Keeping Art – and an Artist – Alive
By the time of his all-too-early death from cancer in 2013, George Rodrigue had become perhaps Louisiana’s best-known artist. While his trademark blue dog is instantly recognizable, Rodrigue’s paintings spanned many subjects and many years.
Keeping his art, life and legacy alive now falls to his widow, Wendy Rodrigue. After his passing, she founded the Life and Legacy Foundation, and through her ongoing Art Tours, she sustains the connection between artist, subjects and viewers.
“After his death I missed everything,” Wendy Rodrigue recalled. “I lost my purpose. But I realized that our lives existed just in my head now, and that it was very important that I share what I knew about him.”
An art historian by education, and the daughter of an artist, Rodrigue was well suited to the task. Further, one of George’s favorite activities had been bringing a blank canvass to a classroom or other gathering of young people, and to paint for them while Wendy told stories; this provided the direction that Wendy needed to press forward.
“I take original, museum-quality paintings from off the walls of our house and bring them into schools,” she said, describing the Art Tours. “Museums can be intimidating places, especially for kids. I want to make the art more accessible.”
Rodrigue chooses the paintings based on the audience, though not in the sense of making obvious matches. “I try to surprise people with the works that I bring,” she explained, “and I tell them the back stories and history of each painting.”
Rodrigue prefers smaller groups for her presentations so that real discussions with the participants can take place. “I try to elicit what the audience sees in the paintings,” she continued, “and the conversations often swing into discussions of illness, loss and grief, but also joy, living and life. They just go all over the place.”
Several purposes motivate Rodrigue. “I want to share his art and life as broadly as possible,” she stated. “It’s my life’s work. I want them to know George Rodrigue. Many people know his art, but they don’t know him.”
Beyond that, “I hope to inspire and encourage imagination, especially in this world of standardized testing and memorization. We need creative problem-solving, we need imagination, we need artists and inventors.”
Rodrigue finds that her late husband’s art connects well with her audiences, especially the younger ones. “His art is very personal. It asks a lot of questions. It allows you to enter it.”
She specifically pointed out that the tops of the oak trees that populate so many of the paintings are never depicted on the canvass. This changes the lighting in the piece, and brings the observer directly under the tree and into the scene.
Then there’s the blue dog. Familiar even to casual art observers all over the world, it is much more than just a recurring image. “Those incredible yellow eyes are a portal into the painting,” explained Rodrigue. “The figure poses questions for the viewer. Especially with the younger kids, I ask them, `who wants to have a conversation with a blue dog?’”
The Art Tours project is about to reach a major milestone, as Rodrigue will be visiting her 100th school next week. More than 40,000 students have connected with the art (and artist) over this period. Presentations have also been made at everything from senior living facilities to museums to civic groups. Along the way, she has been named a New Orleans Business Woman of the Year and a New Orleans Person to Watch.
The work of Rodrigue and her foundation creates an interesting intersection between past and future. The paintings, like all art, are essentially frozen in time, completed objects from years gone by. Yet, as she noted, “the paintings are almost never of a real place. He created his own world, and one message I hope people hear is that you can do that too. I hope to spark a little reopening in people.”