The late 1990s brought a flood of projects his way, and to many on the outside it looked like George was grabbing at everything — Neiman Marcus, the Chicago Cow Parade, books like Blue Dog Man, Blue Dog Christmas, and Blue Dog Love, posters for the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, the inaugural poster for President Bill Clinton, and numerous smaller projects for non-profits such as the Red River Revel in Shreveport and the Shaeffer Eye Center/Beam’s Crawfish Boil in Birmingham.
However, behind the scenes, although we were very busy, it just didn’t feel like a sell-out. Every project was unique and chosen for some purpose other than money. In fact, in looking at the list above, not one thing even brought in much money — not directly anyway. Rather they were all interesting projects, things to be worked out, that excited George both artistically and, there is no denying, promotionally. Each one of these helped increase his fame in certain arenas on a positive level, while at the same time challenged his creativity.
And yet, I was shocked at the number of projects he turned down. People often asked him, “How did you get the Blue Dog paintings on the show Friends?” or “How did you get to paint Bill Clinton for his inauguration?” It was clear that most people thought we sought out these projects (or even paid for them!) when in fact, they poured in. Many nights we sat on the couch going through that week’s stack of offers. And ninety percent of the time, before I barely outlined the proposal, his answer was “no.”
He turned down (and continues to turn down) everything from cartoons to major motion pictures to stuffed animals to needlepoint to clothing lines to mascots for major league football teams and women’s roller derby to the more obvious —- t-shirts and magnets and baseball caps and posters.
I’m amazed at the number of licensing companies that still contact him, thinking that because they’re not out there, surely he never thought of making t-shirts or posters.
To George’s mind, while he’s here on this earth, alive and painting, any of those projects might ruin his art. That’s not to say that there won’t be posters on every street corner one day, but it will be long after he’s gone, after his art reaches that elevated status that comes with a complete oeuvre and a lifetime’s achievement, so that the gap between the original paintings (and silkscreens) and the ‘products’ is so wide as to be insignificant.
There was one project, however, that appealed to George not only creatively and promotionally, but also financially: Xerox.
When we received their letter sometime early in 1999, although he was intrigued, George initially turned them down. He had hesitated in favor of the project only because the letter came not from Xerox, but from Young and Rubicam, the legendary New York advertising agency. His years at the Art Center College of Design in the 1960s focused heavily on advertising design, and in fact as a student George considered this as his profession (for more background see the post: Art School: Lafayette and Los Angeles, 1962-1967).
Unsatisfied with his reply, the Y&R team, specifically Barry Hoffman and Bob Wyatt, visited us at our then-home in Lafayette, Louisiana. They had with them designs for a world wide advertising campaign for their client Xerox. Each design featured the Blue Dog. I could see George was torn. On the one hand, he was like a child with excitement at the thought of working with these talented designers, and he was dreaming about what he would do with the generous payment they offered for the use of his art in their campaign; and on the other hand, he winced at their initial work. In all cases, they had removed the dog from his paintings, so that it stood on its own or appeared as a design-element in their lay-outs. In at least one example, the dog had a speech bubble attached to its mouth.
If there is one hard and fast rule for George regarding whether or not to allow the use of his artwork in any project, it is this:
The Blue Dog exists only within a complete painting of George’s design.
He turned them down again.
Within a week, they flew us to New York and tried again. I’ll never forget that meeting, because I knew then that it was going to happen, and admittedly, the thought of that big pile of money, the likes of which we’d never seen, was like winning the lottery. Y&R agreed to George’s terms regarding his art. They would give him tag words, and he in turn would design the complete painting and ad, so that the campaign was more about his art as a whole than the Blue Dog (or, frankly, Xerox). (pictured below, paintings based on the tag phrases “A Faster Breed,” “Taking Care of Business,” “Family Business,” “A Smarter Breed,” and “Service Business”)
This included not only print ads and billboards for the United States and Europe, but also television commercials filmed in museums, as well as unexpected locations throughout rural America, with George’s paintings as the focal point. (pictured, a barn in western New York, photographed by Theresa Kraft)
That meeting’s icing on the cake was a last minute arrival. Aldo Papone, the legendary advertising genius who coined the phrase for American Express, “Don’t leave home without it,” popped in because he wanted to meet George in person. You would have thought George had met Elvis himself.
The Xerox campaign gave George the opportunity to work with America’s advertising giants. He became friends with these men and looked forward each day to exchanging ideas and sharing his work. He painted on the Xerox campaign throughout the year 2000, working on little else. Rarely have I seen him so excited about a project.
So was this a sell-out? I don’t know. I do know that it was not a mistake. Whatever flak he took over the campaign was mostly in Louisiana — a product of that usual hometown attitude that comes with anything successful in one’s own backyard. The national press was, well, impressed. And indeed, I’m not sure that the nine-month world-wide promotion didn’t do more to promote George’s art than it did Xerox.
The naysayers made the obvious analogy that George paints the Blue Dog as though he’s running it off on a copy machine.
But those of us close to it never saw it that way, especially given the complexity of these works. Also, remember, this was one man sitting in his studio at 3:00 A.M., Hank Williams turned down low, a glass of milk beside him, completely lost in his thoughts, his designs, his paints. For a project that came from The Big City and from The Big Time, in the end it was just George sitting in Lafayette, Louisiana at his easel. High art or low art? You decide.
And so what about the money? He got a big hunk of it, and we were beside ourselves with excitement. To the dismay of our accountant, there was no way it was going into savings. We decided to take the whole chunk and do something we could never do before — buy a house in Carmel, California. And so that’s what we did. We found a property on eighteen acres in the country, in Carmel Valley. Even better, there was enough space for George to build his dream studio. It was the first (and only) studio he ever built, always before taking over back bedrooms or offices or a TV room. Let’s face it, he deserved it. Even though we now live most of the year in New Orleans, it is in Carmel that he does most of his painting today. (For photos, see the post Not Painting in Carmel). I guess you could say that it’s our Xerox house and, no question, sell-out or not, it was worth it.
*all images in this post are acrylic on canvas, size 48×36 inches, painted for the Xerox campaign in 2000
**for a history of the Blue Dog Series visit Blue Dog: In the Beginning, 1984-1989