Cover Story

Every Dog Has His Day

by Mary Tutwiler

Marginalized by the Lafayette art community for 40 years, George Rodrigue is finally getting a series of hometown art exhibits befitting his big dog stature.

The inner circle gathers for lunch Fridays at The Blue Dog at a table under George Rodrigue's portrait of Ronald Reagan. The artist shows up in studied undress: navy T-shirt, navy unbuttoned button-down, black jeans. Rodrigue's son and personal attorney, Jacques, who is a part owner of the restaurant, acts as nominal host. Jacques' brother, Andre, is in the kitchen folding duck into won tons, a dish for which the restaurant is famous. Around the table are Tony Bernard, artist and computer geek for the Rodrigue machine; Edmond deBoisBlanc, who pulls Rodrigue's prints; J.D. Liebert, Rodrigue's warehouse manager; and Lafayette Parish Sheriff's Office detective Allen Venable. With their heavy Cajun faces, especially Rodrigue himself - broad browed and big nosed - the gathering resembles the most famous of Rodrigue's multi-figured paintings, the Aioli Dinner. A round of appetizers appears, unbidden. The crew has assembled to talk about Rodrigue's legal troubles. Somebody is manufacturing unauthorized Blue Dog Democrat buttons in Kansas, a French restaurant owner has plastered his walls with Blue Dog posters downloaded from the Internet, and a seller on eBay is hawking Blue Dog prints, which sell for about $5,000, for a discounted $250 a pop. The only problem is they are scanned out of books. Even though he is being scammed, Rodrigue finds the stories hilarious and yelps with laughter at all the ways enterprising art crooks are capitalizing on the fame of his pop icon. "It takes three lawyers, working full time, to protect my copyrights," says Rodrigue, chuckling at the endless intrigue. "We have to check eBay every day."

The crux of today's meeting is two paintings loaned 20 years ago to Mulate's Cajun restaurant in Breaux Bridge. Jacques Rodrigue already worked the legal angle to get them back. Venable, the deputy, is there to chew over repossessing the paintings, valued at $75,000 a piece.

Watchdog, 1984, illustrating a ghost story about the loup garou, is Rodrigues's first blue dog painting.

Rodrigue is the most famous (some would say the most notorious) living artist in Louisiana. He's also the most commercially successful, raking in up to $2 million a year in gallery sales. His ubiquitous Blue Dog paintings trigger all sorts of comments. Avid collectors love the mystery of the sad-eyed pooch, while detractors point to Rodrigue's contract with Xerox as apropos, because, they claim, just like a copy machine, he produces the same image over and over and over again.

Like his work or not, Rodrigue is that one artist in a million who has been able to touch the collective unconscious of the public, creating art people are willing to pay astronomical prices for, and innovating before his work becomes stale. Just when you think the phenomenon is over, when the fickle art world will pass him by, he comes out with something fresh and new. Call it brilliant marketing acumen or creative genius, but any way you look at it, Rodrigue's work is a howling success.

Everywhere, that is, but here, where Rodrigue grew up, painted, and maintains a gallery. It has taken 40 years for Lafayette to acknowledge Rodrigues's place in the sun. This year, as the artist turns 65, Lafayette celebrates Rodrigue's Acadiana with a plethora of events. He will receive an honorary degree in May from UL Lafayette, where he studied painting as an undergraduate. He will be anointed with a SPARK lifetime achievement award from the UL College of the Arts during its Festival of the Arts later this month. A collection of early works that has been the property of UL for some 30 years is being shown for the first time at the Paul and Lulu Hilliard University Art Museum. A major retrospective of 140 works, mostly on loan from local collectors, will open at the Acadiana Center for the Arts March 14. Rodrigue will host a show of new work at his own gallery on South College April 3. While 2009 is the Year of the Ox, according to the Chinese calendar, here in Lafayette you can call it the year of the dog.

Aioli Dinner, 1971

Born in New Iberia in 1944, George Rodrigue grew up riding his bike past the Shadows on the Teche, where a show of local art hung every spring on the fence surrounding the sugar plantation. Bedridden by polio at age 10, he asked for brushes and paper. His parents bought him a paint-by-numbers set. "I started painting on the back of the canvas," he says. "I didn't like to follow the numbers. But I liked to paint." Pictures of clowns, fire trucks and birds led to art classes, and then, when he outgrew the class, enrollment in a correspondence course for commercial artists. "I was the youngest person to take the course," he says. "I was 14. Every month a book would come and I'd follow the directions and mail it back."

After he graduated from St. Peter's College, the local New Iberia Catholic high school, he enrolled at UL. In 1962, the art department was headed by Dr. R. Warren Robinson, and filled with artists like Bill Moreland and a young Elemore Morgan. The focus was on fine arts. Rodrigue had his eye on becoming a commercial artist. So he transferred to the Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles, training under post-surrealist Lorser Feitelson.

Abstract expressionism and its crown prince, Jackson Pollock, even posthumously, dominated the fine art world, while Andy Warhol was challenging the mainstream artistic sensibility with his Pop Art soup cans. Rodrigue studied advertising illustration and painting for six semesters. He came home in 1967 because his father had a stroke and he had to help his mother, but he had no intention of staying. "What changed my mind," he says, "was each time I'd come back to Louisiana I'd see something different that I hadn't noticed growing up. I started painting and I saw all this stuff leaving us, things I wanted to capture in the Cajun country, and so I decided to call myself a Cajun artist."

Self Portrait, 1971

For the first few years, using photography to help sharpen his vision, he painted landscapes. His style soon came into focus. "When I went back to my dark room, I developed all these photographs and realized that in every photograph I had, there was a tree in it. Which I hadn't realized. I decided the actual tree was a symbol I should use. I started investigating. I went to New Orleans and looked at early Louisiana landscape painting and realized that the design was actually an 18th-century European design with a huge sky, and way at the bottom of the picture was Louisiana. The design was purely European. I wanted to create something in an abstract way, because I always thought of myself as an abstract painter. I started painting abstract oak trees with the tops cut off, because once you're down there, you're not conscious of the tops. You see the huge limbs and big trunks.

"I started designing very small paintings. I'd paint 20 trees in a row, each one different. How the limbs would react with the sky. They were very dark. I started getting a sense of how these trees should look. Then one day I realized that sooner or later I'd have to paint a person. So I said if a person was on the other side of that tree and he walked around, what would he look like? He would have to be very primitive. He was outside most of the time. With the heavy humidity, the mosquitoes, the swamp, he had to look like he lived in my landscape. They couldn't be very polished. I started working with the shapes of the pants and the legs, tying them in with the shapes of the trees and realized that the people were caught. So I started out with the history. The people came to south Louisiana and were caught here for 200 years. I wanted to paint them as if they were caught in the trees in the landscape and didn't move."

"I could certainly see the originality of his landscapes and Cajun narrative pictures," says E. John Bullard, director of the New Orleans Museum of Art, which put on a major Rodrigue retrospective last year. Bullard's area of expertise is 19th-century American art. "There is a naive or folk art quality to his paintings. That's because of the nature of the subject matter and the theme, and it lent itself to that more simplified depiction, but that's part of the tradition of American art. When Rodrigue wants to paint in an academic style he can. But just like Picasso, he chose not to."

Hot Dog Chili, 2000, silkscreen, is the convergence of two American pop icons, the Blue Dog and Andy Warhol's Campbell's soup can.

Local collectors started buying Rodrigue's works in the mid-1970s. Robert Shelton's office was across Johnston Street from Rodrigue's former home on Jefferson. "He'd come over, have coffee," says Shelton. "I'd go to his house and look at his paintings. George had his vision. It didn't square with the way the teachers at the university thought." That didn't stop the self-educated Sheltons, who studied art by reading and visiting museums, from investing in Rodrigue. Robert and Jolie Shelton bought eight paintings, which cost between $5,000 and $10,000 each.

Robert Shelton admired Rodrigue's desire to capture a fading culture through symbolism - dressing his characters in 19th century costumes and depicting stories that his parents and grandparents had recounted when he was a child.

Those early paintings are ghostly, romantic, and somehow both melancholy and comic. A partially nude Jolie Blonde personifies the infidelity of women, the longing of Evangeline for her lover Gabriel, the longing of the Cajuns for their homeland in Acadie, and a cultural heritage Rodrigue felt was dying before his eyes. Or take "Winning Cakes," six girls holding their prize winners from the bake sale, perched in a live oak tree. It's a charming rendition of a local custom, both fond and funny, painted with the self-deprecating style Rodrigue applies to all things Cajun, most pointedly himself. There's a tongue-in-cheek attitude that runs through many of his later Cajun works, especially the portraits of famous Louisianans such as Huey Long and Edwin Edwards. Humor in the face of adversity is a Cajun characteristic. Rodrigue, Cajun by heritage and temperament, seems to tweak the nose of his subjects at the same time he puts them on a pedestal. "Let's not be too serious," he seems to be saying, "because we may all fall into the mud."

Rodrigue's paintings coincided with the renaissance in Cajun culture that was going on in Acadiana through the development of the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana and the birth of Festivals Acadiens. But while the fight to save Cajun culture garnered local support, Rodrigue couldn't break into the university crowd or the Lafayette art scene. "When you get to a small town, there's a lot of politics. Even though I lived there, I never really got involved with all that politicking they had with the arts. There's only so many people who are going to support you, no matter what you do," he says. "That's the bottom line. How many people really buy art and put it on their wall?"

Francis Love, the first director of the university's Art Museum, the "pink palace" on the corner of St. Mary and Girard Park Drive, gave Rodrigue a small show circa 1970. That was the first and last museum exhibit Rodrigue has had in Lafayette until this year. Meanwhile, collectors like the Sheltons as well as Rodrigue himself donated art to the university, but for three decades it remained in storage, or hung in the offices at the UL Foundation.

Edwin Edwards, 1983. It has become nearly compulsory for Louisiana governors to have their portraits painted by Rodrigue.

Rodrigue says he didn't let the snub bother him. He found an appreciator in Baton Rouge architect A. Hays Town, who gave him some advice early on. Town told Rodrigue he had to respect his own work. In order to give a painting value, Rodrigue recalls, Town told him a painting must be precious to the artist. "If it's important to the artist, it becomes important to the collector. That gives it value,'" Rodrigue remembers Town saying. "I never heard any art teacher talk like that," says Rodrigue. "Collectors can buy what they like. A lot of them have a better sense of art than the teachers."

Town helped Rodrigue get a show in New Orleans. He was picked up by a dealer, who took the young artist to New York, Europe and California. Rodrigue's work began to develop a following, and to help promote his Cajun images, he illustrated a book of ghost stories, Bayou. One of the stories was the legend of the loup garou, or werewolf. Rodrigue painted 40 illustrations, including one called "Watchdog." Sitting in front of a two-story Victorian house, a small terrier with yellow eyes, washed blue by the moonlight, stares out of the 1984 painting. For the next four years, Rodrigue continued to paint his Cajuns, and the mournful blue loup garou was just one more ghostly image from the past.

Rodrigue exhibited the paintings at a show in Los Angeles in 1988. "That's where I heard them call it the blue dog," he says of the crowd at the opening. "And it changed my mind as to how I thought of it. Maybe it's not a loup garou, maybe it's a blue dog. But what is it? I didn't actually know; it took another five years of me painting it, and trying to figure out what this blue dog is." But he certainly struck a nerve - the show was a sell-out that night.

The blue dog, in all her manifestations, has made Rodrigue rich and famous. As a pop icon, she adorns the walls of the homes of buyers who compete to own the largest collection. Prints boost sales among those who can't afford original oils. Contracts with Absolute Vodka and Xerox in the 1990s through 2000 positioned the blue dog in global advertising campaigns. Rodrigue has painted portraits of all the presidents from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush, with the ubiquitous blue dog gracing each portrait. No commission has come from the Obama administration, yet. Finally, after a world of commercial gallery openings, two museums, the Dixon Gallery and Gardens Museum in Memphis and the New Orleans Museum of Art, put together major retrospectives in 2007 and 2008. New Orleans set records. "It brought in new members," says Bullard, "a new audience who normally hadn't come to the museum, who probably thought in the past we were sort of stuffy and elitist. It was probably the highest attendance we've ever had for the work of a living artist." This year, one of Rodrigue's paintings was sold at auction at Sotheby's. It went for $150,000. "That's where I want to be," says Rodrigue, "not putting the blue dog on T-shirts."

The Millennium, 1999, Rodrigue's poke at the Y2K paranoia.

The shows in Lafayette will cover Rodrigue's early work, as well as work lent from local collectors, including the Blue Dog, and a few of his latest, abstract hurricane series. What's next for Rodrigue?

"There's such a broad range of concepts out there of what art's about and why it's done. Today's contemporary art is wide open; you can say what you want. So to find a place where you fit is the hardest thing. You've got to satisfy yourself first. When I started painting Cajuns, everybody said I was crazy. Then, I got successful - they said I'm only painting Cajuns cause Cajuns are popular in the world. They weren't popular when I started. When I decided to paint Blue Dog, the same things were said. Are you crazy? Who wants a blue dog?' I said, Nobody, it's not the point. I wanted to investigate this.' After I did it and it became successful, then they said You're only painting it because everybody wants it.' I don't have to paint blue dogs if I don't want. I painted hurricanes. A whole series. A month after my show opened, [in New Orleans] I went back to painting landscapes. Who wants landscapes? I did it for the people in Lafayette.