Tony Bernard’s voice booms. When he talks about his two greatest passions- Louisiana culture and creating art, he can fill up the room with his words, like a church soloist who doesn’t need a microphone to be heard from the back pews. Despite his larger-than-life presence, during an interview with the Bayou Brief at his studio on Johnston Street in Lafayette, Bernard projected much more humility and joy than your average artist.
He is not a tortured soul. His art is bright, cheerful, and happy, much like Bernard himself. But his journey did not begin in an art school, nor did he come from a traditional arts background.
Bernard got his start painting custom signs for two of the most prominent brands in Louisiana: Tabasco and Landry’s Seafood.
While working on a promotional hand painted billboard for Landry’s Seafood Restaurant that featured the Blue Dog, Bernard caught the eye of Louisiana’s most famous artist.
“You need to come work for me,” George Rodrigue said. The rest, as they say, is history.
Bernard became Rodrigue’s assistant and right-hand man for more than 25 years. His story and his emergence as a fine artist are inextricably tied to George Rodrigue, a man who was dubbed Louisiana’s Rousseau.
This year, when Louisiana Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin reached out to Tony Bernard to ask him to create an “I Voted” sticker, neither Secretary nor his staff realized they were talking to the man who worked with the Rodrigue Family in creating the wildly successful Blue Dog “I Voted” sticker. The idea for the Rodrigue sticker was hatched by the Secetary of State and the Rodrigue family in 2015, two years after the artist’s death.
Bernard, then working for the Rodrigue Estate, personally traveled to the New Orleans Museum of Art to photograph a Blue Dog painting, featuring an American flag, that was a part of the museum’s collection. The painting, however, was square, and the sticker, which was to be unveiled in time for the 2016 presidential election, had to be, by tradition, round. Bernard, working for the Rodrigue Estate, adapted the square into a circle.
According to Ardoin, Louisiana ordered four million stickers, nearly one for every man, woman, and child in the state, at a cost of only $21,000. They were a huge hit. Voters often requested multiple stickers; they proved to be so popular the state quickly ran out of them. Many people framed them to display in their homes; some even found commercial success by selling them on eBay for as much as $25 each.
The Blue Dog sticker quickly became a badge of honor in Louisiana, providing voters with a small work of art and a little piece of Louisiana culture in exchange for exercising their civic duty.
Bernard wants no credit for the enormously successful Blue Dog stickers, he says the Blue Dog speaks for itself. This year’s sticker is the first to feature his own artwork, and his beautiful interpretation of the Louisiana State Seal speaks for itself as well. Bernard remains gracious and deferential to Rodrigue.
“You could say George has been involved twice in the stickers because our relationship was so long that I believe he influenced me as a person and my direction in my life because of the kind of man he was outside of art,” he told the Bayou Brief. “He helped form the person that I am.”
“It is a tremendous honor to be selected, as an artist, to paint this work, and Bernard was chosen to succeed Rodrigue’s wildly popular Blue Dog sticker, and in many ways Bernard is a successor to Rodrigue” The Louisiana Secretary of State’s Press Secetary Tyler Brey said.
Secretary of State Ardoin had seen Bernard’s work at the Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival, where he painted the event’s popular signature prints for the last nine years. Bernard saw this as an opportunity to give back to the State that has given him so much, “This was my gift to the people of Louisiana, I donated this artwork because I felt like it was my duty as a citizen of Louisiana,” Bernard said.
Bernard paints a more colorful and whimsical Louisiana bayou and oaks scene than Rodrigue, and his pieces feature inconspicuous Louisiana iconography. Bernard’s work is uniquely his own, and uniquely Louisiana. Bernard’s art speaks the language of Louisiana, and he is fluent in Louisiana symbolism. It is the background and subject for almost all of his work. Sprawling landscapes focus on the natural beauty and iconic symbols of Louisiana- from oaks, bayous, and cypress trees to pelicans, crawfish, music, and musicians. His portraits feature many of Louisiana’s native sons and daughters, and one even hangs in the Louisiana Governor’s Mansion.
This year’s sticker is an excellent example of Bernard’s work: layers of Louisiana imagery, including a pelican, cypress trees, the fleur de lis, and the phrases “Pelican State,” “Feed your soul,” “Sportsman’s Paradise,” and “1812.” Hidden in the piece are also other messages of positivity like “Love” and “Love One Another.”
The piece is Bernard’s take on the Louisiana State Seal, incorporating bright, pop art colors mixed with the familiar Louisiana blue and gold of the official seal. The pelican in the piece, known as “King George,” has become Bernard’s most recognizable and important subject.
The story of the Pelican with the crown and how it came to be known as “King George,” like many great Louisiana political stories, begins at D.C. Mardi Gras. And like many great Louisiana political stories, it has been widely misreported.
Bernard had been selected to create the official print for D.C. Mardi Gras in 2015, and he wanted to create something unique for the doubloons that adorned the majority of the work. He decided to paint a pelican with a crown.
“This image of the King Pelican is pretty striking,” he told his wife. “We need to come up with a name for it.” As he searched for a name, nothing stuck until he came across a photo he had of George Rodrigue at the Washington Hilton.
Rodrigue had been getting dressed for D.C. Mardi Gras, sporting a Blue Dog t-shirt and a crown, preparing to put on his full Mardi Gras regalia. But Bernard insists he didn’t name the pelican after Rodrigue; he’d simply felt naming the name “King George” fit the character of the pelican.
Tony Bernard is now a prominent force in the arts community of Acadiana, but his reach far exceeds his Southwest Louisiana roots. He has been called the “Louisiana Festival Poster King,” having been commissioned to create more than thirty prints for events across Louisiana and across the country, from San Diego to St. Mary Parish.
And on Saturday, October 12th, more than a million Louisianians will receive, in exchanged for their vote, a small piece of Bernard’s artwork they can wear or frame or cherish as a keepsake. This year, though, there is no need to bid on Bernard’s sticker on eBay; he’s selling two different editions: A 12” x 12” signed print for $20 and a signed 21” x 21” Giclee on paper, an edition of 300, for $150. Both also come with a commemorative “I Voted” print, and both works have the same name, “In Love With Louisiana.”