Creativity Turned Loose at the Rauschenberg Residency Program

The program on the late superstar’s Captiva property brings in contemporary artists from many disciplines to share and inspire new works.

BY June 20, 2016


Finding the beauty in an artwork by Southwest Florida’s most important artist, the late Robert Rauschenberg, is not always a simple task. But the elegance of the legacy he left on Captiva Island should be clear even to the most untrained eye. He left behind a spectacular parcel of land that now plays host to the Rauschenberg Residency program, an ever-changing community of creatives. It is a unique inheritance for Southwest Florida.

“Bob always trumps. His energy is literally everywhere,” says Los Angeles-based visual artist Katie Aliprando during an impromptu tour of her temporary home and studio on Captiva Island this spring. Called the Beach House, the small cottage where she stayed was the world-renowned Rauschenberg’s first home on Captiva, with three bedrooms upstairs and a workspace on the ground floor.

Overlooking the Gulf of Mexico, the white-painted cottage remains an idyllic spot. Just a few steps away, the waters glisten. Tourists amble by along the shore, while fresh sea breezes rustle through the dune grasses. And the spirit of “Bob,” as those who knew him refer to the late artist—rather than “Milton,” the name given to him by his parents—is a benign presence felt mostly as artistic encouragement. “Get to work, get to work, get to work—and hurrah!” was how one former resident put it.

“You step on the island and they give you Bob’s studio—and you think, ‘I’ve got big shoes to fill!’” says sculptor and fiber artist David Ross Harper, who was part of the same residency group as Aliprando. They were both nearing the end of a five-week stay, part of a cohort of eleven artists in residence on the island from late February through early April of 2016.

The residency program, administered by the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation in New York City, rotates contingents of artists onto the famous artist’s former estate on Captiva throughout the year. By design, the residency groups are diverse, bringing together writers, dancers, artists, critics, musicians, choreographers, photographers, filmmakers, theater artists and even some scientists. Their practices cross-fertilize and flourish individually in an environment that is part research and development lab and part art camp for serious grown-ups.


Process, Not Product

Dancer Andrew Champlin

As has become customary, several artists informally showcased works in progress at an open studio reception held toward the end of their stay. New York City-based dancer/choreographer Jill Sigman had assembled a small installation of hanging plants that evoked a fragile, post-apocalyptic garden, nestled inside birdcage-like containers. The plants were edible greens that most people perceive as weeds, she said.

Nearby was a Marley floor where dancer Andrew Champlin performed a selection of choreography devised by Christopher Williams. Clad in a flower-studded bustier and ram-horned headdress, the sinewy dancer personified Adonis, a figure from classical mythology. Drawings and prototypes of theatrical costumes were displayed on several of the studio’s 20-foot-high walls.

Ty Defoe—a writer, performer and musician who dubbed himself “a futuristic Native”—played flowing melodies on wooden flutes that alluded to his mixed Ojibwa and Oneida heritage. Raised on a reservation in northern Wisconsin, he now lives in New York City. His musical collaborator, pianist and singer Tidtaya Sinutoke, took lead vocals on a song the two had written. While playing Rauschenberg’s own grand piano, her voice soared and swooped. The words honored Hart Island, located just across the water from City Island in the Bronx, home to New York City’s potter’s field. That hundred-acre place is dotted with ruined buildings and scrubby fields where more than a million unidentified and unclaimed bodies have been interred. The song was intended to raise awareness of bureaucratic restrictions that severely limit access by grieving family members, and to reclaim it as a place for the living.

Visual and sound artist Danny McCarthy

Some of the residents feel the “spirit of Bob” more strongly than others. Danny McCarthy, an Irish visual and sound artist who was in residence during January and February, made a series of digital images by photographing the colorful, geometric lines and shapes left behind on Rauschenberg’s workroom tables. These elements were tangible memories of the last works Rauschenberg and his assistants had created on the tables.

The Irish artist printed 10 of his own compositions based on Rauschenberg’s marks on oversized paper, using the late artist’s Epson printer. Before he left for the evening, McCarthy pinned them to the wall in a neat row just outside Rauschenberg’s former workroom. During the night, when the studio was supposed to be deserted, the pushpins were removed from the right side of each print. The images went from being respectable, orderly rectangles, McCarthy noted in his lilting Irish accent, to jauntily hanging diamonds. He believes that the late artist had “curated” the display. And the weakest image—in McCarthy’s opinion—had also been panned by Bob. It was completely dislodged, lying on the floor.


An Artist’s Legacy

The interdisciplinary nature of the residents’ activities is an intentional part of the way the Rauschenberg Residency program was conceived, says its director, Ann Brady. A nationally recognized leader in the field of artists’ communities, she came on board in 2011 to help set up the program; the first cohort of artists arrived in November 2012. 

Although Rauschenberg left no blueprint for the Captiva residency program that he envisioned, Brady says, “We went on the idea that the property is so incredibly perfect for this kind of thing that our getting ready was doing a lot of planning and cleaning out.”

Musician Ornette Cherry

“We wanted it to be multidisciplinary—that was the way that Bob worked. We wanted people to be open to the idea of collaboration—that was the way that Bob worked,” Brady explains. “We wanted it to be a community. We wanted people to arrive at the same time and leave at the same time. We wanted people to share meals together and make meals together. We wanted there to be a communal meeting space. And these were all done in the likeness of Bob.”

The property includes one of the area’s few remaining fish houses. This weathered wooden cabin on stilts, linked to the land by a 30-yard pier, was built in 1942 by cartoonist and naturalist J. N. “Ding” Darling, the namesake of the famous wildlife refuge on nearby Sanibel. For Rauschenberg, the fish house had been a sanctuary, a place to go when he had to be alone with his thoughts.

A twisting, unpaved track called the “jungle road” runs through the estate from one side of the island to the other. This meandering path winds through dense, quiet strands of strangler figs, bougainvillea and gumbo limbo trees. It offers a glimpse of what the island may have been like before it was settled. Reportedly, Rauschenberg himself laid out the twisting road by driving his Volkswagen Bug back and forth, followed by assistants with stakes to permanently demark the path.

Today, the compound offers 10 beds in four houses, and one communal house for meals, television and media consumption. One of the things the residency organizers had to do early on, Brady points out, was pare down the property’s televisions. “Bob had a TV in every house and they were always on,” she says with a smile. In addition, his personal library was dispersed among the houses, and a photograph or two of him was hung in each of them.

Residents are chosen by a group of anonymous selectors, art professionals from across the country. Artists cannot apply to be considered. Those selected receive a $3,500 stipend for their time and materials, chef-created meals, and are provided with well-equipped work spaces that range from a print studio to dance and welding facilities.


According to the rambunctious art critic Dave Hickey, who was a resident in the fall of 2014, Robert Rauschenberg was “a giver of permission” both in his personal life and in creative endeavors. He engaged in quiet philanthropy, supporting causes such as women’s issues, the environment, AIDS research and education for children with learning disabilities. Starting in 1985, he set off on international cultural exchange missions that supported his belief that art could change the world. Today, his generous and optimistic spirit continues to inspire and motivate the artists who arrive throughout the year, who are given the extraordinary gift of uninterrupted time and space in which to explore their own creativity.

Visual artist David Harper

Some artists arrive with a project in mind. Others use their residencies as a respite from career pressures. David Harper notes that he cherished the quiet, contemplative time he found on Captiva. “I was the compound kid,” he says. “I spent a lot of time at the fish house. I went there in the mornings for sunrise. I watched dolphins and manatees swim past.”

He made plaster casts of dancers’ feet and the “death mask” of a pig that was selected to be the main ingredient for a celebratory dinner that came near the end of Harper’s stay. He also hand-stitched several intensely realistic embroideries. One of these was the image of a junonia shell, emblematic of the island, intended as a gift for the young daughter of the chef who made glorious meals for the group. 

“I wanted to make things for the enjoyment of making them,” rather than focus on an upcoming project or an urgent task, Harper says. Spending unstructured time with several of the dancers who were on-site helped him understand his own creative process better. “I was interested in their feet and how they moved. They’re constantly aware of their bodies, and I’m always forgetting mine when I work,” Harper muses. “A lot of this month has involved learning through their movements about my own sense of stillness.”

“I think a residency program can be life-changing,” Brady points out. “It’s not only the work that you do, but it’s that opportunity to engage in a community, to meet people you would not otherwise meet, to have conversations which spark seeds that later are food for thought—and then to take it all back and have it inform your work.”

“It doesn’t happen for everybody,” she adds, “but it happens for most.”


Additional photography by Sage Sohier and Mark Poucher.


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