Seeing is Understanding

Over the years I’ve realized something about George Rodrigue that is different from any adult I’ve ever known — he sees in a unique way. On the most simplistic level, for example, he doesn’t remember telephone numbers, but rather traces patterns on a keypad. When we were looking to paint our house in Lafayette (before we moved to New Orleans – maybe 12 years ago), we drove up and down the famous St Charles Avenue and surrounding streets in New Orleans, looking at the way other houses with columns and French doors and porches were painted. Back in Lafayette weeks later, I would say something like,

“Remember that one on the corner of Prytania and Third?”

And he would respond with a drawing of a house, exact down to every window and cornice, and then mix his paints until he got the right color.

One night, not long after we were married, I awoke long after midnight and found him on the floor of the bedroom with a flashlight, designing a new car. He said he couldn’t sleep until he got the plans down on paper.

That’s George. He sees things in a different way — at least in a different way from me. It wasn’t until his exhibition in the spring of 2008 at the New Orleans Museum of Art that I started grasping what was going on.

I took hundreds, possibly thousands, of kids through that show, and there were two major consistencies — the younger children (say age 5-7) got everything; the older children (say age 15-17) got almost nothing, and could have cared less.

The little ones asked great questions. They noticed far more than a subject, and although they entered the show pleading for the Blue Dog, they’d forgotten about it by the middle of the Cajuns, instead pointing out patterns and light and asking about symbolism — Why? Why? Why? — hanging on my every answer and getting it, so that the next painting made more sense to them (and to me!) without the explanation. They were telling me things and pointing out hard edges and artistic decisions that in most cases their parents couldn’t see beyond the subject of “two musicians sitting under a tree” or “a blue dog on a red background.”

Similarly I was enchanted by the small children when they entered the circular dark room half-way through the exhibition, swirling with round canvases of bright abstract designs, where again and again they said (with wide eyes),

“Wow…. The planets!”

…because it was the first thing they thought of, and because they couldn’t read the title on the wall: “Hurricanes.”

One morning I’d toured through several hundred kids, and as I left the museum I walked through the sculpture garden. I heard some children call my name. As I turned, I recognized some of the young ones from that morning. They grabbed me and pointed up:

“Ms. Wendy, Look! If you stand right here, the light shines from underneath the trees, just like in Mr. George’s paintings!”

I realized then and there that ‘seeing’ is a precious gift, and even more importantly, that it is something we all have early on. Unfortunately, most of us lose it.

So do I think it takes a six-year-old to appreciate a Rodrigue? Well, time has told us that the fan club is far wider in age range, so fortunately the answer is ‘no.’ But I still think there’s something to be gained by seeing art — any art— and more importantly, seeing life, through the eyes of an untainted, focused, mindful child. Without prejudices, life becomes something new. As children, we don’t have the prejudices, but as adults, we have to turn them off. Not easy at all, and for some maybe even impossible.

Yet George taught me to see again —- not as well as these children — but nearly as well as perhaps I did in my own early years. My Rodrigue-seeing education started with the Monet paintings at the Orangerie in Paris nearly twenty years ago, but I’m going to save that exact story for late next month when we’re in New York and viewing MOMA’s Monet murals, on view in their entirety for the first time in many years.

The older students on the NOMA tours ranged from feigned interest in the subject of a painting, to curiosity about the dollar value for a Blue Dog, to rolling eyes (which I attributed to George’s ‘old-fashioned’ technique of paint-on-canvas, as opposed to the contemporary rage of installation, conceptual, and video), to sheer boredom (which I attributed to teenage angst…. No explanation necessary, I hope).

So somehow, unless we’re George or someone like him, we lose the ability to see quite early on. I don’t like to think of it this way, but perhaps it’s a form of cynicism that’s just in-bred in humanity. We become more closed, less accepting, more narrow. A wise man (Erich Schiffmann) once encouraged his followers,

“Feel yourself wide open, like the sky. Undefended.”

It’s very difficult in art, and even more so in life. But there’s a lot to be said for personal expression, and if you look at something and you just don’t get it, step back and imagine yourself six years old…..and look as if for the first time. Better yet, bring a six year-old with you and ask them what they think. You might be surprised by what you see, and by what you learn.


For a reminder of the NOMA exhibition, there is a virtual tour here:

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