Robert Rauschenberg’s family is gathered on Captiva Island, Fla., this week, spending time in the spaces where the international star of the art world lived and worked. Relatively few people were aware that his late mother, Dora Rauschenberg, moved to Lafayette in 1945, and his sister, Janet Begneaud, a Realtor, continues to live here in town. A major Rauschenberg exhibit at the Paul and Lulu Hilliard University Art Museum in 2005 raised awareness of the artist in Lafayette, but it has taken the torrent of stories in newspapers spanning the globe since the 82-year-old’s death on May 12 to reawaken this community’s connection to the artist.
Rauschenberg was 76 in 2001 when he suffered a stroke that paralyzed his right side. Nonetheless, he kept up his prolific pace until about six weeks ago, when he was hospitalized in Washington, D.C., with lung and heart complications. He was flown down to the hospital in Fort Myers, Fla., where his doctors and friends were close by. “He just couldn’t get well,” says Begneaud, her voice breaking. “What’s so sad is that he had this tremendous spirit and an unbelievably working mind, but a body that just wouldn’t cooperate.”
Janet’s son, Rick Begneaud, was very close to his uncle. Rick spent summers on the island in the company of Rauschenberg’s friends like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, and toured the globe with him from China to Mexico. Two weeks ago, Rick flew to Captiva to help his uncle once he got home from the hospital; neither he nor his mother realized the gravity of the illness. “He’s gone now, but there’s still projects that he started that they’re working on right now,” says Rick of the atelier on Captiva. “It’s still hard to wrap my head around it.”
Rauschenberg is one of the art giants of the 20th century. Inventive, playful and wholly original, he changed how many people saw the world. After graduating from Cecilia High School in 1956, Lafayette musician and artist Dickie Landry was reading a copy of Time magazine in the public library. He’d never heard of Rauschenberg and saw a photo of his 1955 combine Bed, where Rauschenberg mounted a pillow, sheets and a worn quilt on wooded supports, scribbled on them with a pencil and splashed them with paint. “Something clicked in my head,” says Landry. “I said if that man can paint his bed and put it on the wall in a museum, and also win the prestigious Venice Biennale, I was free to do anything I wanted to do. So that put me on the course I’m on today, and I’ll stay there until I go.” Landry moved to New York City and worked with modern classical composer John Cage, who was a friend of Rauschenberg’s. In 1969, Landry had the opportunity to meet Rauschenberg. “I told him that story,” says Landry. “We’ve been friends ever since.”
The friendship turned into an artistic collaboration. Rauschenberg used his international fame to instigate a global art project designed to communicate human kinship through the language of art. Launched in 1984, the Rauschenberg Overseas Cultural Interchange (also named for his 24-year old turtle “Rocky”) traveled into villages in China, India, Mexico, Tibet, Chile and Sri Lanka and used what was at hand — mud, straw, fabric — to create works of art. Photographs and video both documented the work and became part of the piece. The works of art would then go on to the next destination, culminating with openings celebrated by the world’s poets and musicians. “Bob and I collaborated on a number of things,” he says. “But he always let me do what I wanted to do. I’d open the shows with my saxophone solos. In Mexico, Cuba, Russia, he’d say, ‘Do whatever makes you feel good.’”
Cuba was a fascinating trip for all those involved. “We flew in on a private plane in the middle of the night,” recalls Janet, who accompanied her brother whenever she could. “It was the late 1980s. Bob had to fly his art to Denmark, then they flew it into Havana. We had a talk with Fidel. I thought he was a very nice man. And when Dickie played, he was on a rooftop. You could hear the music flowing down into the castle, where the show was.”
Fame never upstaged Rauschenberg’s family. “The first thing that Bob was, was my brother,” says Janet. “My dad died back in 1963. He included me and my mother in the big shows. And he would introduce us. He’d say, ‘Here’s my little mama, isn’t she pretty?’ They were expecting him to say something profound, but to him that was profound.”
Watch a preview of A Conversation with the Artists,
filmed at UL Lafayette, with Robert Rauschenberg
Herman Mhire, the former director of the Paul and Lulu Hilliard Art Museum, recounts a story the late artist Elemore Morgan Jr. told him. Morgan, then new on the UL faculty, was teaching a night course for people in the community. During the course of the semester, one of his students, a middle-aged woman, raised her hand and announced that her son was an artist. “Elemore says, ‘Oh really? Who’s your son?’ Maybe he hadn’t paid attention to Mrs. Rauschenberg’s name. And she says, ‘My son is Bob Rauschenberg.’ It took five minutes for Elemore to get up off the floor. I don’t think anyone in the art department had a clue that the Bob Rauschenberg had a connection to Lafayette.”
Art professor Fred Daspit arranged for a small show in 1967; Rauschenberg attended the opening. But for the most part, he came into town for his mother’s birthday every year, under the radar. During Rauschenberg’s childhood, the family was of very modest means. His mother made all of his clothes. In the 1970s he created a series of works of prints on layered silk titled Hoarfrost, to be shown at the Leo Castelli Gallery in New York. He wound up shipping the whole series to his mother to make buttonholes in the top of the panels so they could be hung without damaging the silk. “I was impressed by the level of her commitment,” Mhire says of Dora Rauschenberg. “While she didn’t fully understand the content of the work, he was her son and she would do anything for him.”
Rick Begneaud says Rauschenberg made a little bit of art here in Lafayette; he constructed a cardboard piece in the mid-70s and nailed it to the wall of Janet and Byron Begneaud’s house. “My dad was totally freaked out,” says Rick. “It was cardboard boxes, with Lloyd Titi Comeaux or something like that written over three or four boxes. And that stayed in the living room for eight years, and they’d kind of joke about it. Nobody understood it. It got moved back into my room and it stayed there for a couple of years. Finally my dad said, ‘Take that thing out of here — go put it out by the street or sell it or something.’”
Rick called his uncle, who told him he had a buyer and to bring the piece down to Captiva Island. “I think Bob gave me $12,000 for it,” says Rick. “And this is like in the early 1980s. In 1995 when they had the big Guggenheim retrospective in New York, I was walking through the Guggenheim and there is that piece [from the Cardbird series] on the wall.”
A photo of Janet, crowned as the Yambilee Queen of 1949, is an image that shows up over and over in different pieces. Another local image is Janet holding a 6-month-old Rick in her arms, as well as photos of Janet and Byron and Dora, collaged into the works. “He drew from everything, but certainly there was some family stuff mixed in,” says Rick.
“Doing anything with him was a kick in the britches,” says Janet. “It was so fun. Bob felt like you weren’t put here to be sad. You were put here to work and be happy.” Rick reiterates what voices from all over the world have been saying — Robert Rauschenberg changed lives. “I’ve traveled many, many different roads because of Bob,” says Rick. “Every day in my life I know I think in a different way than I would have normally, and that’s because of Bob, hanging out with him all those years, traveling with him, getting my mind blown by him on a daily basis.”
Adds Janet, “He always wanted to be something new and different. It wasn’t to sell art. It was always new horizons.”
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The agenda is shaping up to be lighter than in previous years. But Jindal is term-limited, with fewer than two years remaining in office, and he saw his last big initiative — a proposed rewrite of Louisiana tax law — collapse without getting a vote in 2013.
SportsFRI, MAR 7 10:45AM
by Anthony McCartney, Associated Press
The Lafayette Parish School Board has received a second letter of demand related to last year’s insurance debacle, this time from Key Benefit Administrators claiming it’s owed $93,000 from the school system.
A bill that would have overridden local ordinances prohibiting public and private employers from discriminating against lesbian, gay and transgender people has been pulled within less than a week of being filed.
The panel that selects nominees for a controversial New Orleans area flood control board — a board that is suing more than 90 oil, gas and pipeline companies — is set to discuss legislation affecting its independence.
NewsTHU, MAR 6 10:43AM
by Melinda Deslatte, Associated Press
The House approved legislation Tuesday night to roll back a recently enacted overhaul of the federal flood insurance program, after homeowners in flood-prone areas complained about sharp premium increases.
The NFL has formally designated New Orleans' Jimmy Graham as a tight end for the purposes of his franchise tag value, which is now set at $7.05 million next season unless Graham and the Saints subsequently agree on a long-term deal.
MAR 7 Here's a great read on Mother Jones about Bobby Jindal and how his personal history has shaped the candidate. Again, the concept of personality and charisma (or a lack thereof) is raised, when Tim Murphy writes that Jindal has tried very hard but has "been eclipsed by a succession of shinier objects" like Rubio, Cruz and Christie. His real problem, former Gov. Buddy Roemer is quoted here as saying, is his ambition.
MAR 7 A Baton Rouge legislator is trying again to put the famous (or infamous) red light cameras to a public vote, this WBRZ story reports. One bill prefiled by Jeff Arnold would require voters to approve the money-making operations. Another would require that each ticket be served, instead of mailed, on the alleged violator.
MAR 7 Columnist Mark Moseley writes about "commentgate" in this post on the Lens, mostly to remind us that "we don't know jack squat" about what really happened. Sure, the scandal of federal prosecutors anonymously commenting on the Picayune's website about cases in their office brought down Jim Letten and all of his buds, but we still know virtually nothing about what really happened, and all the perpetrators have not been identified, Moseley argues.
MAR 7 Blogger Rod Dreher examines a recent poll that found Catholics sure like the new pope, but it's not having any effect on their behavior. He's a good guy and represents a positive change in their church, but it doesn't mean they're going to Mass more than they used to, Dreher tells us. Why is that? Dreher thinks it is because most American Catholics are just going to do what they want, regardless of who the pope is.
MAR 7 First it was a bunch of federal prosecutors, now an Arkansas judge. A political blogger outed a circuit judge as the same guy making nasty (and possibly racist, sexist and homophobic) comments on an LSU sports message board, the Picayune reports here. The judge, who was running for an appeals court seat up there, has ended his campaign and apologized. Not a good move for someone whose judgment affects people's lives.
MAR 7 To follow up on dad Don Briggs' recent splash in the headlines, here's a story that reads more like a letter to the editor by Gifford Briggs, vice president of LOGA, the group his dad heads up. It's time to stand up and support the poor, defenseless oil and gas industry, we're told. The "greedy trial lawyers" are trotted out, and we're urged to help him "change Louisiana."
MAR 7 Blogger Stephen Sabludowsky writes about the upcoming political spring in this post on Bayou Buzz. He's covering Jindal's agenda, education, this year's attempt to repeal creationism in public schools, and Bill Cassidy's Tea Party alignment, among other things.
MAR 7 Don't look for Bobby "I've got the job I want" Jindal to be in Louisiana this weekend. As this story in the Los Angeles Times reports, he'll be on the East Coast kissing bu--- er, pressing flesh at CPAC. If you want to see his speech, click here. The conservative love-fest will feature speeches from all the (current) 2016 GOP contenders, with Ted Cruz kicking it off and Sarah Palin wrapping it up. In between, the most anticipated speech is probably that of Chris Christie, the story reports. There's also a straw poll (Rand Paul won last year).
MAR 6 Here's some more new info on the continuing controversy at Louisiana College, this time posted on the Tennessean (so maybe this story is pretty interesting outside of Louisiana, too). The story, originally written by Town Talk reporters, tells us about a document with allegedly forged signatures which was sent to SACS, the organization which issues accreditation for southern universities and colleges. The plot thickens?
MAR 6 If you're on the Facebook, you've seen this video of two NOLA police officers line dancing with some Mardi Gras revelers. But this one is even better: it's a NOLA police horse line dancing on Bourbon Street. Hey -- this is Louisiana. We all can get down, if the situation calls for it.
MAR 6 In this week's post, Jim Brown is remembering former Gov. Jimmie Davis, who was sworn in 70 years ago this week. Included in here is the governor's recipe for raccoon, which was his favorite dish, Brown says. He also tells us who "Sunshine" was - Jimmie's palomino. She's buried at the late governor's farm, Brown says.
MAR 6 Columnist James Gill applies his special combination of wit and sarcasm to our friend Don Briggs in this post. Gill read the oil and gas leader's deposition and almost felt sorry for him -- almost. The problem seems to be related to Mr. Brigg's "stupendous ignorance of his purported area of expertise," Gill writes. He also credits Briggs with doing more for the environmental cause in a couple hours than tree-huggers can accomplish in years.
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