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LMFA features retrospective of artist George Rodrigue and his iconic creation

By Christina Lane
April 7, 2016 at 4 a.m.

"A Faster Breed" is an acrylic painting on canvas that artist George Rodrigue created in 2000. It features his signature Blue Dog. A retrospective of Rodrigue's work will be on display April 9 through June 25 at Longview Museum of Fine Arts.

What began as an illustration of a Cajun myth transformed into an artistic phenomenon that will arrive April 9 in Longview.

The artwork of George Rodrigue, a Louisiana artist who is best known for his Blue Dog paintings, will begin an exhibit this weekend at the Longview Museum of Fine Arts as a retrospective showcase featuring 55 paintings spanning Rodrigue's career.

"The Art of George Rodrigue: A Retrospective" will be on display at the museum April 9 through June 25. An opening reception for museum members and their guests is set 6 to 8 p.m. April 9 and will feature a gallery talk by Jacques Rodrigue, the artist's son.

"We are really excited, and we feel like we're very fortunate to get this exhibit," said Renee Hawkins, museum director. "This exhibit will be on an extended list of travel around the country, and we're one of the first museums to have it."

The exhibit is a retrospective of Rodrigue's work that includes everything from his early landscapes, which were often characterized by moss-covered oak trees and depictions of Louisiana life, to his Blue Dog paintings and works he did in the wake of hurricanes that hit his home state.

George Rodrigue

Rodrigue was born in New Iberia, Louisiana, in 1944. His family was descendants of the original Cajun settlers, and he grew up listening to the stories of his ancestors' struggles as told by his mother and grandmother. Those stories later influenced his painting, according to Rodrigue's biography.

As a third-grader, Rodrigue became ill with polio and was confined to a bed for months, during which time he would draw, paint and sculpt clay figures. When he returned to school in the fourth grade, he decided to pursue art and continuing art training through high school.

"He excelled in his art classes, but it was clear from the beginning that he had no intention of conforming to what was expected — he never saw a 'wrong way to paint.' Rodrigue made full use of color, which remained a dominant element of his work throughout his career," his biography states.

In 1962, Rodrigue attended the University of Southwestern Louisiana (now called the University of Louisiana) in Lafayette where he studied art. By the end of his freshman year there, he was accepted into the Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles. Rodrigue left the art center after six semesters to begin his artistic career and return to Louisiana.

Rodrigue's early paintings were dark and centered on moss-covered oak trees, which for Rodrigue stood as a symbol of his Cajun past, according to his biography.

Over time, Rodrigue introduced rustic cabins and then people into his landscapes to give a broader depiction of the Cajun lifestyle.

Developing Blue Dog

In 1980, a Baton Rouge investment group approached Rodrigue to depict a book of Louisiana ghost stories that would be sold at the 1984 World's Fair in New Orleans, Rodrigue's wife, Wendy, wrote in a blog post at www.wendyrodrigue.com. There were 40 stories that would each inspire one painting.

Of those, one particular story was called "Slaughter House," which tells of an evil dog that guards a house.

"George used that as an opportunity to paint a loup-garou (a French word meaning 'werewolf')," said Tiffany Jehorek, development director at LMFA.

To paint the loup-garou, Rodrigue searched through photos and settled upon one of his own dog, Tiffany, because he believed her general shape and stance would work well, his wife wrote.

In the painting, the dog is front and center and stands on steps that lead up to a red haunted house.

The loup-garou became a recurring character in Rodrigue's swampy landscapes, but over time its image changed and became less frightening and more comforting.

"The loup-garou had red eyes, but over time they turned to yellow eyes. He called the yellow eyes his 'happy eyes,' " Jehorek said. "Over time, he decided to get away from that myth, and Blue Dog became more representative of his own dog. In his paintings, Blue Dog is just kind of there, emotionless, but observing the occasion. I think that's something people just relate to. We're all, kind of, silent observers to an occasion."

Blue Dog art

By the 1990s, Blue Dog had moved out of the swamp and into settings with brighter, bolder colors. Throughout the years, Rodrigue depicted Blue Dog in a variety of settings. Blue Dog can be seen in various seasons with flowers in the spring and baking in the summer heat. Blue Dog went to Mardi Gras; he even visited Texas in some paintings.

After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S., Rodrigue created an iconic Blue Dog painting in which the dog isn't blue — he's white with red, sad eyes. An American flag is behind him in the painting.

"After Sept. 11, George was so devastated and he didn't know what to do. So he went to his canvas," Hawkins said. "He thought about doing Blue Dog in black but instead he painted him in white, with all the color drained from him, and he painted a flag in the background. When George and his wife looked at the painting, he knew he had caught their sentiments."

After Hurricane Katrina hit, Rodrigue created a series of Blue Dog paintings for the America Red Cross as a fundraiser.

Rodrigue died Dec. 14, 2013, after a battle with cancer. In 2009, prior to his death, he founded the George Rodrigue Foundation of the Arts, which promotes arts education in Louisiana schools.

Hawkins said children are the primary reason for the foundation and noted that Rodrigue's work is family-friendly. She encourages families to bring their children to the exhibit.

"His paintings are very colorful and fun; they just have these vibrant colors that kids really identify with," she said.

There are even children's books that feature Blue Dog, and on June 3 and 4, Rodrigue's wife will make an appearance at LMFA to read children's books during a storytime hour from 11 a.m. to noon each day.

From 1:30 to 3 p.m. each day, Wendy Rodrigue will be available for a question-and-answer session with parents; children will get to make crafts at LMFA during the session.

Other Blue Dog-themed events coming up at LMFA include the April 23 Night at the Museum fundraiser that will feature the theme "Clue to a Blue Murder Mystery." The event is set 6 p.m. to midnight April 23. Tickets are $100 each and are available online or by calling the museum.

Then every Friday in May, the museum will feature extended hours to offer Blues and Blue Dog — nights of live blues music at the museum while guests tour the Rodrigue exhibit. The museum will stay open until about 7 p.m. each Friday.

For information, call the museum at (903) 753-8103 or visit www.lmfa.org.

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