Spirits in the Trees

A Tulane professor visiting the New Orleans gallery with her class this week asked me about George’s connection to voodoo. Although I’m sure she intended nothing of the sort, her question reminded me of the only negative comment we received in response to the 2008 Rodrigue exhibition at the New Orleans Museum of Art.

A woman wrote in, alarmed at George’s depictions of what she described as ‘voodoo and black magic.’ Although I tried to calm her down, I found it hard to deny this observation, simply because George explores all kinds of concepts on his canvas. I thought about The Traiteur and his belief in the Cajun folk healer, along with his frequent use of candles and a fairly visual, if not literal, painted mysticism.

(pictured, Spirits in the Trees, 1992, 33×23 inches, silkscreen edition of 85; notice the ghostly faces in the oak tree…)

I reassured her that he doesn’t advocate any sort of religion or worship through his art or otherwise, not even the Catholicism that was an inseparable part of his childhood in New Iberia, Louisiana.

From his earliest Cajun paintings, however, George explored the supernatural in his artwork. The Cajuns, he says, glow with an inner light, their culture shining out, defying what should be dark shadows beneath the oaks.

(pictured, Jambalaya, 1974, 36×24 inches, oil on canvas)

He paints the people as though they are ghosts, floating and yet locked into the landscape, framed by the trees and yet timeless, caught within their culture, unable to change or to move.

Perhaps his youth and his work in his father’s tomb business influenced this symbolism, as he remembers the crypts and their bodies floating above ground and even caught or trapped in the trees after a flood.

(pictured, A Safe Place Forever, 1984, 40×30, oil on canvas, from the book Bayou, which also includes the first Blue Dog painting)

The Blue Dog also emerges from its grave as a spirit, caught like the Cajun people in the oak tree, a symbol of south Louisiana.

(pictured, The Re-birth of Tiffany, 1993, 36×24, oil on linen)

George’s earliest related silkscreen is Spirits in the Trees, an original print created in 1992 and pictured in its main edition at the top of this post. This also was his first exposure to the split-font technique. He and his printer pulled the paper by hand while experimenting with added colors. This resulted in variegated backgrounds of these ‘split-font’ prints, so that in the case of Spirits in the Trees, the sky blends from one color to the next. As a result, each print in the split-font edition varies, leaving no two prints exactly alike.

(Spirits in the Trees Lilac, split-font edition of 13)

As described in the post “Blue Dog: The Silkscreens,” most of George’s prints are original images, meaning that they do not begin with paintings. In the case of Spirits in the Trees, for example, he started with a unique design on tracing paper. His printer cut the plates accordingly and then followed George’s instructions regarding color. The result is far more interesting than the average print. Indeed, it is best described as print-making as an art form.

(Spirits in the Trees Grey, split-font edition of 13)

In Spirits in the Trees, a simple Blue Dog sits on a grave in a controlled environment, no different than if it is Evangeline or a figure from Bodies. It is a shape no more or less strong than the oak tree, the moon, or even the sky as defined by that space between the bottom of the branches and the top of the bushes.

Without asking him (because even I don’t have the nerve), I’m sure that voodoo and spirits and the afterlife never entered his mind as George created this highly structured design. And yet, within the tree hide faces, easy to miss without a careful look. It’s unusual for George to include something so subtle; and therefore, it must be important. Having discussed with him many times topics such as spirituality and mysticism and the possibility of past lives, I can’t help but wonder if just maybe, even if it’s after the artistic fact, the spirits really are in his trees.

Happy Halloween-


Coming next week: “Swamp Women”

5 thoughts on “Spirits in the Trees

  1. George's trees not only have spirits but character and personality, too! And lots of presence. Their strength and beauty really capture the spirit of Louisiana and the Cajuns. The best art for me has a spiritual and mystical quality. Love George's work, and your blog.

  2. oh my gosh! i love it! i just searched for this print because i was curious where to go have it appraised. i own it. as a matter of fact, wendy sold it to me back in the day. this was so cool to stumble upon and learn even more about the great piece of art hanging in my house.

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