Sunday, December 15, 2013

Fond farewell: George Rodrigue

Posted By on Sun, Dec 15, 2013 at 2:03 PM

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Today the art world is mourning the death of Louisiana’s famed “Blue Dog” artist George Rodrigue. Margo and I are mourning the loss of a dear friend. George died Saturday (Dec. 14) in a Houston hospital after a long fight against cancer. He was 69. George leaves behind an extraordinary, four-decade legacy of brilliant (if sometimes misunderstood) art and many, many saddened friends.

I first met George in 1980, when I was a political reporter for The Times-Picayune working on a series about vote fraud in rural Acadiana. I had previously seen his beautiful picture-and-essay book, “The Cajuns of George Rodrigue,” while attending a party in the French Quarter. I was immediately captivated by George’s haunting renditions of bygone Acadians in their culturally distant world. While my friends enjoyed the party, I literally could not put the book down. To this day I remember how George’s paintings affected me in a way that only a great work of art can speak to a total stranger.

When my work took me to the Lafayette area a year or so later, I asked my uncle, an artist himself in that town, if he knew the guy who had painted those remarkable portraits of Cajuns and their culture. A week later, I knocked on George’s door and introduced myself. We spent four hours that afternoon talking about art, artists, Cajuns and life. Thus began our long friendship.

Later that year, I wrote the first major story in New Orleans about George and his work — a cover story in the daily newspaper's Sunday supplement, “Dixie Roto” magazine. The cover photo showed George standing beside one of his iconic works, a six-foot-tall portrait of Huey Long. The next day, George opened his first public exhibit in New Orleans — in the relatively cramped lobby of a savings-and-loan at 301 St. Charles Ave. That was the humble beginning of New Orleans’ long love affair with George and his work.

It was not love at first sight on the part of the local art crowd. Despite the worldwide acclaim that George would ultimately gain, the snoots who then ruled New Orleans’ art roost did not rush to embrace George or his work. Most of them simply did not understand his ghostly Cajun figures, seemingly suspended in the air beneath dark, ominous oak trees. For years, most didn’t even know his name. He was simply “that Cajun artist.” To his great credit, George never begrudged any of those who initially snubbed him. In fact, when former critics finally embraced him, he welcomed them into his world with the same warmth that he extended to the stranger from New Orleans who knocked on his door in 1980. That, to me, was the hallmark of George’s character.

George and me at NOMA during his spectacular 2008 exhibit, holding a copy of my first story about him in Dixie Roto magazine.
  • George and me at NOMA during his spectacular 2008 exhibit, holding a copy of my first story about him in Dixie Roto magazine.

Though I know precious little about art, in George’s case I had the honor of knowing the artist. Over the years, George opened himself and his world to me in many conversations, few of which I recorded in note form, though I did write several more stories about him for Gambit — the first as a cover story about the Blue Dog sensation in the early 1990s, and again just before his sensational, record-setting show at the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA) in 2008.

Many have criticized George for painting his Blue Dogs over and over. It’s always the same thing, the critics said. He’s just capitalizing on a temporary craze, they claimed. As often happens, the critics missed the point of George’s work entirely. They focused on the dog and not on the overall work, or George’s impressive body of work. And, of course, they consistently underestimated the enduring appeal of the Blue Dog — and of George. He often told me that the reason the Blue Dog enjoyed such popularity was because everyone could see something different, something uniquely personal, in the flashing yellow eyes of the ubiquitous canine. He also confided to me, and later shared in one of his books, Blue Dog Man, that the Blue Dog and the artist had become one. The Blue Dog, which was originally his beloved pet Tiffany, who patiently sat by his side while he painted, were on an artistic journey together, much as each of us is on a journey through life.

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I can’t claim to write definitively about any work of art, but I can say without fear of contradiction that I knew George better than most, and certainly longer (and better) than anyone in the media — with the possible exception of our great mutual friend Ken Bode, the former NBC and CNN political correspondent. I introduced Ken and George when Ken came to Louisiana in 1984 to cover our state’s Democratic presidential primary, which, in typical Louisiana fashion, fell on the same date as the Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival. Ken did a marvelous piece for NBC using George’s work and the crawfish festival as a backdrop for a political story that was as much about our culture as our crazy politics. Bode, George and I spent many hours since then enjoying each other’s company. Ken and I called each other on Saturday as soon as we heard the news of George’s passing. He recalled the time George bought him a big kettle, after which Ken, George and another great friend, Romaine Frugé, cooked a gumbo (pictured below).

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One of the things that Bode and I (and others who knew George well) most admired about George was the fact that, for all his fame, he remained the same guy who once sold his paintings out of the trunk of his car. To be sure, he enjoyed the fruits of his success, but deep down he was still “the Cajun artist,” the kid who first learned to paint when, as a small boy stricken with polio, his mother gave him a paint-by-numbers kit. Shortly before I met George in 1980, my uncle described him as “just a great big kid.” He meant it as a tender compliment — that George never lost his childlike love of life and people even in the face of great commercial success. To me, that was always part of the secret of George’s success as an artist; he remained true to himself. He changed the art world; the art world did not change him.

George in many ways was an intensely private person, but he was also incredibly generous. Not many people know that George was an Eagle Scout. Years later, he was honored by the Boy Scouts of America with the National Distinguished Eagle Scout Award.

True to his Boy Scout training, George gave back to the community many times over. Shortly after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, George painted a ghostly tribute to the victims called “God Bless America” and donated the proceeds — at least $500,000 — to the American Red Cross. After Hurricane Katrina, he painted several Blue Dogs and donated the proceeds to United Way, the International Child Art Foundation, and the Red Cross. He also founded the George Rodrigue Foundation for the Arts, which has raised millions for college scholarships for Louisiana high school artists. And that’s just what’s public. In countless private acts of kindness, George gave of himself to others in need.

Above all, those of us who knew and loved George will miss his infectious, boyish humor. He had a wonderful belly laugh, and he laughed often with friends. Margo and I this morning recalled the time he drew a pen-and-ink picture on a linen napkin for us at the Washington Mardi Gras Ball. It was Valentine’s Day 1987. I asked George if he would draw something for us on the one-year anniversary of our engagement. He promptly sketched a bayou scene with a pier, a bayou, and an oak tree, with a sign on the pier that read, “Clancy’s Landing.” He then inscribed the napkin, “To My Love Margo and Whatcha-Muh-Call-It.” We all laughed long that night. It’s still our favorite among the many examples of George’s work that we are privileged to own.

George’s laughter and his art were his escape, I think, from what one admirer once called “the profound sadness” that inhabits the Cajun soul. Just as blues singers purge their sadness by pouring it out in song, George poured out his profound Cajun sadness every time he put brush to canvass. That left him with only joy, which he shared generously with his friends and family.

George, Wendy, Margo and me in December 2012, celebrating what we thought was his full recovery from cancer
  • George, Wendy, Margo and me in December 2012, celebrating what we thought was his full recovery from cancer

George fought a courageous battle against cancer, and he did so out of the public eye. That, too, showed his great character. When his first bout with the disease seemed to end with a complete cure, the first thing he did was gather with friends at every opportunity. He and Wendy (his beloved wife and muse) met Margo and me for dinner one night to celebrate his recovery (photo above from that happy occasion). We all thought then that we would have George for many more years, but too soon the cancer returned and took him. Now we are left with our own profound sadness, along with so many happy memories that we will always cherish.

George is survived by Wendy, who has written often for GAMBIT’s blog (and who has her own blog, Musings of An Artist’s Wife), his two sons André and Jacques, and many, many friends.

If you want to know more about George and his art, read my 2008 GAMBIT cover story. It has many quotes from former NOMA director E. John Bullard and from George himself. I have much more that I want to say in praise of my friend, but I'll simply close by saying farewell, Blue Dog Man. I hope you and Tiffany continue your beautiful journey.

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