When George Rodrigue was a child in New Iberia, he saw art all around him — in stately oak trees, in meandering bayous and in the faces of his family and the Cajun people around him.
But there was no art there, at least in the traditional sense of the word, said the widow of the world-renowned "Blue Dog" artist.
"There were no art books, no art teachers (at his school)," Wendy Rodrigue said. "There was no art museum in New Iberia at the time, no art gallery there.
"He remembered those things, and he knew that art is the first thing that’s cut from a school budget. For him to remember that and do something about it was huge.”
More than four years after his death, George Rodrigue continues to help young students through the George Rodrigue Foundation of the Arts, a nonprofit organization that finances school art programs and helps enhance art curriculums. The Rodrigues founded it in 2009.
It also is sponsoring a “Life and Legacy Tour” during which Wendy Rodrigue will visit 18 Louisiana A+ Schools, including the stop she made March 20 at St. Peter’s School in Covington.
At each school, she talks with young students about her husband's work and life, showing some of his artwork from her private collection and speaking about the importance of art education not only in school, but in everyday life.
“George and I visited schools around the world: Japan, Canada, all over the U.S.,” she said, mentioning programs during which her husband would paint while she told his tale and talked of the need for art in schools. “This was so important to George. It’s about arts integration and education. We believe that everything we do is immersed in the arts completely.”
Hundreds of St. Peter’s students filed into the school gymnasium to meet Wendy Rodrigue and get a glimpse of the paintings she brought. The Blue Dog image, which was modeled after George Rodrigue’s dog Tiffany and based upon the loup-garou legend from his Cajun background, was there in abundance.
One painting, which the artist hung in his office, features his Blue Dog painted green and sporting a magnificent set of butterfly wings. There was a Blue Dog painting on metal that he called “Shiny Happy Blue Dog,” and yet another of his wife and a Blue Dog with a Louisiana bayou scene in the background. Each piece has special meaning to Wendy Rodrigue, and her voice was passionate as she relayed the story behind their creation.
The St. Peter’s students listened intently as Wendy Rodrigue told them how her husband would lie down on his stomach to take photographs of Tiffany so he could see the dog in perspective. Later, the youngsters propped up on their knees to catch a glimpse of one painting, and they leaned in closely when she read to the youngest students from a children’s book her husband authored titled “Are You Blue Dog’s Friend?”
“Art is so important in children’s lives,” said Jan Langlinais, a volunteer art instructor who has worked with older St. Peter’s students for several years, including teaching a unit on drawing George Rodrigue’s Blue Dog.
“It teaches them to be creative and it teaches them success. If you pick the right artist, they feel good about what they’ve produced. That’s my big thing. If you like it, it doesn’t matter if anyone else likes it. It’s an expression of who you are.”
That’s exactly what Wendy Rodrigue likes to hear. Art inspired her husband throughout his life, and the passion stayed with him during his bout with lung cancer.
Not long before her husband died at age 69, Wendy Rodrigue snapped a photograph of him hard at work on a painting, and the artist later turned it into a print. In the image, the artist was painted ghostly blue and his famous Blue Dog colored a pale red, as if his creation maintained life and would endure.
Wendy Rodrigue gifted one of the prints to St. Peter’s School on March 20. As it was unveiled, she read aloud part of the message printed beneath the print’s image.
“Sixty years later, I still paint the way I felt as a child,” George Rodrigue wrote.
“I emphasize to students how important it is to retain that innocence and that’s it’s OK to create art in this way.”