Louisiana Roots (The Louis Prima of the Art World)

George Rodrigue is unique in the art world. I can think of very few contemporary visual artists of his renown that define themselves by their culture. From the time he first returned to Louisiana from Los Angeles and art school in the late 1960s, he called himself a Cajun artist. Even today he describes every aspect of his art with the words,

“It grew out of the Cajun culture.”

These are roots far deeper than a Catholic upbringing in New Iberia, Louisiana in the 1950s. It’s an inherent understanding each time he picks up his paint brush, speaks about his art, jokes with his friends, or eats cracklins on the back porch, that he comes from a unique place, southwest Louisiana, by way of another unique place, Nova Scotia, by way of yet another one, France. (pictured, Looking Back at My Family Tree 2010, 60×40)

George is inseparable from his ancestors, and when I study his unusual, yet extraordinary visage I see Marie (b. 1905) and George, Sr (b. 1900) and their parents before them, even as I struggle to see this connection in George’s sons, in the young, homogenized purely American generation (the same ambiguity I see in my own face).

(pictured, George’s grandparents Jean and Marie Courregé)

George remembers the horse and buggy in New Iberia. He remembers white-washing tombs on All-Saints Day. He tells stories of clicking rosary beads on the front porch with Tant’ Magitte as he mimicked her French. He repeats, as his mother often did, Marie’s story of the 1927 flood:

“I was sitting in church and I heard this whoosh and a rumbling. I went outside and saw the water rolling (here her eyes opened wide and she twirled her hands in a little disco move), and I turned and ran, shouting, because the water was coming.”

(For the rest of her life George’s mother Marie, who died in 2008 at age 103, sand bagged her house for every rain.)

George speaks often of a documentarian that explained to him years ago that before a culture dies, it erupts, becoming famous, even trendy, no longer able to grow within its historical confines because of stereotypes, because of what the outside world expects to see from a tour bus.

According to George, he’s watched this happen with his own culture, and it was the early stages of this shift that compelled him to paint southwest Louisiana, to graphically interpret the Cajun culture.

George defines himself by his roots and, more important, others define him this way as well. He is Cajun every minute of every day, especially when he paints. Although I can think of a few exceptions such as R.C. Gorman, Anselm Kiefer, and Fernando Botero (none of whom are Cajun), it is highly unusual for an artist with his success to embrace their culture as an intrinsic aspect of their art.

George takes this even further not just by painting his culture, but also by reinventing himself while remaining within these roots. Whether Landscapes, Cajuns, Blue Dogs, Portraits, Hurricanes, or Bodies, the concept begins with Louisiana. It’s the reason that he chose the oak tree as his ‘Pop’ symbol, his Campbell’s Soup Can; it’s the reason that most of his portraits, no matter whom the subject, lie in Louisiana settings; it’s the reason that despite several months each year in California, he continues to paint Louisiana; and it’s the reason that the Blue Dog, originally the loup-garou, exists at all. (pictured, Man’s Best Friend, 1988, 30×24)

A choice of subject is inherent within a defining style. Monet is famous for his repeated paintings of haystacks, but this combines with his studies of light, of the impressions, to create something unique to Monet.

Warhol is famous for his Soup Cans, yet this combines with his hard edge, repetitive silkscreen technique to create a Pop Art style all his own, different from Lichtenstein’s cartoons or Indiana’s words and numbers. Again, the subject is a crucial part of the artist’s defining style.

However, it’s not the only part. For George, unlike the artists mentioned above, his background is inseparable from his art. This is why, no matter what the subject, it is impossible for him to paint anything that doesn’t look like ‘a Rodrigue.’ In addition, unlike haystacks, the word ‘love,’ and soup cans, George invented his subject, the Blue Dog, an image that grew out of the Cajun culture but did not already exist in art or otherwise. (pictured, Happy Garden, 2010, 16×12)

So why, I asked George, are you so unique in this cultural immersion? I mean, what happened to your contemporaries from art school?

George explained to me that with very few exceptions they all headed to New York, and if they pursued a career in the fine arts (as opposed to advertising, for example), they attempted to fit in to the trends of the time, to Abstract and to Pop. They tried dripping paint and taping off straight lines on their canvases. They did not try going home, in every sense of the word. (pictured, House and Buggy, 1968, 14×18)

I started thinking about this after watching a documentary on Louis Prima, another Louisiana artist. As a trumpet player with his own style, Prima was rejected early on by ‘serious musicians’ and by orchestras. He did vow to show them, and that’s exactly what he did, not just by embracing his own style, but also by exaggerating it, shouting it from the rooftops. In this way not only did he stand out among musicians, but also he gained wide and popular support from the public.

Did his popularity make him less of an artist, of a visionary? Is it a sell-out to understand the pulse of the people? To the contrary, his famous contemporaries, such as Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, attended his shows not only for entertainment, but also, according to Sinatra, to learn something about how to please an audience.

Both Prima and Rodrigue pleased the public within the context of their own unique, rogue styles, and it was this that made them famous: one in Las Vegas in the face of Rock-n-Roll, and the other with the Blue Dog in the face of Contemporary Art. (pictured, My New Friend Brings Me Sunshine, 2010, 24×30)

I’m reminded of George’s favorite piece of advice from art school. A professor explained that art is like a yardstick, with the Mona Lisa on one end and black paint on a black canvas on the other:

“You have to find your place somewhere along that stick and go up.”

Both Louis Prima and George Rodrigue went their own way with their own style while others, most notably their musical and artistic peers, marveled in surprise at their success.

In addition, just like George and his Cajun roots, Prima embraced his Italian heritage in all things, especially his Italian-New Orleans heritage. His friend Joe Segreto describes a typical day following a performance as,

“A great deal of opera goes well with the pasta and wine.”

And yet, it was years before anyone would record his music. He had to create his own place in the music world and produce his own hits, booking himself in small venues across the country.

Similarly, even as George painted his Louisiana heritage, he was dismissed by galleries and ignored by the ‘serious art world.’ Undeterred, he vowed to make it on his own, not so much to show them (the dealers and academics), but more so because he believes in and is inseparable from his unique vision. (See the post A Gallery of His Own). (pictured, Colors in My Life, 2010, 24×18)

Both men reinvented themselves several times, all while embracing their Louisiana roots, Prima by way of Italy and Rodrigue by way of French Canada. And yet neither one found their success at home. In both cases they found greater acceptance outside Louisiana until on one strange and unexpected day late in their careers, the people that mean the most, the people that share their roots, sat up and noticed.*


*This week the people of New Orleans voted George Rodrigue “Favorite Local Artist” in the Times-Picayune’s Reader’s Choice Awards.

All images in this post are original paintings by George Rodrigue

3 thoughts on “Louisiana Roots (The Louis Prima of the Art World)

  1. George's high school classmate, Gary Reed, emailed me these comments and allowed me to post them below:

    I have to say that I respect George for the fact that he has never, ever, forgotten “His High School Classmates”. Of course we were a small class, and the Brothers installed in us a sense of family. It would have been easy for George, as he was becoming a “famous artist”, to not even respond to an e-mail or come to what we call a “Class Reunion”, but through all the fame, both of you always responded to “classmates”. If God appeared to me tomorrow and said “I will grant you one wish” I would say, “Let me go back to those years and make sure all my classmates are there”. Ha What a wonderful time in our lives.

  2. My mother and her sisters always spoke about the 1927 flood, crossing the railroad bridge on the Atchafalaya (in Melville) on foot, with water lapping their ankles. My father was in Opelousas at the time. Once they married and raised a family, a Louis Prima album was always close by on the HiFi. What lasting memories and events we have to keep them close. Thank you, Wendy.

Comments are closed.