Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Rodeo Drive

Artist George Rodrigue and I attended a rodeo in South Lake Tahoe, Nevada last weekend.  The area, called Glenbrook, reminded me at first of developments like Seaside and WaterColor near my hometown of Fort Walton Beach.  Although I’m fond of these ice cream colored Florida Panhandle houses, my initial comparison was a stretch, now that I understand, in a small way, this historic western ranching and timber community. 

The north Florida neighborhoods, also in timberland, sprung up before my eyes beginning in the 1980s.   Glenbrook, however, dates to 1860, and it owes its appeal not only to its natural beauty, but also to the graveyard ghosts and passed-down stories of its homeowners.

(pictured, I Grew Up a Cowboy, 1996 by George Rodrigue, 40x30 inches, acrylic on canvas; click photo to enlarge-)

George Rodrigue and I appreciate such history.  In fact, his paintings, such as Rodeo Drive, pictured below, depend on it.  I thought of the painting immediately as we attended a rodeo on Glenbrook’s historic site at the base of Shakespeare Mountain.

“In 1988 a gallery on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, California, exhibited my paintings,” recalls Rodrigue.  “I visited several months earlier to view the space and research the area.   
“Turns out the famous shopping stretch was once a country road through swampland.  As a Cajun, I preferred this history to the fancy stores, so I themed the show and artwork with my version of Rodeo Drive.”

(pictured, Rodeo Drive, 1988 by George Rodrigue, 30x40 inches, oil on canvas; click photo to enlarge-)

To my surprise, the rodeo referenced in George’s painting is unlinked to the cowboy sport.  According to its website, Rodeo Drive (pronounced Roh-DAY-oh) earned its name from the area’s marsh-like terrain.  As early as 1769, locals called the land, then part of Mexico, “the Gathering of the Waters,” or “El Rodeo de las Aguas.”

In Rodrigue’s very American painting, a Western rodeo tradition blends with a southern California swampland-turned shopping district, and a Cajun artist’s interpretation of his southwest Louisiana childhood.

“The photo of me on the horse hung on the wall of our house since the late 1940s,” says Rodrigue.  “A photographer visited New Iberia with a Shetland pony and kids’ cowboy costumes.  My parents dressed me in that outfit, and the photographer took my picture.”

Rodrigue used this photograph in several works over the years, sometimes obviously, and sometimes indirectly, such as his Mamou Riding Academy of 1971, pictured below and detailed in its own essay here.

-click photo to enlarge-

In one case, Rodrigue replaces the pony from his photograph with a blue bull.  The large-scale work originally hung behind the bandstand of Café Tee George in Lafayette, Louisiana, a precursor to the Blue Dog Café.  Today the painting hangs in our home, occasionally borrowed by creative museum curators for bovine-themed exhibitions.

(pictured, Tee George on the Bull, 1996 by George Rodrigue, 6x7 feet, acrylic on plywood)

Not only does photography inspire George within his artwork, but also his artwork inspires his photography.

“All artists should be good photographers,” he explained, as I poured through his recent Glenbrook rodeo files, “certainly in terms of composition, design, and recognizing a good shot.”

(pictured, Glenbrook, Nevada, July 2013 by George Rodrigue)

But even George admits that our friend Kevin Vogt, who doubles as Master Sommelier for Chef Emeril Lagasse, stole the show with the images below.  (Admittedly, I saw more in George and Kevin’s photographs than I did at the rodeo, during much of which I explored the quiet of the barn).

-photos by Kevin Vogt of Las Vegas, Nevada; click images to enlarge-

Finally, our rodeo adventure was about friendship, as we visited with Barbara and Tony Ricciardi, long-time friends from Carmel, California and Reno, Nevada.  Barbara’s family, the Crumleys, purchased their Glenbrook home from the original owners in 1967.  The 1930s property is one of the oldest still standing in this Lake Tahoe community. 

The house overlooks a meadow and the lake, surrounded by cedar, pine, and aspen trees.  Although I enjoyed the rodeo experience, it was our friends' front yard that I treasured most, as we lingered in the lush grass with conversation, books and wine, in love with the view over our heads as much as the view across Lake Tahoe.

(pictured, with George Rodrigue (right), Barbara and Tony Ricciardi, at sunset, Glenbrook pier, S. Lake Tahoe, July 2013-)

From Tahoe, we spent an easy day in Reno on a Barbara-and-Tony This is Your Life tour, including the Ricciardi ranch-style home, in their family since the 1950s, complete with cattle, a river (with crawfish!), and a bomb shelter. 

But that’s best saved for another post, without rodeo competition, because Barbara’s father, Newt Crumley (1911-1962), is a Nevada legend, the first person to bring big-name entertainment, such as Bing Crosby and Jimmy Durante, to the state.  He alone takes up five hundred words in my notes.

And Tony’s mother, known to her grandchildren and great grandchildren as Gigi, short for "Granny Goose," her thick white hair pulled back, yet flyaway, as though representing her resonant beauty, fairytale cadence, and enduring youth, deserves, on her own, at least another thousand.


-the rodeo at Shakespeare Ranch in Glenbrook is a fundraiser hosted by Camille and Larry Ruvo, benefiting Keep Memory Alive and the Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, a partner with the Cleveland Clinic, working together towards finding treatments and ultimately cures for Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases-

-Chef Emeril Lagasse (above, with Larry Ruvo) donated his culinary talents in Glenbrook for downright (and down-home) mouthwatering rodeo cuisine; check out Emeril’s Boudin and Beer in New Orleans for a similar treat this November, benefiting the Emeril Lagasse Foundation-

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

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Wednesday, July 17, 2013

My Blues Brothers

George Rodrigue has painted several versions of the Blues Brothers since 1995.  Although all in private collections, the paintings from this series are among his most popular, famous within the pages of art books and as reproductions on the walls of the Blue Dog Café in Lafayette, Louisiana and Besh Steakhouse at Harrah’s Casino in New Orleans.

(pictured, The Other Brother, 1997, acrylic on canvas by George Rodrigue, 48x48 inches; click photo to enlarge-)

“The Blues Brothers connection with the Blue Dog was a natural for me,” explains Rodrigue, “and I had fun, from idea to execution, painting their faces blue with the Blue Dog."

(pictured, Blues Brothers and the Blue Dog, 2013, with George Rodrigue, Carmel, California; click photo to enlarge-)

In Rodrigue’s typical style, the Blue Dog is eye-level, like a person.  The figures are locked into a strong design, forming interesting shapes in the negative spaces.  The colors are bold, with little left of the original loup-garou inspiration.

(pictured, My Blues Brothers, 1995, acrylic on canvas by George Rodrigue, 24x30 inches; click photo to enlarge-)

As with most of his original paintings, Rodrigue did not make prints* of the Blues Brothers series.  He did, however, create two large-scale copies for himself, both on loan to restaurants.

(pictured, Blue Dog Café, Lafayette, Louisiana, 2013; George Rodrigue at his easel with an original painting, Carmel, California, 2005; click photos to enlarge-)

In 2004, in honor of his 60th birthday, Rodrigue carried the concept into real life when he joined his sons, André and Jacques, in a Blues Brothers performance during his costume party.

“We surprised the crowd,” recalls George, “when we changed from our Elvis and King costumes into Blues Brothers outfits.  Before emerging from the back room for our performance, I even shaved off my beard! 
“‘It looks like ya’ll might have practiced for this,’ said my cousin Catherine. 
“Well yes!, I told her.  It took a month of practice to get the moves down!”

(below:  do not miss this video with George Rodrigue and his sons as the Blues Brothers, New Orleans, 2004-)

Following the show, George’s long-time friend, artist Tony Bernard, joined in the fun, with a painted gift for the Rodrigue boys.

(pictured, Jacques, George, and André Rodrigue with a painting by Tony Bernard, Lafayette, Louisiana, 2005; click photo to enlarge-)

Still high on this experience with his sons, George could not resist creating his own version as well, incorporating the Blue Dog with Tony's portraits into a one-of-a-kind piece for his personal collection.

Appropriately titled, It Runs in the Family, this 2005 artwork pays tribute to a father's close relationship with his sons.  Although neither of these blue brothers became an artist, you'll find André most days at the Blue Dog Café and Jacques at the George Rodrigue Foundation of the Arts, where they each pursue, in their own way, a family's legacy.


*with few exceptions, such as the recent artworks, He Stopped Loving Her Today and Looking for a Beach House, most Rodrigue Blue Dog paintings never become prints or other forms of reproductions; instead he prefers original silkscreens, unrelated to his paintings; see examples at the new Rodrigue Studio Website-

-for the story behind the Blue Dog, visit here-

-a new Rodrigue book, The Other Side of the Painting, premieres October 2013; visit the UL Press website for details-

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

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Thursday, July 11, 2013

Walker Percy (The Impossible Dream)

“Waking wide-eyed dreams come as fitfully as swampfire.”*

Years ago artist George Rodrigue owned a camp in Butte la Rose, Louisiana on the Atchafalaya Basin.  He purchased it as a small, cabin-like structure on stilts and quickly built on bedrooms, extending a raised walkway to the river and over the swamp.

-click photo to enlarge-

(“With Swamp Dogs,” says the artist about his recent large-scale works on chrome, “I combine these mysteries, the loup-garou and the feux follets.” Read more here-)

In those pre-internet and (in our case) cell phone days, the early 1990s, we hid out easily, escaping society, gallery commitments, and even well-meaning family and friends, as we searched for something undefined, yet irresistible, a new path in our lives.  Between Carmel, where I worked at the Rodrigue Gallery, and this camp, we sought a new, unaffected reality.

I thought of this search, a lifelong commitment, really, renewed recently on our West Coast pilgrimage, as I read at last Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, my choice during a celebratory week within the surreal city of Las Vegas.  (As we watched the Bellagio fountains, we admired the Eiffel Tower and Statue of Liberty, while wondering if the full moon, too, was contrived for our pleasure).

(pictured, Walker Percy, 1982 by George Rodrigue, painted for the Flora Levy Lecture Series at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette-)

Unexpectedly, I found The Moviegoer familiar, “the sudden confrontation of a time past, a time so terrible and splendid in its arch-reality,” reminding me of my father’s comments in the National World War II Museum.  He noted, without expression, that the equipment, bunkers, and weapons were the same he used in the Vietnam War, where he served twenty-five years later in the United States Air Force.

“Dislocated is perhaps the proper state of Binx Boling and man or woman…”*

…wrote Walker Percy about his Moviegoer protagonist, and about himself and all of us.

Rodrigue photographed Percy (1916-1990) at his daughter’s Kumquat Bookstore in Covington, Louisiana, near New Orleans, where Percy lived for most of his adult life.

“It was a tiny wooden structure,” recalls Rodrigue, “so I posed him on the front porch where I took about thirty slides. 
“He was very serious and commented that he was at the bookstore part-time to help out his daughter.  I sensed an unhappiness or confusion in him.  But at the same time, he was agreeable regarding my instructions for placement and posing.  The whole session took about ten minutes.”

Did you get his autograph?  I asked.

“Honestly, I didn’t know who he was.  And I don’t think he knew me either.”

Partial to science and the arts over fiction, George never read Percy’s books and, although he attended the lecture at USL, he recalls nothing of its content.  However, the two express a similar interest in philosophy and a lifelong search for meaning, one through humanity and words, and the other through humanity and art.

To my surprise, as I searched on-line, I discovered another link between Percy and Rodrigue, an interview with Harvard University Professor of Psychiatry, Robert Coles (b. 1929).  I recognized the name, also from George’s series of ten Flora Levy Lecture paintings, but as the expert on John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces (pub. 1980, LSU Press), which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1981, twelve years after Toole’s suicide.  Walker Percy wrote the foreword for the famous story of Ignatius J. Reilly and was instrumental in the book’s publication.

(pictured, Robert Coles, 1981 by George Rodrigue; a portrait of John Kennedy Toole hangs on the oak-)

Coles, it turns out, is an expert not only on Percy and Toole, but also on the Medical Humanities, surely a weighty subject for Percy, who abandoned the medical profession following a lengthy illness after contracting tuberculosis during a lab autopsy.  Like other great writers, including Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, and John Kennedy Toole, suicide haunted him, in this case with the early deaths of his parents.

“Have you noticed that only in time of illness or disaster or death are people real?”*

George Rodrigue and I discuss often today, as we did within the swamps, of our dreams and of things much bigger than ourselves.  We talk of black holes and space exploration.  (As I write these words, in fact, unable to paint as he nurses a cold, George watches a documentary on comets.)  We ponder past lives and the idea that all humanity, in one way or another, seeks meaning.  We discuss the importance of our words and actions as they affect others, and as they affect the future.

“…she might now become what they had been and what as a woman had been denied her:  soldierly both in look and outlook.”*

And we recall our song, the one we sought on and off Broadway, the VCR, and Netflix, the one we sang countless times as we crossed the country in our truck, and the one we made ours when, unable to sleep, we danced beneath a full moon on the Atchafalaya Swamp.

Eudora Welty, who spoke at Walker Percy’s memorial service in 1990, speculated once that the South spawns great writers because not only are we talkers, we are talkers who are used to having listeners. 

“In the Rocky Mountains,” she observed, “a person might talk all day and get nothing back but an echo.”


*unless otherwise noted, all quotes in this post are from The Moviegoer by Walker Percy, 1961; the book, published when Percy was age 45, was his first novel; it won the National Book Award the following year-

-the first annual Walker Percy Festival will take place June 6-7, 2014 in St. Francisville, Louisiana; read more here-

-Rodrigue’s original paintings of Walker Percy, Robert Coles, and other notables are on view through August 31, 2013 at the State Library of Louisiana.  Details here-

-for a Toole-related essay, see the post, “Lucky Dog,” featuring, among other things, Rodrigue’s paintings of hot dogs-

-The Other Side of the Painting (October 2013, UL Press), a book based on this blog, is now available for pre-order at your favorite independent bookstore or on amazon-

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

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Saturday, July 6, 2013


Taking a painting and blogging break, as George Rodrigue and I celebrate many, many things with a mini-vacation in Las Vegas. 

While here, I read at last Walker Percy's The Moviegoer, and will finish up a blog post this week tracing the story behind Rodrigue's portrait of the great southern author.

"Kate is shaking like a leaf because she longs to be an anyone who is anywhere and she cannot." -W.P.

Hope you all continue to enjoy this 4th of July weekend!


-pictured above, lunar-like dining within an egg/tilt-a-whirl at MIX, Las Vegas-

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