Blue Dog on the Defensive

Twenty-two years ago I moved from New Orleans to Carmel-by-the-Sea, an easy decision even for a gal with little knowledge of California beyond The Grapes of Wrath (hardly a ringing endorsement).  In the tiny artist’s village I grew, over time, a little less naïve, facing the controversy naturally attached to an art gallery full of blue dogs amidst art galleries full of seascapes, garden paths and feathery children.
Visitors, nearly all tourists, gawked, “What’s with this Blue Dog?”  At one point I recall a man expounding to his friends outside our window, “Only in California!”
That was the early 1990s.  People thought George Rodrigue was crazy for abandoning his Cajun paintings, and they thought I was crazy for thinking him brilliant.  In those days, I spent seven days a week, oftentimes ten or more hours a day, in Rodrigue’s gallery, because the rush of witnessing shock followed by acceptance was like no other.  I loved the art but barely knew the artist, and so I defended without defensiveness.
(Dog in a Box hung in Rodrigue’s Carmel gallery in 1991; click photo to enlarge-)
Over time, things changed.  The Wall Street Journal front-page article in 1992 saw a distinct increase in both credibility and curiosity regarding George’s art.  But it was Absolut Rodrigue, part of the Absolut Art campaign launched with Andy Warhol in 1985, that hit every major U.S. and European magazine beginning in 1993, transforming “What’s with this Blue Dog?” into “Hey!  I know that dog!”
Without realizing it, I expected everyone, whether they liked it or not, to appreciate this artwork or, at the very least, to be kind.
Instead, the naysayers grew louder and the criticism harsher, oftentimes to my face, as though now I wasn’t just crazy for thinking him brilliant; I was crazy for thinking this art.  No one embraced this mindset more than those familiar with George’s Cajun paintings (see the links under “Cajuns” to the right of this post).
I recall a man, angry because I wouldn’t sell him Rodrigue’s Louisiana Cowboys for half the asking price, pointing his finger in my face and shouting before his meek wife and a gallery full of visitors:
“You idiot!  Don’t you realize what I’m offering you?  You’ll never sell this other trash.  Put your boss on the phone.  You obviously have no idea what you’re doing!”
I explained softly, fearfully, that I am the boss and the price is firm.  The man stormed out, dragging his wife, in my mind’s eye, along the floor by her hair.  I was so shaken that I closed the gallery and took a walk.
(When George and I bought the galleries from his former agent in early 1998,* we pulled Louisiana Cowboys, pictured above, off of the market.  Today museums frequently borrow the historical painting.  When not on loan, the 10-foot canvas hangs in the George Rodrigue Foundation of the Arts.  For more on this and other similar paintings, see “The American Cajun“- )
My youth and the flighty-blonde look that had/has been mine all of my life (no doubt aggravated by the hot pink skort suit and black go-go boots) were my worst assets during these times, as I struggled to be myself, that person who drew people into wondrous conversations about art, versus the accepted notion of a business woman, that person who remains unsmiling, navy skirt below the knee, and talks art-speak or, worse, art-as-investment. 
Unlike my then-co-workers in New Orleans, I was unable to “ask for the sale” (a textbook technique, according to the numerous sales manuals pushed by George’s then-agent); rather, I talked and listened regarding the art.  Without any concentrated sales push on my part, people dreamed about the paintings, discussed the art with friends over dinner, and returned the next day to buy.  No question:  this is a testament to the quality and sincerity within George’s artwork, as are the returning clients, the people who paid, for example, $6500 for a painting in 1993 and not only still love their painting and resist selling, but often add to their collection at $65,000 for the same size today.
(pictured, Rodrigue at his easel, Carmel, California, 2012; click photo to enlarge)
As happens in life, I grew attached to the artist as much as the art, and I fought internally, as I do today, an increasing and unwitting defensiveness.  It was fine if people didn’t like George’s paintings, but their anger, despite this pattern in the history of art, confounded me.  Why visit the gallery if you hate the art?, I recall asking one woman after her tirade. 
Fortunately, these incidents, although vivid, are rare over the years.  Most people, I believe, do avoid galleries (or museums or websites) carrying work they dislike. 
It’s also interesting to note that George’s art is misunderstood, for better or worse, frequently and on more than one level.  In the long run, this misconception doesn’t really matter.  What the rest of us see in the work is just as important as George’s intent, perhaps more so, in fact, if one considers the life of the art versus the life of the artist.  However, since he’s alive and talking, I asked George Rodrigue for his thoughts.  He laughed,
“Art is in the eye of the Blue Dog…
“I applied from the start an abstract quality to the oak tree and brought that concept not to Louisiana, but to California, fresh on my mind after art school.  That was a big goal for me, whether or not I could create something abstract, when all that most people see in the painting is a landscape.”
(pictured, 4×9 feet, 1971; click photo to enlarge)
“I face the same problem with the Blue Dog.  Others may or may not see a dog in my paintings; but I’ve never seen one.  It was exactly the same issue as the oak trees.  How do I make this Blue Dog a contemporary piece?”
(pictured, 4×8 feet, 2011; click photo to enlarge)
“The only way to accomplish my personal artistic goals is one painting at a time.  After twenty-five years of creating Oak Trees and Cajuns, followed by twenty-five years of creating Blue Dogs, the everyday challenges still excite me.”
Just as George enjoys these challenges within his work, I still feel a rush, in the same way I did all those years ago, in sharing his art with others.  However, today I choose blogging and public speaking over sales, visiting the galleries merely to share by request with school or group tours.  It’s a safer way to go, because unlike the early days, when I didn’t know him personally, today he’s my husband.  My exercises in avoiding defensive behavior get enough practice in our everyday lives without facing a tyrannical Rodrigue-hater who just can’t pass the gallery door without voicing their opinion.
“Your husband is quite the marketing genius,” noted a woman this week, seated near me at a local fundraiser.  “But I understand that he used to be a serious artist.”
As usually happens, the hair on my neck raised, fortunately to a lesser degree than in the past. Following a deep breath and a slow walk around the room, I returned to our table and, fearful of my tone in response to her comments, asked instead, with genuine interest, about her recent travels and family.
*George Rodrigue remains agent-free since 1998; he avoids products (other than books) and does not mass-produce prints (with the exception of benefit silkscreens such as those for the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, the Red Cross following September 11th, 2001 and assorted humanitarian and cultural organizations following Hurricane Katrina).  He still sells only from the same two gallery locations in Carmel and New Orleans, with a small gallery open by appointment in Lafayette.  It has been almost twenty years since he last worked with an outside gallery or wholesaled his work-
-for a related post, see “Jealousy in the Art World:  from Rauschenberg to Rodrigue,” a story for Gambit Weekly, linked here

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5 thoughts on “Blue Dog on the Defensive

  1. Thanks for sharing this story. I appreciate your honesty about what is obviously a journey for you. Also I like that you described the way you dealt with your feelings. Good example for the rest of us. Gees! I found MYSELF getting angry about the guy in the Carmel gallery who offered half price. I still love your blog and enjoy check in on it occasionally. The title of this one got my attention. Thanks again, Wendy.

  2. Artist/Writer Charlotte Berney emailed this comment and asked me to post for her:

    "Thanks for these comments. I recall an art teacher telling us we would have to get used to people saying unkind and strange things about our work. In Taos, I saw a woman fly into a rage over an Agnes Martin painting. People do get hot and bothered over art and make hurtful remarks. What is to be done? I've no idea. A deep breath and a walk sound good. Also having a strong sense of self and confidence in oneself. You and George just keep on with your wonderful work!"

  3. I really do not understand how people can be so rude. The blue dogs make me smile and I believe an artist that can make people smile is beyond talented. Every time that I visit New Orleans I go to the gallery and leave smiling.

    I have been reading your blog for quite some time and have never commented, but this time I felt the need. Thank you for posting this and giving us insight on how to respond to rude people.

  4. I would like to believe that in due time George and the Rodrigue Foundation will be recognized for the generous humanitarian he (they) are, and his contributions to Louisiana and this region applauded. In the meantime, let me just offer my own fervent thanks for the enjoyment his talent and his personality, and yours Wendy, bring to his loyal followers and the casual public art appreciater.

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