Thursday, January 31, 2013

King Marion

For sixty-five years, the Krewe of Louisianians, comprised of the seven congressional districts of the State of Louisiana, has hosted a private Mardi Gras for 5,000 people in Washington, D.C.  The three-day celebration includes the best examples of Louisiana’s food and music, while honoring its young women as princesses and festival queens.  The Mardi Gras King and Queen reign over this gathering, including feasts, processions, dancing and parades. 

George Rodrigue and I love this event, because it is in D.C., in one place, that we see friends from Shreveport, Lake Charles, and Houma, as folks from around the state gather at a Carnival Retreat.  It’s a chance for us to thank George’s art patrons and especially supporters of our foundation, as we encourage the arts in education in Louisiana, including an annual scholarship art contest, art supplies for schools, and, most exciting, the A+ arts-integrated school system.

However, the main reason we attend is for the fun of this over-the-top event, as we reminisce about George’s reign as King in 1994 and, this year especially, about the reign of King Marion.

-click photos throughout to enlarge-

When Marion Edwards received word that he would be King of the 1985 Washington Mardi Gras Ball, he called George Rodrigue with hopes of a portrait.  He and his brothers, he explained, were “poor little Cajun boys” from Marksville, Louisiana, and now he would be King!   The occasion was worth commemorating. 

To create the painting, George posed Marion, dressed in his costume, in the yard of his Lafayette house, with Chef John Folse and renowned raconteur P.J. Latour donning full Lieutenant’s attire.  In typical Rodrigue style, he then arranged the figures on his canvas within an imaginary Louisiana landscape, including the United States Capitol, in a surreal setting combining two parts of America.  The painting also combines two slices of time, the current King Marion and Marion the little boy, who sits in his rocker dreaming of one day being King.

In addition to the portrait, Marion requested 10,000 signed prints as gifts for his friends throughout the state. 

“When he asked me the price,” recalls George, “I thought about the famous Paris trip, which Marion conceived of and organized to recoup his brother Edwin’s gubernatorial campaign debt.  Each of the 600 Edwards supporters, including me, paid $25,000 to attend. 
Well Marion, I guess it will cost you $25,000, I told him. 
     “‘Well Papa George, it’ll cost me that much, huh?’ 
The problem with you, Marion, I exclaimed, is that you’ve got too many friends! 
     “In the end, he agreed to the price, so I guess we broke even on that deal.”

(pictured, Marion and “Papa George” (his endearing reference for his friend) celebrated many Washington and Lafayette Mardi Gras’s together.  George used this photo to create the invitation for his 1985 Lafayette party.  Also pictured, Chef John Folse and renowned raconteur P.J. Latour)

It was recently, however, that Marion and his wife Penny became an integral, almost daily part of our lives. 

(pictured, with Marion and Penny Edwards at the LSU Museum of Art, 2011; story here-)

When George was at his lowest last summer, sick from treatments as he fought lung cancer in Houston, it was Marion he turned to for strength; Marion, who lived another thirty-five years following his diagnosis with liver cancer; Marion, who held true to his faith in God and medicine and, above all, the love of family and friends; and Marion, who dubbed himself years ago the “Walking Swamp Miracle” and lovingly dubbed George his son, his “Walking Swamp Miracle, Jr.”

(pictured, George, Penny and Marion study Marion’s sermon books, saved from his years as a preacher for the Church of the Nazarene in the 1940s)

Following Marion’s funeral, George and I sat beneath his portrait as King Marion in Jolie’s Louisiana Bistro, where we reminisced about our friend as I made notes for this post. 

“Marion was the kind of guy,” said George, “who, when he took on a project, always finished it.  And if you needed help, he’d help you, showing genuine concern for your situation. 
“He was a true friend to me for thirty years.”

(pictured, upon receiving word that George’s cancer treatments were working, Marion sent him this photo, a treasured “thumb’s up.”)

I don’t think it hit either of us that Marion was gone until we sat surrounded by the music he chose for his send-off.  He left in the style befitting a King, in a horse-drawn carriage through the streets of Crowley, Louisiana.  Although I’ve always hoped but never quite accepted that we all meet again in Nirvana, I imagined during this service, Marion, dancing with joy in Heaven and, without being able to help it, I believed.

Namaste, Marion.

Au revoir from me and Papa George.


-read Marion Edwards’ (1928-2013) obituary-

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

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Sunday, January 20, 2013

Blue Dog, The Book

“To find her you must lose her.  The Blue Dog knows the way.” –Blue Dog, 1994

In March of 1992 journalist Bridget O’Brian interviewed George Rodrigue for an article, front page, center column, in The Wall Street Journal. Although George had no control over the content, O’Brian allowed him one special request.  Without hesitating, he replied,
“Please say that I’m looking for a publisher.”

-click photo to enlarge-
On the day of “How Many Dogs Can Fetch Money?,” my Carmel, California home phone rang at 5:00 a.m. with the news.  Long before the internet, the Rodrigue Gallery phone continued ringing for a month.   At daybreak I purchased ten newspapers from the Carmel Drugstore, where two men asked for my autograph.  I was flabbergasted.
In addition to clients, reporters, and publishers, George received the one call he most wanted. The following week he flew to New York and met Roz Cole, Andy Warhol’s legendary book agent.
Mrs. Cole lined up several meetings, and the challenge began:
“What is a Blue Dog?” asked the publishers.  “Is this a children’s book?  Will people buy a book of Blue Dog paintings?”
I wasn’t in on those meetings, but after years of working with publishers I imagine what it was like. George grew frustrated defending his work and convincing the book world of his project’s marketability. 
Eventually, Viking Penguin committed to a Blue Dog book, and George and I committed, coincidentally, to each other.  This landed me, albeit peripherally, in my first publishing project.  We began at Viking’s offices in New York City in the fall of 1993. The book, Blue Dog, would feature Rodrigue’s paintings and an imaginary story by George and author Lawrence Freundlich.  In a large boardroom, a team of editors, art directors, and marketing strategists explained the book, a paperback retailing for $20. 
George sat dismayed and considered abandoning the project.  They still did not understand his work.  A cheap book only cheapened his art, and he had no interest. 
Suddenly, Peter Mayer, Penguin Books' near-mythic CEO, burst in the room.  In five minutes he transformed the paperback into a hard cover book with slipcase, hologram, and other special features, retailing for $50.  He congratulated George on his art, leaving the room as fast as he arrived, having altered permanently a project and attitudes. 

The book, with an innovative design by Alexander Isley, tells a touching story of Blue Dog, first as Tiffany living in George’s Lafayette studio and, following her death, her ghost’s cry for his attention.  In the fictitious tale, she haunts his dreams and eventually lives again through his art.
“When I had finally begun to paint Blue Dog alone in a world of her own kind, I sensed that Blue Dog was giving me my freedom --- freedom not so much to love but to accept love from the infinite bounty of a dog’s heart.  I might be her master, but to my own master I was only a servant.” –Blue Dog, 1994

(pictured, Tiffany Remembers the '70's, 1992, oil on canvas by George Rodrigue, 36x24)
Viking printed a cautious 5,000 copies of Blue Dog, released fall of 1994.  The book’s popularity surprised nearly everyone but George, and the publisher reprinted quickly, now topping 200,000 copies in five languages.  Blue Dog is a legend in the world of art books, something people still talk about when we visit New York.
Since Blue Dog, George published books and calendars with Stewart, Tabori & Chang, Harry N. Abrams, Sterling and Rizzoli.  He embraces these books as works of art, reflecting his on-going confidence in his vision and his enthusiasm for such projects.
With The Art of George Rodrigue (Harry N. Abrams, 2003; revised 2012) and George Rodrigue Prints:  A Catalogue Raisonné (Abrams, 2008), he experienced his proudest publishing achievements since The Cajuns of George Rodrigue (Oxmoor House, 1976), career retrospectives with critical texts by Art Historian Ginger Danto and Director Emeritus of the New Orleans Museum of Art, E. John Bullard.
Today, unlike the early Cajuns and Blue Dog years, the pressure’s off.  Rodrigue meets annually with Roz Cole and publishers, producing new projects according to his whims, including children’s books and wall calendars in recent years, as well as numerous collaborations in the form of loaned artwork for publications such as Ken Wells’ Rascal (Knopf, 2010), Deb Shriver's Stealing Magnolias (Glitterati, 2010) and In the Spirit of New Orleans (Assouline, 2012), the recent A Unique Slant of Light:  The Bicentennial History of Art in Louisiana (Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, 2012), and....

.....I’m delighted to share, a Fall 2013 project for me with UL Press.
Stay tuned-
-for Blue Dog's factual history, see the post, "Blue Dog:  In the Beginning, 1984-1989"-
-purchase Blue Dog and other Rodrigue titles here-
-for more art and discussion, please join me on facebook-

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Monday, January 14, 2013

Cajuns, The Book

By the mid-1970s George Rodrigue painted on average forty canvases per year, all scenes of Cajun folk-life stemming from his first painting with people, Aioli Dinner (1971), while incorporating the distinctive oak trees from his landscapes. Although he rented a gallery in Lafayette, Louisiana, he sold most of his work on the road in Houston, Dallas, Birmingham and other cities, usually from the trunk of his car to collectors he met on referral from restaurants, banks and jewelry stores.
Following the birth of his son André in 1975, George longed for new clients without the road trips. He sought gallery representation, but options were few in those years, especially in the South, and his efforts in New Orleans, with the exception of a short stint at the Reilly Gallery, proved unsuccessful.
-click photo to enlarge-
(pictured, George Rodrigue with his son André, 1984, Lafayette, Louisiana, featuring Rodrigue's Mamou Mardi Gras and his books, including The Cajuns of George Rodrigue; click photo to enlarge-)

Out of nowhere, opportunity knocked. Oxmoor House, publisher of Southern Living Magazine, approached George about a book. Based in Birmingham, Alabama, they knew his paintings and envisioned the work in a large coffee table-type format, linking it to their 1974 publication, Jericho: The South Beheld, by James Dickey and Hubert Shuptrine, a book hailed as a southern publishing phenomenon.
Despite the obstacles, George jumped at the chance.  According to his contract, he would write the text, provide transparencies of his artwork, and commit to $75,000 in book purchases.  He learned quickly that books, especially art books, rarely generate profit for the author/artist.  He also learned, however, that books sell paintings.
He signed the contract late on the Friday afternoon of a holiday weekend.   With $400 in the bank, he wrote a hot check to Oxmoor House and spent the weekend knocking on doors, paintings in hand. In three days, using his hometown connections, he made some of the money and borrowed most of it, covering the check.
It was a long shot, typical of George, the type of challenge he relishes, no different than raising his Jefferson Street house to build a gallery underneath, purchasing a building adjacent to St. Louis Cathedral, or for that matter shifting from Cajuns to Blue Dogs.
“Anytime I’m broke or in trouble,” laughs George, “I buy a car.  Once I figure out how to pay for it, the rest of my problems work themselves out.”

(pictured, Rodrigue holds the brochure, still in his possession, of his first dream car, the Lincoln Mark V; he removed the back seat and used the additional trunk space to transport paintings to clients)

(pictured, following his recent health problems, Rodrigue purchased his current dream car, a Mercedes gull-wing, in September 2012)
George wrote the book the following week, hiring a translator for the French text, printed alongside the English. The large format features more than one hundred paintings with George’s detailed descriptions. The Cajuns of George Rodrigue (1976) was the first book published nationally on the Cajun culture and the first bilingual American book ever printed.
The book caught the eye of the Director of the National Endowment for the Arts who showed it to First Lady Rosalynn Carter. Mrs. Carter chose the book as an official White House Gift of State during President Carter’s administration.  The Cajuns of George Rodrigue also made the Top 10 Best Southern Book List of 1976.

Pictured, The Cajuns of George Rodrigue includes classic paintings such as the Aioli Dinner on its cover, as well as ...
-click photos to enlarge-
...Iry Lejeune (1972), detailed here-
...Jolie Blonde (1974), detailed here-
...Mamou Riding Academy (1971), detailed here-
George was ecstatic. The Cajuns’ accolades elevated his resume. But the $75,000 presented a problem. At the time his paintings sold on average for between $500 and $5000, and the short-term sales couldn’t possibly cover his debt. He devised a plan.
In exchange for his investment, Oxmoor House sent George his share of the books.  However, selling them was difficult.  In pre-internet 1976 only six bookstores existed in the state of Louisiana.  And think about this ---- 2,500 large-scale hardcover books weighing four pounds each, delivered to his house on wooden pallets by a semi-truck. It was daunting.
However, George Rodrigue is creative in all things, and he relished this challenge. He secured a mailing list for every French teacher in the United States and offered The Cajuns at $15, discounted from the $24.95 list price.  He recruited friends to package the books and process the payments. Within days, the orders poured in.
Simultaneously, area banks sold the books alongside their teller windows, offering a special price for customers opening new checking accounts.
Within two months George repaid his loans. Within six months he felt the book’s long-term effect on his painting sales as it impressed potential buyers.  He broke his own sales records and, unable to meet demand, raised prices.
In addition, as a direct result of The Cajuns, George painted in 1976 a gift from the State of Louisiana to the President of France, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, increasing Rodrigue’s reputation internationally, especially on the heels of his Paris Le Salon award of 1974 (story here).
-click photo to enlarge-
(pictured, George Rodrigue with French President d’Estaing and former U.S. Congressman James Domengeaux, President of the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana (CODOFIL); more here-)
Most important, The Cajuns of George Rodrigue taught the artist the power of publishing. It was books that would sell his paintings; it was books that would make him famous.
-for details on individual paintings from The Cajuns of George Rodrigue, see the links under "CAJUNS" in the menu to the right of this post-
-see the original painting of Rodrigue's Aioli Dinner anytime at The Ogden Museum of Southern Art-
-although long out of print, The Cajuns of George Rodrigue does appear occasionally through on-line booksellers-
-for more art and discussion, please join me on facebook

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Saturday, January 12, 2013

Hollywood Stars

Most folks have seen Casablanca so many times that, unless one happened to visit a theater in 1942, we don’t remember our first encounter with Rick and Ilsa.  The film runs together as a nostalgic and romantic constant, a symbol for moviegoers everywhere of why we love the picture show. 

In his newest series, Hollywood Stars, artist George Rodrigue pays tribute to the Golden Age of Hollywood with unique, large-scale works on chrome featuring stars of the Silver Screen.

-click photos to enlarge-

(pictured, Play it again, Sam 2013 by George Rodrigue, archival ink on metal, 41x62 inches; each piece is unique)

The Hollywood characters played by these stars are larger than life and impervious to time.  I thought of this recently as I read Kent Westmoreland’s detective novel Baronne Street* and slipped unwittingly into a Bogie accent as Burleigh Drummond, P.I. hunts the killer of his ex-girlfriend, Coco Robicheaux.  The setting is New Orleans, 2000, yet the flavor, regardless of the wheels, is Casablanca, 1940:

“The T-Bird was probably the only thing I really cared about and definitely the only commitment I’ve ever made.” –Westmoreland, Baronne Street, 2010

Explains George Rodrigue:

“These movie stars were under contract with major Hollywood Studios, and their images, in most cases, were managed and promoted as characters associated with their films.”

Rodrigue’s Play it again, Sam depicts Rick and Ilsa who, ironically, never utter that most famous of movie lines.

“I use the Blue Dog on either side of the figures, indicating one as their Hollywood image and the other as the real person behind the myth. Just as the dog has two sides, so do these actors, their true self and their screen self. 
“As an example, Marilyn Monroe is the Blue Dog screen image, while Norma Jean is her Red Dog real self.”

Hollywood Stars is a unique collection of artwork on metal, not to be confused with an edition.  Although based on the images within this post, Rodrigue makes each piece individually on chrome, altering the images slightly by hand using silver paint, so that no two are identical.  He then signs the finished works with his name and the notation “unique.”

(pictured, Some Like It Hot, 2013 by George Rodrigue, archival ink on metal, 41x62 inches; note, a version of this image is also available as a silkscreen print; details here-)

After all these years, I should know better than to ask George about his favorite from this or any series.  Yet I wasn’t willing to accept his standard answer, “the painting I’m working on now,” and pushed him.

“Well, I wasn’t going to show you this ‘til it’s finished,” he grinned, “but I designed this one just for us.”

I guess he was inspired after last week’s post-


-for a related post see "Blue Dog at the Movies," linked here-

*Kent Westmoreland’s Baronne Street (2010) is an entertaining New Orleans read…..a fun ride through favorite restaurants, old neighborhoods, and NOLA stereotypes; more info here-

-for questions about Hollywood Stars, including price and availability, contact Rodrigue Studio-

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

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Wednesday, January 2, 2013

George Rodrigue's Creature from the Black Lagoon

Update, 9/25/13:  Pictured below, George Rodrigue with his new version of the Creature, a one-of-a-kind piece on chrome, made for his private collection; click photo to enlarge-

In the early 1950s, it was the movies more than television that made the biggest impact on mainstream American culture.  Today during school visits, I describe this environment to students, imagining a young George Rodrigue isolated from society during six months with polio in 1952.

“He was an only child, bed-ridden with a contagious disease,” I explain.  “His friends couldn’t visit, and his family had no television.”

Yet I receive little reaction, certainly not the gasp I expect, until I venture,

“And they had no computer...” 

.....a statement prompting near-hysteria as today’s youngest generation absorbs the shock of life before the internet.

The point of the story, which I’ve written about here in detail, is that his mother cured his boredom with the Lone Ranger radio show, colored modeling clay, and a new 1950s invention called paint-by-number.  In other words, the crippling disease, the simple, pre-techno times, and a devoted parent sparked an artist’s destiny.

-click photo to enlarge-

(pictured, George Rodrigue, New Iberia, 1950.  For more on this photo read the story, “The Ghost of Christmas Past”)

Yet just as the computer’s novelty surpassed the television, and the television altered the radio and movie experience, in the 1950s the double-feature and drive-in reigned, enchanting and inspiring all ages.

I remember my mom talking about double and even triple features at the Abalon Theater in Algiers on the West Bank of New Orleans.  She and my uncle purchased hot tamales from the corner vendor (a pre-cursor to Lucky Dogs, a Rodrigue favorite), sneaking them into the movie house.  They spent four to six hours on Sunday afternoons hiding from movie management and draping greasy tamale wrappers over the back row seats.

-click photo to enlarge-

(Nurturing this nostalgia, Mardi Gras authority Arthur Hardy published recently There’s One In Your Neighborhood:  The Lost Movie Theaters of New Orleans, featuring the Abalon and others, a collection compiled and recorded by Rene Brunet Jr. and Jack Stewart, 2012; available for purchase here- )

But for George Rodrigue, the single greatest movie experience* of his life occurred in 1954 with the release of The Creature from the Black Lagoon.

“I was ten years old, and I saw the movie on a Wednesday at the Evangeline Theatre on Main Street in New Iberia,” recalls Rodrigue.  “I know it was a Wednesday because it was double-feature day for six cents.  I don’t remember the other movie, but the creature stayed in my mind. 
“I liked it because it looks like it was filmed in Louisiana, even though it was filmed in Florida.  The creature appears half-alligator and half-man, living in the swamps.  I guess it was the first Louisiana ghost story I associated myself with, other than my mom’s scary threats of the loup-garou.”

(pictured, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, painted by George Rodrigue, 1960)

“Several years later I was a Boy Scout at Camp Thistlethwaite in Washington, Louisiana and ran the craft section of the General Store.  In addition to sweeping up, I gave courses on painting, basket-weaving, and carving.”

You taught basket-weaving!? I interjected.

“We had all kinds of kits,” he explained, “including woodworking, beading and others.  I also sold cokes and candy. 
“I had a small studio in the back of the store, and in my spare time I painted on cardboard.  My proudest moment was when the camp director asked me to paint a picture of his fishing camp.  I did it for free just so I could say that my artwork hung in his camp.”

So how does this tie in with The Creature from the Black Lagoon? I asked.

“One day I painted The Creature and hung it in the Thistlethwaite General Store.  It attracted lots of attention, but I wouldn’t sell it.”

People wanted to buy it? 

“Sure….for more money than I made all summer in the store.  But it was mine,”

...he shrugged, unhooking the fifty-three year old painting from the wall beside his easel.  

“Still is.”


*not to be confused with “the single greatest movie ever made,” according to George Rodrigue:  The Searchers, starring John Wayne, 1956-

*Rodrigue went on to become an Eagle Scout in 1960.  In 2011 he received the Boy Scouts of America’s highest honor, Distinguished Eagle.  Read the story here-

-pictured above, George Rodrigue at home in New Orleans, January 2, 2013; although he kept his original Creature from the Black Lagoon, he went on to paint similar monsters on t-shirts, earning gas money in high school-

-Mike Scott spotlights this weekend’s TCM “black-and-white creature features,” including The Creature from the Black Lagoon for the Times-Picyune in a 1/2/13 story for the paper, linked here-

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