“Why would you want to see all those old people? I mean, you could swim at the pool with us!”
I tried (and failed) to explain to him about a class, about this mass of people bound together by a common goal (an education) and yet each shining as individuals, as distinct personalities. Although we have our separate memories, we also exist as a unit, a group that shapes and defines a certain part within each of us. It’s the same part that now, all these years later, dissolves the insecurities and shyness, the adolescent angst, so that even if we don’t recognize a classmate, we still embrace her with genuine goodwill, because…
“You were in my class!”
Perhaps I would have had more success in explaining this to William had I shown him a George Rodrigue painting.
George painted a number of classes over the years, beginning with his mother’s Mount Carmel Academy graduating class of 1924 in New Iberia, Louisiana (pictured above, painted in 1972). His mother, Marie Courregé Rodrigue (bottom row, third from the right) stands out no more than her classmates.
And yet, in George’s design she’s part of a distinct and strong shape, one that doesn’t exist if even one person leaves the group.
He further emphasizes this concept with the bushes behind the girls, echoing their heads and locking them into the landscape of southwest Louisiana.
The same can be said for Miss Arcenaux’s Girls’ School (pictured above, painted in 1973), a Rodrigue fabrication from a New England yearbook, of a class removed from its original school gym setting and placed outdoors and miles away, transformed as a unit by an artist’s imagination into a Cajun tradition.
Unlike his mother’s class, here George dresses the students alike, reinforcing their existence as a group, again framed by their landscape, no head touching the sky, and in this case floating almost like ghosts, like a glowing white ball settled beneath the oaks, unaffected by shadow.
In his mother’s class, George painted each person with distinct visages and clothing; however, in paintings like The French Society (pictured above, painted in 1973), the group itself is more important than the individuals. It’s no longer possible to recognize a face. The class, rather than its members, is the subject. In this case, the girls bond through their interest in speaking French, a purpose that makes the group as a whole, as opposed to the individual members, unique.
In each of these paintings, the oak tree is as much a subject as the class. It’s as though George cut out and pasted this big shape, this gaggle of students, onto a landscape painting. Indeed, if one were to pluck them out, the tree, cut off at the top, with the light shining beneath its branches, holds its own. (for more Rodrigue landscapes, see the post Early Oak Trees).
I easily picture George’s own class, posed in their photograph in front of their school, St. Peter’s College (later Catholic High) in New Iberia, Louisiana, as a single design element in a Rodrigue painting, as though they too could just as easily exist as a unit beneath the oaks.
(Young George stands in the center of his class, 1954; and top row, third from the left at his reunion).
Although George never painted his class, he did paint his school in 1984 (the same year, incidentally, of the first Blue Dog painting).
My high school class was large, more than two hundred students, and nowhere are we photographed or painted together as a unit. But we exist as one just the same. Whether as a large group or just a few friends, there is something about us twenty-five years later that is recognizable beyond our individuality, something that links us so strongly in this imaginary giant shape, that we are locked together, as though pasted onto the landscape of our past (the beaches of the Emerald Coast?), each person equally important in preserving not just the memories, but that unique entity known as our class.
Coming this Saturday, in honor of Father’s Day: “Eagle Scout”