George Rodrigue spreads yellow on the canvas’ surface, saying he doesn’t exactly know the setting in which he’ll place the Blue Dog.
Which was the only sure thing about the blank canvas on stage - that a Blue Dog would emerge from its emptiness.
Rodrigue knows about that emptiness. It’s a plight shared by all painters, standing before a white canvas surface, wondering what to paint.
For Rodrigue it was something different - it was a matter of how he would paint it.
Flash back to 1984, when Rodrigue was given the assignment of painting the loup-garou for a children’s book on Louisiana myths. The loup-garou is south Louisiana’s version of the werewolf. It’s said the loup-garou thrives in the swampy parts of the state. It makes for a good story, sort of like stories about the boogie-man.
“But asking me to paint a picture of the loup-garou is like me asking you to paint a picture of the boogie-man,” Rodrigue said. “No one has ever seen one, so no one knows what it looks like.”
This meant the idea was open for interpretation. Any interpretation. Rodrigue’s interpretation evolved into something else, something more iconic than the Louisiana myth. This is why he stands before an audience in the Manship Theatre spreading yellow on the canvas.
His theater appearance is one of the programs coinciding with the LSU Museum of Art’s exhibit Blue Dogs and Cajuns on the River: George Rodrigue from the New Orleans Museum of Art and Other Collections.
The exhibit opened the day before Rodrigue stepped on this stage and features more than 70 original paintings illustrating the progression of the Louisiana artist laureate’s 40-year career.
Seventeen of those paintings are part of the New Orleans Museum of Art’s traveling exhibit, which also is part of its 100th anniversary celebration. The other pieces are on loan from Rodrigue’s collection, as well as private collections.
But the piece he creates on this particular day belongs to no one - yet. Audience members know they’re witnessing something special, for at this moment Rodrigue is painting the latest Blue Dog to add to the ongoing collection.
They know it’s the latest, because they’re witnessing its creation. This brings up another point. How many artists can fill a theater with people just to watch him paint?
Well, to be fair, Rodrigue’s painting isn’t the only action on the stage. His wife Wendy Rodrigue provides narration for an accompanying slide show illustrating the story of the artist’s career, beginning with his childhood in New Iberia.
Rodrigue never saw an original painting, other than his own, until he was 16 years old. He began painting his own pictures when he was diagnosed with polio as a child. He’d been confined to bed, isolated from other children. There was no Facebook back then, meaning he didn’t even have the advantage of social media to keep in touch with other kids.
So, Rodrigue’s mom bought him several paint-by-number sets to keep him occupied. But Rodrigue didn’t like the pictures offered by the sets, so he began painting his own pictures on the blank sides.
“And he painted the things he knew,” Wendy Rodrigue said. “He painted crawfish and alligators, the things that he saw around him. He told his mother he was going to be an artist.”
Wendy Rodrigue’s narration continued with stories of how Rodrigue’s parents brought him to Baton Rouge to see a show of paintings sponsored by the actor Vincent Price at Sears and Roebuck. Those were the first paintings Rodrigue saw at 16.
She continued, telling about his college years, his move to Los Angeles and the many influences on his career.
Rodrigue was intrigued by Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s soup can paintings and decided that he - Rodrigue - would use Louisiana’s live oaks as his own version of the soup can.
The live oak has become a mainstay in Rodrigue’s work, first in the forefront, then later as a backdrop to his Cajuns in his Acadians of Louisiana series, to the personalities in his Louisiana portraits and even the Blue Dog.
But the Blue Dog has since taken flight beyond the Louisiana landscape, all the while managing to remain a state symbol. When people see the Blue Dog, they naturally think of her Louisiana artist creator.
Rodrigue’s name may be known throughout the world, but he considers himself a Louisiana painter. His home and gallery are located in New Orleans, and his warehouse and main offices are in Lafayette.
He has a gallery in Carmel, Calif., but it’s filled with his Blue Dog and familiar Louisiana images.
Now he creates this Blue Dog on stage to add to the story. Call it another chapter in the Blue Dog legacy which began with the loup-garou.
Rodrigue didn’t know how he would paint the creature, that is, until he started thumbing through a stack of photographs. That’s where he found a snapshot of his deceased studio dog Tiffany.
He’d taken the photograph at eye level. Tiffany was looking into the camera lens as if posing for a portrait.
This is an important point, because this has become the way of the Blue Dog. She always makes eye contact with viewers, inviting them into the picture.
“If I had taken the picture looking down at Tiffany, I wouldn’t have had this,” Rodrigue said. “It wouldn’t have worked.”
So, Rodrigue used the photo of Tiffany as a model for the loup-garou. Why did the loup-garou have to be big? Why did it have to be imagined with big teeth and claws? Why couldn’t it be a ghostly creature? And one with red eyes at that?
This is how the first Blue Dog painting was presented. The painting’s title is “Guard Dog,” featuring a rough, silvery dog sitting in front of a red, two-story house. It’s nighttime, and the house behind the dog appears nothing less than haunted.
This painting hangs in the LSU Museum of Art’s exhibit. It once hung at John Folse’s restaurant, Lafitte’s Landing, outside of Donaldsonville. The restaurant is no longer there, having been destroyed by fire. But the painting is still here, and true, the loup-garou no longer has red eyes.
“Kids found it kind of scary,” Rodrigue said, laughing. “So, they hung it behind a door at the restaurant. So, I changed the red eyes.”
This is why the Blue Dog was given yellow eyes, the same yellow hue with which Rodrigue began the onstage painting. The yellow blotches turned out to be the Blue Dog’s eyes.
That’s interesting, considering the aforementioned point that the Blue Dog always engages the viewer with her eyes. So, the painting begins with the Blue Dog staring into Rodrigue’s eyes.
It’s as if she tells him where she wants to go, what she wants to do.
On this rainy day, she wants to be among flowers against a sunny sky filled with yellows, reds and oranges.
“I know this looks good to you, but I’m not satisfied with it,” Rodrigue said. “I’ll take this back to the studio after this and let it sit for about three days. Then I’ll go back and start re-doing it.”
“The eyes aren’t right,” he said.
But they steadily look into his own eyes, as well as the audience’s, announcing her arrival.