Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Breaux Bridge Band


Painted in 1971, The Breaux Bridge Band is a classic among George Rodrigue’s paintings.  Along with similar works from this period, it defines his style as a pictorial champion of the Cajun culture, recording snapshots of time within turn-of-the-century Southwest Louisiana.  Ironically, however, it is only on the artist’s canvas, and not in reality, that this band connects Acadiana’s heritage to the music that today, along with Cajun food and joie de vivre, characterizes a culture.

“There really was a Breaux Bridge Band around 1900,” explains George Rodrigue, “but it was called a ‘Classical Music Band.’  They were very popular at the time.  The members were Cajuns and Europeans, and their repertoire was classical.  It had nothing to do with Cajun music.”

(pictured, The Breaux Bridge Band, 1971 by George Rodrigue, oil on canvas, 30x40 inches; click photo to enlarge-)


(Author’s note:  Sadly, this is the best photo we have of this important work, a canvas full of blending and nuances, and without the solid black areas visible here.  Tracking down these early paintings and arranging photography with the owners is an on-going challenge.  As a comparison, see the blog posts describing the Aioli Dinner, The Mamou Riding Academy, and Broussard’s Barber Shop, all from the same period and all recently photographed with the latest technology-)

A Breaux Bridge native whose grandfather was in the band gave George a photograph in 1971, knowing that he researched local traditions for his paintings.

“She was a self-proclaimed Breaux Bridge historian,” says Rodrigue.  “Many of us feared that the Cajun culture was dying, and we each tried to preserve it in our own way.”


The Breaux Bridge Band belonged to a series of four paintings that included the Aioli Dinner, the Mamou Riding Academy, and Broussard’s Barber Shop, all part of George Rodrigue’s first series of prints made from paintings.  Without a gallery or agent, he listed his home telephone number in ads featuring these images for Apollo Magazine out of London, an impressive periodical full of European antiques and art.

“One day a guy from New Orleans called my house,” recalls Rodrigue, “wanting to know why an unknown Cajun artist in Lafayette was running ads in the premier international arts & antiques magazine.  At the time, I was the magazine’s only American advertiser outside of New York City.  He was so impressed that he bought the original Breaux Bridge Band.”

The four paintings also formed the basis for Rodrigue’s landmark publication, The Cajuns of George Rodrigue, the first book published nationally on the Cajun culture.  From the book:

"Looking at them, one can see how proud they were to be musicians.  During the week they were all farmers, but on the weekend they felt like they were contributing to, I think, America, doing something no one else was doing. 
"I guess this was true at the turn of the century when the Breaux Bridge Band was rehearsing at this barn." -George Rodrigue from The Cajuns of George Rodrigue (Oxmoor House, 1976); learn more about this important book here-


Each of these classic images sparks memories for George, not only the long hours it took to paint them, but also his personal nostalgia related to the subject matter:

“I started going to Breaux Bridge in high school (1959-1960), because the town was open on Sunday night.  You could drink alcohol and dance at the clubs on the Breaux Bridge Highway, the road from Lafayette. The white nightclub was on one side of the road, and the black club on the other.  The musicians performed back and forth between them. 
“The bands alternated between rock-n-roll and swamp pop. I saw Clarence Frogman Henry, Irma Thomas, and Fats Domino.  I remember that while singing, Fats played the piano with one hand and signed autographs with the other. 
“My favorite club was Mulate's, owned by Mulate Guidry, a combination pool hall, bar and barber shop.” 


(pictured, Kerry Boutte of Mulate’s, Beverly Friedman, George Rodrigue, and Steve Friedman of NBC, pose at Mulate's in 1988 for a photograph that would eventually become a Rodrigue painting; the Friedmans were in Southwest Louisiana from New York City, celebrating the Cajun Mardi Gras for a segment on NBC’s Nightly News; click photo to enlarge-)

“My good friend Kerry Boutte,” continues George, “bought Mulate’s and transformed the bar into a Cajun restaurant and dance hall.  He single-handedly brought back Cajun music. 
“Kerry told me that the first week the bands played, no one showed up.  Eventually, however, the word spread, and even the national press took notice.  Zachary Richard, Octave Clark (the subject of this year’s Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival poster), Michael Doucet and Beaujolais, and hundreds of Cajun bands played there over the years. It became the place for Cajun music, while also sparking the revival of Cajun food.”


George Rodrigue’s paintings and prints hung in Mulate’s almost from the beginning.  Today, although the original Breaux Bridge Mulate’s is gone, Kerry Boutte and his family own Mulate’s, the Original Cajun Restaurant in New Orleans, where the music and dancing continue.

Wendy

-pictured above, Fais do-do, 1986 by George Rodrigue, oil on canvas, diptych 3x8 feet; click photo to enlarge-

-as with The Breaux Bridge Band, Rodrigue’s Mamou Riding Academy and Broussard’s Barber Shop are also in private collections; the Aioli Dinner, however, is currently on view at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art-

-click each of the painting titles above to see the images and read their histories-

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



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Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Blue Dog at the Movies


Since childhood, George Rodrigue has loved the movies.  It’s the reason, along with Saints and LSU football, that his studio doubles as a theatre, and why most nights he paints to the backdrop of Turner Classic Movies.  He returns to his favorites, The Searchers and Lonesome Dove, repeatedly.  And he spent his teenage years painting his renditions of the Creature from the Black Lagoon.  This fall, George Rodrigue serves as the Featured Artist of the Carmel Art & Film Festival.


In 1974 Rodrigue experienced, for the first time up close, the movies, when he remained for a week on the set of The Drowning Pool, filmed partly at Oaklawn Plantation in Franklin, Louisiana.  The set borrowed several Rodrigue Cajun paintings for the plantation house, but they shied away from the expensive insurance.  Instead, they asked the artist to babysit the artwork during filming. 

“I spent that week with Paul Newman, the cast, and my good friend Dr. Voorhies, Director of Charity Hospital in Lafayette, who was hired by the film people to be the crew’s physician.  Nearly everyone on the set got sick because of the Louisiana farm country viruses and allergies. 
“Despite the (relatively minor) health concerns, we had a fun time.  All Paul Newman did was drink beer and, according to Dr. Voorhies, put drops in his eyes to keep them blue.  I remember Newman drinking beer at breakfast. 
“Ten years later, The Big Easy stocked their on-set and on-film refrigerator with my Jolie Blonde Beer.  But I didn’t get to babysit that one!”

-click photos throughout to enlarge-


George Rodrigue painted Bush Films in 1983.  The painting became a poster advertising an LPB documentary on the artist by Charles Bush of Louisiana Film Workshops.  The movie coincided with the unveiling of Rodrigue’s 20-ft bronze statue, Legacy, depicting Longfellow, Evangeline and Gabriel. Regrettably, the movie is unavailable for on-line viewing.

A few years later, Rodrigue painted actress Dolores del Rio as Evangeline in a tribute to the 1929 silent movie filmed in Louisiana.  The painting is part of his Saga of the Acadians, a series of fifteen paintings chronicling the Cajun journey from France to Canada, and from Nova Scotia to Louisiana.


In 1992, producer and director David DuBos filmed Rodrigue:  A Man and His Dog with Whoopi Goldberg for Louisiana Public Broadcasting.  Although the storyline has little connection to George’s recent paintings, at the time it followed his imagery, tracing his dog Tiffany as she searched for his studio in the afterlife.

The movie includes Rodrigue’s Cajun and Blue Dog paintings, as well as early footage from his studio and home in Lafayette, Louisiana.

(pictured, Me, Myself and I, 1992 by George Rodrigue)


“As the voice of the Blue Dog,” recalls Rodrigue, “Whoopi was very serious and professional, insisting on many takes to get it just right.”

The 8-minute clip below features Whoopi Goldberg as the black-and-white Tiffany, the Blue Dog, and the Red Dog.  Be sure and watch to the end for some fun interviews with Chef Paul Prudhomme and others, along with Cajun music by Hadley Castille and the Sharecropper's Band.


In the late 1990s, the movies called again.  This time it was TriStar pictures and the big screen, interested in a feature film based on the Blue Dog.  George and I met with the movie folks in Los Angeles, considered the idea, and ultimately declined, as he weighed widespread fame against the importance of his copyrights and control of his art.  Unlike his project for Xerox a few years later, this was too big a risk.

Passing on this project was tough for George, not only because he loves the movies, but also because he wrote a script.  Within his movie, the Blue Dog exists only on the artist's canvas, as a spiritual conduit for an aging painter.  He’s expanded and shaped this story for years, resulting in a fanciful tale of animals and art.

Today, the script remains fresh in his mind, as he occasionally reworks it, waking me in the middle of the night just last week to recount his latest version.

At his easel, his newest series, Hollywood Stars, features legends of the silver screen in large-scale artworks on metal.


(pictured:  New Orleans attorney, Laura Ashley, volunteers often with students and events at the George Rodrigue Foundation of the Arts.  Rodrigue’s Some Like It Hot, along with similar works featuring Doris Day, Clint Eastwood, and Humphrey Bogart, is on view at his galleries in Carmel and New Orleans; details here-)

Also today, we celebrate the movies with the Carmel Art & Film Festival, an exciting event for Rodrigue, who is honored to serve as this year’s Featured Artist.  The weekend deepens George’s connection to his second favorite state, a love born during the 1960s and his years at the Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles.


Hope to see you at the movies, October 9-13, 2013.

Wendy

-pictured above, George Rodrigue on the California coast, 1965-

-for details on the Carmel Art & Film Festival, including related Rodrigue events, visit carmelartandfilm.com -

-in addition to film, Blue Dog artwork appears occasionally on Reality TV, including a fun clip from Cajun Pawn Stars; story here-

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


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Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Flower Power


"I always feel like I'm starting over, every day." -artist Darren Vigil-Gray-

In Carmel Valley, George Rodrigue and I live surrounded by flowers.  Annuals flourish here, and for the first time in years, we’re on the West Coast long enough for me to not only plant, but also nurture.  Our rose garden rewarded us immediately for this bit of attention; the hollyhocks, a passion leftover from my childhood, threaten to bloom at any moment; the hummingbirds hover in disbelief as I water the long-neglected geraniums, and the deer, salivating, stare through the garden gate.

-click photos throughout to enlarge-


(pictured, Flower Children, 2013 by George Rodrigue, 30x40 inches, acrylic on canvas)

These flowers thrive in a tiny fenced-in area behind our house, the only place inaccessible to Bambi.  They also thrive within vases throughout the house, complementing the artwork, no matter what the flower, color, or artist.  Recently, in fact, I found jewel-toned royal blue orchids at our California grocery store, impossible to resist, and now extending, appropriately, into the air of Blue Wendy.

(pictured, perhaps our most oft-occupied sitting area, with a painting by Darren Vigil-Gray, clay horse by Priscilla Hoback, Cajun Fisherman bronze by George Rodrigue, painted table by Rosalea Murphy, and precious Mother’s Day tulips; click photo to enlarge-)


In the front yard, just outside of his studio, George encourages the deer.  Although we don’t dare feed them for fear of wood rats, we quench their thirst from a fountain, a mound of granite topped with a now freshly-polished bronze sun.  Without fences, the deer visit several times each day for water.

While I care for the back, George loves this area because it borders his studio.  He fills it with palms and evergreens, resistible to the animals.  From his easel, he watches them, and they watch him.

“Every time I come to California,” explains George, “I look at it differently.  Fresh eyes, fresh feelings, fresh emotions.  Something unexpected always comes up.”


(pictured, I Have a Colorful Life, 2013 by George Rodrigue, 30x40 inches, acrylic on canvas; click photo to enlarge-)

We chose this property more than a decade ago because of its lace oak groves, so similar to Louisiana’s live oaks, the trees that called George Rodrigue home from California and art school some forty-five years ago.  Yet in recent years it’s been difficult for us to spend much time here.  Now, with the West Coast firm in our long-term plans, we adopt this land, or let it adopt us, embracing the California lace oaks as though Evangeline herself wept beneath them.

Last week we pruned the trees for the first time in five years.

Oh they’re beautiful, I whispered, when George asked me what I thought about the trimming.

Following a long pause, he replied, also whispering…

“California.”


(pictured, George Rodrigue outside of his studio, Carmel Valley, California, May 2013; the deer's water source, a granite fountain, stands behind him; click photo to enlarge-)

In recent paintings, George often adds a single or several flowers to a Louisiana landscape.  He uses flowers as design elements vying for attention with the Blue Dog.  I asked him about this unnatural feature, inserted as if for balance and color patterns. Always okay in my book, but is there something more?

“Nope, just the obvious.  Flowers represent a re-birth every season.  And I like the way they look in my paintings.”


That’s good enough for me.

Wendy

-pictured above, Springtime is a-Comin’, 2013 by George Rodrigue, 60x40 inches, acrylic on canvas; for details regarding pricing and availability of these new works, contact Rodrigue Studio-

-for related posts, see last week’s essay, “Sacred Stones” and also “Flowers, Eyes, Swirls and Hearts”-

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


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Friday, May 10, 2013

Sacred Stones


While walking on Carmel Beach last week, I stashed, a bit guiltily, in my sweater pocket, a stone.  It was cool and smooth and felt good in my hand, as I did what I always do when faced with a vista:  refocused.

It wasn’t until a few days later that I wore again my comfort sweater, the one I reach for during fogged-in mornings or bouts of melancholy.  I felt the stone in my pocket as I watered the herbs outside my office window, and I placed it among the plants and other treasures, most discovered in the trunk of my car and left, I suspect, by a visiting artist who walked the same beach.


(Photographed this week by George Rodrigue with a painting by Mallory Page)

And I thought, as I often do in seeking a place of my own, of Virginia Woolf, who weighted her pockets with stones and, it must be said, drowned herself in the River Ouse.

Recently George Rodrigue designed a headstone for a friend.  It was his first such project, and to his surprise, the sentiment challenged him more than the artwork.  The territory is familiar, however, as he recalls working as a teenager in his father’s business, “Rodrigue’s Portable Concrete Burial Vaults.”
 
Sacred stones, whether over a grave, on the beach, or in a painting, haunt me lately, connecting me, without warning, to motherhood, or maybe more so to the sacred feminine.  As I write at my desk this week, I study the adjoining wall, covered with expressions of the feminine, including the feminine side of George Rodrigue.

-click photo to enlarge-


(pictured, Femme Fatale, a 1991 silkscreen with hand-painted eyes by George Rodrigue; Haley, a 2003 Hurricane painting by George Rodrigue; Pregnancy, a self-portrait photographed by Tabitha Soren; Ruth Bernhard’s Creation of 1936; an animal skull, found by a friend in the wild, in Africa; sculpture of Selket, my longtime obsession and the guardian of King Tut’s tomb; Sacred Stones, a 1992 painting by Mignon Wolfe)

In 1992 my mother painted Stonehenge.  She pondered, like many, spirituality within the shape and placement of the giant rocks.  For her, they embodied love in the form of lovers embracing within the shadow of one stone, and a fatherly face within another.  The stones symbolized her dreams, especially her connection to something bigger than a routine, daily life. 

By the time she painted Sacred Stones, she explored in earnest, both in life and in art, the concept of the sacred feminine, specifically the ideas associated with Mother Earth and angels.


(pictured, Blue Angel, 1996 by Mignon Wolfe)

During Jazz Fest recently, New Orleans photographer Dennis Couvillion surprised me with an email of his photograph of Mahalia Jackson’s tomb, “in Providence Park,” he writes, “in Kenner, just off Airline Highway, which is in the photo's background, behind the trees and near the airport.”

-click photo to enlarge-


George and I both contemplate through Couvillion’s eyes the resting place of the great gospel singer, near-worshipped by millions as a mother-type figure, but also rooted in sadness and yet euphoric with the spiritual in songs like "Summertime and I Feel Like a Motherless Child.”

This contradiction and melancholy suits me on Mother’s Day, as it has every year since I lost my mom, even as I celebrate, wrapped in my comfort sweater, the maternal in dear friends and family.  This year in particular, I think it must be crowded at Mama’s side, as she reunites with my Aunt Kathy, George’s Aunt Irene, and his Cousin Berta Lou, beloved women, all mothers to their own and to us, and all of whom joined her in recent weeks.



Wendy

-see George Rodrigue's portrait of Mahalia Jackson (1911-1972) here-

-for a related post, see “The Artist’s Mother”-

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

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