Local television and radio legend Garland Robinette, who painted this year’s official Jazz Fest poster of musical legend Jimmy Buffett, never considered himself an artist. “Well, I never knew I was one,” he says. “I was never very good at school, and I sketched constantly, just as a nervous thing. And I accidentally fell into becoming a TV anchor very quickly over a couple month’s time – pure luck.”
Robinette calls himself the luckiest man in the world, and his success story certainly backs up the claim. “I’d come back from Vietnam, and I was a janitor in charge of urinal cakes,” he recalls. “A guy with a radio station across the river needed a janitor, so they hired me. Every once in a while he’d let me read the temperature and the weather report on the radio.”
He moved to Houma, La., and applied for a job at a local radio station, claiming he had
anchored in art years of experience. “They couldn’t pay me much of anything – they didn’t have anybody who did radio news – but would I do it for free? Sure.”
The station’s owner also owned a VHF television license, and asked Robinette if he had any television experience.
“I lied and said ‘Sure, college,’ but that I needed to go to New Orleans to get a refresher.” He sought help from local television anchors including Norman Robinson, “and they showed me which camera to look through.” He became news director (“which meant I was the only guy in the newsroom – I shot and edited, all by myself”) and a month later, was offered a job at WWL-TV, a New Orleans station, only six months after being a janitor.
“I still didn’t know how to read from a prompter,” Robinette says. “I didn’t really know anything – my grammar was horrible; I didn’t know how to write.” But he’d soon be forced to test his skills. “The guy that was the anchor got drunk on the air on Christmas Eve. I had been there probably three or four months. They put me on temporarily to replace him until they could find somebody, and I was on 20 years.”
In the next couple of years, Robinette would turn down jobs in New York, Boston and Los Angeles, including one offer to co-anchor with Connie Chung. He stayed in New Orleans and developed his rapidly growing career. He and then-wife Angela Hill, of whom he speaks fondly, were co-anchors for years, even after divorcing.
Robinette’s career would eventually expand into radio, his current broadcast medium. (He hosts “The Think Tank” on WWL radio – 870 AM and 105.3 FM.) But his lifelong interest in art would lead to a surprising calling.
As a fledgling television anchor, Robinette would ease nerves by sketching in the corners of scripts. “Then, after the show was over, I threw them away.” he says. “One of the floor directors was a student at Loyola, and unbeknownst to me he pulled them out.” The student paid for his books by selling Robinette’s sketches, which caught the eye of the head of Loyola, who approached Robinette about his first commission as an artist: painting the official portrait of the Pope for his visit to New Orleans in 1987.
The portrait led to many other offers, including the official 50th anniversary Rex poster, and, as quickly as his career as an artist began, it became his life’s goal. “Radio is going to have a very limited life, obviously,” Robinette says. “[Art] is what I want to do before I die, full-time.”
Robinette’s artistic process is organic and uninhibited. “When I got past portraits to where you can let yourself go – I know this sounds so maudlin and so melodramatic – I go in (to my studio), turn on (music) and, when I paint, I don’t have any rhyme or reason. I don’t have a model usually. Sometimes I work from photographs, but primarily I stick black smudges for the eyes, nose and mouth, and I let the music just lead me wherever it goes. Sometimes it’s a disaster and I throw it away; other times stuff comes out that even I look at it and go ‘Where the hell did that come from?’ But it’s like … It’s like magic.”
Even his concept of time is transformed when he’s painting. “Einstein was right: Time is relative. There are nights when I come in tired after the radio show and say: ‘One hour of painting, just to relax.’ And I start saying ‘Oh, my legs hurt. I must be getting old.’ I look over and it’s 3 o’clock in the morning. And I think I’ve been there for an hour or two. It’s true magic, and that’s my goal.”
He recently received one of his greatest offers to date: the chance to paint the 2011 Jazz Fest poster. “I got a call from the guy that runs the Jazz Fest poster,” he says. “He told me who he was and he said ‘Jimmy Buffett’s going to be the guy. You’ve got to keep it very quiet, but they kind of liked your stuff. And they’re thinking about considering you.’ I said, ‘You gotta be kidding me. Never in my wildest dreams.’ We had a long conversation about what that entailed, the process and etc. Then we were getting ready to hang up and I said ‘Well, when they decide who they’re going to pick, let me know.’ And he said ‘Well, you’re it.’ It was just kind of hard to believe.”
Robinette shows me the finished painting, but explains that the steps that got him there were anything but easy.
Throughout the process, he was instructed to change or re-work several aspects of the painting. “They’d say to pull the parrot out, and you’ve worked on it for three days. ‘Make Jimmy smaller,’ and you’ve worked on it for three weeks. Add this; subtract that. Even down to ‘Put the parrot in; take the parrot out; oh, we were wrong, put it back in.’” He even blacked out the painting and started over – twice. “It sounds like a nightmare, but it’s not. It is great training because one of the things I think artists have the hardest time with is not knowing when to quit.”
He describes talking with Jimmy Buffett about the painting and, unfortunately, about their mutual health issues.
Buffett suffered a serious fall from the stage where he was performing in Sydney, Australia. “The irony was that I got pneumonia,” Robinette says. “I was deathly ill during this. And I spent some time in the hospital and then spent the rest of time in bed. I would get up, drag myself over there, paint for an hour or so and drag back.” At one point, he thought about quitting. “I even called the Jazz Fest people and said ‘You’d better get somebody else. I don’t think my health is going to allow me to finish this thing.’ They were very kind and said ‘No, we’ll roll the dice and stick with you.’ But this was a very, very difficult project health-wise. I told Jimmy Buffett, ‘Man, if I’d have died of pneumonia and you’d have died coming off the stage, that’d been the best-selling poster ever!’”
His illness significantly impeded his painting method. “This has not been my usual artistic experience of beginning, middle, finish. At the beginning, you’re terrified because you don’t know what you’re going to do. In the middle, you’re terrified because it doesn’t look like it’s working. You get towards the end and it turns out a little bit better than you thought it would, and you’re exonerated. I never hit any of that.”
But, despite the setbacks, he completed his labor of love. The 2011 Jazz Fest poster was unveiled in February, and Robinette says sales have been impressive.
As for the actual Festival, he is looking forward to seeing Buffett back in good health and performing. His Jazz Fest favorites include Terence Blanchard, who is one of his best friends; and anything at his all-time favorite, the Gospel Tent.
Though his art is his passion, the most important part of his life is his family: his wife, Nancy, designer of the To Be Continued vintage jewelry line, and his daughter, Charley, who is “14 going on 35,” Robinette says. “I worship them both. My only regret in life – I didn’t have my daughter until very late in life, in my `50s – is that I wish I had at least four daughters. If I were surrounded by daughters, I would have never had a bad moment.”
He very well may be the luckiest man in the world. At least the janitor-turned-anchor-turned-artist thinks so. Above all he says to pursue dreams and passions, no matter what. “Anybody tells you that you have a bad idea – I’m serious as a heart attack – don’t pay attention.”
Congo Square Poster
The 2011 Congo Square poster for the Jazz & Heritage Festival features legendary jazz funeral grand marshal Matthew “Fats” Houston (1911-`81) as depicted by artist Kenneth Scott Jr.
Houston also served as the subject for the official 1976 Jazz Fest poster, considered the most valued poster in Jazz Fest history.
Scott, a New Orleanian and Ninth Ward native with his B.F.A. in painting and drawing from Louisiana State University, says he was inspired by the story of Houston, who worked in maintenance for Tulane University’s athletic department but moonlighted by performing with the Eureka, Olympia and Young Tuxedo brass bands.
Houston even had parts in two major motion pictures: The Cincinnati Kid and Live and Let Die. Scott calls Houston’s contributions to parades as “the zenith of New Orleans’ cultural humanism.”
The poster is titled, “Everything Old is Renewed Again ™: Fats Houston. A Portrait in Dignity.” There will be 5,000 numbered prints of the Congo Square poster, plus 1,000 artist-signed and numbered prints on rag paper, 500 artist-signed and hand-remarqued prints and 100 artist over-painted canvas screen prints.