His parents, however, had other ideas, determined he have something more steady than his father’s (and grandfather’s) work in brick-laying and construction. They insisted he take a job with the Southern Pacific Railroad Company like his Uncle Albert or with the South Central Bell Telephone Company like his Aunt Bertha (known to the family as “Bertha the Old Maid,” who famously threw out her mother’s bones with the trash). These careers had retirement plans and benefits, and for Marie and Big George, no dream was worth sacrificing young George’s security. But over the years he watched his twenty-two aunts and uncles. He saw them work from nine to five, retire, and sit on the porch, and he grew up going to their funerals. (pictured, Marie Rodrigue, bottom far left, with her brothers and sisters, 1955)
He also watched them pinch pennies long after they established their ‘security.’ In fact he still talks about Uncle Albert, who once rode for free on the train all the way to Chicago for a conference and after learning of the two dollar cab fare, skipped the city and boarded the return train for New Iberia. This same uncle made extra money on the side as a bootlegger, and George remembers him always prepared for a customer, the bottles clanging beneath his overcoat. He dated his girlfriend for forty years, not wanting to purchase a ring or share his ‘security,’ and upon her death perhaps some form of regret finally overtook him, because at age sixty-five he married her sister. Redefining ‘frugal,’ he kept a brick by his bed, and for every nickel wastefully spent, he hit himself in the head.
This was not the life George wanted.
As I mentioned in the post How Baby George Became an Artist, New Iberia in the 1950s and 1960s could hardly be described as an art community. There was little opportunity for art instruction, much less a job, much less ‘security.’ The obvious place for George to begin his quest was not in New Iberia, but rather the ‘big city’ of Lafayette located twenty-five miles northwest of his hometown. Established in 1900 the University of Southwest Louisiana (now called the University of Louisiana at Lafayette) is the second largest university in the state and, most important it had (and has) an art department.
George enrolled at USL in 1962. He took nothing but art classes, rejecting the required studies as unnecessary. He had no interest in pursuing a degree (after all, assuming he stayed on course it’s not like he needed a resume), however he wanted formal and intense training in the fine arts. He talks about his years at USL as, more than anything, a stepping stone. Abstract Expressionism was the academic art of the day, and he had no interest in non-representational art. (Nevertheless he describes his instruction in handling color as invaluable).
George always says that throughout art school, both at USL and later at Art Center, he knew he was not the best at drawing or painting or rendering. His strength was in his ideas. He could see the others in his class, even his professors, struggling with originality. It’s come easy for George all of his life, and it’s for this reason that he’s often said that the artist he most admires is Salvador Dali. Dali, he says, had incredible ideas. (pictured, Five Balls and Three Indians, both 40×40 inches by George Rodrigue, 1963; Yes, I was laughing when I typed the titles)
His most important accomplishment at USL was the creation of his design book, a project he worked on for months in Professor Calvin Harlan’s design class. Upon its completion, George felt saturated with the school’s curriculum, and after only four semesters he decided to move on.
But where? There were few art schools in the country in those days, and it’s not like he could have searched the computer or found brochures at a recruitment table. There simply was no resource for finding a way to further his education.
Meanwhile back in New Iberia, like most proud fathers Big George bragged about his son, despite his concerns for his future. By chance, a distant cousin Compton LaBauve (of LaBauve’s jewelry store, where George saw the Joe Grandee exhibition several years before) had on hand brochures from art schools in California and Florida, collected by his own son the previous year. He passed them along to Big George, who passed them along to George.
One school stood out among the others: The Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles (now located in Pasadena). George sent his USL design book to California and waited. It was not until he arrived on campus in the fall of 1964 that he learned that Art Center is a graduate school. They accepted him despite his lack of a college degree.
Imagine George getting on a train in New Iberia and crossing the country for Los Angeles and the west coast. Other than a family vacation to Yellowstone National Park at age eight, he had never been anywhere other than south Louisiana and southeast Texas. To this small-town Cajun, Los Angeles in the 1960s was a foreign land.
He got off of the train with his small suitcase, along with a list of rooms-for-rent provided by the school. He walked the neighborhoods surrounding Art Center, knocking on doors, only to learn that the list was outdated and most houses no longer rented to students. As the sun set on this strange city, he knocked on the last house on the list, wondering where he would sleep that night. To his amazement, a pair of elderly, red-headed twins opened the door and welcomed him. Their previous tenant had moved out that same morning. George remained with them for the next two and a half years. (As talented as George is, he is the first to admit that he has always, in his career as well as nearly every other aspect of his life, been lucky).
(Pictured below: George’s landladies and retired vaudeville dancers, Velma and Thelma Little, reunited with George at his first Los Angeles solo show in 1988.)
More than anything else, it was his years at Art Center that gave George the skills and any extra drive he may have needed to pursue a career as a painter. Art Center was (and still is) one of the top art schools in the country, and imagine the L.A. art scene in the mid-1960’s, not to mention the atmosphere of the city itself! George was a serious student, so he claims not to have known the club scene or the concerts or the war protests or all of the things we now associate with California during this time, but he was not oblivious to his surroundings. In fact, just a few months after his arrival R&B singer Sam Cooke was found naked and shot to death in a phone booth less than a block from George’s apartment. The strange story reached the paper in New Iberia, and George’s parents begged him (without success) to return home.
Art Center was known for graphic illustration, advertising design, and automobile design. In addition to the fundamentals of art, George studied design of all kinds.
He made mock album covers for movie soundtracks (his design for “High Noon” pictured below), created short films, designed brochures promoting fictitious American cities, and produced illustrations to sell refrigerators and ovens. (I was mortified and oddly reminded of Mad Men when he described one particular assignment: “What kind of woman do you picture opening a refrigerator door?”).
He also had extensive instruction in photography, including dark room developing and printing, as well as photo essays of the Renaissance Pleasure Fair. (Most people do not realize the significance of photography to George both in his painting design and as its own art form. I definitely will explore this in a post down the road).
As much as school itself, possibly even more, it was the L.A. art scene that affected George in a way that remained with him throughout his career, even today. Although he took basic art classes such as figure drawing, color studies, and sculpture at Art Center, Abstract Expressionism, as with USL, was the primary focus of his art instruction. (Rodrigue charcoal drawings, 1965)
For more on this see the post, The Nude Figure.
The city of Los Angeles unwittingly provided additional education. In 1962 Andy Warhol shocked the art world with his exhibition of Campbell’s Soup Cans at the Ferus Gallery in L.A. His Brillo Boxes, Coca-Cola bottles, and renditions of Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley debuted in regular exhibitions until the gallery closed in 1966.
Although derided by his professors, Pop Art, specifically the idea of taking something from the popular culture and reincorporating it back into that same culture as a piece of art, fascinated George. (pictured, Pop Goes the Ads, 1966 by George Rodrigue, 48×60 inches, paint and collage on plywood)
After intense studies with abstract artist Lorser Feitelson (1898-1978) at Art Center, he already focused on hard edges (evident throughout George’s career, whether Landscapes, Cajuns, or Blue Dogs), but Pop Art included repetitive imagery. In a strange way it was both abstract and representational. (pictured, artist Lorser Feitelson with his ‘hard edge’ paintings)
It would be impossible to describe George Rodrigue’s style of any period without using terms like hard-edge and repetitive imagery. He’s painted hundreds of hard-edged oak trees, cut off at the top, and stylized into a specific shape; his Cajuns, in his words, are “cut out and pasted” onto Louisiana; his Blue Dog, a hard-edged and repetitive shape no different than his trees, could almost be described as his ‘Campbell’s Soup Can,’ except that unlike Warhol, George invented the image itself as a piece of art.
In March of 1967 George’s father died, and he saw this as a sign to return home. From this point the story continues with Early Oak Trees and a Regrettable Self-Portrait, a post that details his early struggles with style and acceptance. It also tells of those long drives home from school in Los Angeles, crossing Texas, and how this resulted in his oak tree, an original idea within a long-established genre.
Art school affected George on many levels, none of which, ironically, included a degree. From the USL design book that got him into Art Center, to the instruction of contemporary hard-edge masters such as Lorser Feitelson, to endless hours of traditional studies in figurative drawing, to classes in automotive design (something directly linked to the latest Blue Dog sculptures), to the 1960s Pop Art phenomena, to the atmosphere of Los Angeles itself, and to the long drive home on Route 66, without question art school paved the way for George Rodrigue, the artist.