Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Go North (to Shreveport) and Learn

Shreveport often gets a bum rap. 

“It’s east Texas,” claim many, as though that’s a bad thing.  This Red River city fights for not only Louisiana’s embrace, but also the South’s.

And yet Shreveport, along with nearby north Louisiana cities such as Natchitoches and Bossier City, cheers on the Saints and LSU.  They talk about New Orleans like it’s an old friend, asking about Café du Monde, Chef Paul Prudhomme, and French Quarter Fest.

Most important, the area excels by example, particularly when it comes to education and the arts.  The ArtBreak Festival in April is the ‘largest annual student arts festival in the South,’ and events such as the Red River Revel next month and the Louisiana State Fair help support these programs, as well as the Louisiana State Exhibit Museum.

The schools follow suit, responding to the community’s love of the arts with enthusiasm, as we saw during visits to area schools last week.  

“I took what I learned from studying Michelangelo's figure drawing and turned it around, transforming it into a Cajun,” explains George Rodrigue to sixth graders at Natchitoches Primary Magnet School in Natchitoches, Louisiana.

The students study within a 1960s building.   They seem oblivious to the exposed wires and pipes, happy instead to have an art room, a recently converted girls’ dressing room, complete with floor drains, sinks, and a new Smartboard, donated by a generous alum.

Before converting this room and securing donations, such as their recent allotment from George’s Art Closet, the school’s one art teacher pushed a cart from class to class, struggling to teach one thousand students with a mere $200 per year in supplies.

“What are you working on?” I ask some of the lucky 320 high school students at the Louisiana School for Math, Science and the Arts – a facility the opposite of the one we just left, only a few miles away.

They shared their drawings, headstone designs for Kurt Cobain and Steve Jobs, reminding me of George Rodrigue’s imaginary album covers from art school in the 1960s.

To my surprise, this boarding high school, also in Natchitoches, is state-funded.  I struggled to steady my jaw as we toured the facility, where students recreate shoes on potter’s wheels, design programs on Apple computers, and study photography with large cameras on tripods.

According to Executive Director, Dr. Pat Widhalm, more than 400 students apply annually, with the school accepting 110, representing more than 70 parishes.

(pictured, LSMSA students with George Rodrigue, left, and Chris King, right)

Chris King, the tattoo-covered, long haired art teacher previously at Beverly Hills High School, designed the expansive art rooms. He inspires and enchants Louisiana’s students in this conservative north/central town.  

“It’s been four years now, and we’re starting to feel adjusted,” says wife Erin King with a wink.

(pictured, George Rodrigue visits with students in LSMSA's museum; Chris King's paintings, created during a month-long sabbatical this summer in West Virginia, hang on the wall; click photo to enlarge)

At Youree Drive Middle School in Shreveport, we talk about the power of ideas and imagination, about painting for one’s self as opposed to others, about keeping one’s work exciting.

“What’s your favorite painting?” a student asks George Rodrigue.

“The one I’m working on now,” he replies.

At Parkway High School in Bossier City, the students, according to art teacher Mrs. Jacobe, forgot their Homecoming festivities that afternoon, buzzing instead with not only excitement for the Arts, but also excitement for their potential in whatever their passion.

“When you create up here,” explains George Rodrigue, pointing to an imaginary dot six inches above an imaginary yardstick of art (held horizontally from the Renaissance at zero inches to Contemporary Art at thirty-six), “you’re by yourself, and no one can touch you.”

-click photos to enlarge-

At our last stop, Claiborne Elementary Magnet School in Shreveport, the third graders taught us more than we taught them.  They shout out the colors and question the designs.  They use their imagination to paint their own world, without embarrassment or inhibition.

“It took me a whole lifetime to learn how to draw like a child again,” said Pablo Picasso, famously.

It was not Picasso, however, but the children in this north Louisiana city that reminded us of this valuable lesson.


--On the way home, we made memories at Lea's Pies-

--George Rodrigue's Shreveport exhibition continues at the Louisiana State Exhibit Museum until December 30, 2011.  Read more here-

--I hope you’ll join me for more adventures and discussion on my new facebook page-

--For information on the George Rodrigue Foundation of the Arts visit here-

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Monday, September 19, 2011

An Artist’s Wife ( ... okay, now on facebook)

“To be an enthusiast had become her social vocation and, sometimes even when she did not feel like it, she became enthusiastic in order not to disappoint the expectations of those who knew her.”*

(pictured above and below, sharing the art of George Rodrigue with Baton Rouge students during a drawing workshop last weekend at the LSU Museum of Art)

“What are your credentials?” asked a Louisiana artist recently, as I interviewed him for an essay for The Bicentennial History of Art in Louisiana.*  

Ironically, the question offended George but merely distracted me, as I rattled off a few boring bits of bio, steering our exchange as quickly as possible back to my subject.

“I apologize,” I admitted at one point, “but I tend to relate all art to George Rodrigue and our discussions, because that’s my world.”

I took on these essays, only a small number of the hundreds within the book, not only out of genuine interest, but also in hopes of calming some local artistic and awkward karma.  I’ve written before about jealousy in the art world, about the difficulty I have in seeing it and understanding it.  In truth, I believe that any artist’s success is a success for all artists, and I’m as pleased to hear of a big sale on Julia Street, at Sotheby's, or on the fence at Jackson Square as I am with one at the Rodrigue Gallery.

That said, I can’t help but take criticism of George’s artwork to heart, despite his own indifference.  It’s the reason I no longer work on the gallery floor.  I strike at critics with defensive cat claws, regretting it later, and wishing I’d thought before speaking. 

This month marks two years of "Musings of an Artist’s Wife," a place where we celebrate the art and life of George Rodrigue.  In the same way people stopped asking George years ago, “Don’t you get tired of painting the same thing over and over?,” they stopped asking me months ago, “What happens when you run out of things to write?”

(pictured, On My Master's Grave, 1990)

If you follow George’s work, and certainly if you follow this blog, you know that his art is as interesting and varied as his life.  The Blue Dog paintings today look different than five years ago or ten years ago or twenty, in the same way artists might develop their landscapes or portraits (ironically also true of George Rodrigue). 

(pictured, A Basket of Joy, 2011, 24x20 inches, finished just this week-)

George the artist taught me about writing, a form of expression imbued with forethought. 

“The key,” explains the Blue Dog Man, “is to please no one but yourself.  If a few others like it, all the better.  But if you paint or write their ideas (for you), as opposed to your own, you hold yourself back, and over time, people rarely remember the gesture anyway.”

I thought of this often over the past few months as University of Louisiana at Lafayette fans questioned George’s recent enthusiasm for LSU.

“Why don’t you support your home school, ULL?” they ask, as I remind them gently of his dedication to that university over the years. 
“It’s impossible to please everyone,” George reassures me, as I answer with overzealousness an angry letter from a man wondering why we ignore north Louisiana, even as we head to Shreveport for an exhibition and series of events later this week.

Simultaneously, I watch George at his easel, breaking his own rule.   Without question, he paints to please himself ninety percent of the time, such as Sunny James (36x36, below), finished last month. 

Yet within that other ten percent lies, for example, a recent commission to paint a ULL administrator’s portrait, a project without an appealing artistic challenge, but an important challenge nonetheless, a shift in motivation, as the resulting money benefits GRFA’s programs, providing bigger scholarships and art supplies to Louisiana’s students and schools.  In other words, occasionally it’s worth the compromise.

(pictured:  a happy George Rodrigue paints and watches to please himself, last night in New Orleans)

As a model, as a muse, and as the author of self-indulgent dribble (who almost quit weeks in when a reader commented, “Get over yourself, Wendy”), I do believe we each have a duty --- to God, to fate, to karma, or perhaps most important, to ourselves --- to follow our passions. 

With that in mind, I established this week a public Facebook page.  I hope you’ll join me for not only updates from Musings and Gambit, but also assorted photographs, ideas, links to other artists, other writers, and … your feedback.


*from Tolstoy's War and Peace, 1869

*The Bicentennial History of Louisiana is a 375-page, full color volume edited by Michael Sartisky of the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities and Rick Gruber, formerly of the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, printed in New Orleans by Garrity Press in 2012, as we celebrate Louisiana’s statehood bicentennial.  I am honored to be a minor contributor within this ambitious and important project.
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Thursday, September 15, 2011

Talk About Good!

In 1979 George Rodrigue loaned twenty of his Cajun paintings for use in Talk About Good II, a cookbook produced by the Junior League of Lafayette, Louisiana. 

The paintings introduce the book’s chapters and include dinner scenes, seafood preparations and Cajun characters, each complemented by Rodrigue’s brief descriptions.

Rodrigue writes about the cover, Kiss Me I’m Cajun:

“This is a portrait of my son, André Rodrigue, after his first fishing trip.  André in his t-shirt typifies the contemporary Cajun.  But at four years of age, he does not yet know that the whole world does not have boudin, crawfish, gumbo, and Mardi Gras parades.”

(for more on Kiss Me I'm Cajun, see the post “The Rodrigue Brothers”)

Originally the painting A Toast to Cajun Food (from the collection of the University Art Museum in Lafayette) graced the cookbook’s cover; however the Junior League swapped the front and back covers for the newest edition.

“Cajun food reflects a way of life,” writes Rodrigue.  “Shown here is a traditional all-day feast which reflects the ‘joie de vivre’ which the Cajuns have kept throughout their history.  They toast a good life and good food and the land they have come to love in South Louisiana.”

(for more on Rodrigue’s paintings of Gourmet Dinner Clubs, see the post “Aioli Dinner.”)

Within the cookbook, paintings such as Ray Hay’s Cajun Po-Boys introduce the Meat Chapter, opposite a page dedicated to ‘refrigerator,’ ‘watermelon,’ and ‘mirliton’ pickles.

--click photos to enlarge--

“This painting portrays Ray Hay holding his Cajun Po-Boy sandwich, and beside him is Bud Petro of Lafayette, Louisiana.  The two are discussing one of the new items on the menu, Petro’s juicy fried rabbit.  The preparation of the rabbit is so secret, that Mr. Petro was flown in to Houston to teach the cooks how to prepare this Cajun delicacy.” – G.R.

Selling Crawfish at Butte La Rose introduces the Seafood Chapter and appears opposite recipes for “Baked Wild Turkey” and “Woodcock for Company.”

“This painting,” writes Rodrigue, “shows the early days when it was far easier to give the crawfish away than to try to sell them.”

My personal favorites within this book are George’s paintings of Cajun characters, such as his good friend Rodney Fontenot, The Ragin’ Cajun, a man who, according to George, had “no difficulty in finding his identity in a town of 6,000, almost 4,000 with the name of Fontenot, none claiming to be related to the others.”

As with the Gourmet Dinner Clubs, The Ragin Cajun deserves its own blog post, and I encourage you to read that history, linked here.

Rodrigue donated the use of his copyrights for the Talk About Good II cookbook, so that it might raise funds for the Junior League of Lafayette, “an organization of women,” according to their website, “committed to promoting voluntarism, developing the potential of women, and improving the community through the effective action and leadership of trained volunteers.”

Thirty-two years later, both the recipes and paintings hold up, and Rodrigue remains committed to this worthwhile hometown cause.


For a related post, I hope you enjoy “A Sophisticated Gumbo,” in this week’s Gambit’s Blog of New Orleans, featuring paintings of Cajun food by George Rodrigue

To purchase Talk About Good II and other Junior League of Lafayette Cookbooks, visit their book order page

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Friday, September 9, 2011

Honesty, an Image for Peace

Following 9/11, George Rodrigue, like people everywhere, remained shell-shocked for years over the hatred that spawned a terrorist attack.  Although he painted God Bless America in direct response, the tragedy of that day and the desire to help, to change the world even in some small way, resonated long after.

The success of the God Bless America print, including the $500,000 it raised for the American Red Cross, surprised Rodrigue, and the experience showed him for the first time that he could use his art not only to raise funds but also to send a message.  In 2003 on the second anniversary of 9/11, he teamed up with the International Child Art Foundation (ICAF) to raise money and awareness for their magnanimous programs.

With ICAF’s help, George Rodrigue collected artwork from children worldwide.  The theme was “Peace,” and the images, despite their scattered origins, spoke a unified message.  He combined the paintings into a collage, held together with the Blue Dog (pictured above; click photo to enlarge).  The resulting silkscreen, Honesty, raised $350,000 for ICAF’s programs, including the World Children's Festival in Washington D.C.

The week of September 11th, 2003, Rodrigue joined children, their parents, and art teachers from one hundred countries and all fifty states on the National Mall, brought together by ICAF, where he hosted a four-day painting workshop during the World Children's Festival.

Looking back, the experience was a precursor to the George Rodrigue Foundation of the Arts, established in 2009.  In addition to painting with the children, George and I provided the art supplies for the week.  We also presented painting demonstrations and lectures for the visiting parents and art teachers.

At week’s end, George joined the children in creating a pyramid, a three-dimensional sculpture he designed in Louisiana and trucked to Washington D.C.  The children painted wooden panels, once again focusing on “Peace.”

Afterwards, George assembled the pyramid, which then toured locations throughout the United States before finding a permanent home in the ICAF Center.

On the tenth anniversary of 9/11, George and I reflect not only on that horrible day in 2001, but also on the hope we saw in these children two years later.  Aged ten through twelve, they represented many countries, backgrounds and languages.  Yet through the universal language of art, they joined together with a single voice.

The children returned to their home countries and states as friends, and I can’t help but wonder, eight years later, whether these young adults resonate still…..

….with PEACE.


-for details of George Rodrigue’s God Bless America, a painting and silkscreen following 9/11, visit here

-also this week, I examine “Loss” using Rodrigue’s classic painting The Day We Told Tee Coon Good-bye, in Gambit’s Blog of New Orleans, linked here

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Thursday, September 1, 2011

Rodrigue on the Red River

George Rodrigue has a long history with Shreveport, a northern Louisiana city oftentimes dismissed by southern Louisiana as ‘east Texas.’  As a child, Rodrigue’s own family, in fact, ignored this important part of Louisiana’s culture:

“Growing up in New Iberia,” says George Rodrigue, “our travel plans meant east to New Orleans or Biloxi, or west to Houston.  We never went north past Opelousas.  I had no knowledge of Shreveport, Monroe, or any of those places.  The only thing I knew about Shreveport was what I heard on my radio, the small version of Nashville’s Grand Ol’ Opry, known as the Louisiana Hayride.”

(pictured, Blue Dogs on the Red River, 2011, a silkscreen and painting celebrating the exhibition, “George Rodrigue:  Blue Dogs, Louisiana Governors and Russian President Gorbachev,” Sept 23 – Dec 30, 2011, at the Louisiana State Exhibit Museum, Shreveport)

George is the first to admit today, however, that Shreveport, much like its neighbor Monroe, embraces its Louisiana heritage with as much pride as its more famous southern cousin.  Furthermore, the north Louisiana city contributes significant cultural history to the South and to America, through Ducks Unlimited, the Louisiana Hayride, and the Red River Revel.

-click photos to enlarge-

These types of events, in fact, first called George Rodrigue north, specifically the Louisiana State Fair (pictured above) and Ducks Unlimited during the 1980s.

“My first collectors were Carl Wiley Jones, Sissy Levine, Lee Hall, Palmer Long, Albert Sklar, and Virginia Shehee.  My first formal show in Shreveport was a bank exhibition hosted by Carl Jones sometime in the late 1970s.”

“Carl Jones introduced me to my biggest collectors in Shreveport.  One day he walked into my gallery in Lafayette and bought some small Cajun paintings for his duck camp on Grand Lake in south Louisiana.  Eventually he enticed me up north, where I painted for Ducks Unlimited, first for the Shreveport Chapter, and then for the National Chapter’s convention in New Orleans.”

In the late 1990s, Shreveport’s siren called us back again, this time for the Red River Revel.  George and I spent five days each year of 1997, 1998 and 1999 promoting arts education and cultural awareness in a city that, by this time, we’d both grown to love. 

At the Red River Revel, beneath large tents for area school children, we first practiced our painting demonstrations and lectures, presentations we’ve since taken across the country and shared dozens of times.

(pictured, a painting demonstration at the Alexandria Museum of Art earlier this year; click photo to enlarge, and read more here)

Later this month, we return to Shreveport with a series of events and a major exhibition of work by George Rodrigue. “Blue Dogs, Louisiana Governors and Russian President Gorbachev,” features paintings from the permanent collection of the New Orleans Museum of Art, private collectors, and the artist’s personal archives, including paintings from the Xerox and Neiman Marcus collections, all five of Rodrigue’s Governor’s portraits, and the complete Saga of the Acadians.

(pictured, At the Head of the Red River 2011 acrylic on canvas 48x72 inches)

This exhibition is the last stop of a seven-city statewide tour organized by the New Orleans Museum of Art in celebration of its centennial, and currently on view at the LSU Museum of Art in Baton Rouge (through September 18,  2011, detailed here).

From the beginning, neither George nor I saw Shreveport as an eastern Dallas or a northern New Orleans.  Rather, we appreciate it as a unique southern city, unfairly labeled ‘the north’ by much of the state, even as Shreveport cheers on the Saints and LSU.  They came through for us with tremendous support following Hurricane Katrina, and they appreciate with enthusiasm our cultural Louisiana anomalies --- like gumbo and crawfish farms and cypress trees and Huey Long and ….. Blue Dogs!


“George Rodrigue:  Blue Dogs, Louisiana Governors and Russian President Gorbachev” opens at the Louisiana State Exhibit Museum Sept 23 to December 30, 2011

Shreveport museum events with the artist include Glitz and Grits on Sept 23 and a painting demo/lecture on Sept 24.  Space is limited.  For tickets and information visit http://friendsoflsem.org/ or call (318) 632-2020

For information on price, size, and availability regarding the silkscreen Blue Dogs on the Red River visit www.georgerodrigue.com

For more on Rodrigue’s Ducks Unlimited and Festival posters, see the post “Fairs and Festivals

And on a personal note….. Many thanks to all of you who read and shared “For New Orleans,” my recent post-Katrina tribute for Gambit.  It received record-breaking readership and response, resonating in ways I never expected-

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