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BIG ARTS’ Rauschenberg Celebration featured artists’ work and life

By Staff | Apr 13, 2016

Lisa Wainwright was the featured speaker during the Rauschenberg Celebration event. BRIAN WIERIMA

For the three days of April 4-7, fortunate artists who signed up for BIG ARTS’ Robert Rauschenberg Celebration week were able to experience fully what the famed artist was about, both on canvas and in life.

BIG ARTS offered a high quality Rauschenberg experience and enhance the enjoyment and understanding of what the Captiva artist was all about.

The celebration included a grand finale presentation by the Dean of Faculty and Vice President of Academic Affairs at the Art Institute of Chicago Lisa Wainwright last Thursday, while a three-day extravaganza of Rauschenberg learning consisting of an air-painting workshop with Douglas David and a private tour of the Rauschenberg Estate on Captiva.

Wainwright, who presented “Key to Understanding the Art of Robert Rauschenberg”, is an expert on his works and a Ph.D. in the history of 19th and 20th-century art, among other highly regarded degrees.

Her talk Thursday inside the Captiva Civic Association Center was an exclamation point and a finale to BIG ARTS’ highly popular “Talking Points” over the last season.

?Susan Heisler, who helped set up the Rauschenberg Celebration for BIG ARTS, introduced the featured speaker, Lisa Wainwright. BRIAN WIERIMA

Wainwright’s presentation kept the crowd loose with funny quips about the artist, while effectively journeying through Rauschenberg’s vast history with focus on his climb to being one of the most regarded artists of his time.

“Robert Rauschenberg was the most important artist after Rembrandt,” Wainwright said. “And after studying his work, I believe there are themes in his work and not just done in randomness.”

Rauschenberg was born in 1925 in Port Arthur, Texas, and his early works anticipated the pop art movement.

Rauschenberg is well known for his “Combines” of the 1950s, in which nontraditional materials and objects were employed in innovative combinations.

Rauschenberg also worked with photography, printmaking, papermaking, and performance.

The Captiva Civic Center was full to listen to Lisa Wainwright, a Robert Rauschenberg scholar and a Ph.D. in the history of 19th and 20th century, to speak and cap off the BIG ARTS week-long Rauschenberg celebration. BRIAN WIERIMA

In 1933 he was awarded the National Medal of Arts, and in 1995 received the Leonardo da Vinci World Award of Arts.

By the end of 1970, Rauschenberg had established a permanent residence and studio on Captiva where he acquired 20 acres of the island much of which remains as a pristine preserve.

His first project on Captiva was a 16.5-meter-long silkscreen print called Currents (1970), made with newspapers from the first two months of the year, followed by Cardboards (197071) and Early Egyptians (197374), the latter of which is a series of wall reliefs and sculptures constructed from used boxes.

He also printed on textiles using his solvent-transfer technique to make the Hoarfrosts (197476) and Spreads (197582), and for the Jammers (197576), he created a series of colorful silk wall and floor works.

In Rauschenberg’s obit printed in the New York Times, it stated about his time in Captiva: “When he wasn’t traveling in later years, he was on Captiva, living at first in a modest beach house and working out of a small studio.

Kat Eppel, who was Robert Rauschenberg’s favorite flute soloist and played at many of his functions, spoke of some personal moments she had with the famed Captiva artist during his lifetime. BRIAN WIERIMA

“In time he became that Gulf Coast island’s biggest residential landowner while also maintaining a town house in Greenwich Village in New York. He acquired the land in Captiva by buying adjacent properties from elderly neighbors whom he let live rent-free in their houses, which he maintained for them.

“He accumulated 35 acres, 1,000 feet of beach front and nine houses and studios, including a 17,000-square-foot two-story studio overlooking a swimming pool.”

Wainwright said during his time on Captiva, he became an expert in collecting discarded items, which ultimately went into his works.

“He was a superb beachcomber,” Wainwright said. “But one thing he also said, is he forbade putting any seashells in art. But he could take any junk he found and turn it into gorgeous art.”

His art reflected his life and the people which influenced him. He adored Picasso, much like every other artist.

Some painting works done by participants of the sold out BIG ARTS week-long Rauschenberg Celebration event, held April 5-7. BRIAN WIERIMA

“(Rauschenberg) would say, ‘When I think I finally got there, that bastard (Picasso) got there first,'” Wainwright told a laughing audience.

Rauschenberg used everything from his life in his art, from his sexuality (he was homosexual) to his staunch religious beliefs and death.

“Sex and death are just a few themes he touched on throughout his life,” Wainwright said. “There are messages to be found underneath all his (art).”

Wainwright noted Rauschenberg was an expert historian on all art, saying, “probably no other artist before him, or after him, studied the history of art like Rauschenberg did.”

Incorporating Rauschenberg’s works in art school curriculum, exemplifying the wide range of media available must be used, Wainwright said.

“You have to highlight material and teach the histories of art, while staying alert to present moment,” Wainwright said. “It must use humanist themes, while keeping positive and forward thinking.

“Rauschenberg was unafraid to take on the big themes. The history of art gave him many examples of the power of the visual shaping society’s consciousness. Rauschenberg showed us the way.”

Ironically, Wainwright’s visit to Captiva was her first of the Rauschenberg Estate.

A bonus presentation ended the day’s events with Rauschenberg’s favorite solo flutist, Kat Epple, sharing some personal memories she had with him.

Rauschenberg brought Epple to many of his functions all around the world, where she would entertain guests with her flute playing.

“Robert loved to dance,” Epple said. “We would be at his place here on Captiva, and we would start dancing the Jitterbug, then move right into a modern dance. He loved animals and rescued many dogs, he had many big dogs he kept.

“He also loved television and would watch soap operas while he worked. He would only turn on golf, too, if Tiger Woods was playing.”

Epple shared her final times she played for Rauschenberg, which was at the five different memorials after his passing. The first was for close friends at his Captiva residence, with another held at Barbra Mann Hall at FSW in Fort Myers.

The others were held at the New York Museum of Art, where Epple sat next to President Bill Clinton and chatted about the famed artist. The fourth was held in Los Angeles and the final at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection waterside palace in Venice, Italy.

The BIG ARTS events’ proceeds for the series will benefit its Rauschenberg Scholarship Fund, which supports aspiring Lee County High School art student graduates.

Rauschenberg helped launch the first BIG ARTS gallery, with a sculpture he personally installed for the opening, entitled “Dragon Blossom, WInter Glut.”

For more information on BIG ARTS and its upcoming events, go to www.bigarts.org or call 239-395-0900.