His work belongs to the world, but for the Begneaud family of Lafayette, Robert Rauschenberg was a brother and Uncle Bob.
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.”
To post a comment, please log into your IND account. If you do not have an account, click the "register" button to create one. Facebook comments can be used as an alternative to creating an account at theIND.com.
The use of $60 million in Louisiana's public school financing formula to pay for nearly three dozen charter schools violates the state constitution, a statewide teachers' union claimed Monday in a lawsuit.
Gov. Bobby Jindal has been viewed as a health care policy wonk, and he's tried to build on that image ahead of a likely 2016 presidential campaign, positioning himself as the candidate with substantive ideas.
by Schuyler Dixon, AP sports
Jerry Jones watched what he called the best effort he's seen in 25 years as owner of the Dallas Cowboys in the first half, and that was before Tony Romo had the longest scramble of his career and DeMarco Murray finished off yet another 100-yard game.
by Jeremy Alford, LaPolitics News Service
Prospective Republican presidential candidates are expected to promote "religious liberty" at home and abroad at a gathering of religious conservatives Friday, with anti-Obama speeches from the likes of Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.
The American Zombie blog by New Orleans independent journalist Jason Berry has a photograph of U.S. District Court Judge Carl Barbier having dinner with Lafayette attorney Pat Juneau — yeah, that Pat Juneau, the BP claims administrator whose fate Barbier will soon decide.
NewsTHU, SEP 25 4:10PM
by Melinda Deslatte, Associated Press
But retirees and employees who face the higher deductibles and out-of-pocket costs responded angrily, telling lawmakers that they shouldn't be held responsible for what they consider the Jindal administration's mismanagement of the Office of Group Benefits.
Louisiana's last execution was in 2010, and plans for the next lethal injection have been put on hold amid an ongoing legal dispute about the drugs that would be used. More than 80 people are on death row, awaiting execution, in Louisiana.
SportsTHU, SEP 25 12:33PM
by Brett Martel, AP Sports Writer
SEP 30 Here's another story that makes Louisiana look backward; blogger Manny Schewitz writes about a church that won't allow AA to use its facilities because those boozers might track in some gay. Every time he sees one of these, as he calls them "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot" type of stories, he always starts wishing: "Please don't let it be Louisiana... Please don't let it be Louisiana..."
SEP 30 Blogger Bob Mann is asking a question that a lot of intelligent people have been asking for several years now - "How gullible does Bobby Jindal think we are?" In this post, Mann is taking a look at the Jindal administration's "smarmy, shameless reliance on our ignorance."
SEP 30 Ever wonder what goes on in a football locker room following a game like Sunday's embarrassment? Here's a post on ESPN about the "reality check" the Saints had. Among the comments: "Right now we're not a very good football team."
SEP 30 Just for fun, here's the Advocate's "Mike and Me" gallery, featuring submitted photos from readers who have taken pictures with LSU's mascot, Mike the Tiger. When the promotion started, the paper expected pictures with the big cat who lives outside the stadium, and they got those, but they also got pictures with the "human" version, and the big statue of Mike.
SEP 30 Anybody who has attended LSU since the late 1980s is pretty familiar with Highland Coffees. It's a cool little (non-chain) coffee shop near the north gates of the university. The recent announcement that it would be moving because the shop can't "come to terms" with its landlord has caused horror and anguish among LSU students and alums. This post on the Red Shtick pokes fun at the landlord who might have other plans for the spot. (The story includes links to a "real" post on Baton Rouge Business Report).
SEP 30 Bobby Jindal probably has a shiny idea of what his legacy will be, and it's a sure bet it doesn't match up with what columnist Clancy DuBos says in this post on Gambit, to wit: "Jindal will be remembered as the governor who lacked the guts and integrity to do what's right." Man, DuBos, don't hold back -- tell us how you really feel.
SEP 30 It's a good thing we got all that BP money to spend on tourism advertising, because plenty will be required to convince people that we aren't a bunch of gun-toting lunatics down here in the swamp. This post on TIME magazine can't help: it's about a Port Allen restauranteur who offers a discount to anybody with a gun. (Anybody? Hmmm.)
SEP 30 This post on PoliticusUSA, an extremely liberal blog, takes aim at Bobby Jindal's disingenuous attempts to play both sides against the middle on the evolution/creationism issue. Jindal is "dutifully serving his Koch masters" on the climate change issue as well, blogger Rmuse writes.
SEP 29 Here's another national media story on Edwin W. Edwards, this one from National Public Radio - despite the fact that, he says, "people who listen to public radio don't vote for candidates like me." His story, with the young lovely wife, new baby, political backstory and criminal history, seems to be irresistible to the media, especially after they've met him and experienced the full force of the Edwards charm.
SEP 29 Here's more speculation on what's next in the Bruce Greenstein situation from the fourth estate. James Gill calls it "the Greenstein problem." What's the problem? If Greenstein lied about the process of awarding a huge contract to his former employer during an investigation, as is alleged in his indictiment, what's the truth? And who else was involved?
SEP 29 To be fair, this story was posted on Business Insider before Sunday's game (and the wailing and gnashing of teeth that followed it). It's about a study that looked at the communities in which NFL teams are based, and what kind of support those teams have there. No team has stronger community support than the Saints, the study found. (But again, that was before Sunday.)
Read the Flipping Paper!
Click Here for the Entire Print Version of IND Monthly