The heart. This is the icon and the idea. This is the place where intellect, spirituality and expression meet. It is the place where Paul Dufour resided—an artist whose work and influence are so intertwined with the notion and physicality of Baton Rouge that his death has only enlivened that connection.
His talent, his teaching legacy, and his pursuit and proliferation of knowledge define the man by testament of his family, friends, and students. But 86 years of life doesn’t fit neatly into a few adjectives, a few anecdotes, a frame. It resides in the heart, in the ever-expanding abstract of lives and moments.
In St. Joseph’s Chapel at the Catholic Life Center on Acadian Thruway, multicolored windows tower over a small nave. Pulsating reds and organic greens and blues embrace the altar, light pouring through the flesh of a stained-glass heart. This is home to one of the first commissioned stained-glass works of Paul Dufour. It is this work that spurred Dufour’s deeper interest in the medium.
“It was then that he really became drawn to stained glass,” says Samuel J. Corso, his former student, business partner, and now sole owner of Dufour/Corso Studio. “At that time he called up a glass studio up North and asked them for help on how to facilitate this large work. They wouldn’t assist him, so he researched it himself and spent his life imparting that knowledge.”
Dufour’s new passion manifested in a full-scale stained-glass undergraduate and graduate program he created at Louisiana State University in 1968. The program was phased out in 1985 after he retired. “That program at LSU was the only place in the world, at the time, you could study stained glass at that level,” says Corso, who received his graduate degree in stained glass in 1975 and then went directly to work fulltime at Paul Dufour Glass Studio.
Dufour’s body of work included printmaking, sculpture, photography and metal. Prior to the late 1960s, painting was his primary medium. He was raised in Manchester, N.H., with access to museums in Boston and New York City, and Sargent and Renoir paintings were his childhood inspirations.
“I saw something I am quite sure [my parents] didn’t know about … [the art] spoke to me,” Dufour told LSU School of Art gallery manager Malia Krolak in an interview he gave for her master’s thesis on his work in 2002.
Despite an impressive resume of formal training and study under the likes of Willem deKooning and Josef Albers, Dufour’s education was tempered heavily by his independent lust for knowledge, devout Catholicism and a love for philosophy and myth.
“He was a deeply spiritual and religious person,” says his son Paulo Dufour, a noted glass artist in his own right. “He worked on a very intrinsic and deep level that went beyond representation.”
A career turning point came in 1974 with his 2,000-square-foot abstract glass work for Our Lady of Mercy in Baton Rouge. “It wasn’t iconoclastic; there were no pictorial images, and that just wasn’t done then,” Paul Dufour says. “Not regionally, and certainly not in Louisiana or Baton Rouge.”
Dufour would continue to lend his talent to commissions for churches, both figurative and non-representational, throughout the city. Visitors can see later stained-glass works in the windows of Our Lady of Felicity Reverend Bishop’s Chapel, University Baptist Church and University Methodist Church.
But even in these public works Dufour’s pensive nature reveals itself. The only truly collaborative work he completed was a piece for St. Aloysius Church in 1997. Dufour himself acknowledged a barrier between himself and others. In the Navy, he would visit the symphony and theatre alone. Even his latter works appeared unaffected by outside opinions or distractions.
This intense individualism fostered deep personal themes in his work. The woodcut series Wounded Bird, within the LSU Art Past and Present exhibition, reveals the fragility of life, a theme all too personal for an artist who suffered from several illnesses, a blood clot and colon cancer. Other symbols, like storms, waves and volcanoes, tap into his personal struggles.
“A series of ailments [forced] Paul to have serious issues with his own mortality, and he gave power to what haunted him,” Paulo Dufour says. “When you’re faced with that, you kind of have to challenge the question, ‘Why am I here?’”
Often that question is answered after one is gone. And if there is an answer in the case of Paul Dufour it resides in his immense impact on his students and his community. He received the Mayor-President’s Award for Excellence in the Arts in 1995, a wing of the Baton Rouge Gallery is dedicated in his honor, and he served on the Louisiana State Arts Council Steering Committee by special appointment. The answer is found also in the knowledge and confidence he imparted to his children and the moments he shared with his family and friends.
“He touched a lot of people’s lives,” Paulo Dufour says. “He showed me a much bigger world. He opened my eyes to [evidence] of the transcendental nature of man—truth, beauty and wisdom—and I hope they never close to that.”
Through storms, waves, volcanoes, all manners of mythological creatures and death, Paul Dufour resides in the heart.