Wander through the glass doors into the spacious heart of the tangerine building at 747 Magazine Street, and you’ll find a world of primary colors and creative shapes that speak to the child – and the artist – in all of us.
In one corner lies George’s Art Closet, piled high with tubes of paint, colored pencils, scissors, hole punches and glue sticks. A far corner is pinned with drawings and paintings by talented young artists from across Louisiana. A plasma screen showcases artful educational programs, and walls everywhere bear bright versions of the wide-eyed canine known internationally as the Blue Dog.
There’s the Blue Dog that once graced the cover of the Neiman Marcus Christmas catalog, and a set of Blue Dog chairs. A Blue Dog fanlight rendered in stained class, and a three-dimensional Blue Dog wearing an LSU jersey.
George, you see, is George Rodrigue, and the Education Center in the Warehouse District is the heartbeat of the George Rodrigue Foundation of the Arts, a 3-year-old non-profit organization devoted to advocating the importance of the arts in the development of youth. An outgrowth of Blue Dog Relief, which raised $2.5 million for humanitarian and arts organizations post-Katrina, the foundation is run by the artist’s son, executive director Jacques Rodrigue.
“Arts and education are a natural combination, but we didn’t know how to make it happen,” Jacques Rodrigue explains. “Kids all across the country already were painting blue dogs and sending them in. The Blue Dog is accessible in color and shape — kids can look at it and immediately relate. And once you realize that a dog can be blue, well, you can go anywhere from there.”
So the Rodrigues decided to encourage that kind of figurative Blue Dog creativity in a number of ways: By making available to schools versions of George’s Art Closet, each containing a year’s worth of classroom art supplies (including, recently, 22 schools impacted by Hurricane Isaac). By holding summer camps at the Education Center. By making arts-oriented instructional resources available to teachers, and art therapy to kids.
And, especially, with a statewide annual art contest for junior and senior high-school students, encouraging whole schools, not just art classes, to participate.
“We wanted students to start a dialogue through art, and to pick projects that would encourage all kids, not just the number one students, to enter. You never know where that artistic spark might start.”
Now in its third year, the art contest has been successful beyond expectations: Hundreds of students from schools in more than 120 Louisiana cities have participated, and GRFA has awarded $130,000 in college scholarships to winners.
“The first year’s winner was from Hackberry, and he didn’t have plans to even go to college,” Jacques says. “Now he’s at McNeese, and he sends us his report cards.”
Last year’s winning design was used as the official Louisiana Bicentennial poster; its creator, says Jacques with a laugh, “has become a rock star.”
This year’s contest, co-sponsored by the Louisiana Restaurant Association, has a theme of Louisiana’s Culinary Heritage – basically, says Jacques, “anything that you think about when you think about Louisiana food.”
Winning artworks will be published as illustrations for a professional cookbook, containing 100 recipes by well-known Louisiana chefs, to be published by the LRA in late 2013.
Contest entries can be oil, charcoal, pencil, watercolor, photography – any two-dimensional medium. Any junior or senior, from any school or home-school, may enter. Entries must be between 11×14 and 18×24 inches, and can be submitted as a photo to the GRFA website. Deadline for entry is Feb. 20, 2013, and winners will be announced at an awards ceremony on March 23 in New Orleans.
“As with Dad’s art, we’re looking for art that is about ideas, not just execution,” Jacques says.
The GRFA’s core mission to promote arts education in Louisiana took another big step forward last month when it launched a partnership with A+ Schools, a national whole-school reform program based on arts integration.
“The focus is on integrating some type of art into every activity,” Jacques says, “whether it’s math or science or literature. And it is beating the odds.
On average, he says, Louisiana’s school art budgets are less than 50 cents per year per student. Yet schools that incorporate art into the curriculum have higher test scores, better attendance, higher graduation rates and fewer discipline problems, according to 2011 statistics from the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities.
“I visited one of the A+ schools two years ago,” Jacques says, “and I thought, ‘Why is this not everywhere?’”
Renee Peck is editor of NolaVie.