‘Art Can Change the World’ – In the Footsteps of Robert Rauschenberg

I am extremely fortunate and feel humbled to be writing this article from the 20-acre Florida estate of the late Robert Rauschenberg, a mercurial artist who bridged the worlds of painting, performance, sculpture, new and found media. For six decades he created wild and pioneering art up to his death in 2008, even after having suffered two strokes that left him partially paralysed.

At the moment there’s an amazing retrospective of Rauschenberg’s life and work on at Tate Modern in London (till 2 April 2017), which will afterwards travel to New York (MoMA 21 May – 17 September 2017). The exhibition captures Rauschenberg’s very early works as a student at Black Mountain College in North Carolina until his very last days from his Florida home where I’m staying right now.

Since so many books have been written on Rauschenberg already, I won’t even try to attempt to write an extensive biography here, but just ‘paint’ a short profile to give a context for readers who aren’t that familiar with his works. Rauschenberg grew up in Texas and it wasn’t till his twenties that he started to study art. At Black Mountain College in North Carolina he took up a variety of art classes, including photography, painting, drawing, dance and more. It was here he first met his future friends and collaborators John Cage and Merce Cunningham. It’s very special for my husband Robin to be here as Cage and Cunningham are his heroes and I  recognise the influence of Cage and Rauschenberg in his character: the importance of remaining humble throughout one’s career, working on the wildest collaborations, but mostly having fun in life and work and to keep smiling. Robin was supposed to work with Rauschenberg years ago, but unfortunately this couldn’t happen because Bob passed away. I remember Robin telling me years ago of his dream to go visit this residency in Florida and look where we are now!

Throughout his entire career, Rauschenberg pushed the boundaries of art and it’s for his incredible vision that he’s considered to be one of America’s most decisive artists. I’m mostly familiar with his enormous silkscreenprints, which led to his breakthrough in the early 1960s, his set designs for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, but also his famous Combines, a hybrid of paintings and sculptures. His Combine Monogram (1955-59), centred around a stuffed angora goat, was heavily criticised at the time, but is now regarded as his most successful Combine and one of his most famous works.

When Rauschenberg was working on the west coast of Florida in the late 60s, he fell in love with the local lifestyle and decided to look for property in the area. The wonderful story goes that one day during his property quest, he was driving on Sanibel island and had to stop for a turtle crossing the road. He had been based in New York, the epicentre of the art world, at the time, and as a New Yorker he just loved the idea of road-crossing turtles and being surrounded by the incredible flora and fauna so much that he bought a beach house on ‘next-door’ island of Captiva shortly afterwards. This was one of the anecdotes told by Matt Hall, former assistant to his friend ‘Bob’ for many years and now facility manager of the Rauschenberg Residency, on our first day here.

I can’t tell you how special it is to be here at such a magical place and to hear these personal stories about such a remarkable artist and human being by the people who knew him so well, loved him and still miss him very day. I constantly have a lump in the throat sensation and am at times overwhelmed by emotions, caused by both the stunning environment and the love for art that is shared by everybody here. One of Rauschenberg’s famous quotes was that ‘art can change the world’ and in turmoil times like these, this is ever more true.

My encounter with a flock of white ibis

During his lifetime Rauschenberg acquired more houses and land in the direct vicinity of his beach house. The process of this was illustrated by another marvellous story by Matt: in order to save the area from redevelopment, Rauschenberg approached his neighbours and told them to name the price for their homes, but also reassured them they could remain to live their till their death. A few years after his death, the Rauschenberg Foundation set up an artist residency programme that welcomes artists from different disciplines and backgrounds to live and work on the estate. The programme is funded by sales of Rauschenberg’s art collection and it’s a beautiful continuation of his generosity, even after death. Unlike many other artist residencies, one cannot apply for this programme nor are there any expectations for creating art. Our time here can be used as a time of reflection and inspiration, but to be honest, it’s impossible not to be creative whilst here!

Prior to arrival I intended to use my time here writing short stories, doing research for a non-fiction book I’ve been planning to write for almost twelve years now and to work on a flamenco-based music performance with hubby. However, we’ve been warned on our first day here that even the best-laid plans tend to completely dissolve during the stay as we are allowed to use Rauschenberg’s screenprinting facilities and are encouraged to try out welding, woodwork, ceramics and we could even play around in the darkroom if we wanted to. Up to my teens I was very creative with my hands and was always making artworks and jewelry employing all sorts of different media including parchment paper, rubber, fabrics etc. I’m looking forward to ‘stepping out of my head’ here for a moment and instead of creating work in my head, let my hands lead my creativity again.

Waldo cottage: one of the writing studios on the estate.

For the next weeks I’ll be surrounded by breathtaking ocean views from the island of Captiva and a great group of inspiring people including nine fellow artists in residence.

This amazing adventure couldn’t have come at a better time. As I alluded to in my previous post about The Validity of Blogging in a Time of World Madness, I’ve been quite stressed and depressed over the last months which left me creatively paralysed. As one of my fellow residents, photographer Patricia Lay-Dorsey, put so well on our first morning here at 6.45am while we watched the stunning sunrise together, this little piece of paradise is the perfect place for people to heal. I feel that being here, surrounded by such positive energy from the people and nature will be a life-changing opportunity for me as a person and as an artist and I can’t thank my anonymous sponsor enough for putting my name forward to the Rauschenberg Foundation!

Suffering from jet lag isn’t too bad if it means you get to see this!

Rauschenberg loved all the flora and fauna and Matt told us the story that after a devastating hurricane that had raged over the island, Bob’s priority was to restore ‘the jungle’ on the estate rather than his home or other buildings. Almost half of the magnificent trees on the property were planted by Bob and Matt.

The photos below were taken on my first day here. Besides these birds I’ve also spotted flying fish and brown pelicans that make me laugh every time they so ungracefully dive into the water to catch fish. I heard there are also dolphins swimming around and I can’t wait to see them!

Over the next weeks I will be making interviews with the staff and artists, which you’ll be able to read here on the website. It’s just incredible how fast we all bonded already and I consider myself lucky to be surrounded by such sweet and extremely talented people. The current artists in residency are aformentioned photographer Patricia Lay-Dorsay, music composer, writer and professional hubby Robin Rimbaud, choreographer Lance Gries, sound artists Andrea Parkins and her partner Burkhard Beins, actor, singer and writer Dana Wheeler-Nicholson and her partner Alex Smith, who’s a filmmaker, sculptor Sopheap Pich and visual artists Eric Mack and Tony Lewis. We also have our own chef here who nurtures us and looks after our tummies: Isaac Saunders (and for this week even another chef, i.e. Isaac’s girlfriend Sophie!).

One of the Isaac’s beautiful creations we happily devoured
My own RR watching the sunrise
Heron welcoming the sunrise from the iconic Fish House

Stay tuned for more photos and stories off the island.

Big thanks to Ann, Matt, Carrell, Jessica, Isaac, Sophie, Lori, April, Kelsey, but most of all, Bob!
Zarina xxx

6 thoughts on “‘Art Can Change the World’ – In the Footsteps of Robert Rauschenberg

  1. What a wonderful place! As soon as I read Robin and you were going there, I looked Rauschenberg up and was immediately fascinated. I also saw the link between the characters of both Robert Rauschenberg and Robin, they are alike!
    Such beautiful surroundings, great photographes! The flora and fauna must be great to experience, please share!
    I knew you could eat “Oost-Indische Kers”, I have it in my own garden, such a joyful, bright flower, in different shades of orange, sometimes even yellow or red, but I never ate it….
    Great you can explore all sorts of crafts there, often you stop doing things like that when growing older, while it can be such fun and so satisfying. And sometimes even surprising, when you discover a new talent!
    Keep enjoying yourselves, both of you, you both deserve it! And thank you for this post, it is good to read you are having a good time after such a difficult one, with a lot of loss of family and friends and the state of the world we live in. Always keep in mind, you experience the feeling of loss because of the love you had for them and they had for you. Be gratefull you had these people in your life for some time, that you have such good memories! I hope you come back home all refreshed and energized, with a lust for life!
    Love, to Robin as well ofcourse!

  2. Wow, Zarina! You are so lucky! 😀 I’m looking forward to reading the interviews with your fellow residents. What an amazing opportunity! Being able to experiment with different arts as well, and the environment… a dream come true.
    I’m going to London soon and am definitely checking out this exhibition. (I’m a massive art lover myself).
    Enjoy yourself!

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