Photography Professor Explores New Creative Approaches at Residency in Florida

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas – Famed artist Robert Rauschenberg’s works are revered for his bold sense of adventure, so it stands to reason that an artist-in-residence would experience that same creative spirit at the prestigious Rauschenberg Residency in Captiva, Florida. Jennifer Garza-Cuen, Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi assistant professor of art, knows firsthand the extraordinary nature of such an experience:  She completed a six-week residency at the late artist’s creative center this month as a program awardee for Portland, Oregon arts nonprofit Photolucida’s Critical Mass initiative.

A native of Seattle who studied photography and visual culture at the Rhode Island School of Design, Garza-Cuen had recently arrived as a new faculty member at the Island University in late 2016 when Photolucida officials announced that she was the recipient of a Rauschenberg residency. In order to fulfill her academic obligations and minimize any disruption to her students, Garza-Cuen worked with the residency director Ann Brady to postpone her residency until fall 2018.

The residency in Southwest Florida is a collection of historic homes and studio spaces purchased or built by Rauschenberg, including the 8,000-square-foot “Main Studio” he had built in 1992, where Garza-Cuen worked during her residency. Located on Captiva Island, just offshore in the Gulf of Mexico, the property reflects Rauschenberg’s coastal roots, whose early years were spent in Port Arthur, Texas. Following a long and fruitful art career, Rauschenberg died of natural causes in 2008, and the residency was created in 2012. Past residents include performance artist and composer Laurie Anderson, photographer Carrie Mae Weems, art critic and essayist David Hickey, as well as environmental scientist Dr. Leonard Berry.

“This residency is unlike any other I’ve attended, laced as it is with the presence of an extraordinary man, his work, and the life he built here in Captiva,” Garza-Cuen said, noting she has attended a number of other residencies. 

“Not only are you living and working in a place of incredible beauty, but Rauschenberg’s legacy of risk-taking and collaboration permeates everything,” she said. As testament to this, Garza-Cuen explains that “When Rauschenberg won the grand prize in painting at the Venice Biennale in 1964, he called back to his studio and said, ‘Destroy all my screens.’ The lesson from that is not to repeat yourself. He became famous for something, so he wanted to make absolutely sure that he couldn’t go back to it.” 

Accordingly, it is process as opposed to production that is the focus of the Captiva residency, Garza-Cuen said. Although she did utilize some of her time at the Rauschenberg Residency to work on a long-term project, Imag[in]ing America, “…about place and myths and the way we use imagery to identify ourselves as part of a particular culture,” the residency was also an opportunity to explore new ground with other artist residents. Taking a cue from Rauschenberg’s penchant for collaboration, Garza-Cuen invited Rhode Island-based photographer Odette England, whose exhibition “The Outskirts/Exposed” was displayed at A&M-Corpus Christi’s Weil Gallery in October, to spend a week working with her at The Rauschenberg Residency.

“Odette is an incredible artist whose work I admire. Neither of us had ever worked collaboratively before so we had no idea what would happen. I’ve always been really fascinated with the photographic process as a subject and my hope was that working with Odette would be an opportunity to push that, but what actually happened was far more exciting than what I could have hoped or planned for,” Garza-Cuen said. “That collaboration really set the tone for the rest of the residency. After she left, I realized that was where all my energy was, so I just carried on doing experimental work using found materials.”

Other Rauschenberg residents saw the benefits of collaboration as well, she said, adding that gypsy jazz guitarist Lisa Liu began working on an album with visual artist and musician Nina Katchadourian. The residency cohort consisted of nine total residents.

“The energy at the Rauschenberg Residency is special,” Garza-Cuen said. “It opens you up to a risk-taking dialogue, throwing people together in interesting ways, and as a result, many residents do collaborate.”

Garza-Cuen said the experience has profoundly affected her approach to teaching.

“One of the things that I’ve pushed with my students is a process of tightening, to reign it in and know your craft. I want them to understand that they need to work really hard to become an expert. That’s really important – it is – but one thing that has changed is that I’ve been reminded of the incredible potential available to us in the mistakes and the experiments gone wrong,” she said. “That’s the spirit of Rauschenberg that I’m taking with me. The idea is to help students work hard and perfect their craft, but also to recognize that when something goes wrong, it may have actually gone right.”