Wednesday, October 31, 2012

I'm a Writer!

“All I see is that you’re writing with a pen.  Yay!!!”

Author Patty Friedmann cheered the hand-written word after seeing the photo below.  It was December 2010, and I scribbled on the pages of a purse-size artsy notebook, purchased annually in multiples from the Morgan Library museum shop. 

George Rodrigue photographed me as I sat on the steps of a former military base, one of eight bunkers now housing Dan Flavin neon installations at the Chinati Foundation in the remote town of Marfa, Texas. 

The resulting essays became two of my most popular: “New York Art in West Texas” for Musings of an Artist's Wife and a related story for Gambit Weekly, “Rejecting the Metaphor:  Discovering Modern Art in West Texas.” (click the titles for the stories-)

Gambit spotlighted their essay for a week with a photo on the New Orleans newspaper’s opening page, and numerous art sites shared the funny Musings account of George Rodrigue’s Marfa comments long before he talked me into risking a public facebook page of my own.

Thousands of readers, whether or not they accepted concrete boxes and crushed cars as art, related to these stories for their honest and non art-speak account of a minimalist installation designed, let’s face it, for the art elite. 

Yet in my mind I still was not a writer.  The posts are a compilation of George’s photographs and comments and, as he himself stated,

“What people don’t realize, Wendy, is that all of that funny stuff you write is really me!”


(pictured, Don’t Come Around Here While I’m Hot, 2012, acrylic on canvas by George Rodrigue, 20x24 inches; finished this week in New Orleans-)

Recently while waiting in line at a pharmacy window, a woman asked me in one breath, as New Orleanians will do, my opinion on this newly renovated Elysian Fields Walgreens and if I thought she overdid it that morning on her royal blue eye shadow, a gift from her daughter.

Predictably, we moved quickly on to the Saints and the price of shrimp-per-pound followed by the question that, although somehow inoffensive in her thick yat accent, I hoped to avoid,

“Dahlin', what do you do for a livin'?”

She leaned hard against the railing, obviously in pain from her recent knee replacement surgery, and I knew that my standard reply, I have an art gallery with my husband, moves quickly to “What kind of art?,” followed by “What does he paint?,” followed by “What’s the story of the Blue Dog?,” all more than I felt like answering on this Sunday morning and certainly more than she needed in her uncomfortable condition.

I’m a writer, I stated verbally for the first time in my life.

“You write books?!,” she exclaimed, obviously impressed.  “Which ones?”

I back-pedaled, explaining that I work on art books, and that unless she was into modern art, she probably wouldn’t have seen them.

“Which artists?” she asked….

….and before I knew it I was exactly where I didn’t want to be….explaining the history of the Blue Dog to a growing crowd at Walgreens while the artist himself waited in the car outside, where he called our brunch guests, explaining that we’d be late and wondering what on earth detained me.

(pictured, Rodrigue books at the Louisiana Book Festival last weekend; click photo to enlarge-)

George Rodrigue, however, introduces me often with the words,

“This is my wife Wendy.  She’s a writer.”

My heroes are writers, just as my heroes are artists, and I stammer in reply to what I see as an undeserving title.

I’ve contributed to, compiled and/or edited eight Rodrigue books since 1994.  Yet it’s not the same as writing my own.

(pictured....posing star struck during last weekend’s Louisiana Book Festival with a real writer, Shirley Ann Grau, who won the Pulitzer Prize for her novel Keepers of the House in 1965; behind us, upper right, is George Rodrigue’s portrait of Grau, part of an installation, “Walker Percy, Sylvester Stallone and the Blue Dog,” on view through November 30, 2012 at the State Library of Louisiana-)

It was author David Lummis who first labeled me a writer and gave me the courage to use the word within bios and on-line.

Now, thanks to a persistent and courageous UL Press, I’ll release my first solo book, a collection of essays from Musings of an Artist’s Wife, in bookstores nationwide, Fall 2013. 

Will you join me on the book tour? I asked George, laughing, as I imagined him swapping out old sharpies and spelling dedications in my ear.

“Yes!” he replied, to my surprise.  “It’ll be fun!”

With that, we hope to see you on the road (and at our favorite festival) next fall-


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Thursday, October 25, 2012

Paintin' Shrimp Boats and Pickin’ Crabs

“Shrimp boats is a-comin’; there’s dancin’ tonight!”*

After many months indoors, George Rodrigue and I ease cautiously yet eagerly this fall into adventure.  Here in south Louisiana, diversion awaits in exploring small towns, riding an airboat, or simply walking on the nearest levee.  

Our last adventure, some six months ago, took us past Lafayette to the city of Abbeville, Louisiana, where we followed nostalgia, visiting family in New Iberia and photographing shrimp boats at Delcambre.

George longed to revisit the boats he painted as a young man, his first paintings upon his return from art school, now misplaced and mostly forgotten, superseded by the Rodrigue oaks that followed close behind.

(pictured, the only record of Rodrigue’s early paintings of shrimp boats, Delcambre, Louisiana, watercolor on paper, 1967-8; click photos to enlarge-)

“Anytime my mama cooked shrimp, we didn’t just visit the grocery store,” explains George.  “Instead we rode thirty minutes from New Iberia to the boats at Delcambre.  At the time, there were three or four processing plants right on the docks, including the Dooleys, friends of our family. My mother refused to buy frozen shrimp.  It had to be fresh, straight off of the boat.

“When I returned from California and art school in 1967 and decided to paint Louisiana, my first idea was to paint the shrimp boats.  I photographed the docked boats at Delcambre.  There were hundreds of them.”

(pictured above and below, photographs by George Rodrigue, circa 1967; today only a handful of shrimp boats remain in Delcambre where once there were hundreds; click photos to enlarge)

“I set up a dark room in a small closet at my mother’s house in New Iberia, where I developed the black-and-white film myself, making 8x10 photos of the boats.  I used the pictures to paint watercolors of the shrimping industry.”

Last weekend we again traced old ground, but this time towards the crabbing industry and Pierre Part, Louisiana, now famous as the home of Troy Landry and Swamp People.  More than twenty years since his last visit, George was curious about any changes brought on by the History Channel’s popular show. 

(pictured, George Rodrigue stands on the corner of 55th Street at Avenue of the Americas in New York City, March 2012)

Instead we found a tiny town, unchanged except, exclaimed George, “Where are the restaurants?!” as we circled the lake and drove the main drag five times dreaming of fresh seafood.  At last we spotted Landry’s, its only visible sign…well...invisible.

While pickin’ crabs, George and I exchanged childhood stories.  I recalled Granny’s step-ins suspended from the clothesline by crab claws during New Orleans family reunions; Dad swimming into Choctawhatchee Bay (Fort Walton Beach, FL) on a scavenger hunt for his crab trap, tied thirty feet from the dock and loaded with raw chicken and our soon-to-be dinner; and Great Aunt Lois from her trailer on the Tchoutacabouffa River (Biloxi, MS) jumping in fear as I whispered behind her, “Help me, help me” (ala The Fly), channeling the squirming crabs as she dropped them into the boiling water.

“Those crabs are confounding!” exclaimed my Memphis friend Jan after seeing our photos.  “I never understood how to eat those things.”

Surprised by her comments, I thought about the differences between areas of the South, so often lumped together as one stereotype by the national press. I grew up in the Florida Panhandle, and we consider ourselves the Deep South, akin to Alabama and Georgia, as though Disney World and Key West belong to a different state.

History favors Virginia as the true South, but any Gulf state local shakes their head with skepticism.  I didn’t think of New Orleans as the South until I moved here.  The accent may be more Brooklyn than drawl, but one ride past the plantations along River Road corrects the illusion.  And southwest Louisiana is a different place altogether:

“I only ate crabs once as a kid,” explained George.  “I went with my aunts to Pecan Island, where we walked in the water, feeling the crabs with our feet.”

Barefoot?! I exclaimed.

“I wore my tennis shoes.  But my old aunts, they were tough, and they walked barefoot, collecting the crabs for that night’s feast.”

(pictured, pickin’ crabs in New Iberia, Louisiana, circa 1958.  George’s mother Marie Courrege Rodrigue; George’s father George Rodrigue, Sr.; George’s aunt Magitte Courrege; note, Tant Git, born 1880, was a traiteur or Cajun healer; read more here-)

At our house today we forego crawfish, not because we don’t love them, but because George is highly allergic (although he does enjoy painting them).  Yet one of my best childhood memories is awaiting the Grela Parade on Mardi Gras Day in Gretna, eating crawfish from a plastic trashcan on the curb by 9:00 a.m.

The old “Help me” scene with Great Aunt Lois still haunts me, so you won’t find crabs scratching the underside of my gumbo pot's lid.  Boiled shrimp, however, is a staple at our house, as it was during my childhood when my mother, sister and I visited the boats at the Destin Wharf.  

Today George and I buy from area shrimp boats when possible or, in a pinch, from Rouses, a wondrous dream of home-grown Louisiana seafood, sausage, seasonings and, because we Southerners simply can’t help ourselves, nostalgia.


*"Shrimp Boats" by Jo Stafford, 1951

-for related posts see "Remembering Old Biloxi" and “Dancing the Shrimp” both stories for Gambit Weekly-

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Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Sunshine and Love: New Paintings

After six months away from his easel, George Rodrigue returns this fall to his instincts, painting throughout the quiet nights in solitude.  The canvases, dominated by a Blue Dog and oftentimes a typical Rodrigue oak, are familiar, yet something is different in the feeling behind the images.  To the point, something is different in his affect.

(pictured, George Rodrigue, October 2012; click photos throughout to enlarge-)

“People asked me all summer,” explains George, “‘What will you paint once you’re back at your easel?’  I said I didn’t know, but that it probably would relate to my illness. Looking at these first canvases, that’s exactly what happened.  I’m painting hope, love, happiness, sunshine, everything that I faced losing.”

Pretty heavy, I thought as he spoke from his easel this morning.  But then everything is heavy these days, even as the world grows lighter and George’s paintings fill with sunshine.  (Before beginning this post, I half-jokingly started one called “Poor Pitiful Me,” a saying my mother attached to my self-imposed drama years ago.)

(pictured, Sunshine Over My Future, 18x24 inches, the first painting completed by George Rodrigue after returning to his easel this fall; click photo to enlarge-)

We’re struggling to grasp this new life, particularly with regards to society and the public.  George’s outlet is painting and mine is blogging, but otherwise, with the exception of commitments related to the George Rodrigue Foundation of the Arts, we live a bit like hermits these days, as we contemplate the meaning of this second chance.

Looking back at our calendar, usually booked months in advance, we noted that in more than one year, we had not spent a dinner out just the two of us.   Accordingly, for the past four weeks we’ve enjoyed once each weekend ‘date night,’ an evening set in stone.  Our lives, or rather living, depends, we’ve realized at last, on appreciating each other in action as much as thought.  And we marvel at our ability to turn down with ease what we formerly saw as social obligations.

(pictured, The Path Out of an Unknown Danger, 2012, acrylic on canvas by George Rodrigue, 20x16 inches)

Let’s face it, even when we have it bad, George and I have it pretty good.  I wrote this summer about George Rodrigue as one “Lucky Dog,” and I thought a lot about the nature of my own psyche--- how I worried constantly about George’s suffering, struggling even now to relax my panic, while he worried only for my future.

(pictured, Love is All Around Me, 2012, acrylic on canvas by George Rodrigue, 30x40 inches; click photo to enlarge-)

I recall a mindfulness exercise several years ago when my sister Heather lead me blindfolded into the Arizona desert as part of a relationships class.  Not permitted to speak, she guided me silently around cacti and over rocks for close to an hour.  At the end, the guide asked us both about our feelings.

“I’m glad it’s over!” said my sister.  “I was afraid the entire time that Wendy would fall.”

I was fine, I shrugged.  My sister would never let anything happen to me.

On the return, Heather wore the blindfold, and I guided her across the uneven sandy terrain, so different from our hometown beaches.

“I’m glad it’s over!” she sighed as we finished.  “I was afraid the entire time that Wendy would fall.”

But I could see! I exclaimed. 

“I know,” she said.  “But I still worried about you.”


-pictured above, Sunshine is Mine, 2012, acrylic on linen by George Rodrigue, 16x20 inches-

-for a related post, see "Blue Dog Oak (Old Friends)," linked here

-meet George Rodrigue during his only public appearance this fall, an exhibition of portraits and a series of events surrounding the Louisiana Book Festival, October 27, 2012; story and details here-

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Friday, October 12, 2012

Going Home Again....for Art

In 1952 in New Iberia, Louisiana, George Rodrigue (b. 1944) remained sick in bed for six months.

I explained this week to a group of young students on the Florida Panhandle that he suffered from polio, a contagious disease affecting his ability to walk.  He couldn’t attend school or play outside. Imagine poor little George without a television (audience gasp)….or a computer….(bigger audience gasp)…..

“…or video games!” called a child from the back…
“…or electricity!” offered a wide-eyed girl on the front row.

I shared with the kids the famous story, how George’s mother brought him paint-by-number, which he turned over, using the colors and brushes to paint not the diagrammed Last Supper, but rather alligators and cowboys.  He formed tiny animals from modeling clay, arranging them on his nightstand for company.  And he decided right then, at age eight and having never seen an original painting by anyone other than himself, that he would be an artist.

(pictured, Bozo the Clown, oil on board by George Rodrigue, 1957)

“When I was in grammar school and high school,” recalls George, “we had no art instruction at all.  At that time I didn’t realize that my drawing in class was a direct result of that absence.  That’s why I always sat in the back row.  I could draw what and when I wanted and was less likely to get caught by Coach Blanco, who threw me out of class many times for drawing.”

(pictured, sharing Rodrigue’s Four for Mardi Gras this week with students at Edwins Elementary School, Destin, Florida; click photo to enlarge-)

In addition to four school visits, this week’s outreach program, a partnership between the Mattie Kelly Arts Foundation (MKAF) and the George Rodrigue Foundation of the Arts (GRFA), included an adult presentation at the annual MKAF Arts Guild Luncheon.

Encouraged to share personal stories, I admitted the intimacy and honor that accompany modeling for George. I shared during the lecture only the tamest images from Bodies while introducing my father, one of the few men in attendance, to the hometown crowd.  It’s an education week, after all, and I’m sure I learned more from the creative kids during school visits than the adults learned from me during my exposé.

-be sure and click these to enlarge-

My sister Heather Parker and friend Marney Robinson helped coordinate the week’s events with Marcia Hull of the Mattie Kelly Arts Foundation:

“It was so fun seeing childhood friends and their kids on school visits!” says Heather, who designs and manages our gallery website.  “I loved sharing our beautiful beaches with our ‘melanin-challenged’ friend Marney!  Last night I dreamt of white sand, green water, happy children and a raspberry filled donut.”

Marney Robinson (pictured below) is originally from Hobbs, New Mexico, and this was her first visit to the beach.  She dresses with unpredictable panache.  “This is Bridgette, the sexy librarian,” she clarified, describing her luncheon attire, complete with the antique bee pin on her shoulder.  She also enjoys a long-standing love of the arts, children, and donuts, sending us twice in three days to the famous Donut Hole, Destin. 

"I couldn't imagine a better first visit to the beautiful Emerald Coast!" says Marney.  "I was able to spend time with friends, meet new ones and once again see the excitement of students and adults for learning about George Rodrigue.  I loved that all of the children growing up on those amazing beaches could relate so well to a Cajun boy from the swamp. 
"I will never forget my first dip in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico (while fully dressed; thanks Heather!) or those first steps in the white sand with two wonderful ladies.  The donuts were pretty great too!"

Miss Marney, as the kids call her, is Director of Education for the George Rodrigue Foundation of the Arts.  She organizes school visits, summer art camps, lesson plans, museum exhibitions and more.  George and I visited Marney and her family in the small desert town of Hobbs a few years ago after exploring Marfa, Texas, resulting in an artsy adventure with photos, linked here.

But it was the strangers (and I use that word very lightly), those folks from my public facebook page, an unguarded leap I took just one year ago, who surprised me the most.  Several drove in from Pensacola, New Orleans, and other Gulf South cities for the Arts Guild Lecture.   In most cases we met for the first time in person after sharing on-line for months, brought together, oddly enough, in my hometown.

(pictured:  George Rodrigue created the silkscreen Okaloosa Island in 2011 as a tribute to my hometown of Fort Walton Beach, Florida; details here-)

Although facebook, especially a public page, makes a person vulnerable, it can’t be worse than explaining giant nudes of oneself.  Like modeling for an artist, the rewards of facebook, blogging, and lectures are worth it, because in taking risks, we might find (or give!) something wonderful and/or exactly what we need, no matter how elusive and unexpected.

I share openly that in many ways it was these very folks, these facebook strangers, who preserved my sanity during a difficult summer.  We exchanged thoughts on George’s art and my blogs, a bit of normalcy for a few moments each day while I escaped the panic and responsibility accompanying his illness.  To my readers and facebook friends, especially those of you who attended this week and those of you I’ve yet to meet, thank you.

(pictured:  Even though we’d never met, I spied Darbi Fraser at Destin Elementary School right away, because she has her father’s eyes, my fellow 1985 graduate from Fort Walton Beach High School)

Finally, since we’re going home in this post, I leave you, for Marney, who grew up fifteen years behind me, an ‘80s classic, a sing-a-long on my high school runs between Fort Walton Beach and my second home of New Orleans, a song George Rodrigue heard, to my astonishment, for the first time this week and, to my even greater astonishment (as I learned on our drive home from our Florida Education Week), a staple in Marney Robinson’s car today-


-Meet George Rodrigue during his only public appearance this fall, an exhibition and series of events surrounding the Louisiana Book Festival, October 27, 2012; story and details here-

-And a big thank you to the Metropolitan Opera, which left me swooning this week with a comment on my story "Moonstruck, Madame Butterfly and the Mudlark"-

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Sunday, October 7, 2012

The Patchwork Gift

In 1978 George Rodrigue tackled a 5x7 foot canvas, piecing together a group of women at a church quilting party, a common Acadian gathering during the 1940s and 1950s.  The ambitious project includes twenty figures, including a portrait of the painting’s new owner with her child, all gathered beneath Rodrigue’s typical Louisiana oaks.

-click photo to enlarge-

As with his other Cajun paintings, such as the Aioli Dinner and Mamou Riding Academy, the concept originates with a photograph or series of photographs (now lost), adjusted to suit his needs.  In the original image the figures sit indoors, perhaps within a fellowship hall or other meeting space, working on the quilts sold to benefit their church.

Rodrigue moves the women outside, contriving a setting so that the scene gains generalities of place and time, becoming anyone’s quilting party rather than a specific one.

The figures’ heads never the touch the sky, framed instead within oaks, bushes and quilts.  The children sit locked within the outline of adult women.  The landscape nurtures the traditions; the oaks stabilize the people; and the mothers protect the future.

Reinforcing this concept is Rodrigue’s choice of clothing, dressing most of the women in traditional frocks, while the back row stands in modern-day attire.  The painting rejects time, the figures floating and glowing like ghosts.  Without feet they melt into the landscape and each other as a unit, locked within both an artist’s design and a Cajun tradition.

“I first got the idea for a quilting painting,” explains Rodrigue, “when I saw quilts on the road between Alexandria and Monroe, Louisiana, as I visited clients in the 1970s.  On the small two-lane highway on the east side of the Red River, local quilters hung their quilts for sale on clothes lines strung between the oak trees in front of their homes.”

Quilting parties continue today not just in Louisiana but widely, as we’ve learned through gifts over the years, including a treasured compilation of Rodrigue images formed into a quilt by a group in South Carolina at the request of George’s friend, Linda Kuykendall, who donated her collection of t-shirts for the project.

-click photo to enlarge-

Pictured:  Although Rodrigue does not make Blue Dog t-shirts for sale, his friends and family enjoy his frequent tributes, such as…

…the Blue Dog Café, featuring a stylized version of the dog as the restaurant’s logo; “King’s Kreaux,” a bit of carnival fun referencing Rodrigue’s 1994 reign as King of the Krewe of Louisianians in Washington D.C.; “To Stay Alive We Need Levee 5,” the artist’s political plea in 2005 following Hurricane Katrina; “Café Tee George,” showing Rodrigue as a young boy, the logo of his Lafayette restaurant that burned in 1997; and Jolie Blonde, his 1974 classic painting advertising his 1988 Los Angeles exhibition….a show now famous not only because it was a sell-out exhibition, but also because it featured for the first time publicly Rodrigue's Blue Dog-

Pictured:  The quilt’s (and shirts’) reverse highlights Rodrigue’s famous red signature, as well as sayings like “Sometimes I Feel Like a Blue Dog.”

Recently, as George struggled with his illness this summer, The Community Prayer Quilters of Estes Park, Colorado quilted a gift to aid his healing through the traditional comfort of a quilt and power of prayer.

“My cousin Kay tells me,” explains George’s Lafayette friend Bertha Bernard, “that as they work on the quilt, they pray for the person for whom it’s intended.  When they finish, they hang the quilt in a church where the congregation prays individually for that person.  Kay is a member of the group, and they are called to make hundreds of quilts each year.”

Pictured:  October 2012, A now healthy George Rodrigue holds the prayer quilt created and sent to him this summer by The Community Prayer Quilters of Estes Park, Colorado.

Early in our marriage, George and I collected several quilts during drives through the Texas Panhandle, specifically the stretch between Amarillo and Wichita Falls.  We stopped at the small towns and purchased heirlooms from area antique marts, seeking tradition in our young marriage through these found handmade treasures.  Although we ceased collecting long ago, the quilts remain, whether on beds, within trunks, or framed on the wall, destined within our family as a continuation of a cultural tradition, The Patchwork Gift.


-George Rodrigue and I hope to see you at the Louisiana Book Festival in Baton Rouge, October 27th, 2012; details here-

-see "Walker Percy, Sylvester Stallone and the Blue Dog" at The State Library of Louisiana through November 30, 2012; details here-

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

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