To create the painting, George projected the figures onto a 40×30 inch canvas and traced their outlines. He then formed the tree behind them, so that they appear to be pasted onto this symbol of Louisiana, leaving no doubt that this is a Cajun Christmas.
Recalling the story of a giant stuffed bunny one Easter and a terrified André, I asked George,
How did you get him to pose with Santa?
“He stood there, frozen,” George admitted. “That was long before digital cameras, and I had a hard time getting a good shot.”
Typical of George’s style, the sky is small and bright in the distance. The figures shine with an unnatural light, as opposed to the expected shadows beneath the branches and moss. The Cajun culture and the Christmas tradition are the subjects here, as André and Santa glow like ghosts, timeless in a Louisiana landscape.
Tell me about Santa and your own childhood, I asked George.
“I never saw a dressed-up Santa Claus as a kid. They just weren’t around. The cut-out Coca-Cola Santa from 1950 is the first one I remember. He was much bigger than I imagined.
“In the ‘50’s, the Sears, Roebuck building at the corner of Baronne and Common Streets in New Orleans had a four or five story Santa Claus. It was so giant that you could see it from Canal Street.
“During those days, all of the big stores — D.H. Holmes, Kress, Maison Blanche – had massive Christmas decorations. We drove three hours each way to see the displays, unlike New Iberia’s five-block downtown, decorated with single strands of colored light bulbs strung between telephone poles.”
Inspired by these New Orleans trips, a young George Rodrigue entered the City of New Iberia’s holiday decorating contest in 1959. He constructed and painted a life-size manger scene featuring Jesus, Mary, Joseph, and the animals, all cut from cardboard and staged with bales of hay on his grotto-like front porch. For his second place win he received $25 and his picture in the paper. It’s the only contest of any kind that he won in his life. (see the post “The Art Contest”)
The following year he focused on first place:
“I got real ambitious and went for a giant Santa like the one at Sears in New Orleans,” he explains.
Because of his dad’s connections in the tomb business, George had access to huge cardboard boxes, used to transport and protect the caskets for Evangeline Funeral Home.
“It was heavy, beautiful cardboard, eight by five feet. I broke the boxes up and cut my figures from them each year. I wanted Santa to stand on the grass higher than the pitched roof of our house, but I was limited by the size of the boxes. Using wooden ladders, 2×4’s and plywood, I built a scaffolding first. Then I painted the Santa and nailed it up. It was very tricky.”
He attached Santa to his house in real life just like he pastes his figures on the oaks in his paintings.
To further complicate matters, he stapled a clear plastic sheeting to each section of cardboard, protecting Santa from the weather (a hard-learned lesson after losing a panel in a rainstorm the first night). The whole project took two weeks.
“In the end, it was like the Sears Santa,” George recalls. “You could see it all the way from Main Street. Must have been the biggest Santa Claus ever put up in New Iberia. I didn’t win anything and had no mention in the paper, but everybody came to look.
“Still, I got discouraged and never decorated the house again.”
Today our decorations are unworthy of a home-tour. That’s because George leaves the responsibility of our holiday atmosphere to me. Stuck on traditional red bows and garland, plywood and twenty-foot Santas are out of the question. This year, for the first time ever, we forwent the tree, as we’re already on the road, heading West for a white Christmas in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
(pictured, Guapo* playing in the snow, photographed by Dana Waldon this morning in Santa Fe)
Before we reach the adobe houses, luminaries, and snow, however, we’ll stop for the weekend in Marfa, Texas, checking out the Chinati Foundation, a series of buildings housing a contemporary art museum founded by New York artist Donald Judd in 1979.
Attune to both the surrounding land and an avant-garde, minimalist mindset, the artist community of Marfa embraces the large scale and the ambitious. As I read aloud from their website, George mumbled,
“I wonder if they decorated.”
*Guapo (‘handsome’ in Spanish) belongs to Dana Waldon and Doug Magnus. “I let Doug name him,” jokes Dana, “because I thought it might give the dog a better chance of Doug not killing him!”
For a related post visit “The Ghost of Christmas Past”
This week from Dolores Pepper: “A Story of Bling” (by Wendy Rodrigue for Gambit’s “Blog of New Orleans”)