Saturday, January 29, 2011

New Paintings

“We all know that precious things come in small boxes,” says George Rodrigue. “Art and scale have a definite relationship. Words that describe the size of art tend to explain it in a unique way.

“When I first saw Mount Rushmore, I thought ‘monumental, historic, breathtaking,’ hardly the right words if the sculpture was six inches high. I'd put the Sistine Chapel in that same category. Over the centuries, artists’ use of scale tends to be a part of the process.”

Small compositions are unusual for George Rodrigue, and it’s been more than a decade since he approached canvases of the size of his recent works. In fact, most of his paintings from 2010 are large scale, some twelve feet across, as he celebrated the expansive walls of his new French Quarter Gallery.

It surprised me when George began work on these petite canvases just after the first of the year. Not only is the size rare, but also is a complete series of work created in New Orleans. For many years now, he reserves long stretches at his easel for the privacy and quiet of his studio in Carmel, California.

(pictured, Green as the Grass Grows, 2011, 12x16 inches, acrylic on linen)

Small paintings with landscapes or multiple dogs are especially rare. These require a tight, controlled approach, along with the use of small brushes and a mahl stick, something George seldom uses since his Cajun paintings of the 1970s and 1980s.

(pictured, George Rodrigue circa 1975 using his mahl stick, a sword he found as a child in the Bayou Teche, to steady his hand while painting)

Although small in size, these paintings are not miniatures. However, George painted true miniatures as well, some as small as two inches squared, for a brief period in the early 1970s (as detailed in the post “Miniatures: Manuscripts, Landscapes, Blue Dogs, and Blogs”).

(two paintings pictured below: We Have the Blues Together, and Another Red-Headed Stranger, both 2011, 11x14 inches, acrylic on linen)

George’s early miniatures feature his oak tree, as do several of the small paintings today. He still enjoys many of the same subjects of forty years ago. Like the Blue Dog, he made Oak Trees, Cajuns, and even Jolie Blonde and Evangeline, his own, repeating these subjects in various forms over the course of his entire career.

As with his early oaks, he still cuts the tree off at the top, creating interesting shapes underneath and between the branches. As with his Cajun people, he locks the dog into the landscape, as though pasted onto Louisiana, trapped by a strong design, and unable to move both symbolically and literally.

(pictured, The Shade of the Shadows, 2011, 11x14 inches, acrylic on linen)

However, unlike his early paintings, today’s Rodrigue landscapes include solid blocks of bold colors, an echo of his art school years and the hard edges and electric hues of Pop Art. This is especially evident in his simplest designs.

(pictured, Sun Kiss Orange, 2011, 16x12 inches, acrylic on linen)

“Small artwork is ‘precious, unique, intimate’ and at times (as with large scale) breathtaking, all words that came to mind the first time I saw a real Faberge egg. I approach these small canvases intending to create something precious, something well thought-out and without room for mistakes, as though each one is a jewel.” – G.R.

As always, George paints in spurts, sometimes going weeks without picking up his brush, working instead at his computer or sketchbook and, especially lately, on projects for the George Rodrigue Foundation of the Arts. Recently, however, he spends twelve to fifteen hours a day at his easel, no doubt motivated by these small, distinctive works.


Pictured above, Purple Love, 2011, 14x11 inches, acrylic on linen

For more information on the small paintings of 2011, contact Rodrigue Studio.

Currently at Gambit: Jealousy in the Art World,” an account of the green-eyed monster from Venice to New Orleans, with input from George Rodrigue

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Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Mardi Gras Silkscreens: A History

George Rodrigue created his first Blue Dog Mardi Gras silkscreen in 1992. He designed the simple, strong image by hand, drawing the outlines for each color on a separate sheet of tracing paper to make the six-color print, and emphasizing the traditional Mardi Gras colors of purple (justice), gold (power), and green (faith). The print itself is the finished work of art, unrelated to any original painting.

(pictured, Mardi Gras Dog, 1992, Silkscreen, 24x28 inches, Edition 225)

Around its neck the dog wears doubloons, one featuring the fleur de lis and the other the Louisiana oak tree as stylized years before by Rodrigue. The dog’s shape steps out of the picture frame, a neat trick since the Blue Dog never moves.

Ironically, the paintings of this period show little resemblance to the silkscreens. Rather than strong blocks of color, George’s oil paintings of the early 1990s illustrate a Blue Dog (and artist) coexisting within the muted tones and rules of his Cajun landscapes.

In Mardi Gras Dog (1991, oil on canvas, 30x24 inches) below, for example, he paints the dog as though it is a Cajun person, a ghost at eye level, trapped within the artist’s strong design and existing within an actual environment, as opposed to within the pure color and abstraction of the silkscreens from that same period.

In 1993 George experimented for the first time with changing the dog’s color to something other than blue, red, or the original black-and-white. He manipulates his drawings from the first Mardi Gras print, adding an additional dog wearing a Blue Dog doubloon. In addition, within the background of the silkscreen Mardi Gras Dogs (below), he incorporates the Blue Dog as wallpaper of sorts, barely visible behind the Mardi Gras colors.

(pictured, Mardi Gras Dogs, 1993, Silkscreen, 23x34 inches, Edition 190)

By this time, although his works on canvas remain painterly and in dramatic contrast to the prints, George no longer restricts his Blue Dog paintings to the Cajun landscape, daring to paint the dog for the first time outside of his comfort zone.

(pictured, I Just Don’t Wanna Be Me, 1991-2, oil on canvas, 24x36 inches)

In 1995 George took on the Mardi Gras theme again, this time dressing the dog in full regalia for the silkscreen Party Animal, an edition that sold out within a matter of weeks, becoming his best-selling print up to that point. As with the painting above, the print refers to the long tradition of costuming on Mardi Gras Day. Once again without the Cajun background, George remembers his Acadian symbol, the Evangeline oak, the subject of a doubloon hanging around the dog’s neck.

(pictured, Party Animal: Black, 1995, Silkscreen, 33x21 inches, Edition 100)

The following year he created Mardi Gras ’96 (below, silkscreen edition 50), featuring the Blue Dog as the King of Carnival. He experiments with full-bleed for the first time, so that the confetti continues without a border.

According to George, silkscreens from this period

“show me having fun with my work, —with variations in theme, the expansion of ideas, and experiments with placement, color, and design. By this time I felt confident working in this medium and could produce almost any effect I wanted.”

His design for Carnival Time (above, 1997, silkscreen edition 120) refers to a more traditional and seasonal poster-type image.

That same year he also created Mardi Gras Cats, shocking many with his design and subject.

(pictured, Mardi Gras Cats, 1997, Silkscreen, 31x22 inches, Edition 100; for more images and a detailed history of Rodrigue’s paintings and prints with cats, see the post “The Blue Cat”)

In 1999 George revisited the Party Animal design with Throw Me Somethin’ Mister (below, silkscreen edition 150), featuring a full tribute to Mardi Gras colors and a new doubloon – the first one to show the full Blue Dog face.

To read about the related silkscreen, Throw Me Something F.E.M.A., 2006, following Hurricane Katrina, see the post “Blue Dog Relief.”

In 2000 George makes a rare female-reference to the Blue Dog in Fat Tuesday Girl (below, 19x19 inches, edition 250)

And by 2003 his confidence as a print-maker reveals itself in every design. He works adeptly with the computer, producing complex designs with many colors. He writes in the book George Rodrigue: Prints (2008, Harry N. Abrams, New York):

“Although the computer in art is controversial in some circles, for me it is a tool no different from a paintbrush or paint…

“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 even before the first print is produced…

“This gives me (and any artist) the flexibility and capability to produce things that I might never have thought of before.”

(pictured above, Krewe de Bleu, 2003, Silkscreen, 14x20 inches, Edition 75)

The computer also allows George to breakdown the colors and designs from within his paintings into a silkscreen, resulting in They All Ask For You (below, 2004, 24x18 inches, edition 500), one of only a handful of Blue Dog prints ever created from an original painting.

In 2009 he worked with chrome for the first time, creating a series of works on the heavy shiny paper (which unfortunately does not translate well as a photograph in this blog). The images are highly reflective with an avant-garde repeated design and neon colors.

(pictured, Mardi Gras 2009, Silkscreen, 24x34 inches, Edition 90)

Last year George again experimented with signage. The billboard-like image recalls his training at the Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles in the 1960s, along with his on-going interest in advertising design.

(pictured, Mardi Gras 2010, Silkscreen, 24x40 inches, Edition 350)

Finally, I present to you George’s newest Mardi Gras silkscreen. Mardi Gras Mambo in New Orleans (32x26 inches, edition 375) combines many of the elements featured earlier in this post with George’s excitement for the 2011 carnival season. His artwork includes an overwhelming nod to the city of New Orleans with the large fleur de lis both behind the dog and around its neck.

Although this essay is a basic overview of George’s Mardi Gras silkscreens, I do plan on several more posts to complete the history.

Coming soon: Rodrigue's Cajun paintings and lithographs of Mardi Gras; variations in the silkscreen editions above (such as alternate background colors and rare prints); and the story behind Mardi Gras silkscreens for the Krewe of Argus in Metairie, Louisiana and the Mystick Krewe of Louisianians in Washington, D.C.

Happy Mardi Gras!


For a related post see “Blue Dog: The Silkscreens”

I hope you’ll visit me at Gambit’s Blog of New Orleans for this week’s post: “Jealousy in the Art World,” an account of the green-eyed monster from Venice to New Orleans, with input from George Rodrigue

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Thursday, January 20, 2011

Good, Good, Good Friends (Three New Orleans Chefs)

Artists and chefs share a natural bond. Creating unique art or food, they separate themselves from the pack, or from the yardstick as George would say, recalling a professor who explained,

“Art is like a yardstick (held horizontally), with the Mona Lisa at one end and black paint on a black canvas at the other. Find a spot on that stick and go up (instead of back and forth), making it your own.”

This form of success naturally separates a chef or artist from his peers. The quality of one’s own unique, recognizable style is as important as the basic skills or fundamentals. Finding that style, however, is also the biggest obstacle. George admits his good fortune in this regard. Whether his Oak Trees, Cajuns, Blue Dogs, Hurricanes, or Bodies, he paints in a way utterly unique to him. With every new direction, he paints up.

Whether art, cooking, or any field, he notices people who do the same thing. For George, this is the definition of self-made, the recipe for success and happiness.

Creative types seduce their audience with their confidence, especially when the audience is local and relates to their innovative approach. I saw this happen with a painting of three chefs during “Rodrigue’s Louisiana” in 2008.

In a room full of George Rodrigue’s notable portraits such as Governor Huey Long, President Ronald Reagan, and Jazz Great Mahalia Jackson, it was his painting of three Louisiana chefs, unknown to many outside of New Orleans, which caught the locals by surprise.

Together, Chef Warren LeRuth (1929-2001) of LeRuth’s Restaurant in Gretna, Chef Chris Kerageorgiou (1927-2007) of La Provence Restaurant in Lacombe, and Chef Goffredo Fraccaro of La Riviera Restaurant in Metairie, spent years raising money for St. Michael’s Special School through an annual fundraising event. Their culinary talents, generosity, and on-stage antics endeared them to the people of south Louisiana forever.

“They played off of each other, cutting up like the Three Stooges, especially at this event. On stage they created one chicken recipe, each chef with a prop unknown to the others. One year Goffredo pulled a live chicken from a pillow case, holding the panicked bird up for the crowd.

“The other two got mad, not wanting to pluck a chicken! So Goffredo pushed the chicken back in the bag and pulled out two rubber chickens and a big knife.

‘No Goffredo!’ they shouted. ‘We need a dead chicken with meat on it … and NO FEATHERS!’

“Somehow one always turned up on the table, and they made their French, Italian, Cajun concoction. It was a great time, especially when they called me on stage to stir the pot.” - G.R.

George first met the chefs in 1983 at the St. Michael’s School fundraiser. From the beginning, Warren LeRuth, a New Orleans native of Belgian descent, collected George’s paintings. The two became friends, often meeting at LeRuth’s restaurant on the New Orleans Westbank.

“LeRuth’s was the first 5-star restaurant in the city,” recalls George. “There were always limos parked out front. At the table, the maitre de put a small pillow underneath the feet of every female diner.”

Chef Warren’s good friends, Chefs Chris Kerageorgiou and Goffredo Fraccaro, often joined them. Of Greek descent, Chef Chris grew up in France, eventually settling in New Orleans and opening La Provence Restaurant on the New Orleans Northshore in 1972. Italian Chef Goffredo opened La Riviera in 1969 in the New Orleans suburb of Metairie. (photograph by George Rodrigue)

For years before moving to New Orleans, George and I stopped at La Riviera for dinner on every visit to the city. We hovered around saucepans in the kitchen with Chef Goffredo as he and George told jokes and laughed about days past. The boisterous, heavy-accented Italian was a good match for the boisterous, heavy-accented Cajun, and in no time the entire kitchen was laughing. I don’t know which I enjoyed more – the entertainment or the crabmeat raviolis.

“As I got to know all of them, I ate weekly at La Riviera. Goffredo and I became the closest. The restaurant was open only at night, but I would go for lunch if I could wake them up. All of the chefs slept on the floor of the dining room for their afternoon nap. If I got there before 11:30, I could eat with them.” - G.R.

It was Chef Warren LeRuth that convinced his friends to commission a portrait. George painted them in his typical Cajun style, their shapes locked into the Louisiana landscape. Instead of shadowed beneath the oak, the figures glow with the white of their chef’s attire, as well as the happiness that comes from personal success and years of good times together.

(pictured at the top of this post and below, Good, Good, Good Friends, oil on canvas by George Rodrigue, 1985, 40x30 inches)

The original painting remained with Chef Warren LeRuth until his death in 2001, and Chef Chris enjoyed it until his passing in 2007. It was Chef Goffredo that loaned the canvas to the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA) for the two-month Rodrigue exhibition in 2008.

On opening night Goffredo announced a surprise. The three chefs agreed years ago that the nostalgia belongs to the people of New Orleans, the people that supported their restaurants and embraced their unique talents. Upon his death, NOMA’s permanent collection receives this special painting, a lasting gift from good, good, good friends.


Pictured above, The Chef’s Table, 2011, edition 90, 32x26 inches, a new silkscreen by George Rodrigue, inspired by his chef-friends

For a virtual tour of the New Orleans Museum of Art’s exhibition “Rodrigue’s Louisiana: Forty Years of Cajuns, Blue Dogs and Hurricanes” visit here

For a related post see "Chef Paul Prudhomme and the Great Cajun Omelet"

This week’s story in Gambit’s Blog of New Orleans: “West Jeff: Passing the Hours”

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Sunday, January 16, 2011

Counting on Art (and Painting by Numbers)

George Rodrigue first picked up a paintbrush in 1953 when his mother brought him the latest American craze, paint by number sets, to ease his boredom as he lie sick in bed with polio. By the early Fifties the masses saw paint by number as affordable, do-it-yourself art. But even as a young boy, George objected, turning the canvases over and painting his own designs on the back.

(Pictured, a paint by number mock-up inspired by this post; George Rodrigue, 2011)

The concept parallels today’s computerized books. The mechanized process of writing itself signals (sadly) the end of script, diaries, and the personal Christmas card.

Yet the changes are here, and to ignore them means living in the past and losing one’s audience.

(Pictured above, You Can Count on Blue Dog, an eBook and iPad app for children. For a free download to your iPad visit here)

In the 1950s paint by number became “an adult metaphor for the commercialization and mechanization of culture,”* a phrase that rings equally true today as text messaging replaces the complete sentence and recorded voices replace parents.

(Myles Williams, formerly of the New Christy Minstrels, narrates George Rodrigue’s eBook for children)

Paint by number decorated one's walls. It did not speak to emotion or inspiration. It did not break new ground in terms of personal expression. And yet the companies marketed their do-it-yourself art, images of country lanes, Paris street scenes, and (the most popular) re-creations of da Vinci’s Last Supper with slogans like

“You don’t have to be an artist to produce a masterpiece.”

(pictured below, a paint by number by Wally Williams from the collection of Douglas Shiell, 1981)

For that matter, perhaps blogging is the paint by number of today, making writers of us all.

Ironically, the computerized blogging process prompted my return to handwriting. A bit old-fashioned in this regard, I never abandoned script completely, as that would mean the end of the proper thank-you note. Yet day-to-day writing by hand is archaic, lost like records and paperbacks to the more convenient and economical digital age.

(photographs above and below by George Rodrigue; taking notes last month at the Chinati Foundation, Marfa, Texas, resulting in stories for both Musings and Gambit)

For my stories, I take notes and draw diagrams, starring the important items and crossing through the addressed ones, deviating only while driving, when the iPhone becomes my tape recorder.

As I took notes at a café in Marfa, Texas recently, George talked about paint by number:

“There was an explosion of housing after World War II, and there was nothing to hang on the walls. Using paint by number, people painted the pictures themselves to decorate their homes, infuriating the art world.

“It was extremely popular, produced in factories similar to automobile plants. In addition to the canvas and paints, the companies provided instructions for framing, along with how to group the finished works on the wall.” GR

(pictured, “The Palmer Paint Company and art department at Woodward and Canfield in downtown Detroit, 1953”*)

Paint by number is craft, not art, and its public embrace during the height of Abstract Expressionism horrified museums and critics. It defined the extremes of high art versus low art, further distancing the art world from the real world.

Furthermore, the phenomenon appeared immune to demographics. All incomes enjoyed this affordable medium, and those people that might otherwise purchase ‘real art’ took pride in their own work instead.

Although no longer the rage, 1950s paint by number remains collectible today as a faded slice of American culture. Artist Andy Warhol questioned its role as craft versus art in his “Do-it-Yourself” series from the 1960s. He appropriated (or copied) the designs directly from paint-by-number sets.

(pictured, pencil and colored pencil on paper by Andy Warhol, 1962; collection of the Offentliche Kunstsammlung Basel*)

From page 111 of the book Paint by Number* by William L. Bird, Jr.:

“Warhol often complained that painting was ‘too hard.’ These examples of [his] most exquisite paintings began with the outline of a numbered picture. [He] projected the image…to canvas, tracing the outline with the flat of his pencil. [He] then painted the color blocks and applied Prestype numerals for a decorative effect.”

Following the "Do-it-Yourself" series, Warhol abandoned painting for good, preferring silkscreen and other hands-off methods.

It seems incredulous to me that books and handwriting walk this path today. In another fifty years, how many young girls will read their grandmother’s diaries or recognize her script?

Photography, a medium that battled for years for recognition as a legitimate art form now suffers through its own digital controversy.

I leave you with one flag and two shirts (above), a photograph by Tabitha Soren. View more of her post-Katrina images in the story “Tabitha Soren: Uprooted” in this week's Gambit’s Blog of New Orleans.


*Paint by Number: The How-to Craze that Swept the Nation, by William L. Bird, Jr., published by Princeton Architectural Press in association with the Smithsonian Institution for a corresponding exhibition in 2001

George Rodrigue’s iPad app, You Can Count On Blue Dog, would not have happened without the talented students of the Academy of Interactive Entertainment, the resourcefulness of Jeff Pellegrin of the Louisiana Digital Gaming Initiative, and the dedicated staff and interns of the George Rodrigue Foundation of the Arts

For a related post see “The Collectible Book”

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Saturday, January 8, 2011

Mardi Gras Colors on Paper

Since his earliest Cajun paintings, George Rodrigue painted the parades, costumes, and colors of Mardi Gras. Over the next six weeks (leading up to March 8th, Mardi Gras Day), I’ll explore that history within this blog, including his Cajun posters for small town Louisiana carnival traditions; twenty years of Mardi Gras Blue Dog silkscreens; photographs and stories from his reigns as King and Grand Marshall for krewes in Lafayette, New Orleans, and Washington, D.C.; the story of the Blue Dog Float for the Krewe of Argus, along with the frenzied collection of its Blue Dog doubloons; and finally George’s current Mardi Gras projects, beginning with the mixed medias featured in this post.

For George Rodrigue, Mardi Gras equates with color:

“Right after Christmas, which is mostly white lights and silver bells, Mardi Gras season arrives full force, interrupting winter with a burst of color. These hues come from the thousands of different costumes, masks, flags, floats, beads, and doubloons, all of which swirl around the three primary colors of purple, green and gold.”

In 1872 the King and Krewe of Rex selected these official Mardi Gras Colors, meaning justice (purple), faith (green) and power (gold).

As George sat at his easel in Carmel, California, on the heels of Christmas, yet in full Mardi Gras mode, I watched him paint and couldn’t help but think about the detailed and patterned Tibetan sand painting, or mandala, we witnessed barely a week ago in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Stunned by the work, George whispered as we watched the Drepung Loseling monks,

“It’s the most unbelievable thing I’ve ever seen.”

(for more photos and the story of our recent encounter with Tibetan sand painting see the post: “Tranquility from Chaos”)

Without telling him, I wondered if this ancient tradition would influence his work. However, when I asked him yesterday about his current project, he seemed unaffected by the mandala’s complexity:

“A simplification of Mardi Gras shapes is the first part of the whole carnival season.”

And yet he mentions the sand painting daily, indicating that it resonates still, perhaps in the form of colors, patterns, and strong designs.

George’s visual and creative process is complex and highly personal. Although there are times that specific events such as 9/11/01 or Hurricane Katrina directly affect his work, more often he lives within the current broodings of his mind, known to him alone. A reporter once asked him,

“Now that you’re working in Carmel, will you paint the lone cypress, the ocean, the California countryside?”

Surprised by the question, George replied,

“Why would I do that? My landscape is in here (hand over heart), and that’s Louisiana.”

Unlike paintings on canvas, these Mardi Gras images are George’s first as mixed medias, essentially an original silkscreen design printed on heavy paper, so that the Blue Dog remains identical not only in shape (as expected), but also in size and placement. He paints using acrylics, veritably decorating the dog, costuming it in Mardi Gras imagery and colors.

(pictured, George Rodrigue at his easel in Carmel, California, January 8, 2011)

The Mardi Gras costume tradition surpasses Halloween in creativity, longevity, and necessity, vital for parties, watching parades, and of course riding on floats.

My friend Tabitha Soren* rode with me several years ago in the all-female Krewe of Muses. I recall our headpieces, foam King Cakes, complete with plastic babies and cake knives, driving us crazy as we hurled blinky beads, stuffed animals, and eventually the headpieces themselves (!) to the crowd on Saint Charles Avenue. It’s an insane form of excess and waste, a marathon month-long cause for acute exhaustion and a flu-like recovery, a family event oftentimes confused by the outside press with the confined debauchery of Bourbon Street, a treasured tradition that comforted a wounded region following the worst disaster in U.S. history, and nothing short of an absolute blast.

If you follow this blog, you know that we’ve been on the road since mid-December, crossing America with modern art discoveries in West Texas, a turquoise mine in New Mexico, and an unexpected adventure on I-40. For the first time in my life, I did not decorate for the holidays. And yet just yesterday I overheard George on the phone with our warehouse,

“Be sure and put up the tree; she’ll want to decorate the minute we get home.”

That’s right; we’re putting up a tree next month, an eight foot purple tinsel tradition, covered in masks, beads, clowns, tiny replicas of floats, water meter covers, Saint Louis Cathedral, streetcars, and all things New Orleans.

“…All because it’s Carnival Time, woooohhhh, it’s Carnival time….!

Oh Well it’s Carnival Time and, everybody’s having Fun!”*


*“Carnival Time” recorded April 1970 by Al Johnson at Jazz City Studio, Camp Street, New Orleans

All paintings in this post are mixed medias from the series "Mardi Gras Colors on Paper" by George Rodrigue, 50x38 inches, 2011

Photographs by Tabitha Soren during the Krewe of Muses parade, 2003. For a related post see “Nature Girl: The Art of Modeling.” Also look for this week’s Gambit post focusing on Soren's photography, publishing January 12th at Blog of New Orleans.

See photographs by Tabitha Soren through January 29, 2011 at Wall Space Gallery, Santa Barbara: “Moments of Being,” a group exhibition curated by David Bram. Artist’s reception January 12, 6 to 8 pm

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Monday, January 3, 2011

A Winter Adventure: Trapped in Gallup, Freed by a Meteor’s Crater

Not since I was a child at Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany* have I seen snow like we saw this week. Along with our friends Barbara and Tony Ricciardi of Carmel, California (who you might remember from our recent brush with death, “Swamp Women”), we traveled a short two hundred miles in a long nine hours, wishing we remained in Santa Fe, settling instead for the night in Gallup, New Mexico.

The El Rancho Hotel, at first glance a cross between the Overlook Hotel (in its façade and lobby) and the Bates Motel (in its rooms), was built in 1937 as a temporary home for actors filming westerns in the area. For sixty dollars, George and I checked into the ‘John Wayne Suite,’ a room we had trouble finding because someone stole its name from above the door.

These initial impressions belie the hotel’s Christmas decorations, including a live tree grand enough for Rockefeller Center, its pine smell masking the otherwise musty aroma of a hotel that saw its last update in the 1960s.

Our fellow travelers, all strangers diverted from the highway, joined us in the large lobby/sitting area, where we played checkers, drank margaritas from cactus-shaped glasses, perused old photographs of movie stars, traded stories of traffic accidents and weather predictions for the now-closed I-40, and discussed that day’s newspaper headlines:

“Beware of the Gallup Bed Bugs. What Can You Do?”

Cautiously, Barbara and I asked our husbands,

Do you think we’ll get stuck here for New Year’s Eve?

“Oh Man, Wouldn’t that be fantastic?” they cried. “What a place!”

Our friend Dana Waldon of Santa Fe describes Gallup and the El Rancho like this:

“First we shop at Zimmerman’s Western Wear and Richardson’s Pawn Shop, as Doug delights in the words ‘Carhartt’ and ‘Panhandle Slim,’ kind of like George and his obsession with the words and place ‘Fort Stockton.’

Next we check into the El Rancho, go directly to the bar, and consume beers and tequila, followed by more beers and tequila. Doug struggles with the jukebox until he finds a Led Zeppelin or Stevie Ray Vaughan tune for me to dance to, followed by a really bad, but oh so good, dinner in the restaurant.

Then we retire to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Suite complete with wagon wheel headboards and a Moroccan style bathroom. It reminds me of something out of Blue Velvet.

Next morning is the Gallup Flea Market, without question my Tiffany & Co, followed by Dairy Queen and the gumball machine --- the only one I’ve ever seen that offers fluorescent cross necklaces. Last time I emptied twenty dollars worth of quarters to get as many as possible for my girlfriend’s birthday.”

All true and oddly charming, and yet even the men were happy to hit the road at first light on the morning of December 31st. Tony scraped the windshield with a can of shaving cream while George dug out the tires with a cowboy boot. Barbara and I made our way like crippled old women across the parking lot, vowing to go down together should one of us slip.

On the interstate we watched wide-eyed as cars slid into ravines or into each other. We waited patiently in traffic for emergency vehicles and snowplows and drove as though tiptoeing, terrified of our Cajun artist-driver’s new car’s abilities to grip the road. Eventually, now confident or crazy, we took a side trip off of the highway twenty miles west of Winslow, Arizona and traveled six miles on a frozen, narrow pavement to Meteor Crater.

50,000 years ago a meteor 150-feet wide entered earth’s atmosphere and disintegrated as it sped towards our planet at 26,000 miles per hour. Hitting the ground, the now tiny rock blew a hole one mile across and 550 feet deep.

George Rodrigue and I visit this crater, the best preserved in the world, every few years to stand on its edge and think about space and the fragility and miracle of our existence. This was our first encounter, however, in the snow. We stood in silence with our friends in the icy wind and temporarily forgot the below zero temperature…

…that is, until we walked back to the car, posing briefly for “Eskimo Pie and Her Friend Klondike,” (above) an art-piece conceived by George and titled by Tony.


All images in this post by George Rodrigue, except for the snow on the windshield, photographed by Tony Ricciardi

For a related post, including our recent encounter with Tibetan Sand Painting visit "Tranquility from Chaos: The Meteor and the Mandala"

*Above, at Ramstein Air Force Base with Mignon, wearing her 'Doctor Zhivago Coat,' Germany, 1972

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