It was while bedridden with polio that George Rodrigue (1944-2013) discovered painting. Unable to walk, and highly contagious with a disease feared by parents everywhere, he remained at home throughout much of the third grade with only his mother for company. His father, George, Sr., supported his family from the road while working as a bricklayer throughout Louisiana and Texas.
Consumed by concern for her patient’s health and boredom, Marie Courrege Rodrigue visited the Five & Dime on Main Street, New Iberia, in search of an activity for her son. At the store she learned for the first time of a new craze called “paint-by-number” and, against her frugal nature, took a chance.
The unpainted scene of da Vinci’s Last Supper confounded young George, who inevitably turned the canvas over to paint something closer to home. His imaginary tableau, as he recalled it to me, was a Louisiana story, including alligators, crawfish, and his dogs, Lady and Trixie. It was George Rodrigue’s first painting, and it was the first painting by anyone that he had ever seen in his life. The year was 1953, and he was nine years old.
Soon after, Marie brought modeling clay to her bed-ridden son. He created 3-D animals and arranged them on his nightstand, entertaining himself with stories inspired by his new, imaginary friends. When I asked George about the animals, he explained:
“My favorite animal was the elephant. There were no elephants in New Iberia, so I’d never seen one before. But I studied them in the Encyclopedia Britannica. They were interesting as an animal and exciting as a shape. So I made my own!”
George recovered from polio, but he spoke of the experience all of his life. The recollections included not only his feelings of fear, but also his feelings of happiness in discovering art.
“I never felt lonely,” said George, “because I had art!”
In his last eighteen months, George Rodrigue recognized the cyclical irony of his experience. Now cancer rather than polio, and yet frequently bedridden just the same, he created art using his laptop as opposed to the painting kits and modeling clay of his childhood. Moreover, just as his experience with polio lead to his discovery of art, it was the chemicals associated with his art that were thought to have triggered his cancer.
George Rodrigue discovered his true passion while in the scary and unpredictable depths of a personal crisis. Taken further, his is a story of overcoming, and even embracing, obstacles and change. It’s a story of living life to the fullest. It’s about tapping deeply into curiosity, imagination, feelings and intuition. It’s about gratitude, and it’s about love.
“What do you love?”
…I asked George at a Houston hospital, as he received his weekly infusion of chemotherapy.
“I love Blue Dogs! I love LSU football! I love modern medicine! And more than anything in the whole world, I love to paint!”
And in one word, George, how do you feel right now?
“Lucky. Make that, damn lucky.”
Recently, I fell and broke my kneecap. It’s not shattered, but it’s sliced like a pizza, fragmented through-and-through. My husband Douglas says to say I was skiing, because it’s a better story than the careless missed step as I rushed to set the table for dinner. Regardless, this broken patella is the first broken bone of my life, other than a toe. As to the story, I could stick with the snow-skiing-in-September accident, or I could beat myself up, which I did briefly and am past, over my clumsiness. If the story’s important to you, take your pick. Or make up your own. The result is the same.
Three weeks since I fell, my leg remains immobilized and straight. I scoot around our house and patio on a dolly, dragging my leg like an anchor, while enjoying a new and humbling vantage point for at least a few more weeks. Next up: crutches, physical therapy, and (yikes!) sensible shoes.
Immediately, I panicked regarding the three-state school tour I’ve committed to this fall in sharing George Rodrigue! As in-person classes resume and the pandemic reality continues, this unique, arts-inspired programming is more important than ever. George’s message, whether polio or paintings, whether real or imaginary, is perfect for our times.
It’s also the perfect message for my time.
Sure enough, we easily rescheduled the first two weeks of dates, including an anticipated return to George’s hometown of New Iberia and his alma mater, Catholic High. Passionate for this programming, Douglas will accompany me in George’s truck, loaded with original, rarely seen Rodrigue paintings from our collection.
The 6-week tour now begins mid-October with the Rotary Club and nearby schools in McComb, Mississippi, followed by a week-long Alabama Life & Legacy debut, sponsored and organized by Baldwin County Schools, followed by three weeks at venues throughout south Louisiana. While in New Orleans, I’ll visit my 100th school since initiating this programming in 2017.
“The Future is Now!”
…said George, both in paint and words. As I sit on the patio and write this on a beautiful and breezy September day in Santa Fe, New Mexico, the ‘tink tink tink’ of Douglas’s hammer, chisel, and creativity blow onto my path, along with tiny chips of marble, bird feathers, and train whistles. They are a reminder that I can begin again, now, to live anew, whatever the circumstances.
So can you.
“You’re not painting enough!”
…said George, often, to artists seeking advice.
“You must have the desire!”
…says Douglas, in answer to the same question.
George fully recovered from polio and walked again. In the process, at a young age, he brought onto his path the memories surrounding his illness, the lessons absorbed by the experience, and the joy of discovering painting. He lost his physical life to cancer at age 69. Yet in his final weeks he exclaimed, when I asked him if he was afraid,
“No! It’s an adventure!”
My leg will recover. And in some ways, as I learned from George’s example, it’s a gift.
See you on the road!
With tremendous gratitude to my sister, Heather Parker, for working logistical magic for Life & Legacy, to Dr. Chris Cenac of Houma, Louisiana, for sharing his orthopedic expertise from afar, and to my husband Douglas Magnus, who lifts me, drives me, feeds me, washes me, paints me, and somehow loves me through it all.
For the current Life & Legacy Tour schedule visit here.
Established by Wendy Rodrigue in 2017, the Life & Legacy Foundation is a 501(c)(3) non-profit with unique, hands-on educational and museum programming for all ages, inspired by the life and art of American artist George Rodrigue (1944-2013).