George Rodrigue Exhibition on Display at LSU Museum of Art
Ronald Reagan, Bobby Jindal, Andy Warhol, Mikhail Gorbachev, Bill Clinton, Edwin Edwards and one famous "Blue Dog." What do all of these have in common? Louisiana's artist laureate, George Rodrigue.
The LSU Museum of Art is hosting an exhibition, titled "Blue Dogs and Cajuns on the River," with more than 70 original paintings chronicling the amazing 40-year career of Rodrigue until Sunday, Sept. 18.
As part of the LSU Museum of Art's exhibition, 17 of Rodrigue's famous "Blue Dog" paintings are on display from the New Orleans Museum of Art's collection that is traveling to various museums throughout Louisiana. "Blue Dogs and Cajuns on the River" also features signature works from both local Rodrigue collectors and the artist's personal collection, including some of his early oak trees, many of his Cajun portraits, an evolution of "Blue Dog" paintings and examples from the hurricane series. This exhibit also includes Rodrigue's portraits of Louisiana governors, which are being shown all together in an exhibition for the first time, and several influential politicians including Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton and former Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev.
"A Number One Tiger Fan," 2011 - To purchase a print, visit www.arts4education.org, call 800-716-8335 or stop by the LSU Museum of Art Museum Store after viewing "Blue Dogs and Cajuns on the River."
"It's really fantastic," Rodrigue said of the "Blue Dogs and Cajuns on the River" exhibit. "People don't remember that I've been doing this for 40 years. It's from the oak trees and the Cajuns to the Blue Dog and the hurricanes. You have to visually see that in a show to understand how I got here.
"People don't know that I painted portraits because the Blue Dog overshadowed everything," Rodrigue continued. "To get that work out to the general public is hard but a show like this can do that and explain the journey."
"Blue Dogs and Cajuns on the River"
The journey of this exhibition began several years ago when the New Orleans Museum of Art told Rodrigue that they would like to take their collection on tour throughout the state. That traveling exhibition began at the Slidell Civic Center in June 2010 and has visited Monroe, Lake Charles and Alexandria and will make its way to Shreveport following the LSU Museum of Art exhibition.
However, the journey specifically to the "Blue Dogs and Cajuns on the River" exhibition came about much quicker. In September 2010 when Natalie Mault took over as chief curator of the LSU Museum of Art, she noticed there was large hole in the museum's schedule the next year. While most large exhibitions are planned out over an extended period of time, this one needed to be pulled together in a very short period of time.
"I was looking over the schedule and there was a major hole for this time frame, which is like a curator's worst nightmare," said Mault. "You usually book these kind of spaces several years in advance so to book a show in that short of a time was daunting."
After a night tossing and turning, Mault decided that a Rodrigue exhibition would be a wonderful way to fill the schedule because it would be a lighthearted exhibition that could run during the summer, and it was by a well known local artist, which meant the exhibit would not have far to travel.
Within an hour, a call made by LSU Museum of Art Director Tom Livesay to NOMA booked the 17 NOMA paintings that were traveling. However, there was a need for more paintings to fill the large space because the LSU Museum of Art's exhibition was going to be the largest in the state. As luck would have it, Erin Horton, a recent LSU graduate who was looking to add volunteer hours at the LSU Museum of Art, was also an employee of the Rodrigue Foundation for the Arts. She was able to secure additional works from the foundation and Rodrigue's personal collection to help complete the exhibition.
"All the wheels ended up turning in the same direction, and we were very fortunate," said Mault.
Less than a month into the exhibition, it has already been an astronomical success, with thousands of patrons visiting the museum and attending events during the exhibit's opening weekend alone. In addition to the exhibit itself, the LSU Museum of Art Museum Store is selling items related to the exhibit, including Rodrigue books, note cards, prints and posters. Since the exhibit has been on display, the LSU Museum of Art has generated more revenue that it did in all of 2010, showing just how strong the community feels about Rodrigue and his artwork.
"There's some sort of connection people feel, especially in Louisiana, to George Rodrigue," said Mault. "I don't know if it's the image that is so friendly and welcoming or George himself, because he is such a great guy and because of all that he does for our state."
"A Number One Tiger Fan"
While the LSU Museum of Art exhibit was in the works, Rodrigue decided it would be a great opportunity to work with LSU and the Rodrigue foundation with the "Arts 4 Education" project, which is raising funds for both the arts and education in Louisiana.
"This exhibit gave me an excuse to really do something for LSU that could help several foundations, and also help our foundation," said Rodrigue.
Rodrigue created a new work, titled "A Number One Tiger Fan," specifically to raise funds for the LSU Museum of Art, the Tiger Athletic Foundation and the George Rodrigue Foundation for the Arts. With the original 6-by-4 painting on display at the LSU Museum of Art, fans can support the "Arts 4 Education" project by purchasing a silkscreen print of the work signed by Rodrigue for $500 online until Jan. 1, 2012, at www.arts4education.org, by phone at 800-716-8335 and in-person at the LSU Museum of Art Museum Store in the Shaw Center for the Arts.
"Mike the Tiger"
This is not the first time Rodrigue has collaborated with LSU and the Tiger Athletic Foundation. In 2003, while Rodrigue's son Jacques was a student at LSU, he approached his father about helping to raise money to build a new habitat for Mike the Tiger, LSU's live tiger mascot.
"Painting Mike the Tiger in a Louisiana setting, in a Louisiana oak tree, had never been done," said Rodrigue, "and he's part of the Louisiana culture. So, I designed a painting, and we did prints to help raise money. We had no idea we would sell as many as we did."
The result was "Mike the Tiger," a painting depicting LSU's mascot in one of Rodrigue's iconic oak trees. By selling prints of the "Mike the Tiger" painting, the Tiger Athletic Foundation raised more than $1 million to build the new state-of-the-art habitat, located across from Tiger Stadium next to the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.
Spearheading million-dollar fundraising efforts is a far cry from his humble beginnings in New Iberia. A battle with polio in the third grade gave rise to the artist Rodrigue has become. While ill, his mother bought him paint-by-number kits to occupy his time. Instead of following the instructions, Rodrigue created his own original artwork.
"My mother bought me a paint-by-number set, and I started painting on the back of the canvas because I didn't like to follow those numbers. That's when I started," said Rodrigue.
A self-taught painter throughout elementary and high school, Rodrigue was first exposed to an art class when he enrolled at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, known then as the University of Southwestern Louisiana. It was then that he realized that he wanted to focus on art as a career.
"I realized that I was serious, and I wanted to sit down and watch someone paint a picture and not just a teacher telling me how," said Rodrigue.
After four semesters in Lafayette, he enrolled at the Arts Center College of Design in Los Angeles, then known as Art Center School.
"I was accepted (at the Art Center School) and when I got out there, I found out that I was the only non-graduate student in the graduate school. But, I got in because of my portfolio that I had done at UL," said Rodrigue.
Rodrigue's original plans to become an illustrator, graphic designer or art director were replaced by his love of Louisiana. It was his love for the Louisiana of his youth and the culture of the Cajun people that prompted a change in plans as he returned to Louisiana from Los Angeles.
"Each time I came back to Louisiana, I saw Louisiana changing so much," said Rodrigue. "I went from New Iberia to L.A. and that was a big jump. So, when I came back I saw Louisiana for the first time in a different light and that this is not the way the rest of the country is. That is when I got interested in painting the Louisiana that I remembered.
"My whole art career is because I'm from Louisiana. But, it took more of a national, international art training experience for me to realize what we have here is very important."
Cajuns and Oak Trees
With little recorded history of the Cajun people because the traditions had been passed down by word of mouth, and virtually no recorded visual history, Rodrigue saw an opportunity to do something no one else had done or was doing. From that came his early oak tree and Cajun paintings.
"If you are painting local people, the local people say they don't look that way. But if you get the art outside of the area, people look at it for the art – the quality and the difference in design and all of those things that make art, art – and not what it represents," said Rodrigue. "So I got a bigger reaction in Texas and Florida and Atlanta and that just slowly grew."
With the formation of the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana, or CODOFIL, in 1968, a year after Rodrigue returned from Los Angeles, he had support for his cultural artwork that allowed him to hold exhibitions throughout the world.
"As a Louisiana artist who painted culture, I had shows in Paris and London and all over," said Rodrigue. "Painting these people all in white – which represented their culture – and caught in the trees – which means they didn't leave – I was graphically interpreting the history in a way that hadn't been done before. That's what I did for 25 years."
It was in 1984 that Rodrigue was commissioned to paint illustrations for a book that would be sold during the World's Fair in New Orleans. The 40 paintings, which took three years to complete and are known as the "Bayou Collection," would accompany various Louisiana ghost stories and legends written by author Chris Segura. It was from Segura's story "Slaughter House" that the "Blue Dog" was born. From this story of an evil dog, Rodrigue painted the loup-garou, or werewolf in French, that his mother had told him about as a child.
"I didn't realize how popular it (the loup-garou legend) was, and didn't really know it was still in France and a cultural thing like the boogeyman – if you are not good today, then the loup-garou will come and get you tonight," said Rodrigue. "So, I painted the loup-garou as a werewolf dog with rough red eyes living in graveyard and cane fields. That's the first one that I did."
For the next five years, Rodrigue continued to paint the loup-garou along with his Cajun paintings. The original loup-garou paintings do have some of the familiar aspects of the later "Blue Dog" works, but with some subtle differences.
"I looked at the loup-garou as a person – eye-to-eye, straight on," said Rodrigue. "This was a spiritual character that lived in the trees. It was blueish-greyish-green because I would usually paint with a blue moon and that would be the reflections. That's how it began."
It was in 1988, during an exhibit of around 70 paintings in Los Angeles, the loup-garou became the "Blue Dog," when Rodrigue overheard a patron describe his collection of loup-garou paintings as blue dogs.
"When I heard the blue dog, it clicked, and I dropped the Louisiana references and decided it was the 'Blue Dog,'" said Rodrigue. "After 2-3 years, I realized that I could use the 'Blue Dog' to comment on life today. When we are looking at the dog for answers, it is looking at us. It is a communication about where we are along the journey. By putting elements with it that say something contemporary, it becomes a contemporary comment on society."
Over the years, Rodrigue's own journey has brought him full circle. Having seeing Andy Warhol's first one-man exhibit at the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles in 1962, Rodrigue shied away from Warhol's pop art vibe and created his own style. With the evolution of the "Blue Dog," he has now returned to the more pop art feel of the Warhol era with the very bright colors and imagery.
"As I moved on, I got back into the trees and back into the brighter colors and now it's all over the place," said Rodrigue. "It's just whatever I want to do. It's just a comment on life today."
Rodrigue's comment on life especially struck a chord after Sept. 11, 2011. While in California the night of the tragedy, he painted "God Bless America," which depicts the "Blue Dog" in white, with all the color and happiness drained out of it. Using his family's personal email contacts, "God Bless America" quickly circulated throughout the country. Rodrigue sold 500 copies of the limited edition print in around two weeks, eventually raising more than $500,000 for charity.
Less than four years later, Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, including destroying the homes of 10 of his employees. With the success of "God Bless America" after Sept. 11, many people in New Orleans asked Rodrigue what he planned to do to help the city after the hurricane. The first print, "We Will Rise Again," depicts an American flag and the "Blue Dog" under water.
"I did that one ('We Will Rise Again') and realized the reaction," said Rodrigue. "People were saying 'I have my first money, and I want to buy this for the new house that I'm going to build.'"
George Rodrigue Foundation for the Arts
From that sprung a two-and-a-half-year project of six to seven prints that raised more than $2.5 million for hurricane relief. Rodrigue then turned his focus to arts education and establishing a foundation.
Crediting his parents and teachers for encouraging his love of art, Rodrigue is continuing that encouragement by promoting the arts to the youth of Louisiana. Through the George Rodrigue Foundation for the Arts, Rodrigue is giving monetary scholarships to high school juniors and seniors through his art contest program and distributing art supplies to schools through his art closet program.
"The way that Rodrigue and his foundation promotes the arts, it's almost completely focused on school-aged children and giving back and educating those individuals," said Mault.
Rodrigue also provides teachers with resources on arts integration. Rodrigue believes that schools should incorporate art into an entire curriculum, not just in art classes.
"At whatever level, anybody can draw. It's not how good it is, it's how you express yourself," said Rodrigue. "Instead of writing a paper, you can draw a picture. Instead of adding up numbers, you can draw a picture. It's another way to keep the kids interested in learning. It's fun and creative, and it's been proven that if you do that throughout school that 90 percent of the kids stay in school."
Over the last 40 years, Rodrigue has dedicated himself to the people of Louisiana through his cultural artwork, created an iconic "Blue Dog," whose fans span every generation, and promoted education by inspiring a new generation of Louisiana artists.
"George Rodrigue is a true Louisiana artist whose works adapt and change with Cajun culture and the state of Louisiana," said Tom Livesay, director of the LSU Museum of Art. "From the legendary 'Blue Dog' to his oak trees, Rodrigue captures Louisiana's unique culture."
For more information on the George Rodrigue Foundation for the Arts and LSU's "Arts 4 Education" program and to purchase a print of "A Number One Tiger Fan," visit www.arts4education.org, call 800-716-8335 or stop by the LSU Museum of Art Museum Store after viewing "Blue Dogs and Cajuns on the River."