Saturday, May 19, 2012

Landlocked Pirogues & Blue Dog’s Eyes (The Art of Improvisation)

“People are moving in time and in history, in a pirogue, on land...” 

...wrote George Rodrigue in 1975 about his painting, John Courrege’s Pirogue.

The painting is one of seventy-eight images featured in the book The Cajuns of George Rodrigue, the first book published nationally on the Cajun culture (Oxmoor House, 1976, detailed here). 

From the beginning, Rodrigue imbued his paintings with symbolism, from his hard-edged, topless oaks to his glowing white figures.  His rivers and roads blend as one.

“When the Cajuns arrived in Southwest Louisiana,” he explains, “the bayous, creeks and other waterways were the only roads. The people used them in the same way the Native Americans did for centuries before.  All early settlements were on the bayous – Bayou Teche, Bayou Lafourche, the Vermilion River, and the Mississippi.  People needed this transportation for trade.”

(pictured, John Courrege’s Pirogue, 1973.  Oil on canvas by George Rodrigue, 36x42 inches; click photo to enlarge)

“I named the painting after my cousin, John Edward Courrege, who, the minute he got his driver’s license, drove me to Catholic High every day for four years.  Later on, he worked in the junkyard with his father and sisters.”

(pictured, John Courrege sits in his father’s truck, New Iberia, Louisiana; also, his sisters Susan and Catherine, uncle Clifton, and father Emile; click photo to enlarge)

Oddly enough, it was an unrelated photograph that reminded me this week of George’s surreal concept of a boat floating on the land.  What is a Photograph? is a new exhibition at the New Orleans Museum of Art. Through a series of images and processes spanning more than 150 years, curator Russell Lord shows us why “photography, it seems, is not one medium, but many.”

Amidst this wondrous variety, a small dark image caught my attention.

(pictured, Untitled (portrait of a family in a studio’s prop boat) c. 1885. Hand-colored tintype; click photo to enlarge)

Lord writes,

“In this humorous example, a family poses for their portrait indoors with studio props and a contrived backdrop intended to make them appear to be enjoying a leisurely outing in a boat.”

It turns out that George Rodrigue modeled his painting after a similar family photograph (circa 1910, unfortunately lost).  The figures, probably members of the Courrege family, sat in a pirogue on the bank of the river and posed for a picture.

What’s more, the 1885 NOMA photograph includes subtle hand-coloring, pale reddened cheeks suggesting the healthy effect of the outdoor air. -be sure and click the photo above for a closer look-

This charming application sent me on another tangent, as I recalled George Rodrigue hand-coloring the Blue Dog’s eyes in his earliest silkscreens.  As with photography, his method hinged on technological limitations.

(pictured, Femme Fatale, 1991. Silkscreen with hand-painted eyes, 22x28 inches, edition 20)

In the early 1990s, silkscreen ink and colors dictated, to Rodrigue’s frustration, both quality and variety.  Therefore, he preferred paint, pulling his prints by hand and applying each color individually.  

The expensive materials and time-consuming process, further complicated by the frequent scratches, dings and splattered paint, necessitated improvisation.  Rather than pull the prints again, he used a simple paint pen, adding yellow pigment to the dog’s eyes, thereby reducing both expense and damage.

Traditionally, artists conceive new methods of fulfilling their creative goals and conveying their message.  Whether the symbolism of a land-locked floating boat, the illusion of a contrived studio portrait, or the practical application of hand-applied paint to a printed image, this improvisation spurs us forward. 

Nowhere is that more obvious than the technological advancements within photography, from the daguerreotype to digital, as laid out in What is a Photograph?.  I hope you’ll join me next week at Gambit Weekly for a closer look at this fascinating exhibition.


-pictured above, George Rodrigue painting Ice Cream at SLI, 1971, Lafayette, Louisiana; click photo to enlarge

-don’t miss What is a Photograph? at the New Orleans Museum of Art through August 19th, 2012; for further information visit the museum’s website

-for more art and discussion, please join me on facebook

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Sunday, May 13, 2012

Aunt Wendy and the Cones

It was five years ago that our nephews, age four and six, summoned me from the kitchen where, while cooking dinner, I strained my ears towards their whispers in the den.  What on earth?,  I thought, imagining the content of this intense powwow:
How do we change Aunt Wendy’s mind about Transformers?  How does the tooth fairy know we’re in New Orleans? What did Papa mean about the hoochie mamas?

They invited me to sit between them on our small red sofa.  I thought I would burst.

“Aunt Wendy,” said William.  “Me and Wyatt wanna know why you and Uncle George don’t have kids.”

(pictured, I Love My Mother, 2007, acrylic on canvas by George Rodrigue)

They stared intently as I explained slowly, while thinking frantically, about George’s sons, AndrĂ© and Jacques

“Besides,” I continued, “this way you’re the most important children in our lives.”

“Oh,” said Wyatt.  “I like that better!”

“What did you think?” I asked.

He shrugged.  “We thought Uncle George was too old.”

(pictured, Uncle George with William and Wyatt, the subjects of the post "Painting with Uncle George" and of their mother’s blog, “Adventures of a BMX Mom”)

I grew up in the Deep South, and it never occurred to me that I wouldn’t have children.  “Who’s going to want you now?” asked Granny Wolfe when, at age twenty-five, I split with my boyfriend and became, in her mind, an old maid.  We followed southern traditions and Sunday School lessons and rarely, if ever, questioned either.

During my senior year of high school I met with my best friends on Wednesday afternoons at Baskin Robbins in Fort Walton Beach, Florida.  We dubbed ourselves “The Cones” and wore t-shirts announcing our favorite ice cream flavors, our nicknames for the day.  My shirt was chocolate brown, and I was “Rocky Road.”

(pictured, Winning Cakes, 1975, oil on canvas by George Rodrigue, from the collection of the University Art Museum, Lafayette, Louisiana)

Thinking back, I don’t recall conversations about boys or our parents.  Instead, we discussed our futures.  Lisa, the smartest student at Fort Walton Beach High School, never mentioned kids.  She spoke of Law School and a judgeship.  Today, however, she’s the mother of two and co-minister with her husband of Fernwood Baptist Church in his hometown of Spartanburg, South Carolina.

However, it was Scarlet who stuck in my head this week as I thought about Mother’s Day.  Of the five Cones, she was the most beautiful.  Think classic Liz Taylor, ala Cat on a Hot Tin Roof or, better yet, think Evangeline

(pictured, Evangeline on the Azalea Trail, mid-1970s by George Rodrigue; click photo to enlarge)

Like the others, she was bright, and she was miles ahead of her parents.  However, I don’t recall her vocational dreams.  Instead, she pursued conceptual goals:  independence and happiness.

Scarlet lived with us as another sister in high school.  At night, following my shift at the movie theater’s concession stand and hers as a restaurant hostess, we lay on the beach and (BIG CONFESSION) drank from a gallon jug of Ernest and Julio Gallo red wine while (BIGGER CONFESSION) smoking menthol cigarettes.  I don’t know what we discussed.  I only recall the stars and the friendship.  We sought privacy and placed our blanket between the dunes rather than near the shore, avoiding the lascivious spring breakers trolling the beach.

It was sometime in our early twenties that Scarlet declared her homosexuality.  I was clueless, even after the years we shared the same bed and the same beach blanket.  We were each away at college, Scarlet in Pensacola and me in San Antonio, when she told me over the phone. 

The following week, while driving through Yellowstone National Park on a family vacation, I broke the news.

“Everyone, I have an announcement.  Scarlet is a lesbian.”

I pulled out a postcard and suggested we write words of love and support.

What is she?” asked Grandma Helen.

 “She’s gay, Grandma.  She likes girls,” explained Cousin Kelly.

“That’s nice, Honey,” replied Grandma, writing those same words on the postcard.

 “How does she recognize other lesbians?” asked Kelly.

“I asked her that!” I exclaimed.  “She said it’s easy, because everyone’s wearing the same type of shoes.”

“I’m engaged,” wrote Kelly on the postcard.  “Interesting about the shoes.”

“Whatever makes you happy, Dear," wrote my mother....

....who, like my sister Heather and me, felt a bit neutral, wondering if it was a phase, but knowing it couldn’t be a phase, because, as Heather noted recently,

“Scarlet was never a phase kind of gal.”

Uncle Jack, driving this truck full of women through the wilderness, wisely remained quiet.

(pictured, circa 1985:  Grandma Helen (mother of Mignon and Jack), Heather (mother of William and Wyatt), Mama (mother of Wendy and Heather), Uncle Jack (father of Kelly and Chris), Cousin Kelly (mother of Justin and Molly), Scarlet (Mother of Luzia), Me; click the photo, if you dare, for a closer look at the Dynasty fashion-)

Like Reverend Lisa Wimberly Allen, Ph.D., Scarlet Bowen pursued a higher education, earning her doctorate in English from the University of Texas at Austin.  Today she’s the Director of the Gay Lesbian Bisexual Transgender Queer Resource Center at the University of Colorado Boulder.

She’s also a mother to her young daughter Luzia, raising her with the kindness and wisdom of a parent heralding from the Bible Belt, while embracing the conviction of her authentic path.  Her bravery and background, a liberal and conservative reality, make Dr. Scarlet a remarkable, sensitive, and tolerant mother.... and citizen.  Furthermore, I am confident that she joins me in describing Reverend Lisa in the same terms.   Either way, it's broad-mindedness born and bred in the Deep South.  Go figure.

(pictured, The House Where My Mama Was Born, 2009, oil on canvas by George Rodrigue)

And me? I hardly remember my dreams.  I pursued Philosophy, Math and English and assumed I would teach.  Art History was too obvious, too easy after life with Mignon, and it was several years before I took it seriously. 

At age forty-five, I’m the only Cone without a child.  Do I have regrets?  Yes, more than a few.  Yet today, as I rubbed George Rodrigue’s aching arm when he paused at his easel; as I opened a Mother’s Day card, “To Aunt Wendy,” signed with love from William and Wyatt; and as I wrote this post, thinking about the wise mothers among my family and friends,  I understood completely that,...

..... even with regrets, I wouldn’t change a thing.


-How did George Rodrigue’s mom feel about his paintings?  Find out in “The Artist’s Mother,” this week at Gambit, linked here-

-for more art and discussion, please join me on facebook-

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Thursday, May 3, 2012

Crawfish Dreams and Artist Friends

George Rodrigue loves crawfish primarily as a symbol of Cajun culture.  The shellfish itself is deadly to him, inducing a closed throat and limited breathing.

“Soon after I did my crawfish festival poster, I developed practically overnight an allergy to crawfish.  Even the smell of the boil leaves me wheezing and my wife running for the phone and 911.” – G.R.

(pictured, Cajun Feast, a silkscreen from 2000)

Alas, we miss crawfish boils, lest George lose his life, a trade I weigh every spring with regards to the seafood and tradition I love. 

As a kid, I recall sitting with my cousins on the curb anticipating the Grela Mardi Gras Parade on the West Bank of New Orleans.  We ate boiled crawfish from a large plastic trashcan, sometimes as early as 8:00 a.m., as we awaited the parade.  Today I miss that excitement, but I settle for my annual ride with the Krewe of Muses, a welcome distraction (story here).

(pictured, André and Boudreaux Boiling Crawfish, oil on canvas by George Rodrigue, circa 1980; click photo to enlarge-)

For George, the Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival, celebrated this weekend (May 4-6, 2012), is an important distraction for more than twenty-five years.  For his 1984 poster, he painted friends, including his high school buddy Ed Vice (as the crawfish), Diane Bernard Keogh (as the Queen, but most often his Evangeline), and his long-time friend Ray Hay (in the chair, of Ray Hay’s Cajun Po-Boys, a restaurant in Houston).

-click photo to enlarge-

Although posed in his backyard, George transfers the figures on canvas to a camp on the bayou, carefully aligning them within the tree, cabin and other elements, so that they stand timeless, trapped within a tradition.

Any thoughts on this poster?  I asked George Rodrigue.

“I love the Breaux Bridge sign and especially the zip code,” he said, with his trademark Snagglepuss-type laugh.

Years later, George contributed three works to the Schaeffer Eye Center/Beam’s Crawfish Boil in Birmingham, Alabama, all celebrating the Cajun favorite.

Boiling My Blues Away (1998) shows Birmingham’s signature Vulcan statue in the distance.

Dancing With the Crawfish (1999) looks back to Rodrigue’s earlier festival posters, along with a link to Cajun music.

The print Crawfish Boil is Rodrigue’s farewell gesture to the world of festival posters --- not only his last for this festival, but also the year (2000) of his last poster for the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and his last for Neiman Marcus.  The period marks an end for Rodrigue of any commission-based series, as he turns the following year to Blue Dog Relief following September 11, 2001, Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and finally the George Rodrigue Foundation of the Arts, established in 2009.

We’ve thought a lot about the Crawfish Festival poster lately and the history of Louisiana festival posters in general as we watch artist Tony Bernard fill a long-empty niche.  As he explains in his Jazz Fest history, George Rodrigue feels these festival posters should be a venue for exposure for Louisiana artists.

“He’s the ‘Louisiana Festival Poster King!’” he exclaimed, when I asked George about Tony Bernard and his recent Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival poster.  The comment came not with jealousy or sarcasm, but with pride and admiration, from one artist-friend to another, as George watched Tony develop within his art.

(pictured, the 2012 Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival poster by Tony Bernard; read more about Tony and his posters in my latest story for Gambit Weekly, linked here-)

“Ten years ago Tony decided he wanted to get into portrait art,” explains George Rodrigue.  “So he took some portrait classes from an artist and after five weeks ended up teaching the class.  That’s the sign of an artist with confidence, making a difference.”

(pictured, Tony Bernard with his portrait of George Rodrigue’s sons, Andre and Jacques)

(pictured, Jacques Rodrigue (George’s son; Executive Director of the George Rodrigue Foundation of the Arts), Tony Bernard (Artist, George’s friend of more than twenty years), Bobby Jindal (Louisiana's Governor, and the subject of Bernard’s official governor’s portrait), artist George Rodrigue)

George Rodrigue abandoned festival posters because his art took him in different directions.  Although he enjoyed the challenges for a while, he now looks back with a different attitude, including a powerful respect for the ‘festival poster artist.’

 “After creating dozens of festival posters, I know the problem first-hand.  The artist faces the committee, general public, and his own ideas.  Tony Bernard's art bridges all of these obstacles, and he continues creating artwork in a way that pleases everyone while also pleasing himself.”


-pictured above (click photo to enlarge), a wall in George Rodrigue’s studio, Lafayette, Louisiana, full of his Louisiana festival posters, all honoring small-town celebrations; for more info, visit here-

-also related, my latest story for Gambit Weekly, “Tony Bernard:  Louisiana’s Festival Poster King, ” linked here-

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