Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Happy Christmas

So this is Christmas
And what have you done
Another year over
And a new one just begun*

I wandered through college with a guilt complex.  Like many naïve students, inspired by a voting voice and new knowledge, I embraced the world’s problems as my own, determined to improve things somehow, even as I failed in family relationships and winced at dateless Saturday nights.

Looking back, it was a crazed mental time, when a skipped meal, prayed over, transported magically to a starving child; when vegetarianism meant one less chicken in the over-crowded coop; and when five spare dollars in my checking account meant more money that Sunday in the offering plate.

I saw need everywhere, a vision I gradually narrowed, or at least focused, lest I went crazy.   Although some of us remain protesters and activists as we age, most concentrate at some point on peace within our own home as opposed to peace on earth.  Despite this age-accompanying cynicism, I still believe that one person’s actions make a difference, and that even a small difference counts.

Children see the world with broad vision.  They love and give without worrying about perception.  “We’re all artists, Ms. Wendy,” explained a young girl recently, as I complimented her on her painting.

Children also see beauty where adults might miss it.  “If you stand here,” said a child, as she held my hand in the Besthoff Sculpture Garden, “the light shines from underneath the trees, just like in Mr. George’s paintings.”

(pictured, The Tree Where I Sat, 2009, 24x30, oil on canvas)

I was a sophomore at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas when I met Gladys at the H.E.B.  She struggled with her cane and over-sized handbag as she loaded her groceries into the trunk of a cab while the driver sat helpless, rolling his eyes with impatience. 

“Where do you live?” I asked.

“Alamo Heights,” 

...she replied, referring to the old and, were this New Orleans, ‘uptown’ nearby neighborhood. 

She trusted me, and I gave her a ride to a Tudor-style house, classic and cracking on the outside, decaying and 1950s within. 

I recognized the old-lady smell, the one that comes from piles of junk mail and dusty lace tablecloths, from floral hand cream and moldy wallpaper, from warmed leftovers and stale coffee.  Except for a tic-toc, the house was deadly quiet, as though no one disturbed its air with laughter or speech in years.

Gladys looked like Miss Havisham, and her home, although not quite Satis House, sat neglected and lonely.  We made a date.

(pictured, The Shadows of New Iberia, 1969, 16x20, oil on canvas)

That Friday, I fetched Gladys for lunch.  She wore her vintage Sunday best to the Mexican cantina (paid for with an advance from my job at the school auditorium) and afterwards served me tea from her floral Windsor china, as we made small talk on a plastic-covered faded blue sofa.

As I recall those days, it’s the silence that screams loudest in my memories, broken only by the metered sound of the old clock and Gladys’s hesitant answers to my predictable questions:

Tell me about your husband.  What is the name of this china pattern?  Shall I refill your tea?

We repeated this visit every Friday for more than a year, eventually expanding our afternoons to include museums, the Alamo, and Olmos Pharmacy (for chocolate malts).  Along with my peer tutor class, we decorated a Christmas tree, her first in many years.  Holiday music filled the house from a student’s boom box.

(pictured, Tree Topper, 2000, 20x16, silkscreen)

In January of my junior year, I joined a study-abroad program in Vienna, Austria.   Gladys protested, but I left her anyway, and two months later she died.

The following year I returned from Europe, changed but still -- perhaps more -- guilty.  The modern world seemed incongruous with my intense journey through Art History.  Without Gladys, I sought diversions.  I volunteered at the local A.I.D.S. clinic.  One by one, scared young men (because honestly – they were all scared young men) dropped in for testing.  Within weeks I answered the A.I.D.S. suicide hotline, forwarded to my college apartment’s phone on Monday nights.

I was an unqualified, healthy, heterosexual twenty-one year old girl.  But it was the 1980s, and young gay men died faster than counselors were trained.  People feared the infection, and volunteers were scarce.  My mother worried, correctly and on several levels, that I didn’t know what I was doing.  But this was my protest, my creed, and in my mind, I had no choice.

We all remember when we were young and set out to change the world.  Maybe you held a picket sign, chained yourself to a tree, or delivered Meals on Wheels.  Maybe you still look at the world in this way, out to make a difference.

My sister and I learned this vision from our mother.  Despite barely covering the weekend’s hot checks with Monday’s paycheck, she sent money every month, along with our letters, to Ernik Tukiman in Indonesia, a child matched to our family by World Vision.

(Thirty-five years later, Ernik’s photograph still hangs on our Christmas tree).

I asked George Rodrigue about those years in his own life, and his answer surprised me:

“All I wanted was to get to art school.”

His focus paid off, and he fulfilled that dream and more, supporting his family with his art by his mid-twenties.  George’s generosity of time and money kicked in later, first in small ways in his Lafayette community, and later with large-scale projects for the Boy Scouts of America, the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, the Red Cross following 9/11, the International Child Art Foundation, humanitarian and arts-related relief following Hurricane Katrina, and countless small-town projects involving festival posters, student lectures and more.

Today, through the George Rodrigue Foundation of the Arts (GRFA), these efforts are near full-time, with programs devoted to the arts and education.

At one point, we all realize that the joy of giving cannot match the weight of need.  Even through GRFA, it is impossible for George to reach every school, anymore than I could befriend every lonely old lady, or my mother feed every child.  But does it mean we shouldn’t try?

And so this is Christmas
I hope you have fun
The near and the dear one
The old and the young*

Wishing you and yours a joyous, giving holiday-


-also this week:  "Highlights of a Blogging Year" - your favorites and mine from Gambit's Blog of New Orleans, linked here

-for more paintings, photographs, and discussion, please join me on facebook

*John Lennon and Yoko Ono, "Happy Christmas (War is Over)," 1971

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Monday, December 5, 2011

George Rodrigue: Painting Louisiana

Note:  Based on an essay scheduled for publication in an upcoming book* celebrating Louisiana’s bicentennial, published in April 2012 by the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, this blog version includes added images, as well as links throughout, referring you to specific relevant posts and websites.

Born and raised in New Iberia, Louisiana, George Rodrigue (b. 1944) determined his future in art while sick with polio as a child.  His mother brought him paint-by-numbers, a 1950s invention, to ease his boredom.  Eight year-old Rodrigue used the paints and canvases, however, to paint not the suggested country lanes and Last Suppers, but rather fire trucks, monsters, and alligators.  Following a full recovery, he set his course on art and never wavered.

Seeking a formal art education, Rodrigue enrolled in 1962 at the University of Southwest Louisiana (now the University of Louisiana at Lafayette), where he studied Abstract Expressionism.  It was his project for Professor Calvin Harlan’s design class that proved most useful when he applied to art school.  His design book secured his acceptance to the prestigious Art Center College of Design (then located in Los Angeles; now in Pasadena), where Rodrigue studied not only the fundamentals of art such as figure drawing, but also graphic design, illustration, automotive design, and photography.  Most important, at Art Center Rodrigue studied for the first time with working artists, significantly Lorser Feitelson, the master of Hard Edge Painting.

(pictured, Pop Goes the Ads, a mixed media by Rodrigue, 1966 - click photo to enlarge-)

In California (1963-1967) Rodrigue also admired Pop Art when Andy Warhol premiered his Campbell’s Soup Cans at the Ferus Gallery.  Furthermore, the literal and figurative distance from south Louisiana influenced the young artist, who worried that his unique Cajun culture faded within a modern world of television and travel.  Unlike his Art Center classmates, who pursued careers in the art capital, New York City, Rodrigue returned home, using the hard edge and pop influences of California to paint the landscape and people of Louisiana.  Ultimately Rodrigue graphically interpreted his culture, coining a new phrase, “Cajun Artist.”

(pictured, Aioli Dinner by George Rodrigue, 1971, Collection of the New Orleans Museum of Art)

In 1974 Rodrigue won an Honorable Mention for his painting The Class of Marie Courrege at the historic Le Salon des Artistes in Paris, prompting a review from the French newspaper, Le Figaro, which dubbed him “America’s Rousseau.”  And in 1976 he wrote the first national publication on the Cajun culture, The Cajuns of George Rodrigue (Oxmoor House).  The National Endowment for the Arts gifted the book to Rosalind Carter, who chose it as an official White House Gift of State during the Carter Administration.

Rodrigue first painted what would become his most famous image, the Blue Dog, in 1984, imagined for a collection of ghost stories.  The book Bayou (Chris Segura, Inkwell Press) included forty Louisiana tales, including the loup-garou, a werewolf or ghost dog said to lurk in cemeteries and sugar cane fields.  As a boy, Rodrigue’s mother warned him, “If you’re not good today, the loup-garou will eat you tonight!”

(pictured, Watchdog, 1984, the first Blue Dog painting)

The artist invented a red-eyed, frightening image loosely based on photographs of his deceased studio dog, Tiffany.  He painted the loup-garou at night under a blue-moon sky, casting a blue-grey shade on the dog’s fur. 

Over the following ten years, the loup-garou developed into the iconic Blue Dog, an image that catapulted Rodrigue’s fame worldwide.  In 1992 the Wall Street Journal featured Rodrigue and his Blue Dog with an article on its front page, and in 1993 he joined artists such as Andy Warhol and Keith Haring in creating art for the international Absolut Art campaign.

(pictured, Absolut Rodrigue, 1993; related post "Blue Dog:  Out of Control, 1993-1995")

In addition to numerous group shows, Rodrigue’s museum presence includes solo exhibitions in New Orleans, Atlanta, Chicago, Memphis, and Pensacola.  In 2012 the Amarillo Museum of Art hosts a blockbuster Rodrigue exhibition, followed by Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna Art Museum and the National Steinbeck Center (Salinas, California) in 2013.

Following more than $3 million raised for humanitarian and arts organizations in the wake of September 11th, 2001 and Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Rodrigue established in 2009 the George Rodrigue Foundation of the Arts, encouraging the use of art within all school curriculums and funding scholarships, classroom art supplies, and a variety of art educational programs.

In 2006 Rodrigue received the Lifetime Achievement Arts Award from the State of Louisiana Governor’s Office, soon after appointed the state’s official Artist Laureate; and in 2009 the University of Louisiana at Lafayette presented him with an Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts.  In 2011 the Center for Louisiana Studies awarded him with the James William Rivers Prize, established “to honor persons who have contributed or rendered, recently or over the course of their careers, outstanding scholarly study, work, or teaching about the culture, history, ….and art of Louisiana or about its people.”  Also in 2011 the National Boy Scouts of America presented the artist with their highest honor, the Distinguished Eagle Award.

Today Rodrigue divides his time between New Orleans and Carmel, California.  For more by George Rodrigue, visit his website:  www.georgerodrigue.com


-Also this week, I hope you enjoy Judy Cooper, New Orleans Photographer, a new story for Gambit

*This essay also appears on the website KnowLA: the Digital Encyclopedia of Louisiana History and Culture and within the upcoming book The Bicentennial History of Art in Louisiana, a project edited by Michael Sartisky, Ph.D., President/Executive Director of the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities and J. Richard Gruber, Ph.D., Founding Director of the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, scheduled for publication in April 2012 in celebration of the 200th anniversary of Louisiana’s statehood

Suggested Reading:

The Art of George Rodrigue.  Ginger Danto (Introduction), Michael Lewis (Preface).  Published by Harry N. Abrams, New York, 2003

Blue Dog Man.  George Rodrigue, David McAninch.  Published by Stewart, Tabori & Chang, New York, 1999

The Cajuns of George Rodrigue.  Paintings and Text by George Rodrigue.  Published by Oxmoor House, Birmingham, Alabama, 1976

George Rodrigue Prints:  A Catalogue Raisonne 1970-2007.  E. John Bullard (Foreword), Wendy Wolfe Rodrigue (Introduction).  Published by Harry N. Abrams, New York, 2008

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Friday, December 2, 2011

The Working Artist

Note:  Throughout this post I sprinkled images by Louisiana artists.  Some I interviewed and some not, but all are included in the book The Bicentennial History of Art in Louisiana.*  As I wrote, I thought of the text and images as two separate statements, not necessarily related.  In other words, unless specifically noted, all artist statements, whether quoted or in general, are anonymous.

Recently I interviewed artists and photographers for essays within an upcoming book* featuring two hundred years of art in Louisiana.  Although my participation is minor within this ambitious project published by the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, I take this assignment seriously, and I feel responsible for small slices of each legacy. 

(pictured, Velma and the Diamond Ring, Francis X. Pavy, 2008; be sure and click photos throughout to enlarge-)

If you ask most non-artists, the artist’s life is an envied one, provided there's food on the table.  People often equate the creation of art with leisure, as though meeting a deadline and pleasing a boss (or agent) doesn’t count if one uses talent and personal expression to get there.

What’s more, people often judge artists based on their ability to hold out in the name of art, to resist commercialization, mass production and, in this contemporary world of video and conceptual art, traditional mediums such as modeled clay and paint on canvas.

“My agent is pushing me towards video,” explained one artist.  “But it takes so much time, and I don’t know if I have it in me.”

In between his words, I heard his fear as well.  I paint a picture over a few days and sell it for $5,000, half of which goes to my agent.  After months of work, I’ll have a video that no one will buy.

(pictured, Popular Ladies Social Aid and Pleasure Club, Judy Cooper, 2007)

Artists have bills to pay like everybody else.  They also have egos and families and goals.  They walk a line between pleasing themselves (the popular mantra) and pleasing the public (the unpopular one).  They enjoy public recognition and making money, but they aren’t supposed to admit it. 

(“I don’t go after that sort of thing,” replied one artist when I asked her about awards, honors and museum exhibitions).

I heard artists explain away commissioned portraits, wedding photography, and product design, all with carefully worded and practiced lingo in an effort to dissolve my tiresome (and tacky – after all, I should know better) question, along with the age-old stereotypes.  

(pictured, A Faster Breed, a painting for the Xerox Collection, George Rodrigue, 2000)

Consistently I heard overlapping stories – the same frustrations regarding exhibition deadlines, out-of-date websites, and limited studio and/or gallery space.  Nearly everyone mentioned the problems of offering something affordable to the public without compromising their artistic integrity.

(pictured, Louisiana:  The Pelican State, Miranda Lake, 2011)

I was surprised and somewhat relieved to learn of other similarities as well, namely the widespread and accepted computer use, along with a steady interest in printmaking as an art form.  A few artists mentioned the convenience of the computer and the affordability of the prints, but nearly everyone talked of the computer as a tool, as a way to improve and edit their photographs, design compositions for their paintings or prints, and experiment with end-results before picking up their paintbrush. 

(George Rodrigue designed his painting Victory on Bayou St. John, 2009, above, using the computer, detailed here)

In addition, nearly everyone within the arts overlaps in their interests, creating a strange inability to define work versus hobby.  Painters take photographs; photographers play music; sculptors make movies; and so forth.

I noted also the solitude of these telephone interviews.  In each case, the artist sat within their studio, putting down the brush or camera to answer my questions.  I knew as we spoke that I interrupted their work, their creative train of thought, and I wondered if, in doing so, I inadvertently altered their next stroke. 

(pictured, Pink Bunny, Hunt Slonem, 2011)

But then I thought of George at his easel, whether quiet and in the middle of the night (as he prefers), or chaotic with interruptions in the afternoon (as he expects).  Either way, he moves in his own purposeful direction, influenced by life and people, but not by trends or the ideas of others.  Is it work?  I guess that depends on how one defines work.

If you’re one of the lucky few, you make money by doing that thing you enjoy the most, whether tending bar, running a computer company, or creating art.  This isn’t the sort of thing one eyes with retirement* in mind. George would say that it’s not working; rather, it’s living.

(pictured, Eudora Welty, Philip Gould, 1992)

In the end, whether the rest of us call it work or not, no one’s going to do it for them.  The artist lives a lonely, or at least an alone, if not solitary, life.  Every artist talks about new ideas and avoids complacency, all personal versions of George’s mantra, “I have to keep the work exciting for me.” 


*George’s mother died at age 103 still waiting for him to get a real job…. “with the telephone company,” she used to say.  Read the story here-

--Over the next several months, I’ll publish versions of these essays on-line with Gambit.  This week, for example, I posted a story, linked here, about Lafayette photographer Philip Gould, coinciding with his exhibition, “Louisiana Landscape and Grass Roots” (LeMieux Galleries through 12/30/11) and his recent collaboration with historian Carl Brasseaux, Acadiana:  Louisiana’s Historic Cajun Country, a book published by LSU Press, 2011

--The Bicentennial History of Art in Louisiana is a project edited by Michael Sartisky, Ph.D., President/Executive Director of the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities and J. Richard Gruber, Ph.D., Founding Director of the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, scheduled for publication in April 2012 in celebration of the 200th anniversary of Louisiana’s statehood.  In addition, all essays appear on the website KnowLA:  the Digital Encyclopedia of Louisiana History and Culture

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Thursday, November 24, 2011

The Family Table

In 1950 George Rodrigue drew and colored a turkey for his parents.  On the back he wrote in a surprisingly elegant child’s script:

For Mother and Dad on Thanksgiving:

1.     Visits to chapel. 9
2.     Prayers in school. 40
3.     Decades of rosary. 27

George Rodrigue
2nd Grade

To fit the tiny picture in a frame (or possibly for some other reason), George’s mother folded back the question mark so that it could not be seen, leaving only a turkey staring at a partially hidden and therefore barely discernible ax.

I asked George about the picture.  His Isn’t it obvious? expression amused me, as I thought about a six year old boy relating to a doomed and confused turkey, while already questioning the Catholic rote.

“I remember sitting on the porch in my grandmother’s cane chair, rocking in a trance, clicking the rosary beads and mumbling incoherently, as I mimicked Tante ‘Git.  If she, the oldest of eleven children, felt this process important, then it must be.”

(pictured, Marie Courrege Rodrigue, seated left, with her brothers and sisters, New Iberia, 1955)

Years later, George Rodrigue remains respectful of both the religion and the tradition.  This past weekend at the Catholic funeral of his cousin Donald LaBauve in New Iberia, Louisiana, I whispered during the sermon,

“What do you think of this? The words!  The meanings!  What does this have to do with Donald?”

George shook his head, his eyes watering.

“Nothing.  He’s on a tangent.” 

...as the priest explained God’s power to heal the sick and raise the dead.

Donald LaBauve, pictured above, lived to be ninety years old.  As George’s Boy Scout troop leader, he was a father figure to the young artist.  George Rodrigue, Sr. became ill in 1958 and, according to George, “was never the same.”  One of fourteen children, George's father died in 1967, just months following the Thanksgiving photograph below.

As George and I sit down to dinner today with his boys Andre and Jacques, my sister Heather and her family, our dad, and several dear friends, I view this 1960s family scene as an enormous and poignant irony.  George views it with a nostalgic melancholy, of days gone by but not necessarily missed.

-click photo to enlarge-

An only child, a young man in his early twenties, recently returned from Los Angeles and art school, sits at a table with his aging parents, a father ill and drifting away, and a mother consumed with her husband's care. 

Somewhere in New Iberia, at the time of this photograph, are hundreds of relatives, twenty-three aunts and uncles, plus their spouses, children and grandchildren, none of which George recalls ever sharing a meal, at their table or at his parents’. 

“It was a different time,” he explained.  “And there were just too many of them.”

So today, on this celebration of Thanksgiving, we are thankful for family, for being together for not only the turkey, rice dressing and pecan pie, but more so the laughter, conversation and love that come with it.  George and I wish you the same, raising our glasses to you and yours with “A Toast to Cajun Food.”


-For more on George Rodrigue, Sr. and Marie Courrege Rodrigue, see the posts “The Artist’s Father” and “The Artist’s Mother

-I hope you also enjoy “Dancing the Shrimp,” a story of family, seafood, and Louisiana history in this week’s Gambit’s Blog of New Orleans-

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Monday, November 14, 2011

Blue Wendy

This weekend George Rodrigue and I attended an event where the religious leader prayed for and encouraged our suffering.  We left watching carefully, unprepared at a gala for this powerful lesson, for the bus that might run us down in the street, safeguarding our empathy with broken bones or worse.

“Suffering and diminishment are not the greatest of evils but are normal ingredients of life,” wrote Cardinal Avery Dulles, just prior to his death in 2008.  “As I become increasingly paralyzed and unable to speak, I can identify with the many paralytics and mute persons in the Gospels…”

(Pictured, Rodrigue painted Father Dulles in 1990, one of ten portraits for the University of Louisiana at Lafayette’s Flora Levy Lecture Series)

Many doctrines welcome life’s hardships, because they tune us in to the suffering of others, and they make us better people.

“Only the healer, not the healer’s subject, must believe,” explains George Rodrigue, as he describes his aunt, a traiteur, as in the 1974 painting of Doc Moses above.  “It’s the same for everyone,” he continues.  “We each have the ability to make a difference, but it’s our belief and compassion that make it so.”

To be clear, as a rule George admires doctors and dismisses faith healers; however, he holds a life-long fascination with the power of the mind and the mystery of the universe.  Years ago while dating, we split for several months.  Upon reconciling, our first conversation involved hours on black holes, The Big Bang Theory, and déjà vu, as though his cosmic thoughts swirled for months and somehow reunited us. 

“Give me a few hours to get into the zone, to really believe,” explained George recently, “and I could be someone else.  I could be so funny that no one would recognize me.  I could be Lewis Grizzard.”

“I don’t have any out-of-body experiences,” wrote Grizzard.  “I had indeed seen a bright, beautiful light and had followed it, but it turned out to be a Kmart tire sale.”

Give me a few hours, I thought, and I could slip into insanity.  It seems easy, almost like stepping off a mountain or, lest my sister worry, from a sidewalk into the grass, into freedom --- from cynicism, from suffering, from responsibilities, from guilt (both mine and others in all cases).

“Nothing in life is fair,” our mom used to say, followed closely by “I’m sorry girls, but Christmas will be grim this year.”

Heather and I, however, rolled our eyes, because Christmas was never grim.  Whether new or used rollerskates, the pompoms (for the skate-toes) were handmade and hot pink (in my case), and the latest or last year’s Kermit or Miss Piggy, the perfect stuffed companion (in my sister’s).

I think often on scenes from my childhood.  I recall once sharing a joke from school with my mother and baby sister at the dinner table.  Ethiopian jokes were popular at Longwood Elementary School in Shalimar, Florida in the mid-1970s, and I laughed with a mouthful of pot roast, repeating the latest trendy mockery of a starving people.

My mother, who laughs with joy in my memories, wasn’t smiling that day.

“There is nothing funny about another person’s pain,” she said.

But they can’t hear me, Mama; they’re in Africa!

“It doesn’t matter whether they hear you or not, Wendy Anne.” 

....and I knew, by the sound of my middle name, that this lesson was very important.

I recall too, as the holidays approach, one Christmas with relatives in New Orleans.  I was ten or so and opened my new skates as though surprised, only to hear my cousin’s shriek, as she discovered her new stereo, records, an arcade-size Pac Man video game and more.

“Come see, Wendy,” she shouted, full of love.  “I’ll share it all!”

But I ran upstairs and buried my face in the guestroom pillow, ashamed of my jealousy and yet helpless to stop it.  I remember the feelings like they were yesterday, not wanting to hurt my mother, who gave us the world.  I explained through my tears, as she apologized and stroked my hair, how much I loved my skates and how I never liked Pac Man anyway.

I thought of this, for some reason, last Saturday night when George woke me at 3:00 a.m., pleading that I rub his legs and shoulders --- “full of tension,” he explained, following the LSU vs. Alabama game.  Annoyed and half-asleep, I scratched his back for maybe two minutes before dozing off, all the while dumbfounded over the physical and mental trauma following a winning football game watched from a sofa.

Within an hour, I awoke again, this time to the sound of a 2009 season Saints play-off game, “the perfect thing,” he explained, “to calm my nerves.”

I almost insisted that he turn off the television, explained how ridiculous this is in the middle of the night, and reminded him that we faced a full day and had to be up in two hours.  Instead, however, I marveled quietly at this man and my life.

Oddly enough and unknown to me, he pondered along the same lines, yet in his unpredictable, unique way.  Realizing I watched him, he noted out of the blue, as the Saints kicked the winning field goal against the Minnesota Vikings,

“What people don’t realize is that all of that funny stuff you write is really me!”

Well, now you know-


-This self-indulgent dribble is for Jack Lamplough, who encourages me-

-Also this week, Marie Laveau, Storyville and more in "Reading New Orleans," a new post for Gambit-

-Please join me on facebook for more paintings, photographs and discussion-

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Friday, November 11, 2011

Victory on Bayou St. John

“The brave young men rode onto the beaches and into battle on Higgins Boats, built in New Orleans by Andrew Higgins, the man Eisenhower said, ‘won the war for us.'” —Stephen Ambrose
Yet these two American giants of World War II never met. Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890-1969) eventually became President of the United States (1953-1961); however, it was a decade before, in his role as a 5-star general in the United States Army and finally Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe, that solidified his status as a hero, leading the United States and its allies to victory in Europe during World War II.
Meanwhile, Andrew Higgins (1886-1952) lived and worked in New Orleans, where he built many types of boats and barges but, most famously, designed the Landing Craft Personnel, Large (LCPL), the boats that transported allied troops to the Normandy beaches on D-Day.

(-Be sure and click the photos to enlarge-)

When the National World War II Museum approached George Rodrigue in 2008 about a Blue Dog painting for their new wing, he winced.
“The Blue Dog,” he noted, “has no connection to World War II.”
Instead, Rodrigue designed a painting unlike any photograph, posing Eisenhower and Higgins together for the first and only time.
He worked on the design in his Carmel, California studio for two months before lifting his paintbrush, using the computer to arrange the elements. Even with this shortcut, he changed the painting by hand several times, whiting out days of work and large sections of paint, including the jeep and the oak tree, which he re-painted with adjustments, sometimes less than an inch, but nevertheless critical to his eye.

In the end, the painting took six months. Too large for Rodrigue’s easel, the canvas remained propped against a wall, where he painted standing, sitting, or lying down.
“This is the most important project of my life,” he told me many nights, as he painted until daylight, at times falling asleep on the studio’s floor.
Once completed and before shipping the large canvas to New Orleans, we invited area friends for an unveiling in our home. Among the guests was a man in his seventies, Didier, visiting with his wife from Lyon, France. With tears in his eyes, he shared his D-Day story.
“I would not be here today if it were not for the Americans,” he said.
He recalled his shock as a child at seeing not only the boats, but also his first jeep. He recalled the kindness of American soldiers and the sweet taste of their Juicy Fruit gum, always accessible from their pockets.
He reminded all of us of the importance of honoring our soldiers for the risks they take for not only our freedom, but also the freedom of others.
I thought of Didier just a few weeks later, in November of 2009, when the National World War II Museum opened its new wing, featuring not only Rodrigue's painting, but also the Solomon Victory Theater, the Stage Door Canteen and Chef John Besh's American Sector. With canes and in wheelchairs, the veterans paraded from the old building to the new, greeted by stars like Tom Hanks, Tom Brokaw and Mickey Rooney, but mostly by ordinary people inspired and awed by their service and patriotism.

I also thought of my father, a Vietnam Veteran, now retired from the United States Air Force. I thought of our National Guard and their welcome presence following Hurricane Katrina. I thought of my cousin just returned from Afghanistan, and of our soldiers now abroad, risking their lives and missing their families.
On Veterans Day, we honor you, the men and women who, throughout history, protect and serve. As Didier observed on that fairytale day in Carmel, California,
“God only knows where we would be without you.”
Please join me on facebook for more paintings, photographs and discussion-

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Monday, November 7, 2011

Hiding From the Blues

Recently I challenged George Rodrigue:  Pretend I’m a stranger and answer some questions.

“Do you ever get the Blues?”

“No, I really don’t, at least not on my own,” he said.  “But I do catch the Blues from others.”

“Like your wife?” I asked.  But I already knew the answer.

(pictured, The Red Cover-Up, 2010, acrylic on canvas)

The Blue Dog, ironically, is not about the Blues, at least not for George Rodrigue.  Although it began as the frightening loup-garou, for many it’s a happy, positive image representing anything from their pet to New Orleans.  Some see universal questions in the dog’s eyes; others see nothing deeper than a cool piece of art. 

"Unlike a musician who might need the Blues to sing the Blues, I paint only when I'm happy.  The Blues work against my creativity; they don't inspire me."

George Rodrigue sees shape, color and design, endless challenges using a strong form on a blank canvas.  He also sees a vehicle to graphically comment on life today --- a refreshing change for an artist who spent years painting the Cajuns and illustrating the past.

(In My Security Blanket, 1996, original silkscreen, Rodrigue combines the iconic American flag with the iconic Blue Dog.)

Although no longer the case, for a few years in the early 1990s, George often related his Blue Dog paintings to his studio dog Tiffany

“I threw a blanket over her,” I recall him saying, “and she just sat there, peeking out, watching me paint.”

(pictured, You Can Run, but You Can’t Hide From the Blues, 1991, oil on canvas)

The Tiffany-connection was short-lived, however, as George explored deeper meaning within this entity.  He faced the fact that, as with the oak tree, he stopped seeing a dog almost from the beginning, focusing instead on composition and graphics, his on-going and principal interest since art school.

(pictured, Hiding from the Moon, 1995, original silkscreen)

This doesn’t mean, however, that he doesn’t play.  In Hiding My Blues From You (below), for example, he floats a ghostly pattern of dark eyes behind the dog, highlighting the futility of cloaking one’s sadness.  (1995, original silkscreen)

I pushed George again on the Blues, refusing to believe that he never experienced the drama first-hand:

“Okay,” he admitted, “I remember one time thirty-five years ago when I raised my house in Lafayette.  I went through so much to pay for it that I had little time to paint.  I renovated my house, but I was broke. I only had a few paintings left for sale, and none, not even the Aioli Dinner, were selling.

“I was overwhelmed, and I guess I had the Blues.  I remember sitting in my studio in the middle of the night and thinking that all I wanted in life was to make enough money so I could just paint.”

(pictured, George’s raised house on Jefferson Street in Lafayette, Louisiana;  notice Tiffany running across the road.  For more photos and a related post see “A Gallery of His Own”)

As he spoke, I thought about George’s new French Quarter gallery and the years it took him to reach this point.  After twenty years in a small rented space, he opened in both New Orleans and Carmel, California the galleries he always wanted.

(pictured, Rodrigue Gallery Unveiling, 2010, original silkscreen)

“And what about Katrina?” I asked, recalling his mood and his dark series of paintings.

“I knew it was going to take us (the Gulf Coast region) at least five years to even start to come back,” he said, forgetting to pretend that I’m a stranger.  “Katrina wasn’t so much the Blues; it was more like someone took a bat and hit me in the head*.”


-For more on George’s mood and my Blues following Hurricane Katrina, see the post “For New Orleans” from Gambit’s Blog of New Orleans.

-*This reminds me of George's comment during our artsy visit to Marfa, Texas last year:  "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!"  

-Also this month:  “The Artist’s Mother,” a story about Marie Rodrigue, a woman who affected her son with praise and criticism, featured in November’s Country Roads Magazine, and linked here-

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Thursday, November 3, 2011

LSU Football: A Personal History

I attended a small college, Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas.  In the mid-1980s we had maybe two thousand students.  Although we had a football team, I don’t recall any games.  We had a Greek system, but I evaded that as well, opting instead for extra classes and the AIDS suicide hotline.

In short, I received an excellent education in both books and sensitivity but, arguably, missed the college experience. 

(New Orleans photographer Dennis Couvillion took this incredible picture during the 2011 football season; be sure and click the photo to enlarge)

In my family, I was the exception.  My parents graduated in ’61 and ‘62 from Louisiana State University, and my sister attended Ol’ Miss, followed by graduate school at Florida State.  Without question, they were the cool kids, fans of football games, dating and parties, while I brown-nosed my professors and stood waiting early-morning at the locked library door.  In the end, we all graduated, meaning, I suppose, that I missed out…needlessly.

For sometime now, George Rodrigue seeks to repair this lapse.  It began when he insisted that I attend the 2004 Sugar Bowl in the New Orleans Superdome despite my guilt-motivated speech that my ticket belongs instead with a real fan.

To my surprise, I cheered and cried, losing my voice, but not my enthusiasm, for hours after LSU’s win.  If I close my eyes as I write this, I picture the energy of the strangers’ shoulders on either side of me as we walked the length of Poydras Street to the Mississippi River.  I knew for the first time this sort of exhilaration and, after losing my mother later that same year, cheered for her going forward, for the Homecoming floats and decorated fraternity houses, for poodle skirts and jukeboxes, for young love and life-long friends and, more than anything, for tradition.

(pictured, photos from my mother's album, 1958; click to enlarge-)

It was the 1957, ’58 and ’59 seasons, the years my parents attended LSU, that changed Louisiana football forever. 

In the late 1950s, Billy Cannon (above, photographed by LSU Sports) won the Heisman Trophy, the Tigers won the National Championship, and LSU stadium filled to capacity.  About this same time, national television broadcasted NFL games, watched for the first time by large audiences.  People saw the Baltimore Colts with Johnny Unitas play the Green Bay Packers, coached by Vince Lombardi.

“When I went to art school in L.A.,” explains George Rodrigue, “the first thing I wanted to see was a national football game live.  I saw Johnny Unitas and the Baltimore Colts play the Los Angeles Rams at the L.A. Coliseum.  I was shocked to see only 30,000 people in an 110,000-seat stadium.  Pro-football still struggled for attendance.”

(pictured, George Rodrigue last week at Tiger Stadium with Bunnie Cannon, Executive Director of Institutional Advancement at LSU, and daughter of famous LSU running back, Billy Cannon)

“Years later,” George continues, “I’m standing in line at Ray Hay’s Cajun Po-Boys in Houston, Texas, and Billy Cannon taps me on the shoulder.  Turns out that he’s a fan of my Cajun paintings.  I could barely speak.  It’s probably the only time in my life that I ever felt star struck.”

Before heading to art school in Los Angeles, George Rodrigue attended USL (now the University of Louisiana at Lafayette).   Considering his football fever today, it’s ironic that he remembers little of USL football from school, focusing on his drawing exercises more than the Bulldogs (now the Ragin’ Cajuns), a team he follows with enthusiasm today.

Rodrigue sought a formal education in the arts, and before graduating at USL, he hopped on a train to California, where he watched Louisiana football from afar and painted full-time.

For George in those years, tradition was not football.  Tradition was the Cajun culture, and, desperate to preserve it, he painted it.

(In Modern Medicine, 1985, above, Rodrigue compares the teamwork put forth by today's Louisiana health care workers to that of a kids' football team, including his sons, André and Jacques; for more paintings from Rodrigue's doctor/hospital series, visit here)

Gradually, George Rodrigue’s college football fever returned, an addiction (a wife’s word) consuming much of his life, even in the face of painting.

(Okay it’s not college football, but you get the idea…)

His son André attended UL (George’s alma mater), and his son Jacques attended LSU.  As a result, George’s sense of tradition pulls him both directions, yet still firmly rooted in Louisiana football.

(photographs above from the LSU vs Auburn game, October 2011; be sure and click the crowd shot to enlarge)

In the 1980s he spent ten years supporting UL with paintings of award-winning authors and scholars for the Flora Levy Lecture Series (pictured here), and in 2003 he painted LSU’s mascot, Mike the Tiger.

The more than $1 million in proceeds from Mike’s print helped to replace the tiger’s cage with a habitat, Mike’s home on the LSU grounds today.

-click photos to enlarge-

This year, the LSU Museum of Art held a major Rodrigue exhibition based on paintings from the collection of the New Orleans Museum of Art.  Rodrigue took advantage of this situation to once again paint in support of LSU.  This time, however, proceeds benefit not only LSU’s programs, but also arts-infused education throughout the state of Louisiana (details here), all coordinated by the Tiger Athletic Foundation and the George Rodrigue Foundation of the Arts.

For me, I attend games when summoned or stay home when permitted, serving gumbo or red beans, not only because it pleases my husband, but also because it honors my parents. 

(pictured, John Wolfe and Mignon McClanahan at LSU, 1958)

My mother was the first person in her family to attend college.  A tradition was born, assumed my grandparents, and as an 18-year old know-it-all, I disappointed them out of the gate, choosing a small south Texas school (that I loved) over the Baton Rouge campus.

Yet this weekend, as LSU takes on Alabama, I’m thinking about tradition as though I high-fived Billy Cannon himself.  I’ll cheer at the top of my lungs for players I’ve never met, from a school I never attended, against a team no doubt full of nice people (although, honestly, I’m partial to Auburn over Alabama, thanks to my sister’s in-laws and a wonderful experience at the Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art earlier this year) – all for a game I hardly understand and for a collection of photographs (some sprinkled throughout this post) that provide a glimpse of my young parents.

Whatever your reason, I urge you: 

Cheer loudly – for YOUR team – this weekend. 

And hey, Good Luck-


-for more photos, history and discussion, please join me on facebook

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