I wandered through college with a guilt complex. Like many naïve students, inspired by a voting voice and new knowledge, I embraced the world’s problems as my own, determined to improve things somehow, even as I failed in family relationships and winced at dateless Saturday nights.
Looking back, it was a crazed mental time, when a skipped meal, prayed over, transported magically to a starving child; when vegetarianism meant one less chicken in the over-crowded coop; and when five spare dollars in my checking account meant more money that Sunday in the offering plate.
I saw need everywhere, a vision I gradually narrowed, or at least focused, lest I went crazy. Although some of us remain protesters and activists as we age, most concentrate at some point on peace within our own home as opposed to peace on earth. Despite this age-accompanying cynicism, I still believe that one person’s actions make a difference, and that even a small difference counts.
Children see the world with broad vision. They love and give without worrying about perception. “We’re all artists, Ms. Wendy,” explained a young girl recently, as I complimented her on her painting.
Children also see beauty where adults might miss it. “If you stand here,” said a child, as she held my hand in the Besthoff Sculpture Garden, “the light shines from underneath the trees, just like in Mr. George’s paintings.”
(pictured, The Tree Where I Sat, 2009, 24×30, oil on canvas)
I was a sophomore at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas when I met Gladys at the H.E.B. She struggled with her cane and over-sized handbag as she loaded her groceries into the trunk of a cab while the driver sat helpless, rolling his eyes with impatience.
“Where do you live?” I asked.
…she replied, referring to the old and, were this New Orleans, ‘uptown’ nearby neighborhood.
She trusted me, and I gave her a ride to a Tudor-style house, classic and cracking on the outside, decaying and 1950s within.
I recognized the old-lady smell, the one that comes from piles of junk mail and dusty lace tablecloths, from floral hand cream and moldy wallpaper, from warmed leftovers and stale coffee. Except for a tic-toc, the house was deadly quiet, as though no one disturbed its air with laughter or speech in years.
Gladys looked like Miss Havisham, and her home, although not quite Satis House, sat neglected and lonely. We made a date.
(pictured, The Shadows of New Iberia, 1969, 16×20, oil on canvas)
That Friday, I fetched Gladys for lunch. She wore her vintage Sunday best to the Mexican cantina (paid for with an advance from my job at the school auditorium) and afterwards served me tea from her floral Windsor china, as we made small talk on a plastic-covered faded blue sofa.
As I recall those days, it’s the silence that screams loudest in my memories, broken only by the metered sound of the old clock and Gladys’s hesitant answers to my predictable questions:
Tell me about your husband. What is the name of this china pattern? Shall I refill your tea?
We repeated this visit every Friday for more than a year, eventually expanding our afternoons to include museums, the Alamo, and Olmos Pharmacy (for chocolate malts). Along with my peer tutor class, we decorated a Christmas tree, her first in many years. Holiday music filled the house from a student’s boom box.
(pictured, Tree Topper, 2000, 20×16, silkscreen)
In January of my junior year, I joined a study-abroad program in Vienna, Austria. Gladys protested, but I left her anyway, and two months later she died.
The following year I returned from Europe, changed but still — perhaps more — guilty. The modern world seemed incongruous with my intense journey through Art History. Without Gladys, I sought diversions. I volunteered at the local A.I.D.S. clinic. One by one, scared young men (because honestly – they were all scared young men) dropped in for testing. Within weeks I answered the A.I.D.S. suicide hotline, forwarded to my college apartment’s phone on Monday nights.
I was an unqualified, healthy, heterosexual twenty-one year old girl. But it was the 1980s, and young gay men died faster than counselors were trained. People feared the infection, and volunteers were scarce. My mother worried, correctly and on several levels, that I didn’t know what I was doing. But this was my protest, my creed, and in my mind, I had no choice.
We all remember when we were young and set out to change the world. Maybe you held a picket sign, chained yourself to a tree, or delivered Meals on Wheels. Maybe you still look at the world in this way, out to make a difference.
My sister and I learned this vision from our mother. Despite barely covering the weekend’s hot checks with Monday’s paycheck, she sent money every month, along with our letters, to Ernik Tukiman in Indonesia, a child matched to our family by World Vision.
(Thirty-five years later, Ernik’s photograph still hangs on our Christmas tree).
I asked George Rodrigue about those years in his own life, and his answer surprised me:
“All I wanted was to get to art school.”
His focus paid off, and he fulfilled that dream and more, supporting his family with his art by his mid-twenties. George’s generosity of time and money kicked in later, first in small ways in his Lafayette community, and later with large-scale projects for the Boy Scouts of America, the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, the Red Cross following 9/11, the International Child Art Foundation, humanitarian and arts-related relief following Hurricane Katrina, and countless small-town projects involving festival posters, student lectures and more.
Today, through the George Rodrigue Foundation of the Arts (GRFA), these efforts are near full-time, with programs devoted to the arts and education.*
At one point, we all realize that the joy of giving cannot match the weight of need. Even through GRFA, it is impossible for George to reach every school, anymore than I could befriend every lonely old lady, or my mother feed every child. But does it mean we shouldn’t try?
*Update, December 2020
In 2017 I established the Life & Legacy Foundation in George’s honor, with educational programming inspired by the life and art of George Rodrigue. As of Spring 2020, this has brought me, personally and happily, to nearly 40,000 students in 91 schools in 8 states. I look forward to resuming this hands-on outreach in a post-COVID 2021. Be well! Enjoy life!