Rauschenberg’s mixed media pieces remind me of busy city streets. There is a rawness and grit that utterly captivates me. Faded imagery placed next to thick coats of paint. Ample drips and blobs. Sections that look as though they have been rubbed off or eroded. Found objects that have been encased or nailed down. There is a freedom and a boldness that is really inspiring which is one of the reasons that I love introducing his work and his process to young artists.
When I present this project to my elementary art students we start by discussing Rauschenberg's life and his approach to art. I emphasize his love of process and his desire to explore many forms of creative expression versus limiting himself to only visual art. I share some examples of his work which usually sparks a lively discussion and then we dive right into the process.
The goal is to get them to explore all the elements one would find in a RR inspired mixed media collage; mark-making, deconstruction, layering, adding and subtracting color—while also embracing the joy, looseness, and spontaneity that is found in Rauschenberg's work. We achieve this through the art equivalent of “musical chairs.”
In the center of each table I lay out trays filled with old artwork, letters, numbers, scissors, newsprint, scrapbook paper, recycled magazine bits, fabric, oil pastels, chalk markers, glue sticks, chalk pastel, charcoal, q-tips w/baby oil, cotton balls, and tempera sticks. Each student has a sheet of thick white paper in front of them and the art material buffet in arms reach.
I lay some ground rules and then I turn on music. I ask them to pick up one of the materials and then I give them a prompt to interpret. Ex: Pick up a cool oil pastel and make some "deep marks" on your paper. Keep going until the music stops. When the music stops, they pause for a beat and wait for the next set of instructions Ex: this time I want you to pick up a letter. It's free choice with this letter. Will you keep it as is? Will you add some color? Will you rip it into tiny bits or trace it and make two? It's up to you but once the music stops you have to leave it in whatever state it is in. Every now and then I yell: Artists free choice..do whatever you want with whatever you want. I like to switch up the duration of the pauses and play times to keep it really suspenseful and fun. You can use this experimental “musical art process” with other projects but it really connects so well to Rauschenberg's work that I definitely recommend starting here. The kids LOVE this process so much and they are always so delightfully surprised by their finished piece.