Friends, family, politicians remember George Rodrigue

George Rodrigue was born in New Iberia, and that’s where the acclaimed painter will be laid to rest Friday. But for decades, New Orleans was where the world came to see him and his work, and on Thursday, a cross-section of that world gathered in the French Quarter to pay last respects.

Rodrigue died Dec. 14 in Houston at age 69, succumbing to the cancer he and his family thought he had beaten just a year before.

New Orleans Archbishop Gregory Aymond celebrated the funeral Mass for Rodrigue at St. Louis Cathedral, which was followed by visitation at the Louisiana State Museum’s Cabildo next door. Family and close friends flocked to the service, along with a sea of well-wishers, many of whom wore lapel-pin renderings of Rodrigue’s famous Blue Dog character.

The service drew political leaders, including Gov. Bobby Jindal and Mayor Mitch Landrieu, and luminaries of the arts and cultural world, from John Bullard, director emeritus of the New Orleans Museum of Art, to chef Paul Prudhomme. The crowd also included people from Rodrigue’s youth, some of whom said their enduring friendship with the artist, even as he gained great fame and fortune, spoke to his special character.

“It was how much he did for our community, our state, our culture,” said Rod Ashworth, who attended Catholic High School in New Iberia with Rodrigue in the Class of 1962. “He never forgot where he was from.”

A bricklayer’s son, born in 1944, Rodrigue grew up in the heart of Acadiana. Though he traveled and lived outside Louisiana for stretches of his life, the traditions, people and natural heritage of his native region always inspired his work, first as a renowned regional folk artist and later as an art-world star.

He was introduced to art as a young boy when his mother gave him some art supplies to keep his spirits up as he recovered from polio. He studied art through his high school and college years, and early in his career held a job as art director with an ad agency in Lafayette. When he turned to painting full time, evocative images of Cajun Louisiana animated his work.

“Louisiana loved him because he created a mirror of the past that we could gaze into and see ourselves and see that we are worthy of the attention of a great artist,” said former Gov. Kathleen Blanco, also from New Iberia.

Clancy DuBos, co-owner of Gambit and a longtime friend, shared stories of the artist selling paintings from his car trunk and sometimes trading pieces for special meals as he traveled the state promoting his work.

“He never tried to be anything but himself, and that was authentic,” DuBos said. “I think of him as the Mark Twain of art, plain-spoken, unpretentious but brilliant and quintessentially American.”

Bullard placed Rodrigue’s legacy as part of the revival of Cajun culture and ethnic pride that began in the 1960s. He remarked on how the artist had charted his own course, “bypassing the conventional apparatus of galleries, art critics and museums” early in his career. Instead, he leveraged his ebullient personality to open doors, promoted himself at Louisiana festivals and eventually opened his own galleries.

Known initially for his depictions of Cajun folk life and portraits of famous personalities, Rodrigue first created his Blue Dog character in 1984. He would eventually work this creature, with its mysterious blue fur and yellow, searching eyes, into hundreds of paintings, and it propelled him to worldwide fame.

Bullard acknowledged that as the Blue Dog “snowballed” into a cultural phenomenon, some in the arts community viewed Rodrigue’s work with skepticism.

“They were suspicious that something could be so popular with the masses but also be art,” he said.

Bullard said he himself shared those sentiments until he saw Blue Dog images displayed around Paris as part of a Xerox ad campaign and began to appreciate how the image had become “a universal symbol, an everyman.”

Other speakers described Rodrigue as a historian who worked on canvas instead of in books and, as Aymond put it, “a great artist who lived among us in our own time.”

He was also remembered as a philanthropist who contributed generously to causes close to home and across the nation, and as a mentor who encouraged young students to develop their artistic abilities. The George Rodrigue Foundation for the Arts, formed in 2009, supports youth arts educational programs in Louisiana.

Just this year, his foundation and the Louisiana Restaurant Association Education Foundation jointly published “The Pot & the Palette Cookbook,” combining art from high school students and recipes from Louisiana chefs. Proceeds from sales benefit the two foundations.

“He really wanted to inspire young people to pursue arts as a career, to follow their passion in that way,” said Wendy Waren, vice president of the Louisiana Restaurant Association.

Friends lauded Rodrigue as a man who loved his family intensely and as a great raconteur who embraced the moment.

“You could see how much he loved life. You could just tell to watch him,” said Tim Laughlin, a New Orleans jazz clarinetist who played at many of the parties Rodrigue threw at his studio. “He was always the guy having the best time.”

Ashworth, Rodrigue’s high school friend, recalled the artist’s generosity and convivial spirit. For years, Rodrigue hosted Christmas parties for his old classmates at his Blue Dog restaurant in Lafayette, he said. Many of those old friends still cherish paintings and drawings he gave them well before he gained prominence as an artist.

“There was something about him even then, you could tell,” Ashworth said. “I mean, we never got rid of anything he gave us.”