Friday, February 24, 2012

The Mamou Riding Academy: Fact or Fiction

“One summer a German mule trader struggled to sell his last white mule.  A farmer finally bought it for his daughter, and the daughter liked it so much that her friends each wanted one.  In the end, the mule trader sold nine mules to nine fathers of nine little girls.”

That’s the story of the Mamou Riding Academy, according to George Rodrigue in his book The Cajuns of George Rodrigue (Oxmoor House, 1976), the first book published nationally on the Cajun culture.

-click photo to enlarge-

Yet Rodrigue fabricated the Mamou story:  the German, the mules, the riding club, and even a 4th of July parade, in a lie that caused no end of trouble for the young artist in the mid 1970s when the Mayor of Mamou took offense.  

It was Jimmy Domengeaux of CODOFIL fame who diffused the situation, emphasizing Rodrigue’s respect for the Cajuns, his own heritage.  Rodrigue, insisted Domengeaux, brought positive national attention to the Cajun culture through not only his paintings, but also his book, The Cajuns of George Rodrigue, chosen by Rosalind Carter and the National Endowment for the Arts as an Official Gift of State during President Jimmy Carter’s administration. (full story here)

Mamou, Louisiana is a small Cajun town in the south central part of the state, located mid-way between Lafayette and Alexandria, in Evangeline Parish, an area named for Longfellow’s tragic heroine.  Its population lingers today at about 3500 residents.  The area’s plentiful cotton crop gave way eventually to rice, the sustaining Mamou harvest.

George Rodrigue painted the Mamou Riding Academy, a large canvas at 36x54 inches, in 1971.  He designed it in his typical style, now firmly established since completing the Aioli Dinner, his first painting with people, earlier that same year.  Beneath the massive Louisiana live oaks, the figures and mules shine luminous in white, with no shadow, as though they are a string of paper dolls glued onto a dark background. 

The landscape follows the line of the flag and figures, forming interesting shapes in the sky, bounded by the hard edges of archetypal Rodrigue oaks, a style perfected over the previous three years, as the young artist painted nothing but tree, ground and sky.

Okay, spill, I insisted.  What’s the real history of the painting?

“I found this great photograph in a junk shop in Lafayette.  It had no markings and no indication of its origin.  I used it in my painting and made up a story.”

Why Mamou? I asked, wanting more.

“It’s a cool place, and I wanted to paint it.  I know that the Cajuns, from the beginning, were proud to be Americans, so I turned it into a patriotic event.  In real life, there was no Mamou Riding Academy, but I made it real in my mind and on the canvas.  So to me, it’s true.”

As with his other Cajun paintings, Rodrigue projected the photograph’s figures onto his canvas and then arranged his landscape around them, creating a unified, strong design and a timeless, albeit fabricated, representation of the Cajun culture.

And the two figures in black?  I asked.

“That was an artistic decision.”

I recognized my cue, and the interview ended.


-As a point of interest, the stories in The Cajuns of George Rodrigue are a mixture of true and false.  One of my favorite tall tales is Broussard’s Barber Shop, linked here-

-Also this week, I hope you enjoy my latest story for Gambit Weekly:  “The Mardi Gras Recovery:  a Story of Buddhism, Influenza and Fuzz,” linked here-

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Sunday, February 19, 2012

All Hail King George

George Rodrigue makes a great King.  I hear it every year as we attend the Washington D.C. Mardi Gras, where he ruled in 1994 and still commands regal respect.

(pictured, It’s Good to be the King, 1994, acrylic on canvas)

This royal interest started in his childhood, in the late 1940s.  George’s first memory, in fact, is a fitting for his King costume during New Iberia’s Carnival.

“Growing up, we never called it Mardi Gras,” he explains.  “We called it Carnival…and especially ‘Carnival Balls.’

George’s mother and his older cousin Lillian made costumes, working on them all year.  They entered George and Lillian’s daughter Arlene in the children’s carnival costume competition, which the kids won annually.

Did you like it?  I asked.

“I didn’t have a choice!” he exclaimed.

At age four or five, they dressed George as Robert Fulton (1765-1815), inventor of the steamboat.

“I remember the parade, because I rode in a mini steamboat car, pulled by two kids on foot.  Beneath my legs was a bar with a rope attached, which I pulled throughout the parade, making the paddlewheels turn.  It took two hands, which I hated, because I couldn’t wave to the crowd.”

At age ten, George was a soldier in a white satin uniform.  But more often, he was one half of a royal couple.

By the mid-1970s a thirty-year old George Rodrigue, now living in Lafayette, Louisiana, declared himself King.  He built a platform in front of his house on Jefferson Street, where, dressed in full regalia, he and his dog greeted passing parades.

(notice Tiffany, the original model for the Blue Dog, on the royal throne. Read more about her history here-)

“I displayed a huge banner,” explains George, "that said ‘The Real King.’  Two parades passed my house on Mardi Gras Day.  The party started small - just me and Tiffany on the platform.  Within three years we had 500 people, all throwing custom-designed Rodrigue doubloons.”

Each year, Rodrigue made a gold medallion version of the doubloon complementing his royal attire, such as the image above, based on his classic oak tree and below, based on his bronze sculpture of Longfellow, Evangeline and Gabriel.

Guests arrived in costume and enjoyed gumbo and a cochon de lait.

(click photos to enlarge; pictures include George's son Andre Rodrigue and friends Dickie Hebert as Wonder Woman and Ed Vice, on the stage as a rabbit).

For George, the highlight each year occurred when the parade stopped at his platform, and the two kings toasted.  One year, he climbed aboard the King’s float and presented a gift, a live chicken, which caused havoc among the courtiers.

(pictured, George Rodrigue presents a gift-wrapped live chicken to Louis Mann, King of the Lafayette City Krewe, Bonaparte; for more on this story, visit here-)

“The next year,” sighs George, “they moved the parades away from my house.”

In 1992, George Rodrigue reigned for the first time as an official King, ruling for the all-female Lafayette Krewe of Xanadu.

(pictured King George with Governor Kathleen and Raymond “Coach” Blanco at the Xanadu Ball; Coach taught George at Catholic High, New Iberia, and Kathleen would become Louisiana’s first female governor in 2004).

In 1994, George ruled as King of the Washington Mardi Gras (pictured above), a private Mardi Gras for 5,000 guests, hosted annually in Washington D.C. by the Louisiana Legislature.  George is still heralded as one of the best kings ever.  He broke many traditions, most famously choosing red satin drawers over the traditional white bloomers beneath his costume.

In addition to his 1994 reign, Rodrigue commemorated the DC event in a painting not of himself, but of his friend Marion Edwards, who was King in 1985 (related post here). 

He again honored the event in 1997 with a silkscreen poster celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the Washington, D.C. Mardi Gras Ball.

Since 1994 George has served as Grand Marshall or King for parades in New Iberia, Lafayette, Butte la Rose, Pierre Part and New Orleans.  The highlight is the Argus parade in Metairie, Louisiana, where the Blue Dog float runs each year on Mardi Gras Day.  As Grand Marshall of Argus, George threw Blue Dog doubloons.

In 2004, he declared himself King once more, this time celebrating his 60th birthday.  He grew a beard for the occasion and maintained a strict dress code for guests:  Elvis “The King” or Marilyn Monroe.

Would you be King again? I asked, not sure of his plans.

Try as I might, however, even his other half received no answer…… only a laugh.


*pictured above:  2004, King George with Marilyn (Wendy) by Tabitha Soren; artwork by George Rodrigue, 2012-

*also this week:  “MUSE-ings from a Mardi Gras Float,” a new post for Gambit, describing our incredible ride in this year’s Krewe of Muses parade, linked here-

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Saturday, February 18, 2012

MUSE-ings from a Mardi Gras Float

If ever there was a reason for lasik…, I thought to myself as I struggled with my glasses, barely touching my nose over enormous feathered hot pink eyelashes and a mandatory mask, all negotiated around a plunger-like stocking cap and a bouffant Big Bird-yellow Fifi Mahony’s custom-designed wig.

(George Rodrigue designed t-shirts as a gift for everyone on our float.  They feature the famous Blue Dog with the famous Muses Shoe.  He also took this photograph of me and my sister Heather, backed by his huge painting Shu-fly, a Blue Dog with butterfly wings painted for a Neiman Marcus window in 1999)

For more than twelve hours my head gathered heat and suspended reality as I posed for pictures, danced and sang with hundreds of costumed Muses, and tossed beads, shoes and blinky trinkets from a papier mache float.  It was exhausting, expensive, and, to some, flippantly insane.  It was, as my nephews would say, totally awesome.

-pictured, the Muses pre-party at the Contemporary Arts Center; click photo to enlarge-

I join thousands of other float riders and parade goers in loving Mardi Gras.  Throughout the ride and for weeks preceding, we warn each other, relentlessly: 


We nap when we can between work, parades and formal balls.  We practice yoga and pilates in small, basically ineffectual spurts.  We take mini-rests on the parade route as the floats pause for any number of rumored reasons.  And we solicit help from our friends, as we juggle work, family, and other commitments.

In my case, my friends loaded my beads (during a thunderstorm, no less) and shared their decorated shoes.  We fluffed each other’s wigs, applied glitter and eye make-up, and monitored the port-o-potty door.  Somehow, for a few weeks each year, it all seems terribly important.

“Promise me,” I begged Tiffa, who reminded me in her wig of Madame Defarge* as she bartended from an overturned bucket, “that no matter how intently I eye your vodka-cranberry, your answer remains, ‘We’re out.’”

(At Heather’s suggestion, Tiffa is adding a stuffed crow to next year’s coif)

In New Orleans, instead of complaining about parade traffic, we shrug our shoulders, ditch our cars, and throw our hands in the air:

Throw Me Something, Sister!, screamed the crowds last night during the Krewe of Muses all-female parade.  “They’re calling your name, Wendy,” said my sister more than once, as we realized the power of social media and the decreasing anonymity of a mask.

Perspective and priorities shift at Mardi Gras, as further evidenced by our parade day lunch:  four over-dressed ladies forgoing the usual salads (dressing on the side) in favor of Emeril’s Who Dat Burgers with fries.

“Extra cheese, please,” said my sister.

“More ketchup,” chimed the ladies in chorus.

(While we await our gourmet burgers, Tiffa applies liquid gold glitter to my eyebrows)

(Juli Juneau reacts to the bugs on her headpiece, a uniform requirement on the ROACH float, a pun on the handbag label COACH, relating to this year’s parade theme “Muses Goes Shopping”)

Although I’ve ridden with Muses for years, this was my first time on Float Number One.  Unlike the themed floats behind us, we donned our own wigs and made up a few of our own rules.

“Always trade a shoe for champagne,” explained Tiffa, as I hesitated at an offer.

“But only good champagne,” clarified Pam, as she rejected the sickly sweet pink bubbles.

(Note to crowd:  worse than cheap champagne are the following – 1) Foul language:  “Throw me a f-ing shoe” NEVER works, and 2) Bare male torsos, as in the crowd shot above; good grief Guys, keep your shirts on.)

On Float #1, for the first time in a Mardi Gras parade, I felt real pressure to please.  We faced thousands of people, most without adornment, all screaming for shoes and beads and blinky rings.

“Pace, Girls!” shouted Tiffa.  “There are twenty-five floats behind you!,” as Heather and I attempted to satisfy every child with a stuffed animal and every old lady with a shoe bracelet.  We’re near eye-level with the crowd on this float, as opposed to our usual spot high overhead.  “Don’t make eye contact,” warned Tiffa each time the float paused.

Also on Float #1, we experienced for the first time the real beauty of the parade.  We saw the flambeaux carriers as they lit their enormous torches.  We wondered at the giant lighted butterflies.  And we danced for six hours on the route to the beat of the O. Perry Walker High School Marching Band, following close behind us.

At times we lulled, but our adrenalin (and the hamburger) kicked in, and we marveled at our evening, embracing it full force, amidst historic buildings and magnificent oaks, and the heart of New Orleans – its people.

“Vodka and cranberry?” asked Tiffa, forgetting herself as we approached Lee Circle. 

Oh, what the heck-


*also this week, I hope you enjoy the WAFB-TV interview "The Other Half," when I talk about life with my better half, George Rodrigue; linked here-

*most photographs in this post by Heather Wolfe Parker-

*Madame Defarge is a character in Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities-

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Friday, February 3, 2012

Painting Like a Child... Again

“Creating art in a childlike manner means to be simple and direct, resulting in immediate imagery.” –George Rodrigue

Since founding the George Rodrigue Foundation of the Arts (GRFA) in 2009, George Rodrigue has visited dozens of schools and thousands of children across Louisiana, Northwest Florida and Little Rock, Arkansas.*  Through GRFA he fulfills his need to contribute to his community within the arts and education, words scarcely combined in his own childhood in 1950s New Iberia.  

This week we visited Martin Behrman Charter School in Algiers, a city on the West bank of New Orleans.  Following a drawing lesson in Behrman's historic auditorium, the 4th grade students painted pink snakes, striped lions, and polka-dot birds with George Rodrigue.  In addition, through George's Art Closet, the class received a year's worth of art supplies.

(Susan Poag of The Times-Picayune filmed a wonderful video of George Rodrigue painting with students at Behrman.  I'm having trouble embedding it, so in the meantime, click here for the link-)

For the older students, this week we launched our first annual Digital Art Contest with a reception in the George Rodrigue Foundation of the Arts Education Center.  Louisiana high school students submit 3-D renderings, competing for $15,000 in scholarships, awarded during a luncheon this summer honoring the winners.

"Today’s art students embrace technology as an artistic tool and pursue careers accordingly,” writes George Rodrigue.  “Three-D models in movies such as Toy Story and within video games such as World of Warcraft reach millions of people and affect our world.”

Rodrigue recognizes the significance of technology in the arts for this computer generation:

“I challenge educators and business leaders to join GRFA in embracing the digital arts as a viable industry for Louisiana and an important addition to our state’s educational programming."

(click photo to enlarge:  GRFA Executive Director Jacques Rodrigue explains the Digital Art Contest during its launch at the foundation’s education center, 747 Magazine Street, New Orleans)

Along these lines, this weekend (February 4, 2012) we award our top fifteen finalists each their share of $50,000 in scholarship money for their winning entries in our annual art contest.  This traditional competition honors Louisiana students for their paintings, drawings, collages and photographs based on this year’s theme “Louisiana’s Bicentennial.”

(pictured, a collage of the finalists’ artworks; for a better look, click photo to enlarge, or click here for individual entries-)

Hundreds of students from across the state submitted their artistic celebration of two hundred years of Louisiana’s statehood.  The top winner designs the official Louisiana Bicentennial Poster, representing our state throughout this important year.

With his foundation, George Rodrigue encourages the arts in all areas of education, even as state and federal funding wane thinner by the day.  Through the generosity of several corporations, organizations, and GRFA’s founding members, along with a successful Print Donation Program, he watches his dream become a reality, as children remain inspired by the arts in school, just as he remains inspired by the arts in life.

(pictured, The Dog Within, 1995, 40x30, acrylic on canvas)

It was Pablo Picasso who said, famously, 

“It took me a whole lifetime to learn how to draw like a child again.”

And it was Jackson Pollock who rediscovered this same sincere, play-like approach at a young age, thirty-five:

“On the floor, I am more at ease.  I feel nearer, more a part of the painting, since this way I can walk around it, work from the four sides and literally be in the painting.”*

Looks like fun to me-


-Pictured above:  Rodrigue ‘drips’ ala Pollock; see “Jackson Pollock at 100,” my latest story for Gambit Weekly, linked here-

-Learn more about the George Rodrigue Foundation of the Arts here-

*See the links under "GIVING BACK" to the right of this post-

*Pollock quote from The Shock of the New by Robert Hughes, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1996, p. 313
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