Tim Rollins & K.O.S.

If you're tempted to dismiss the work of Tim Rollins + Kids of Survival (K.O.S.) as 'art therapy,' you've likely missed the Big Picture. The Kids are not incorrigible, unteachable, soothed only by art as music is said to charm the savage. And do you think their name sounds corny? Well, they are kids, and they live in a place where survival is something more than making it through a tough day of shopping. K.O.S. beats D.O.A. on any day. Is a concentration on canonical Western literature behind the times or not P.C.? Good or bad, it put us where we are, and the Kids might just have another perspective on its message. Tim Rollins + K.O.S. reach out to children whose circumstances are similar to their own, and the resulting collaborations have a strong potential to create artworks of exceptional intelligence and broad social purpose. From a small town in rural Maine, Tim Rollins was born into a family for whom hard work had brought few rewards since their arrival in the 18th century. The first of his line to attend college, he graduated from the University of Maine, continuing on to the New York City School of Visual Arts and the New York University School of Art Education.

Working as a collective became a way of life, encompassing days, nights, and weekends. To some of the uninformed, Rollins' devotion to and passion for the work were viewed as self-promotion, but those more closely connected saw a mechanism of steadfast creation and spiritual revival. A large part of the effort by the collective involves understanding and interpreting the literary work upon which a painting will be physically superimposed. Thus youth who are barely able to read find a concrete reason to become literate ideas derived from their reading may be reflected through their art. With guidance from Tim, the K.O.S. interpret conventional literature within a broader social context than that typically articulated by adults. These accomplishments are ample evidence that inner city youth deserve to be taken seriously in their academic pursuits. Taking such an interest will permit meaningful conclusions to be drawn regarding the concept of literacy and cultural interpretations of Western literary thought. Tim Rollins has provided the opportunity, and society must choose to recognize the value of these important resources.

For community art activists, the contrasting roles of artist and activist may be misinterpreted. An artist strives to communicate life in ways that may be joyous, painful, humorous, or satirical. The goal of an activist is to hear the people and communicate their needs to those who are equipped to act upon them. Because the art activist performs both of these roles, he or she becomes the center of attention, which is generally delivered as either appreciation or criticism. In reality, however, the role of the art activist is to identify emotions suppressed by young people and adults, allowing those individuals to take the central position in their interpretation and enlightening their own community as they become aware of their importance to and within society. The art activist thus supports the community and helps its members reach a deserved place in which their own strengths are recognized. The community can function collectively with much more effect than may be attained by an individual. Tim Rollins + K.O.S. are proof that art activism can succeed on several levels.

An exciting attribute of K.O.S. is their ability to awaken suppressed feelings and emotions and at the same time offer a medium for the expression of those awakenings. Books become the literal and metaphorical basis for such expressions. A stretched canvas is literally covered with all of the pages that make up a chosen text. Depending on the project, individual components of the work may be created first as studies by members of the collective, and with these studies as reference the group painting is then brushed onto the page-covered canvas.

A good example of this innovative art form is AMERIKA, a series of collaborative works produced by Tim Rollins + K.O.S. with students from across the United States. Derived from Amerika, by Franz Kafka, their powerful imagery includes the spiritual beings of angels, within the words of the text itself, and the surreal shapes of their golden horns, painted all across the text.

One of the most important products of the cooperative enterprise described here is the connection that has developed between Tim Rollins and his students. With these young people whose lives are full of difficulty and despair, his most immediate goal has always been to help ensure their survival. Rollins is a master of creative problem solving the lifeline of survival in the inner city. Young people of color in the South Bronx may easily perceive that they have been let down repeatedly by a white male-dominated societal system. Despite their negative encounters with white male culture, Tim has gained and held the trust of these young and expressive artists. He has inspired them to try yet again to apply their creative talents toward changing the closed, oppressive system. From Tim's investment in time and the sharing of his humanity have come critical acclaim and academic success, impressive achievements for the K.O.S. artist collective. A fixture in their world, Tim is with them in life and death; their joys and pain are inseparable from his own. Tim Rollins has earned respect, which may be the most important commodity in the 'hood'.

Micheal Toombs
August 1998
Kansas City, MO

Participating Artists:
Janay Tye, Age 10
Schanne Cade, Age 12
Erica Dobbs, Age 13
Angelo Castilleja, Age 14
Lauren Brunk, Age 14
Danielle Maslan, Age 14
Renee Mejia, Age 17
Mikel Ambler, Age 17
Domanick Murillo, Age 18
Ikem Harland, Age 16
Joseph Pippins, Age 16
Adrian Halpern, Age 18
Mario Peregrina, Age 11
Richard Johnson, Age 17
Chris Gossage, Age 16
Jeremy Chisam, Age 15
Yolanda D. Quintero, Age 13
Nasir Tennyson, Age 15

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