Friday, January 27, 2012

Four for Mardi Gras

It’s impossible to live in the Gulf South and ignore Mardi Gras.  It spreads from Galveston to the Florida Panhandle, affecting our judgment, so that ‘normal’ becomes beads, wigs, costumes and masks. 

(pictured, Four for Mardi Gras, 2012, 24x38 inches, edition 190)

In New Orleans we expect parade traffic most evenings and all weekends, shrugging our shoulders, ditching our cars, and missing whatever obligations we set out to make, standing instead on the neutral ground* and shouting,

“Throw me something, Mister!”

…or, in the case of the all-female Muses parade,

“Throw me something, Sister!”

Like me, George Rodrigue grew up with Mardi Gras.  His mother dressed him in costume for the country parades and balls.  He’s been king or grand marshal of various krewes* from Lafayette to New Orleans to Washington D.C., where 5,000 Louisiana residents gather annually for a three-day Mardi Gras extravaganza. (related post here)

(pictured, George Rodrigue with his cousin Arlene, dressed for Mardi Gras in New Iberia, Louisiana, 1949)

For the past ten years, my sister Heather and I ride in the Krewe of Muses parade.  This year, for the first time, we ride on the coveted Float Number One!  Not only do we have the honor of greeting the crowds at the head of this magnificent and popular parade, but also we vary in head gear from the other Muses floats. 

(Our wigs, custom-made by Fifi Mahony’s, sit on display in our living room on the heads of Jeff Koons’s famous Puppy and George Rodrigue’s tribute, a junk shop sculpture he painted blue)

This week, after purchasing our wigs, Heather and I, wearing dresses and heels, strolled down Royal Street for the fun of it.  Used to anything on the streets of New Orleans, most people passed us with barely a glance, our confidence contributing to our normalcy.  One comment, however, stands out:

“You guys look great!” 

...exclaimed a well-dressed gentleman, confirming our drag queen suspicions.  At 5’10” without the wigs, Heather and I tower at about 6’5” in our heels and hair. 

“I can’t believe he missed our curves,” 

...mumbled Heather, as I smiled and hollered “Thank you” towards our admirer.

Mardi Gras runs in our blood.  Our mother, Mignon McClanahan Wolfe, reigned as Queen of the Fort Walton Beach Mardi Gras in 1993-4.  Along with her wedding day, she spoke of it as the best day of her life, an occasion she prepared for over the course of a year, seeking the right dress and shoes, decorating the stage, and practicing her dance routine, as she boogied in the ballroom of the Okaloosa Island Ramada Inn.

Admittedly, George and I have slowed a bit in our Mardi Gras enthusiasm, unable to sustain the non-stop weeks of parades and parties while fulfilling other obligations.  We still attend the Washington D.C. festivities; we occasionally ride on the Blue Dog float in the Argus parade; we dress in formal attire and drag our cooler into the Superdome for the Endymion Extravaganza; and (our favorite), we stand in our Faubourg Marigny window watching the Krewe du Vieux

This year, at the request of the Sheraton Hotel, George decorated a slice of Canal Street. (click photo to enlarge)

Over the coming weeks, I’ll post stories of our Mardi Gras adventures and trace, in words and pictures, George Rodrigue’s years as King.  I hope you'll stay tuned...

And Happy Mardi Gras!


*'neutral ground':  New Orleans-speak for 'median' 
*'krewe':  Mardi Gras-speak for 'club'

-I hope you also enjoy “Remembering Etta James and More,” my latest story for Gambit Weekly, linked here

-for more Rodrigue Mardi Gras images, see the post "Mardi Gras Silkscreens:  A History," linked here

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Friday, January 20, 2012

Risky Business

"It is a dangerous business going out your front door."*

This morning I watched from my desk in Carmel Valley, California as a great-horned owl took a bath.  It glanced at me, assessed the danger, and then continued, even as I eased open the glass door and stepped into the rain, camera ready.

We all know that the greatest chance for joy and inspiration comes with the greatest risk of pain.  It’s the reason we stay in a ‘dangerous’ city, New Orleans; it’s the reason we argue the murder-rate and dismiss dramatic press; it’s the reason we stare dumbfounded at anyone suggesting, following 2005, that we leave or, worse, let it go.  (For a related post, see "For New Orleans")

(This year I'm over-the-moon excited to ride on the giant shoe, Float #1, of the Muses Parade, February 16th; photo by Tabitha Soren)

On the plane last month from New Orleans to the Monterey Peninsula, I thought, as I do on every flight, about artist Georgia O’Keeffe looking down on the clouds, inspired to paint the experience.  I thought of my grandmother Helen McClanahan and her hours of 1950s videotaped sky, taken through the airplane window as she puddle-jumped from New Orleans to Lafayette to Houston to Fort Worth.  And I checked my superstitions and fear, replacing any form of the word “death” in my book with any form of the word “life,” as I replayed in my head a line I heard years ago on a TV show I can’t recall:

The most important thing holding this machine in the sky is the combined will of the passengers.

O’Keeffe was a brave woman, making art in a man’s world, resettling alone in the New Mexico desert. 

(pictured, a photograph from our collection hangs in my Carmel office, Georgia O'Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz by Arnold Newman 1944)

My grandmother (pictured below as Grand Matron of the Order of the Eastern Star) was also a brave woman, traveling alone in the 1950s and 1960s far beyond New Orleans and Fort Worth to Singapore, Thailand, Africa and India.

We choose our dangers and balance risks against rewards.  I recall the waiver we signed several years ago, as George and I rafted the Grand Canyon with friends: 

You understand that you might die on this trip.

By day two our terror of the ten-rated rapids morphed into elation, as we hooked our arms through the trampoline’s ropes and plunged into the freezing water, pulled off balance by rocks and a raging current.  We hiked, climbing straight up in the 110-degree heat, to waterfalls and Anasazi drawings.  At one point, four days in and now fearless, I swam (blind, lest I lose my glasses) through a deep pond to a mossy cave, where I scrambled like Gollum from Lord of the Rings to an opening thirty feet above.  Standing at the cave’s window, I stared across the water at my fuzzy friends, cheering me on and reminding me to clear the rocks below.

For the first time since my childhood, I held my nose, leaping, falling, sinking, choking, laughing …. and living.

(See photos of the great-horned owl splashing in our pool this morning here-)

What’s the biggest risk you ever took? I asked George Rodrigue, who skipped that Grand Canyon leap.  

I assumed his answer involved the train from New Iberia to Los Angeles, calling himself ‘Cajun’ when Cajun wasn’t cool, or painting a Blue Dog when everyone (from the art world to his personal world) questioned his sanity.  

Instead he replied, without hesitating,

Marrying you.”


*“It is a dangerous business going out your front door,” wrote J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973)

-for more photos of George Rodrigue this week at his easel, please join me on facebook

-for more by Wendy Rodrigue, visit Gambit Weekly, linked here

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Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Swamp Dogs: A Series on Metal

More than a year in the making, George Rodrigue’s Swamp Dogs combine print, photography and varnish on large sheets of metal, resulting in a unique perspective of the Louisiana landscape.

Beyond materials, however, the series originates with two stories.  Rodrigue, a Cajun artist for forty-five years, illustrates Louisiana lore including not only the loup-garou, but also, in this case, allusions to the feux follets, or swamp gas.

-click photos to enlarge-

“It comes from the earth and explodes at night into large balls of fire,” explains Rodrigue.  “The Cajuns thought it was something magical – a swamp mystery they couldn’t explain – when actually it was natural gas ignited by static electricity.”

The loup-garou legend, the origin of Rodrigue’s Blue Dog, talks of a crazy wolf-type animal living in the swamp.

“With Swamp Dogs, I combine these mysteries, the loup-garou and the feux follets.”

Before releasing the series last month, Rodrigue experimented for more than a year, both in paint and photography, ultimately combining the two mediums within his computer.

“In the minds of the Cajuns, the feux follets was magic, but real, just as the loup-garou was mythical, but true.  To inject reality, I started with my photographs of the Atchafalaya Basin and altered them, stretching shapes and changing colors.  The loup-garou is in the water, through the water, and part of the water.”

Using computer technology, Rodrigue combines his imagination with reality.  He painted several versions of the Blue Dog, scanned them into the computer, over-laying them onto his altered photographs.  He manipulated these computer collages, increasing saturation but reducing the colors to only five or six, lending varying levels of transparency.

“I blended the photographs and painted imagery onto metal surfaces, using archival ink on aluminum so that parts of the metal show through, such as the dog’s nose and areas of the swamp. They appear as raw metal, as does a two-inch border around the final artwork.”

Finally, Rodrigue focuses on scale, with an average size of 3x5 feet.

“The larger the scale, the more stretched the photograph.  The metal becomes more obvious, as does the color enhancement.”

At this time, Swamp Dogs includes six versions, each an edition of 10, all pictured within this post and on view at Rodrigue’s galleries.  The computer screen does them little justice ……an irony, considering the artwork’s digital origins.  I encourage you to view these exquisite, unique works in person.


-read about the first annual George Rodrigue Foundation of the Arts Digital Art Contest here

-new for Gambit Weekly, in honor of Louisiana’s Bicentennial, I hope you enjoy the following essays:

The Creole Gourmet Society,” featuring George Rodrigue’s paintings of early 20th century dinner clubs, and Cora’s Restaurant,” a look back at CODOFIL and our French heritage, including Rodrigue’s classic painting He-bert, Yes – A Bear, No

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Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Farewell to Exhibitions; Welcome to Painting

George Rodrigue and I spent much of the past eighteen months on the road visiting museums and communities for exhibitions, lectures, and education events coordinated by the George Rodrigue Foundation of the Arts (GRFA) and the New Orleans Museum of Art, which organized the tour as part of its 100th birthday celebration

Locations included Baton Rouge (pictured above, during a painting and cooking demo with Chef Paul Prudhomme), Lake Charles, Slidell, Shreveport, Alexandria, Monroe, Auburn University, Little Rock, and the Florida Panhandle. (click any of these cities for the story and photos from that event).

The tour made for a rewarding year, as we raised money and awareness for arts education, the focus of George’s foundation.  In Louisiana, these efforts strengthened the success of GRFA’s annual art contest, now in its third year.  In addition to scholarship money, this year’s first place winner, announced next month, works with George Rodrigue on the Official Bicentennial Poster, celebrating the two hundredth birthday of Louisiana’s statehood.

Last summer we opened the GRFA Education Center on Magazine Street in New Orleans and participated in our first White Linen Night (story here), followed by Dirty Linen Night the following week in the French Quarter, events we’ve missed in the past while in California.

In addition, George Rodrigue received in 2011 the Distinguished Eagle Award from the National Boy Scouts of America (story here) and the James William Rivers Prize from the Center for Louisiana Studies at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.  His Number One Tiger Fan raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the LSU Museum of Art, the Tiger Athletic Foundation, and the George Rodrigue Foundation of the Arts.

For George Rodrigue, these programs and exhibitions left him with little time to paint.  We spent just a brief few weeks at his Carmel studio, so that in one year he created only a handful of paintings, most in New Orleans in between openings.  He also painted during more than a dozen public demonstrations, when he worked quickly and with large brushes before an audience, such as the examples pictured at the top of this post.

(Most of Rodrigue's 2011 studio paintings are enormous in scale, such as At the Head of the Red River, 48x72, pictured below; see more here)

In late 2011, however, he completed a one-year project, Swamp Dogs, a series of six large-scale prints on chrome.  (Pictured below, Swamp Dogs Series #1, 48x58 inches; I’ll detail the complete series in a blog post later this month)

-click the photo to enlarge-

I spent 2011 recording our travels and sharing in depth studies of George’s art (see the categories to the right of this post).  I also marked one year of writing for the New Orleans newspaper Gambit Weekly and began a new blogging project for Country Roads Magazine, as well as contributing essays on numerous Louisiana artists to the book The Bicentennial History of Art in Louisiana (published April 2012) and KnowLA:  The Digital Encyclopedia of Louisiana History and Culture, projects sponsored by the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities.

Although I enjoyed writing, the news was not always welcome.  If we lump the artist-losses together, 2011 could be like the day the music died, but for art.  In August I wrote for Gambit about my favorite, Lucian Freud (1922-2011), whose 2005 Venice exhibition entranced me for days, as I wandered alone or dragging George, my obsession and questions trying his patience.

In December we lost John Chamberlain (1927-2011), the great contemporary sculptor whose work, as pictured above with George Rodrigue and Houston collector Don Sanders, was nothing more than crushed cars to some, while a brilliant statement of Minimalism to others.  -click photo to enlarge

The art world mourned Helen Frankenthaler and Cy Twombly, both 1928-2011, American Abstract Expressionist painters heralding from within the worlds of Willem de Kooning (1904-1997) and Robert Motherwell (1915-1991).  I thought about blogging on these artists but changed my mind when I read New Orleans artist Mallory Page’s succinct statement: 

“I hope somewhere in their last days they sent out a spirit passing the torch to a new generation to bloom; and I hope, somewhere, some of that breeze hits me.”

(pictured, a painting by New Orleans artist Mallory Page; click photo to enlarge)

Page’s thoughts transition nicely into the New Year – not only for her – but also for George Rodrigue, who plans five months at his easel, creating with a time and mental dedication unavailable to him since series such as Bodies and Hurricanes.  In other words, expect surprises in 2012.

His plans also include paintings for upcoming exhibitions at the Amarillo Museum of Art (opening August 2012) and the National Steinbeck Center (opening Fall 2013). 

Most thrilling, we’ll hit the road in our truck, resuming our annual cross-country drives,* this time incorporating three weeks in April exploring the state of Texas.  I look forward to sharing our adventures and George’s paintings with you throughout the year at Musings of an Artist’s Wife, Gambit Weekly, Country Roads Magazine, Facebook and Twitter.

Many thanks, as always, for reading.  Happy New Year to all!


*for a few of our favorite past adventures from the road, including Texas, New Mexico, New York and more, see the links under “RODRIGUE ON THE ROAD,” listed to the right of this story

--George sends a big ‘hello’ to Antonia Valpredo (pictured below) of Luigi’s – a highlight from our Bakersfield New Years Eve -- where he drew an alligator on the restaurant's famous bread, ala Galatoire's (for the Galatoire's story and painted bread from the famous New Orleans restaurant, see the tail end of the post "The Sketchbook")


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