History of an Artist?

Written after reading a recent article about a ‘discovered’ (by x-ray) N.C. Wyeth painting located underneath a later N.C. Wyeth painting (turns out he had re-used the canvas). The resulting on-line debate and discussion covered everything from illustration vs art, to the artist’s intention in covering or ‘hiding’ an earlier work, to the definition of ‘artist’ itself.

My husband is an artist and at 65 years old has supported his family and made a good living that way his entire adult life. He did it on his own after galleries rejected him and arts organizations snubbed him throughout Lafayette and New Orleans. Ironically, he was painting Louisiana Landscapes and Cajuns at the time, but the local art establishment found his work crude and local collectors (with the exception of a few forward-thinking individuals) thought his depictions of the Cajuns (his people) insulting, and his work was dismissed with disdain. (His first newspaper review was titled, “Artist Paints Dreary, Monotonous Oaks” ….and it got worse from there).

He sold these paintings of Cajuns and Louisiana with much success, however, on the road (literally from the trunk of his car), far from Acadiana, in cities like Houston, Atlanta, Los Angeles, and Miami, and this taught him something very valuable —- that it wasn’t so much what he painted, but rather how he painted that drew others to his work.

This success, however, was not without its painted casualties. We’ve been together nearly twenty years, and I’ve seen George Rodrigue (as recently as this summer) reject numerous paintings, relegating them to the garage or the back of a closet. Interestingly enough, he rarely paints over them.

It’s funny, he often tells a story about when he first started painting landscapes some 45 years ago, and how he would sometimes have 20 paintings underneath the final work. One day he realized that he couldn’t see his development. So he forced himself to ‘finish’ each work (sometimes literally starting at the top of the canvas and then just working his way down, filling the white spaces) and switch from canvas to canvas until he got what he wanted (what he wanted at that moment, that is, because the next day he ‘wanted’ something else). In working this way, he was able to look around his studio and see what he’d done, and as a result he learned from his mistakes and moved forward.

(It should be noted that money was a real issue for George in those years, and using so many canvases was a financial struggle, but one he felt was necessary. To make up the difference, he thinned his paints —— so much so that many of those early paintings are cracking now.)

And so here he is today painting the Blue Dog (as criticized as his Cajuns in the beginning) and Landscapes and Figurative works and exploring new mediums like chrome and aluminum, and still learning and growing and solving puzzles in the same way.

I have heard George say many times that the thing he enjoys the most is the actual process of applying paint to canvas. He doesn’t listen to what anyone says (and never has) with regards to his art, but rather continues in his own direction, constantly exploring and changing and never, never looking back. Does it bother George to know that the works he rejected will probably one day end up on auction blocks or hanging in collections? I don’t think he gives it a second thought. Actually, I think that if it were possible, George would fill our closets with nearly every canvas he’s ever created, because his favorite, his best painting, is the one he’s working on right now. The others just don’t measure up.

Are these the actions of a true artist? I think some would say so. George attended art school to become a graphic designer. Does that diminish the quality of his forty plus years of accomplishments on canvas?

I’ve asked him before about an illustrator vs an artist. He replied that Norman Rockwell* was an illustrator in the truest sense, but that N.C. Wyeth was an illustrator whose work became something else — something closer to ‘fine art.’ I don’t think he meant to describe either one in a negative way (we were standing in a Rockwell exhibition at that time and enjoying the visual experience immensely); he merely stated the facts as he saw them from his unique vantage point.

And as to George himself, in all the years we’ve been together I’m surprised at how rarely I hear him refer to himself as an artist. In interviews, questionnaires, and general conversation, his standard reply regarding his occupation: Painter.

Even more frequently,

“I paint pictures.”

And as to me (a student of art history, an amateur collector, an avid museum-goer) I’m more of a romantic (possibly better described as a romantic sap). In the first three years I worked at Rodrigue Gallery, I barely spoke to George. He was Picasso in my eyes (still is, of course, and more), and the admiration and awe made me feel unworthy and frankly, star struck (the same thing happened on a particularly embarrassing day at the Louisiana Book Fair several years ago when I attempted and failed to get my prized first edition of The Keepers of the House signed by Shirley Ann Grau – but that’s another story; oh! And the time I met Steven Tyler, but now I really digress**).

Although of course I like some works more than others, I admire any artist, any creative individual who has the wherewithal to express themselves through music, painting, poetry, photography, illustration, whatever in a sincere manner, and I’m downright grateful when they choose to share it with the rest of us.


*For more on Norman Rockwell, see the post “Eagle Scout”

**Both the Steven Tyler and Shirley Ann Grau stories are here.