George Rodrigue looks back on 40 years of painting and discusses his new book.
November 12, 2003
Before The Blue Dog made George Rodrigue famous, he painted the Cajuns of his heritage. In his latest book, there are indications that he may switch gears and abandon The Blue Dog in search of new artistic ground.
The Art of George Rodrigue, released this month by Harry N. Abrams Inc., is a 256-page retrospective of Rodrigue’s work over the last 40 years. The 245 images represent his work as a student at the University of Southwestern Louisiana through the present.
Before he embarked on a 12-city booksigning tour in support of his new book, The Times sat down with Rodrigue at the Blue Dog Café in Lafayette and talked about his life and his work.
Rodrigue sits at a table with two of his paintings hanging on the wall behind him – one of Ronald Reagan and the other of Mikhail Gorbachev. He wears a black shirt and a pair of faded blue jeans spotted with paint.
Flipping through the pages of The Art of George Rodrigue, he says, “It’s a book that’s taken us 10 years to produce. The first five books were good and nice, but they weren’t retrospective books. For someone who doesn’t know what I’ve ever done, it shows from the beginning of the Cajuns and the oak trees to the hurricane paintings.”
Rodrigue is best known for The Blue Dog he began painting in 1984, but he says his intentions never were to create a pop icon, but to create art.
Rodrigue was born in New Iberia in 1944, the only child of George Rodrigue, a bricklayer, and Marie Rodrigue. He began to paint at the age of 8. Stricken by polio for four months, he was bedridden and his mother provided him with paint-by-numbers sets to pass the time. The young Rodrigue used the backsides of his manufactured images to create his own work.
In 1964, he enrolled at USL and later attended the Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles. In 1968, he began painting the dark, intimidating oak trees that became an integral part of his Cajun paintings. Rodrigue says when he returned from school in Los Angeles, he saw that the Cajun culture was changing rapidly. “The culture was going away,” he says, “and that’s what I wanted to record, the culture that I remembered.” Rodrigue says the first paintings of the Cajuns sold for only $50 apiece.
One of the first of what has become known as the Cajun paintings was produced in 1971. Titled Ailoli Dinner, the painting is of an illuminated dinner party seated and standing around a dinner table on the lawn of a sprawling two-story home. The background is lined with dark oak trees.
Rodrigue explains the premise of the Cajun paintings: “The Cajuns were cut out and pasted. I took the Cajun culture and I wanted to graphically interpret the history, meaning people came here and were caught. So I painted them as if they were cut out and pasted on the landscape, and they didn’t move. You see, they’re caught in the trees. They can’t get away. The light doesn’t come from the light in the back. The light comes from within the people, glowing out. That shows the Cajun had his own culture inside. He wasn’t affected by the landscape. He was graphically caught. He couldn’t move because he had a different language, no roads and he stayed here for 200 years and didn’t change.”
In 1977, Rodrigue published The Cajuns of George Rodrigue, a collection of his Cajun paintings. The book was chosen by the Carter administration as an official gift by the U.S. State Department for visiting foreign heads.
The turning point in Rodrigue’s career came in 1984, with an image that appeared in Chris Segura’s book, Bayou, a collection of ghost stories. Watchdog was an image of a blue dog-like animal sitting at attention, with yellow eyes and burning red pupils. In the background was a massive oak tree and an imposing red two-story house.
“It was a loup garou,” Rodrigue says. “It came out of the Cajun culture. It was a werewolf-dog that lived in the cane field. That’s where I started out. I painted it just as I painted my Cajun paintings, but instead of a person it was a dog, a spirit. When I painted the Cajuns I called them spirits, too. So this was just another visual entity that was a spirit. It looked as if it was cut out and pasted on the landscape just like the people.”
Rodrigue says that the local folklore of the loup garou did not translate to the West Coast. At a Los Angeles show of his work, he heard the loup garou referred to as “the blue dog.” Observers were interested in its origin and Rodrigue explained that it was based loosely on his deceased dog, Tiffany, but that it also represented the Cajun’s notion of a hell-bent wolf.
The observer may have seen a blue dog, but for Rodrigue it represented much more.
“I saw an opportunity to break away from the Cajun culture, which meant the Cajun paintings,” he says. “It gave me the freedom to break away from what I was doing. It opened up the whole world. The whole world just exploded. I was no longer a Cajun artist. I was a contemporary artist.
“The Blue Dog actually comments on life today. It’s a reflection of us today. I put it in certain situations. You ask the question, ‘What is The Blue Dog doing here?’ The Blue Dog is looking at us and asking us the same thing. Why are we here? What are we doing? What is life? It just poses questions, and that’s what art’s supposed to do. It’s supposed to ask questions, and we come up with an answer or we don’t come up with an answer. Asking the question is the important thing. Once the question is asked it allows us to think about where we are as human beings and where we want to go.”
Since the birth of The Blue Dog, Rodrigue has produced a veritable art dynasty. He owns two art studios that bear his name – one in Carmel, Calif., and the other in New Orleans. The Blue Dog has appeared in an advertisement for Absolut Vodka and on three different covers of the Neiman Marcus catalog. Five books about The Blue Dog have been published, and comedian Whoopi Goldberg was so intrigued by his work that she produced the documentary Rodrigue: A Man and His Dog.
When asked about his personal worth, Rodrigue laughs.
“Well,” he says, “this is what happens. You end up with a lot of prints that you produce. I have $12 million worth of prints stacked up that I haven’t sold.” Add to that figure that Rodrigue paints some 35 to 40 original paintings a year and sells them from anywhere from $20,000 to $250,000.
Rodrigue says he isn’t certain where his work is headed, and he doesn’t seem to be concerned about the future. He says, “If I quit painting The Blue Dog, then I quit painting The Blue Dog.”
He has other projects in the works, like a series of paintings based on past hurricanes. He’s also beginning to incorporate computers in his work with a series he is calling Bodies – collage images of human bodies, blue dog bodies, heavenly bodies and car bodies.
And he’s ignoring the critics who say he’s traded artistic integrity for financial gain.
“The art has to speak first,” he says. “You can’t sell crap. Period. People say, ‘Aw, you’re just good because you’re promoting.’ No, no, no. It’s got to have a voice, but once it has a voice and once you understand the voice, then it’s precious to me as the voice. So you learn what to do with it. The painting comes first. The success of it comes second, and the business end is the last thing you think of … Art has its own life. The business has its own business. They’re two separate things going on.”
But even if The Blue Dog who wandered into his life wanders out of his life, Rodrigue doesn’t seem to care. As he skims over the 256 pages documenting the last 40 years of his life, he says, “I’m always at the peak of my career, all the time. This is the peak right now.”
Blue Dog in Town
George Rodrigue will sign copies of The Art of George Rodrigue at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 3, at the Blue Dog Cafe on Pinhook Road in Lafayette, near the Oil Center. For more information on Rodrigue and his work, call the Rodrigue Studio in New Orleans at (504) 581-4244 or visit www.georgerodrigue.com.