s fabulous new interactive website: www.georgerodriguefoundation.org.

Wendy

For related posts visit “The Creative Competition in Two Parts” and "Catholic High, Brother Edward, and the Art Scholarship"

Coming up: New York Art in West Texas,” a visit to Marfa and the Chinati Foundation

I hope to see you for my weekly posts at Gambit's Blog of New Orleans, linked here- Thanks for reading!

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Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Ghost of Christmas Past

I try and, honestly, fail to imagine 1950s New Iberia, Louisiana. I’ve stared at this photograph for hours, a six-year old George Rodrigue dressed as a cowboy on Christmas morning, an only child surrounded by symbols of the time: a Radio Flyer red wagon; promotional Coca-Cola Santa Clauses (in multiples because his dad traded them on a brick-laying job); a dartboard featuring Little Black Sambo*, a reality of a bigotry so culturally ingrained that no one in young George’s world even thought about it; and a photograph on the fireplace mantle of cousin Nootsie, a fighter pilot shot down during World War II.

I see the fireplace bricks George’s father laid ever-so-straight with his bare hands, and I wonder at the Christmas ornaments, heirlooms of school projects, world travels, and craft fairs in my own childhood (still hanging on our tree today). And yet by the time George and I married in 1997, the Rodrigue family long ago wrote off their ornaments as junk, disappearing within George’s mother’s aging and Depression-influenced memory. I asked her, a woman who had not decorated a tree in forty-seven years, where do I find your boxes of saved and treasured ornaments?

“I threw those out years ago,” she explained, her mild dementia drifting in and out, “when I turned the attic into a studio for George. Daddy put a window unit up there, our first air conditioner, and I could hear that whirring while George painted all night.” (A rather endearing end to the ornaments, I must admit…)

…at which point she twirled her hands in a disco move, the same gesture she made each time she talked about the floodwaters of 1927 rolling into New Iberia.

(pictured, Marie Rodrigue with her grandsons André and Jacques, 1984)

If you ask George he’ll tell you that he had a happy childhood. He might point out, while laughing, that this Christmas, 1950, was the last time he received a gift from Santa or his parents. According to his mother, his father had gone overboard and given him more than enough gifts at age six to last a lifetime. It was also the last year the family would ‘waste money’ on a tree.

(pictured, a photograph by George's cousin, an aspiring photographer named Charles "Brain" Cambre, who superimposed an image of George's father onto the fireplace he built in the Rodrigue duplex on New Iberia's Main Street, the Old Spanish Trail Hwy 90)

For me, the strongest image in the holiday photograph is of a lone boy, an only child, who, despite dozens of nearby cousins, spent Christmas with a Coca-Cola Santa, Little Black Sambo, and his aging parents, his father well into his fifties and his mother getting close.

At the same time, I see a boy blissfully lost in his imagination, a cowboy enthralled with the Lone Ranger Radio Show, and a growing obsession with 1950s memorabilia that continues today.

(pictured, I’m the Real Thing, an original silkscreen, 2010; for more on this coke machine visit here)

At the time of this Christmas photograph, Earl Long was Governor of Louisiana. Our politics, not unlike today, were full of both personal and public drama, particularly with regards to Earl’s voluptuous friend, Blaze Starr, along with his increasing mental health problems. Segregation was the norm in this small southern town, and young George grew up with both his parents’ and society’s pervasive racism, an ugly reality he probably didn’t even think about until he served with the National Guard during the Selma to Montgomery marches of 1965.

(pictured, Earl Long by George Rodrigue, 1989, 60x36 inches; for the story of this painting, along with George’s portrait of Earl's famous brother Huey, visit here)

The young George in this photograph could not know of the polio outbreaks and the resulting panic around the corner. (Today he says that the outbreaks were nothing new, but that television made it appear so, because everyone saw the ill children and the iron lungs for the first time). He could not know that three years after this Christmas of 1950, he too would contract polio, a disease that ultimately lead to his discovery of art when his mother brought him paint-by-number sets and modeling clay to cure his boredom.

(pictured, George’s Sweet Inspirations, featuring a young George at his school desk, along with his dogs Lady and Trixie)

I look at this Christmas photograph of Baby George, as his family called him, and I think about my own childhood, about how I still feel like a young girl, as though it all happened last month. And yet, just recently, as I read a Nancy Drew book out loud to my godchild, I found myself horrified at the racial slurs prevalent throughout the series I adored as a child. Apologizing to her mother for my insensitive reading choice, I altered the text as I read aloud, with hopes of sheltering today’s child from something I brushed over without notice some thirty-five years ago.

I still feel young, and yet I wince at Mad Men, unable to face the treatment of women in the workplace and at home in the 1960s. I can’t see the show without remembering my mother, newly divorced, holding my sister in one arm and my hand with the other, turned away in tears and humiliated from Sears, the only department store in 1973 Fort Walton Beach, Florida, because divorced women had no credit.

Finally, I look at this photograph and I see an odd mix of the typical postcard-like Ozzie-and-Harriet American Christmas blended with a sad reality of the times: a cousin lost to war, a mother forever wounded by the Great Depression, a country and culture steeped in racism. I see the reason why George grumbles, only for a moment, each year as I unpack the decorations until, like me, he’s transformed by the twinkling lights, eggnog, and Elvis as we sit together in our living room, recalling with sentimental nostalgia the holidays past while treasuring every moment of the current Christmas season.

Wendy

*in the book A Blue Dog Christmas (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2000) we used digital technology to remove Little Black Sambo from this photograph. I debated doing the same here but changed my mind as I tried to paint a picture of the times. I also found this article by Michael Mahon of interest: Revisiting Racially Offensive Book Characters in Children’s ‘Classics’.” It is my sincere hope that I have not caused offense with my words and images in this post.

*for related posts visit "How Baby George Became an Artist" and "The Greatest Gift"

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