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Society-types and toddlers watch as man paints dog

October 01, 1999
Web posted at: 2:11 p.m. EDT (1811 GMT)

By Jayne L. Bowman
Special to CNN Interactive

ATLANTA (CNN) -- I probably look a bit "Blue Dog" myself when I entered the Borders bookstore. Arriving an hour early in the hopes of grabbing a few minutes alone with the painter of Blue Dog, George Rodrigue, I quickly realize that there was going to be nothing "alone" about this night. I freeze in the entranceway, astonished. Already, the lights blaze and the aisles are packed; the Cajun band is loud and the Blue Dog banners enormous. I feel like Blue Dog looks.

The crowd. Who is here to watch this modest painter simply paint a simple dog? Pinched-face society types fight sticky fingered four-year-olds for seats. The Borders peacekeepers speed around, wearing cobalt blue T-shirts and looking more J. Crew than security crew. They fend off greedy questions about their limited edition shirts while roping off corrals for the inevitable crush of the booksigning line. Opulent art collectors bump their elbows on the cookbook aisle while trying, unsuccessfully, to delicately eat the complimentary Cajun food. Crawfish slides off paper plates and onto suede and they suffered it all like manicured Soldiers For Art.

Watch George Rodrigue at a painting event at a Chicago book store
Real 80k Surestream

(Courtesy Borders Books)

Leafing once again through the two books that brought me here -- "Blue Dog" and "Blue Dog Man," I remember why I took this assignment. These are not just art books, they are great books. The stories are as sincere and elegant as Rodrigue's art. Unlike most pricey books, I suspect they spend more time open on curious laps then closed on coffee tables.

"Blue Dog" is the first I had encountered. A birthday gift from my boyfriend, I had never heard of it -- nor the author. When I opened it, he shrugged off an explanation, "You love dogs, I thought you'd like this." But I didn't. I didn't like it; I adored it. I was so moved by this book about an artist communicating with his late dog. I fell into it. I absolutely loved the book. I darn near ate the thing.

Nothing philosophical about his life

The Cajun band starts up, applause trickles up to a clamor and Rodrigue strides in, smiling shyly. Reverie broken. Book closed. Time to watch the show. Time to watch the simple painter paint the simple dog. He steps up to the onstage easel and, turning his back on the crowd, begins to unpack his paints.

A spruced-up town official joins him and unrolls a proclamation that this calendar day is forevermore called "Blue Dog Day." He's not kidding around, he even says "hear ye, hear ye" a few times. Wearing jeans and a casual black shirt, Rodrigue looks pleasantly anxious to start and fidgets onstage while the official drawls phrases like "prestigious personality" and "internationally renown."

But then he calls George a "philosopher" and Rodrigue smiles and gives a dismissive nod. George makes it crystal clear later that he sees himself as an artist. That's it. His books only tell the story of his late dog, Tiffany, and George's life as a painter and a Cajun. Nothing philosophical about that.

Finally, the moment. The painting. As Rodrigue's elegant wife Wendy deftly fields questions from the audience, George swipes brush over canvas. When he pulls it back, a bold blue outline of a large dog head is front and center. Just where Rodrigue wants her -- or it.

The pronouns switched years back when Rodrigue realized that he was no longer painting Tiffany, his departed studio companion of a decade. Blue Dog, who did start that way -- as a communiqué between dead Tiffany and live George -- has now become something else. "An illusion," he calls it -- not a cartoon, not a depiction of a particular dog. Rodrigue is adamant about the "pasted-on" nature of the dog and this is why he never paints it barking, running or indeed, moving at all. It remains, throughout all paintings, static. Staring out at the viewer, it's arresting stance cemented.

There's a reason for this. Blue Dog's a ghost and an icon and even, as the ceremonious official proclaimed earlier, a "touchstone of contemporary American culture." It's so many things that a lesser painter might portray it in different colors. (Not George, who chose blue because Tiffany was originally a ghost under a blue moon and also because blue is his favorite color) But Blue Dog's also a metaphor. It is as much George's history as his present and future.

Born in New Iberia, Louisiana, Rodrigue began his painting career using his surroundings and Cajun ancestors as subjects. They were French Acadians who remained the same in the face of a new language and culture. People whose unchangeable culture is reflected in the immovability of Blue Dog, regardless of its surroundings.

Insistent that a painter must paint what he knows, George first painted his environment: black oak trees heavy with moss, overhanging the dim bayou. Dark, dark, dark. Then he began to populate that landscape with Cajuns. These he painted ethereal, glowing like the ghosts of his people. They posed, they played with their ghost children, they even got their hair cut on the bayou, all the time glowing. Their luminance made them appear "pasted on" the landscape, and made the viewer respect that no matter how dark the land where they were transplanted, they retained their glow, their culture.

Rodrigue puts it better: They were "caught between the vertical lines of the hanging moss and the horizontal lines of the swamp."

'Loup Garou' led to success

Meeting medium success, Rodrigue was eventually asked to illustrate a book of Cajun stories. One of these was a story about the Loup Garou, a Cajun werewolf. Looking for inspiration, he sifted through old photos and found one of Tiffany, four years gone after over 10 years of watching him paint until dawn. It is her face and stolid stare into the camera became his Loup Garou. Bearing little resemblance to the smooth, defined Blue Dog of today, George's Loup Garou looked haunted and savage with it's red eyes and ragged fur under the eerie blue moon.

This image was powerful. One restaurant owner had to remove it from his walls, claiming it frightened the children. This werewolf brought more attention to Rodrigue's art than most of his previous Cajun paintings, so he began to experiment with the image, placing the Loup Garou in different Cajun settings. Atop graves and under gloomy trees. He slowly softened the dog, replacing yellow eyes for red and injecting some voltage into the blue of its coat.

As he writes in his books, Blue Dog soon moved from being a folk monster to an homage to Tiffany, to something else entirely. As it transformed, the Blue Dog gained incredible popularity. The sitcom "Friends" used her image on the set; Tom Brokaw and Whoopi Goldberg pledged their allegiance (and their money) to Blue Dog.

George makes it crystal clear later that he sees himself as an artist. That's it. His books only tell the story of his late dog, Tiffany, and George's life as a painter and a Cajun. Nothing philosophical about that.

Rodrigue rode the image like a magic carpet, with the dog carrying him away from the Cajun landscapes he'd been limiting himself to. Wendy describes that period as George's artistic "burst of freedom." Blue Dog appeared in front of fields of poppies, campaigned for president in a star-spangled tie and even appeared in Hawaii amidst a storm of vibrant butterflies.

The Blue Dog he is painting at this Borders is bright. Three childlike red flowers now frame the dog's huge head. (Wendy explains that George paints his flowers this simplistic way in order to avoid the what she describes as "another motel room-style painting of a bunch of flowers.") After 45 minutes of questions, most of the good ones from the kids, one impatient child asks "Is he done painting yet?"

At this, Rodrigue puts his brush down and turns for the first time and says, "Yes, I'm done."

He himself answers a few random questions. Dali and Warhol are two of his favorite artists. When pressed, he calls his work pop art, or maybe folk. No, he doesn't license Blue Dog and only takes commissions he's passionate about. He usually paints in 10-12 hour blocks.

A few kids want more details about the new cat Wendy said they adopted recently. Even more want to know about Tiffany. Though George gently tells them that Blue Dog is no longer just a picture of his beloved dog, he acknowledges he owes her gratitude. "For years I fed Tiffany Gravy Train," he laughs. "Now she's feeding us."

The art of George Rodrigue
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