Robert Rauschenberg & Jay Norwood Darling: Lessons in Commonalities Worth Conserving

Robert Rauschenberg & Jay Norwood Darling: Lessons in Commonalities Worth Conserving

Captiva Island, Fla. (dosecreative/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

The island lives of two very different artists can teach us a few things about the commonalities worth conserving in America.

Captiva Island, Fla. — Many of the headstones in the churchyard of Captiva Island’s Chapel-by-the-Sea, a small, white clapboard structure, are decorated with seashells — scallops, banded tulips, pastel coquinas, and tiny, perfect angel wings — placed there by family, friends, and strangers who wander by the sandy little resting place just steps from the Gulf of Mexico.

Beneath the palmetto trees that ring the cemetery and the one-room chapel topped by a weathervane fish, you can sit on benches and listen to the Gulf surf that brings such shells ashore in notorious abundance — or, on Sundays between November and May, to the sermon audible through the chapel’s thrown-open windows.

It’s a curious combination of the sacred and the secular that captures the dual character of Captiva and its close sibling, Sanibel Island, which curve together off Fort Myers like a low, gentle wave rolling in from the Gulf. It only adds to the twinning effect that the islands owe so much to two very different artists: Robert Rauschenberg (1925–2008), the ground-breaking painter, photographer, collagist, and creator of genre-melding “combines,” who abandoned the New York art scene for Captiva in the late ’60s; and Jay Norwood “Ding” Darling (1876–1962), a two-time Pulitzer Prize–winning political cartoonist of a previous generation who also lived and worked here, and who is honored for his commitment to conservation by a vast nature preserve that bears his name.

In the United States, Labor Day marks the formal beginning of a tumultuous political campaign that, especially this year, could rival the hurricane season with a roiling storm surge of distemper and division. On Captiva, the sense that Darling and Rauschenberg are collaborating across time makes an important point: Even people with widely differing frames of reference can find common purpose — sometimes in spite of themselves.

Captiva is the smaller of the two islands, but home to the largest commercial tourist development, South Seas Island Resort, at its extreme north end. Sanibel is much larger, but mostly given over to the 6,000-acre J. N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, which occupies the northern concave of the island like water in a dunked wading slipper.

Darling arrived in the 1930s, when the only route to the islands was by boat. An Iowa-based conservative Republican, he published his political cartoons in 150 newspapers nationwide beginning before World War II. He wintered on Sanibel/Captiva, fishing, hiking, observing nature, and working in his studio, the airy, open Fish House, on stilts in the shallow waters of the landward Pine Island Sound.

A Teddy Roosevelt–style conservationist, Darling was appointed by President Franklin Roosevelt to the U.S. Biological Survey, which morphed eventually into the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Learning of a Florida plan to sell off thousands of acres of Sanibel Island’s mangrove wetlands, he leveraged his connections to arrange for the federal government to lease the endangered wetlands and form the refuge, which was named for him after his death in 1962.

In 1968, Rauschenberg arrived. Countercultural, gay, artistically adventurous, he was hardly a sequel to Darling. But he also spent his last four decades here, working hard and buying up endangered property to preserve, including Darling’s Fish House studio.

It all worked well, especially on Sanibel. There are occasional shops painted in Florida’s unofficial state colors, coral and teal, but much of the island is still lush with the squat, Spanish moss–draped vegetation typical of coastal southern Florida — strangler fig, bay cedar, tangle-trunked buttonwood, the bald cypress that, rising to barely 20 feet, passes for tall timber here.

It’s all on display at the Darling Refuge, plus vast low-lying acres sheltering more than 200 species of birds, among innumerable other creatures like alligators, raccoons, otters, and snakes.

There are egrets, pelicans, and roseate spoonbills dabbling their clown-shoe beaks in the shallow water for tasty crustaceans — like the tiny crabs scuttling everywhere that keep nervous hikers on tiptoe. Manatees loll in the deeper lagoons, but it’s probably rude and certainly incorrect, taxonomically, to call them sea sloths.

Sanibel and Captiva are separated by the narrow Blind Pass, spanned by a short bridge just above a beach popular for shell hunting, something of a fever here. Stumbling on a rare junonia specimen can get you a write-up in the Island Sun.

Nearby, Captiva lapses into recognizable Florida-vacay style, dotted with walk-to-the-beach rental cottages and condos. (Marketing descriptions should be read with care: “gulf-front” means something different from “gulf-view” or “gulf-access,” and “walk to the beach” will require more refreshment upon arrival than “steps to the beach.”)

There are a few shops in stylized beach-shack mode and a nicely sparse selection of cafés nestled in a quarter mile of sand and palms between the Sound and the Gulf, all just a short beach ramble from Rauschenberg’s compound. (He died on the island in 2008 at age 82. His house sold last January for $4.25 million.)

During his life here, Rauschenberg acquired a number of lots, encouraging owners to live out their lives on the property. He wrote kvetchy letters to the editor about development that ran in the local paper between tide tables and island-life features, and he lived like an ordinary island resident, fishing, eating at a favorite restaurant a short walk down the beach, walking his dogs, visiting neighbors, and quite likely complaining about the tourists.

In some early pictures of him on the island, he’s almost the boy in a Norman Rockwell painting: the short, tousled hair, the big grin, the fishing pole, slim to the point of skinny — he could be an off-duty Eagle Scout. In others, he looks more like the bad boy who jolted and inspired the art world through a six-decade career with his complex, vivid combines and the almost drab found-object pieces in the Cardboard wall-sculpture series.

As for Captiva conservation, the artist’s Laika Lane compound is sometimes seen as a stopper in the bottle, preventing expansion of South Seas Island Resort’s collection of condos, cottages, and villas surrounding three pools, several eateries, tennis courts, marina, and nine-hole golf course at the north end of the Island.

There is a school of conservationist thought that the natural world should be left untouched, even to the exclusion of people. But Darling and Rauschenberg seemed to have shared a more pragmatic approach.

A sportsman, Darling in 1934 thought up the Duck Stamp program that uses beautiful paintings of American waterfowl to fund preservation of their habitat — partly so hunters can more conveniently find and shoot them, of course. And Rauschenberg enjoyed re-purposing odds and scraps of people’s daily life in his art — pieces of hardware, ladder segments, mangled signage.

Finding themselves marooned on the same island today, Darling and Rauschenberg might not agree on much, certainly not politics, and least of all their respective places in the art world. Cartoonist Darling would likely scoff at being called an artist at all, perhaps instead a master at messaging. Rauschenberg, an abstract expressionism apostate, would probably deny his work had any specific, fixed meaning, but he acknowledged and enjoyed the role of artiste, which included a certain noblesse oblige that found expression in his preservation work.

It is ironic then that it was the conservative Republican, Darling, who opted for government leases to preserve untamed areas, which have been turned to public use. Meanwhile, the countercultural Rauschenberg used his own funds to buy up property where tourists are rarely if ever welcome. It’s almost as though the stereotypes of the elitist, exclusionary conservative and the open-hearted liberal were precisely reversed. Curious.

But in their differences, the men can serve as examples for our sharply divided country. Through the decades and centuries we expect political winners and losers to keep the bigger stakes in mind. Complementary priorities are out there, and America more than any other country finds them.

We might start by agreeing that an election that neither side trusts is a plunging leap over the cliff of profound social fracture, and that reliability should be job one. Or that a free and open Internet may allow counterfactuals to circulate but that it also serves as a check on the other side’s counterfactuals — an update of the marketplace of ideas that Milton described in the Areopagitica.

At a time when we face frightening possibilities of fracture and even dissolution, it would be disastrous to insist that our differences outweigh what we have in common. No man, movement, or public mood, after all, is an island entire of itself.

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[By: Daniel Lee

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