Saturday, July 28, 2012

Louisiana Legends

Between 1990 and 1993 artist George Rodrigue painted sixteen portraits on three canvases of Living Legends for Louisiana Public Broadcasting.  The 1990 honorees and Rodrigue’s tribute painting launched an LPB tradition continuing today.

All proceeds from posters of the three paintings benefited LPB’s television programming.

“At the gala,” recalls Rodrigue, "each nominee gave a short acceptance speech.  Jimmie Davis, age 91, approached the podium slowly and read his prepared words, as we all clapped for our former Governor.”

(pictured:  Louisiana Legends 1990, 40x30 inches, oil on canvas by George Rodrigue; back row, Ron Guidry, Ernest J. Gaines, Gene Callahan; front row, Jimmie Davis, Russell Long, Justin Wilson; click photo to enlarge-)

In 1991 LPB honored Rodrigue as well, resulting in a self-portrait.  The artist was as famous by this time for his Blue Dog paintings as for his images of Cajun folk life.

(pictured:  Louisiana Legends 199140x30 inches, oil on canvas by George Rodrigue; left to right, George Rodrigue, Dr. Michael DeBakey, Al Hirt*, General Robert H. Barrow, Bob Petit; click photo to enlarge-)

And in 1993 Rodrigue’s final LPB painting echoes his first two with his classic oak tree and timeless figures.

(pictured:  Louisiana Legends 199340x30 inches, oil on canvas by George Rodrigue; left to right, Judge John Minor Wisdom, James Carville, Rex Reed, Elizabeth Ashley, Pete Fountain*; click photo to enlarge-)

Although honored to paint and participate in the Louisiana Legends, it was the first gala in 1990 that remains poignant for Rodrigue.  At the presentation’s end, Master of Ceremonies Gus Weill shared with the crowd,

“We have a real treat for you tonight.”

He opened the curtain, revealing Jimmie Davis (1899-2000) and his band.

“This elderly man who barely made it to the podium earlier,” recalls Rodrigue, “transformed before us, along with his old cronies, into a twenty year old kid.”

Davis began his speech again, as though his first time on stage:

“I recorded this song fifty years ago.  Since then it’s been recorded hundreds of times in hundreds of languages, and we’re pleased to play it for ya’ll tonight.  If you know the words, chime in.”

There wasn’t a shy voice or dry eye in the room, as the two-term Louisiana Governor performed “You Are My Sunshine.”

According to Rodrigue... 

“...the minute the music started, Jimmie Davis danced a jig, and the crowd stood on its feet. It was one of the most memorable things I’ve ever seen.  He played two encores.”

“That day,” continues the artist, “I saw an old man become young again; that day I watched Louisiana history play out before me; and that day I truly saw what it means to be a living legend.”


*Rodrigue painted Louisiana Legends Pete Fountain and Al Hirt again in 1996 and 2000 for the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.  Story linked here-

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Saturday, July 21, 2012

Lucky Dog

Yesterday morning I sat in the window of a Houston, Texas café, George Rodrigue’s sandwich order in hand, awaiting the counter change from breakfast to lunch.  An Ignatius J. Reilly nearby spoke of high water and broken computers into what I first thought was a hand’s free phone but turned out to be air. 

“Damn this spilled coffee!” he shouted, looking at me.  I shrugged, seeing nothing. He repeated his creed until I nodded in agreement, handing him a napkin which he tossed aside, grinding his teeth and abandoning his tray.

“Hot dogs, hot dogs,” called the Ignatius in my head.  “Savories from the hygienic Paradise kitchens.”*

(pictured, Hot Dog Halo, 1995, 30x24 inches, oil and acrylic on canvas by George Rodrigue; click photo to enlarge)

As if on cue, Yusuf Islam, a.k.a. Cat Stevens, began "Don’t Be Shy" over the speakers of the now empty restaurant, sending me again into a helpless emotional state.

Adding to this surreal scene is our current situation, too private to share in detail, but real, the source of speculation and concern, the surprising “job training,” as my friend Barbara calls it, and the catalyst of a bigger life’s picture:  family, legacy, and love.

(pictured:  George Rodrigue and Thelma Toole, 1981, with his painting based on her son’s novel, A Confederacy of Dunces. Rodrigue painted this portrait for the University of Louisiana at Lafayette’s Flora Levy Lecture Series.  See the painting and read its history here; click the photo to enlarge-)

“Let me tell you how you are…”

…started George Rodrigue as I shared my café-encounter.  I laughed and grabbed my notebook at this unexpected sign of normalcy.

“What!?” he questioned, a bit too loud.

I can tell he’s feeling better, because he’s telling me how I am, I wrote, before tuning out, at feigned attention, for the familiar analysis, my husband’s hands chopping the air as he dissects, for my benefit, my personality.

(pictured, Lunar Buns, 1995, 32x21 inches, original silkscreen edition of 90 by George Rodrigue; click photo to enlarge-)

George, begged my sentimental mood, tell me what you love. Shout it out. 

“What do I love?” he said quietly, and for him, almost shyly.

Yes! What do you love?  Don’t get philosophical on me.  Just say it fast, all in a row.

"I love Blue Dogs!  I love LSU football!  I love modern medicine!  And more than anything in the whole world, I love to paint!"

And in one word, George, how do you feel right now?

“...Lucky," he said, without hesitating.  "Make that damn lucky!"

Have you ever painted a Lucky Dog vendor?, I continued, knowing his love of hot dogs.

“No, you giving me that idea?”

It’s yours.

“I’ll make him a Blue Dog vendor and have him sell paintings from his cart,” he laughed, pulling out his sketchbook.

(pictured, George Rodrigue paints in his driveway, Lafayette, Louisiana, 1995; click photo to enlarge-)

George and I meet regularly this summer with a man whose military reserve unit returned recently from the deserts of Afghanistan, by way of the jungles of Haiti and the Dominican Republic.  He serves, protects, and saves lives from one country to the next, including his skillful operation of the rare machine that brought us together in Houston, coincidentally nicknamed “Hi-Art.”

“I’ve never met anyone like George...” 

...he said last week, explaining the joy and interest of their daily visits, especially George’s stories* and philanthropy, both as appealing as his artwork.

I listened, touched, to this American hero and made notes for this post, another chapter in the story of one lucky dog.

“And in one word, how do you feel?” asked George, after reading my draft.

That’s easy, I said, although still a bit peevish...



*A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole; Louisiana State University Press, 1980, page 243-

*George Rodrigue’s stories are the meat of Musings of an Artist’s Wife, now easier to navigate with a new index down the right side of this page-

-pictured above, George Rodrigue this week with his new Blue Dog 2013 Art Calendar, his first wall calendar in seventeen years, featuring all new paintings and available now at this link; published by Rizzoli, New York-

-for more art and discussion, please join me at Gambit Weekly or on facebook-

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Saturday, July 14, 2012


This week I read Just Kids, poet/rocker Patti Smith’s personal account of life with her closest friend, artist/photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.  I had planned an essay on Louisiana’s Legends, a series of portraits completed by George Rodrigue for Public Broadcasting between 1990 and 1993, but after finishing Smith’s memoir late Thursday night, I suffered Friday a crying-headache, unable to focus on anything other than hydration (mine and George’s, coincidentally) and Smith’s poem, “Wild Leaves.”

The Legends, along with Tee Coon, the Breaux Bridge Band, the Texan Blue Dog, and any number of other unfinished posts, fall victim to my lingering, as though bruised, emotional state.

If you’re a woman, you know this headache well.

If you’re a man with this firsthand knowledge, then you’re an anomaly, at least in my world, as I’ve never met anyone like you.

“Wild Leaves”

Every word that’s spoken
Every word decreed
Every spell that’s broken
Every golden deed
All the parts we’re playing
Binding as the reed
And wild leaves are falling
Wild wild leaves*

Interesting enough, it was George Rodrigue who said,

“Why do you want to write about the Legends paintings?  That’s boring!”

Yet I knew his comment related to fretful recollections of deadlines and tedious work, as opposed to the subjects themselves, successful, larger-than-life talents like Ernest Gaines, Ron Guidry and Pete Fountain.  Thus, the story remains important, delayed until the day I awake focused once again on Louisiana’s best, yet vested enough personally to make it interesting.

I explained this short essay, an effort to get the 1970s New York art scene out of my head, returning me to Blue Dogs in 2012, to George Rodrigue.

“Nobody knows who she is, Wendy!” 

...insisted my husband, a fifty-year member of the Johnny Cash Fan Club.  

“Make sure you link to Patti Smith's website,” he said...

...shaking his head as I gave him the look.

“He was worried that I wouldn’t be successful if my work was too provocative,” wrote Smith about Mapplethorpe, in her version of our conversation.  “He always wanted me to write a song I could dance to.”

Any artist’s success lies in a mixture of self-confidence and vulnerability. Whether or not this translates to commercial success is in the stars.  However, altering one’s creative vision based on outside commentary spells the worst kind of failure: personal defeat.  Of this I’m sure.

I circled a passage, as Smith recalls seeing Bob Dylan* at her concert:

“Instead of humbled, I felt a power, perhaps his; but I also felt my own worth and the worth of my band.  It seemed for me a night of initiation, where I had to become fully myself in the presence of the one I had modeled myself after.”

Throughout this book, Smith inspires me, not only through the courage of her personal expression in art and music, but also through the simplicity and sincerity of her words.  I believe it was this, as much as the circumstances of Mapplethorpe’s death in 1989, that brought on my sobbing and, afterwards, crying-headache, resonating still.

I asked George Rodrigue for a few words on success.  He thought for only a moment:

“Never believe what others write about you – no matter how great or how bad.”


*Just Kids, 2010 by Patti Smith; published by Harper Collins, New York

-pictured above (click photo to enlarge), Blue Wendy by George Rodrigue; related post here-

-for more art and discussion, please join me at Gambit Weekly or on facebook-

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Sunday, July 8, 2012

Starry Starry Eyes: A Runaway Hit

In 1991 George Rodrigue’s printed artwork bolted forward with new color and precision as he applied the latest in ink and technology to his silkscreens.  This was a substantial advancement over his earlier Cajun posters and Blue Dog silkscreens.  For the first time he created complex original print designs using intense hues.

Prior to the silkscreen Starry, Starry Eyes (1991, edition 175), Rodrigue’s Cajun posters were four-color, offset lithographs.  His Blue Dog silkscreens were two or three colors, dull in shade and thick in texture, as he experimented with silkscreen ink.  He guessed at colors and struggled with splattered paint, scratches and dings, sometimes pulling as many as thirty trial prints to obtain a final artwork without damage and in perfect registration.

With Starry, Starry Eyes, Rodrigue swaps paint for ink and hand for machine.  He experiments for the first time with the computer, increasing the complexity of his designs and, because his silkscreen prints transfer from his mind to his paper without an intermittent painting, allowing him to see the final image and make changes before his printer produces the work.

Starry, Starry Eyes became Rodrigue’s bestselling print to date, despite its $350 price, a staggering amount at the time.  A victim of backyard familiarity, the New Orleans gallery sold only a handful of prints to locals – a pattern that began years earlier with his Cajun paintings, as a surprising two percent of his collectors even now are Louisiana residents.  We shipped worldwide, and the gallery phones rang non-stop for weeks, long after the prints sold out.

This was remarkable in those pre-email days, because, other than New Orleans and Carmel gallery foot traffic, we relied on photographs and the U.S. Post Office.  We produced our first high quality mailer, a tri-fold piece with die-cuts, overlaying the eye-filled sky on the dog.  Today these mailers are a casualty of the computer age, as we dismiss the delay and expense in favor of digital photography, websites and facebook.

It is the Blue Dog’s eyes, according to many enthusiasts, that draw them in and create the mystery.  Early on Rodrigue changed the loup-garou’s red eyes to yellow, shifting the dog’s meaning away from the Cajun werewolf legend.  In time the oval dog-like eyes become unnatural round saucers, uniform in their structure and hue, shifting the artwork’s meaning again, this time away from real dog associations.

“Without variation in shape,” explains Rodrigue, “one would think these round saucer eyes would cause a static expression.  But this is not the case.  The other elements in the dog’s face become very important.  In changing those elements, even slightly, in relationship to each other, the dog’s expression varies.   
"In fact, the paintings show a wide variety of interpretations, which is unexpected when one considers the basic premise.  And it’s certainly unexpected if a person has seen only one image.”

It was a gift from artist Mallory Page that started this week’s discussion of eyes, reminding me of Rodrigue's Van Gogh salute. The book, The Look of Love (Graham C. Boettcher, 2012), features late 18th and early 19th century eye miniatures from the Skier Collection, the subject of a recent exhibition at the Birmingham Museum of Art.

(pictured, gold oval pendant surrounded by seed pearls, ca. 1830; height just under two inches; catalogue #68, Boettcher p. 159)

Swept up, I pulled a book of poetry from our shelf and turned to Percy Bysshe Shelley’s famous lines (1772-1822):

How eloquent are eyes!
Not the rapt poet's frenzied lay
When the soul's wildest feelings stray
Can speak so well as they.

“It’s pure romance,” says Page, known for her own emotive paintings, as she reveals her heart not through a painted gaze but through abstraction and color. 

(pictured, Still So Blue, 2012, 36x60, oil on canvas by Mallory Page; click photo to enlarge-)

I asked George Rodrigue about the importance of eyes in expressing emotion; yet he dwells on character, referencing the timeless stares within his Aioli Dinner, the crazed gaze of Earl Long, and the unwavering strength of General Eisenhower.

Even as I write this post, however, he creates within his computer an eye portrait, sending me his own look of love, a cyber age keepsake.

(pictured, George Rodrigue, 2012; click photo to enlarge-)

In twenty years an artist’s world shifts from paint to ink, from hand-pulled to machine, from guesswork to computer, from elaborate brochures to digital photographs, from snail mail to email, and from a traditional secondary market to….

….reality TV.

This week George’s son Jacques Rodrigue appears as a guest on Cajun Pawn Stars when a customer enters with, you guessed it, Starry Starry Eyes.

“It was great visiting with Jimmy, a true Louisiana character," says Jacques about his experience.  "He’s always liked my dad’s artwork.

“Through his pawn business he collects many pieces representing our culture and history.  I was happy to lend a hand to his Cajun Pawn Stars show, sharing the uniqueness of Louisiana with a national audience.”  

Tune in this Wednesday, July 11th 2012, for Cajun Pawn Stars and the continuing story of the classic Rodrigue silkscreen, Starry, Starry Eyes.


-see the books George Rodrigue Prints (2008) and The Art of George Rodrigue (revised, 2012) both by Harry N. Abrams, NYC; the Blue Dog 2013 Wall Calendar (Rizzoli, NYC) features new original paintings by George Rodrigue, available here-

-for more art and discussion, please join me at Gambit Weekly or on facebook-

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Wednesday, July 4, 2012

A Star-spangled Blue Dog (from Houston)

Happy 4th of July!

It’s an odd one, this middle of the week celebration, but perhaps that awkward timing renews enthusiasm, as folks have big plans, including barbeques and neighborhood parties despite the hottest summer on record.  We spied decorations in unexpected places, and for the first time ever received gifts and cards as we honor two hundred and thirty-six years of America's Independence.

(pictured, My Security Blanket, 1996, an original silkscreen by George Rodrigue)

I planned for today a post paying tribute to the city and people of Houston.  We’re here seven weeks now, about halfway through our Texas summer, and despite the circumstances, George Rodrigue and I have renewed our fondness for the Lone Star State, a true American neighbor to Louisiana in times of need, harboring our citizens following hurricanes, supporting our economy with weekend Big Easy vacations, and, on a personal level, treating us to a healing, hospitable, and unexpectedly entertaining Summer of 2012.

In anticipation of that post, George photographed the spectacular Houston skyline, dominated by skyscrapers, seemingly more than “mere corporate shells.”  They are “monuments to the arrogant yet philanthropic spirit of America,” writes Patti Smith in Just Kids (an artsy Independence Day gift from my equally artsy cousin Jill Wolfe), viewing New York City as beautiful, “a real city, shifty and sexual,” even as the young Smith sleeps in parks and scrounges for food.

(pictured, Big Apple Blues, 1995, an original silkscreen by George Rodrigue)

George also photographed, although not yet in the right light, the 1950s Sears building, almost seductive in its ugliness, “the old world and the emerging one served up in the brick and mortar of the artisan and the architects.” (Smith)

But that post will wait, because it needs George’s photographs, and he’s still scouting daily, knowing he has the rest of the summer, waiting for the right shadows, the right atmosphere, manipulating for hours within photoshop, yet still not perfectly pleased.

Our plans today are far from a barbeque.  Yet we’re happy, as our loved ones visit virtually through their messages and well-wishes.  We’ll eat homemade chocolate cake lovingly baked and gifted by our Santa Rosa Beach friends Lacy and Andy, topping it with homemade preserves from my cousin Judy Wolfe, a gifted nutritionist out to save our American bodies from our American chain restaurants with her clever website Jeatwell.

Thanks to my college roommate Debbie we’ll enjoy at last the contagious and utterly un-American Downton Abbey Season 2, followed by, courtesy of Rhonda Egan of the Rodrigue Gallery, the classic and purely American Tracy & Hepburn, the Definitive Collection.

During this quiet morning, as I write this, George Rodrigue sleeps behind me after working late on plans for painting a barn (I kid you not! …details when he lets me share-), and I watch the Houston downtown silence, unlike yesterday’s rush hour chaos, from our ninth floor window, the same window granting us an excellent view of tonight’s fireworks.

(pictured, my sister Heather joins her son Wyatt in Birmingham, England last month as they cheer on Wyatt's brother, William Parker, who placed 4th representing Team USA in the 2012 BMX World Championships!  Read the exciting story here-)

Finally, I leave you with an American memory:

Thanks to a clever Saturday morning program called Schoolhouse Rock, each 6th grader at New Heights Elementary School in Fort Walton Beach, Florida stood at the front of the room and passed his or her history test with melodic ease, reciting the Preamble to the United States Constitution.  Thirty-five years later, like my former classmates, I know it by heart.  Won’t you join me in this reminder of our “blessings of liberty?”

Happy Independence Day to you and yours!  And Happy Birthday to my dad, born on the 4th of July!


-also this week, patriotism dominates the Cajun heritage and paintings of artist George Rodrigue in my latest story for Gambit Weekly:  “The American Cajun”-

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