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.” 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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