The HeART of Recovery

It is often said you can tell a lot about a man by his dog. Take Louisiana artist George Rodrigue and Blue Dog. Katrina’s wake had barely settled when the pop art pooch sprung into action helping raise funds for disaster-ridden New Orleans. In three days, prints of the blue-hued canine raised over three hundred and fifty thousand dollars – all delivered directly to the local chapter of the Red Cross. Today, two years after the storm, the Blue Dog Relief Fund has channeled more than one million dollars in assistance to the flood-ravaged city helping the community, its arts and artists – and it keeps on growing.

Born and raised in New Iberia, Louisiana, Rodrigue calls New Orleans home. He opted to come back to the state after studying graphic arts in Los Angeles in the mid-sixties. Today he is an acclaimed artist with a long list of accomplishments and commissioned works that include presidents, vice presidents, and other heads of state, along with many jazz greats.

Most of his art is deeply rooted in the legends and landscape of southern Louisiana featuring huge oaks, moonlit cemeteries, Cajun family gatherings and the beautiful Jolie Blonde of Cajun lore. Outside of Louisiana, though, he is best known for Blue Dog – there is even a gallery in Tokyo.

Blue Dog is – most often – blue, with piercing yellow eyes and a captivating stare that is both haunting and endearing, and rightly so. The dog’s heritage is a curious mix that includes an eerie Cajun werewolf – loup-garou; a pint-sized devoted family pet, Tiffany; plus a little bit (or a lot) of the artist himself. Blue Dog has the uncanny knack of popping up anywhere, and virtually everywhere – atop a tomb in a moon-filled cemetery, on the White House lawn, front and center on a motorcycle, amidst cacti of the desert southwest, even on the face of a dollar bill. Among those counted as Blue Dog fans are the rich and famous, Hollywood stars, presidents and presidential wanna-bes, along with a huge crowd of the not rich, nor famous (self included).

Rodrigue is both amused and mystified by the Blue Dog phenomena. “I just sit back and watch,” he laughs. “It always…like, goes to another level. Every ten years it goes someplace else.” Recently he spotted a newspaper item noting that one of his early Blue Dog paintings sold for ninety-two thousand dollars at a Christie’s auction.

Blue Dog first appeared in 1984 in a book of ghost stories entitled, Bayou. Rodrigue was the book illustrator, and he needed a model for loup-garue, the werewolf of Cajun legend. Growing up, his mother often warned him of the beast’s penchant for misbehaving children. Ultimately he decided it fitting to use Tiffany, the scruffy, fiercely loyal spaniel terrier, which had passed away a couple of years earlier, as his model. Over the years it morphed from the blue-grey loup-garou to the bright-blue Blue Dog; had a series of books including Blue Dog, Blue Dog Man, and Blue Dog Christmas; and even did a short stint promoting Xerox Ink Jet printers and Absolut Vodka.

“It’s just amazing how it kind of reinvents itself and becomes something different. It gets more and more meaningful to people…it just keeps expanding.”

One such evolutionary step came following 9/11. Moved by the tragic events of that day, Rodrigue turned to canvas and brush to cope with the overwhelming emotions he was feeling. Against a backdrop of an American flag, he painted Blue Dog drained of color with deep red, grief-stricken eyes reflecting his – and the nation’s – pain and sadness. Like so many Americans, Rodrigue wanted to do something to help. He decided to donate proceeds from the sale of the print, God Bless America, to the Red Cross. It was posted on the internet; the response was overwhelming. In a two-week period, the print raised more than half a million dollars.

No one ever expects tragedy of such epic proportion to occur even once in a lifetime, but four years later Rodrigue would witness another disastrous event – only this time much, much closer to home, and once again Blue Dog would take up a cause.

When Rodrigue pulled out of New Orleans en route to Houston on Monday the week before the storm hit, Katrina was, as yet, an unnamed tropical disturbance still in the Atlantic. He and his staff traveled in three cars with a twenty-four foot truck containing his paintings and a nine-foot steel sculpture of Blue Dog for an exhibition scheduled to open Thursday at the McClain Gallery in Houston. By the time the exhibit closed that Sunday, Katrina was sitting on New Orleans’ doorstep. The group watched on the hotel television as the storm waged its steady assault; the next morning they watched again as the city went under.

Rodrigue and his crew remained in Houston through Wednesday; then drove into Lafayette Thursday. It was a mess, Rodrigue recalls. “We had nine families that lost everything,” he says of his employees. Lafayette was packed with people looking for houses, apartments, warehouses. He scurried to find places to put everyone. Some stayed at his house in Lafayette, others in New Iberia. Still others traveled to Carmel, California, where he has another gallery and house. They spent two weeks trying to locate one employee who had remained in New Orleans. Phones didn’t work and the ATMs were empty. The employee had been put on a bus to Houston, and though staying in a hotel had no way of reaching anyone with news of his whereabouts.

It was three weeks after Katrina before Rodrigue found a place for a temporary gallery and warehouse, and was finally able to unload the truck. By now, a new menace was growing in the Gulf – Hurricane Rita – and again threatening the upper Gulf Coast. As yet, Rodrigue had no idea of the status of his home, the art gallery or warehouse in New Orleans. With Rita just three days away, he arranged for the mandatory police escort to get into the city, taking the now empty truck to salvage what he could. The gallery and home had weathered the storm and flood without damage, but the warehouse had not. Rodrigue lost nine million dollars in inventory.

As soon as his email was back online he was immediately inundated with inquiries about when he would do a Katrina print as he had done for 9/11. People expected him to do something, and were waiting. So, less than a month after the storm hit, still wrestling with Katrina’s aftermath, Rodrigue found himself back at the canvas. Blue Dog was born in New Orleans so it was a natural. We Will Rise Again captured both the devastation of the disaster, and the undying spirit of the New Orleans people. It depicts the American flag covered with water. “The blue dog is partly submerged, and its eyes, normally yellow, are red with a broken heart. Like a ship’s S.O.S., the red cross on the dog’s chest calls out for help,” Rodrigue wrote at its release.

The print was an immediate hit. Over seven hundred internet orders were received in the first three days generating $350,000 in funds. The credit card companies actually held up payment to Rodrigue at first, fearing some type of fraudulent activity was occurring. He donated the proceeds to the local Red Cross. “We gave immediately to the Red Cross. It didn’t go to New York and back. It went straight to the lady who runs the Red Cross here. She used it to buy food,” he says.

Though it was not his original intent, a series of prints soon followed, and the “Blue Dog Relief Fund: George Rodrigue Art Campaign for Recovery” began. In January he organized and launched the To Stay Alive We Need Levee 5 campaign, blitzing members of Congress with Blue Dog prints and tiny Blue Dog pins, each hand delivered. The intent was to drive home the need to build the levees strong enough to sustain a Category Five hurricane. He deems the campaign successful, but adds it will be many, many years before anything is actually done.

The weeks of chaos following the storm turned into months of frustration at the lack of progress toward recovery. Rodrigue says it became apparent that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was part of the problem. Mardi Gras time was nearing, so Blue Dog donned a Mardi Gras mask and begged – ala festival revelers style – in Throw Me Something, F.E.M.A. Proceeds from this print, and one entitled, You Can’t Drown the Blues, featuring an all-Blue Dog jazz band, were dedicated to the New Orleans Museum of Art, which sustained more than six million dollars in damage, was forced to lay off eighty-five percent of its staff and was closed for six months. Though no works of art were lost, the museum had extensive damage to its grounds and sculpture garden. Two checks totaling two hundred and twenty-five thousand dollars were presented to the museum – the first at its The HeART of New Orleans grand reopening celebration.

Cut Through Red Tape lent support to United Way’s 2-1-1 campaign, an ambitious project to establish a universal telephone number, which will help individuals needing assistance connect with organizations offering services.

Rodrigue also teamed with the New Orleans Saints last year with We Are Marching Again in which Blue Dog wears the franchise’s fleur-de-lis emblazoned jersey. The campaign raised approximately three hundred thousand dollars for the Saints’ community fund and was used to help several local organizations and institutions including the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, the Museum of Art and others. Rodrigue plans another campaign with the Saints as the football season gets underway this fall.

Besides helping a multitude of organizations, Blue Dog Relief funds also reach the artist community directly, providing assistance to many individuals hurt by the storm and its aftermath, including at least fifteen “fence artists” who regularly display their works on the fences of Jackson Square. Many lost everything – paint, brushes, and even their livelihoods when the tourist trade vanished after Katrina.

Tourists are what the art community needs the most. “If you don’t have people walking down the street you’re not gonna sell anything,” he says. While Rodrigue is vocal about the lack of recovery being made for the city’s residents (hopelessly mired in politics), he emphasizes that the New Orleans familiar to tourists is back and better than ever. The French Quarter has never been cleaner. All the famous places are back. The restaurant and bars are opened. “The tourists can come back.” In the meantime, though, the Blue Dog Relief Fund will continue.

For Rodrigue giving to worthy causes isn’t new. It’s something that started thirty years ago when he often donated paintings and posters to organizations for fund-raising purposes. “It’s just with 9/11 and this, it’s gotten closer to me,” he explains. “I realized I can do it better myself…communicating with large numbers of people using my personal mailing list and the internet.” Now he believes it’s almost an obligation. “I think – we have to do this.”

Rodrigue likes the relief fund approach versus simply writing checks. “It’s better for us and our staff – you’re not just giving money. We all work and get involved in raising the money. You get someone else involved and that makes a big difference, too.”

Yes, it is true. You can tell a lot about a man by his dog – Blue Dog speaks volumes. (

Author’s Note: This appeared in the August 2007 issue of Change.