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By the People and for the People:
Tim Rollins and his Youth Project K.O.S.



Education programs for children and young people are currently experiencing a boom. The Deutsche Bank Foundation is sponsoring a project enabling pupils to encounter art free of charge at the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum in Cologne, while the Deutsche Guggenheim has offered educational programs geared to certain age groups from the very beginning. So it's time to take a look back. For more than 25 years Tim Rollins has been working with school kids from New York's South Bronx. In one of America's most extreme sites of social discord, the artist and teacher offers kids alternatives to drugs and crime with his collective "Tim Rollins + K.O.S. (Kids of Survival)." But K.O.S. is more than just an ordinary social project—some of the group's works have made it into the MoMA and the Tate. Cheryl Kaplan met with Tim Rollins in his studio.




Tim Rollins
photo courtesy Cheryl Kaplan. Cheryl Kaplan, 2008.
All rights reserved.

Sitting in a wooden rocking chair, Tim Rollins looks like a country preacher from another century. He speaks with an almost Southern drawl, which is surprising because he was born in rural Maine in 1955. In the space of a week he's been to Syracuse, Kentucky, Harvard and back. The floor of his studio looks like hell: papers everywhere, a bulging suitcase with an outfit from last year; a white shirt wrapped in its dry cleaning bag rests on top of the rubble of empty paint bottles, scraps of paper, and wires. The windows and the walls are covered with art or remnants of art. A laptop computer juts out of a plastic bookshelf and a photograph of K.O.S. (Kids of Survival) peers out of another corner. It reveals a younger Rollins with jet black hair and Chris Hernandez, an original K.O.S. member who was shot and killed on Valentine's Day, 1993 in the South Bronx.



Tim Rollins and K.O.S studio
photo courtesy Cheryl Kaplan. Cheryl Kaplan, 2008.
All rights reserved.

After twenty-six years, Tim Rollins is still riding that line between art, education, and a rescue operation, having started Tim Rollins and K.O.S. in the early 80s as a collaboration with visually talented kids living in poverty and danger in the South Bronx. K.O.S. works as both a core group of 12 members and through a series of collaborative workshops with kids from local schools across America. The projects created by Rollins and K.O.S. usually take years to complete. As Rollins explains, "We first made the painting The Red Badge of Courage in 1992 [based on Stephen Crane's Civil War novel about a soldier's conflict in fighting], and then, in 2008, we made a new version of this work for the exhibition at The Warehouse Gallery in Syracuse, NY. Crane had attended the university. We also combined this work with the sermons of Martin Luther King, Jr."



Tim Rollins and K.O.S., The War of the Worlds (after H.G. Wells), 2004
©Tim Rollins and K.O.S..
Courtesy Galerie Eva Presenhuber, Zurich.
Galleria Raucci / Santamaria, Naples.
Photo: Stefan Altenburger Photography Zurich.

Rollins and K.O.S. always include a period of discovery as part of their process; the planning stage involves conceptual and technical research. Rollins collaborates with the K.O.S. group through a combination of meetings, emails, Fed-Ex deliveries, phone calls, and sometimes video conferences if they cannot meet in person. Rollins does not have a solo presence or individual voice in the work; he likens himself to a conductor and K.O.S. is his orchestra. When it comes to the workshops, the original members join Rollins to lead "master classes" where they first gather to discuss the texts and then begin working, adhering acid-free archival book pages onto a gessoed canvas using archival jade glue. This visual base forms the physical and contextual foundation for the paintings. Some projects have included music, as in a project and large-scale print series collaboration with students at the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts in Michigan and Pyramid Atlantic, a non-profit contemporary arts center based in Maryland that specializes in hand papermaking, printmaking, and bookmaking. The project, now on view at Colgate University in Hamilton, NY, evolved as a response to Franz Josef Haydn's 1798 oratorio The Creation.



Tim Rollins and K.O.S.: 25 Years,2007
Exhibition view Galerie Eva Presenhuber
Courtesy Galerie Eva Presenhuber, Zurich.
Photo: Stefan Altenburger Photography Zurich.


Tim Rollins and K.O.S. in the late eighties
© Tim Rollins and K.O.S.

The paintings have a wide visual range, from pattern paintings and narrative illustrations to a neo-geo look and even abstraction. In 2007, Rollins and K.O.S. had a major 25-year retrospective at Eva Presenhuber Gallery in Switzerland. The work on view included projects from Amerika, based on Franz Kafka's book; Shakespeare; as well as Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland and Ralph Ellison's The Invisible Man. If the work and paintings have an erudite, yet down-to-earth demeanor, that's because Rollins' style of teaching is based on the practice of intervention. He combines the classics with street smarts, getting the kids to identify simple but strong themes in the writing. For Amerika, Rollins had the kids focus on the golden trumpets in the book's last chapter; what ends up on canvas is a series of trumpets nearly marching across the painting's surface. The K.O.S. version of Alice finds her in a black-on-black world in a painting titled Black Alice. The physical and emotional sense of displacement—or just being out of place—is both the text message and the visual message of the work.



Tim Rollins and K.O.S.,
Amerika - Everyone is Welcome ! (after Kafka), 2002
©Tim Rollins and K.O.S..
Courtesy Galerie Eva Presenhuber, Zurich.
Galleria Raucci/Santamaria, Naples.
Photo: Stefan Altenburger Photography Zurich.

If the name K.O.S. sounds vaguely like a band, it's probably just a reflection of those times. After hitchhiking from Maine to New York in 1978, Rollins moved to the Chelsea Hotel, home of Sid and Nancy, the New York Dolls, and the B-52s. Rollins was in "Harlem on Sundays and CBGB's during the week." As for Hotel Chelsea, it wasn't exactly the safest spot to be in, but it was where the action was. Rollins came to New York to study with conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth at the School of Visual Arts, having used his last quarters for the phone call to the school to see if he could study with his soon-to-be mentor. Rollins had read the conceptualist's 1969 essay Art After Philosophy and was struck by "the politics and democracy of the work and its openness. People think early conceptual art was elitist and exclusionary, but I saw it the other way around. It allows someone who doesn't have canvas and paint to do something. Art is idea." Rollins' work began as a mix between Arte Povera and Conceptual Art; he could be found drawing the town line between Augusta and Gardiner, Maine with a graphite pencil.



Tim Rollins and K.O.S.,from the series
"A Diary of a Young Girl (after Anne Frank)", 2007
©Tim Rollins and K.O.S.. Private collection.
Courtesy Galerie Eva Presenhuber, Zurich.
Galleria Raucci/Santamaria, Naples.
Photo: Stefan Altenburger Photography Zurich

Rollins was also walking the line between art and religion. Raised by his Revivalist great grandmother during the summers, Rollins recalls: "She had no running water, we’d go to Revival Tent meetings and heal in rural Burnham, Maine. Daddy was hard drinking, bowling alley and Mom believed in God. In Maine, the only time you had art was Friday afternoons at Church." Even now, the first place I found the artist was at Harlem’s Baptist Memorial Church. When I called the receptionist responded: "Praise be the Lord, can I help you?" In Rollins’ case, his interest in art provided a way out of a difficult family life. "Daddy was a hand sewer for the Northeast Shoe Company. When the shop closed, we were on welfare. In Maine, the stigma is unbelievable. Daddy was an alcoholic, he was relatively functional, he never hurt me that bad. He was neglectful, but not violent. A little bit; he was out of it. I’ve forgiven him."



Tim Rollins and K.O.S.,
from the series The Creation (after Haydn), 2004
©Tim Rollins and K.O.S..
Courtesy Galerie Eva Presenhuber, Zurich.
Galleria Raucci/Santamaria, Naples
Photo: Stefan Altenburger Photography Zurich




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