A Once in a Lifetime Experience – Program Director Nick DeFord reflects during his Rauschenberg Residency

Sometimes the phrase once in a lifetime gets tossed around carelessly, referencing an experience or event that could, most likely, happen again.  But for the past week (and five more days – not as if I am counting or anything) I have been exceedingly fortunate to be in one of those true once in a lifetime opportunities as an artist-in-residence at the Rauschenberg Residency on Captiva Island in Florida.  I am part of Residency #34, a unique group of residents in that we all represent arts administrators from other residency programs across the country – a sort of meta-residency.

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A little history first – in 1968 Robert Rauschenberg purchased a home on Captiva Island and moved down permanently in 1970.  After that, Rauschenberg began to purchase other buildings and adjacent land, expanding his studio and living spaces on the island.  While Rauschenberg passed away in 2008, his legacy in Captiva lives on through the residency, which was organized by the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation and began in 2012.  Typically the residency period is six weeks, but our unique residency is a two-week program, which is a good time period for the ten of us, since we all are coming from full-time positions at other institutions.
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It’s difficult to adequately describe my first week.  It feels like it has lasted months, but also only hours.  It seems like a dream, but also more distinctly more real than anything else.  I am simultaneously at home, and in paradise; hard at work and in complete relaxation.   My work space is in the Main Studio, which Rauschenberg built in the early nineties and personally worked in until his death in 2008.  To walk into the studio each morning and work in that same space, knowing that he did the same, is pretty breathtaking.  I can still remember seeing Rauschenberg’s work for the first time in Art History class as an undergraduate art student.  Pieces like Monogram and Bed were incredibly pivotal for me as a young artist, inspiring me to explore mixed media and the tactility of textile processes long before I ever even began to embroider or go to graduate school in fibers.
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So, it is rather humbling to be working in that grand space.  Even more humbling is to hear the staff members call Robert Rauschenberg “Bob”, which I still cannot bring myself to do without feeling vaguely uncomfortable.  Like calling your first grade teacher by their first name.  And Matt, the Facilities Manager who also worked with Bob as that role for many years, is free with his stories about Bob, the property, and the history of events here.
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Each day, there are so many things to do: visit all the historic buildings on the property, or go to either the beach side or bay side of the island for wildlife watching, or even to see all the sights on Captiva and Sanibel Islands.  And, of course, get in the studio to work.  I have not had this amount of time to focus on my own studio practice for probably six years or more, and itt has brought with it some much needed reminders about making artwork.  Making art takes time and patience, and there’s no way around that.  Mistakes are never truly mistakes – at best they are bold new paths into previously unknown territory, and at worst they are slowly strengthening your skill and voice.  And finally, it’s critical to take the time to do all of the other things I listed at the beginning of this paragraph as well.  Bob did not build a house and studio on Captiva to simply be in the studio all day – he could have been inside in a studio in New York.  Here, on this island, there are no true distractions – only paths either well-worn or not-yet-forged that wind meditatively through the palms and sand.  You try and take as many of the paths as possible.  I hope our students, artists-in-residence, work studies, and anyone else that comes to Arrowmont does the same.
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I have many thanks and shout-outs to give for this opportunity.  Thank you the administration at Arrowmont – Bill May and Jim Scarsella – for the support and encouraging me to take this opportunity.  Thanks to all my fellow RR34 residents – Harlan, Charity, Teresa, Ellen, Howie, Emily, Gretchen, Ivan, and Shervonne – for making this time unforgettable, incredibly fun, and most of all, inspiring.  Much thanks go out to all the staff at the Residency – Ann, Jessica, Carrell, Leila, Matt, B.A., Kathie, and Jason – for unparalleled hospitality and help.  Of course, gratitude goes to the Rasuchenberg Foundation for their vision, generosity, and dedication.  And finally, to Bob, whose presence in my studio and artwork is always there.
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Nick DeFord is an artist, educator, and arts administrator who resides in Knoxville, TN. His embroidery and mixed media work explores the visual culture of cartography, occult imagery, game boards, geographical souvenirs, and other structures of information that is altered to examine the relationship of identity, space, and place. He received his MFA from Arizona State University, and a MS and BFA from the University of Tennessee. He exhibits nationally, with exhibitions at Coastal Carolina University, The Houston Center for Contemporary Craft, University of Mississippi, Lindenwood University, and the William King Museum. He has had artwork or writing published in Surface Design Journal, Elephant Magazine, Hayden Ferry Review, and Willow Springs. Currently, Nick is the Program Director at Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts in Tennessee, and works on his fiber art practice from his home studio.


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