In 1981 a young artist and teacher named Tim Rollins ventured into the rotting rubble of the South Bronx, and began his first art class for at-risk middle school students with these words: "Today we are going to make art, and we are also going to make history." Through thick (lionized by the New York art world) and thin (a student murdered, Rollins broke and virtually homeless) they did both. That first class led to an independent and self-renewing group that more than 25 years later still exists: the Kids of Survival, or K.O.S. The artwork they produced is bought and shown in major museums and galleries around the world.
Rollins channeled and challenged the energies of those first students, refusing to accept that a kid who could play a video game for eight hours straight was condemned to A.D.D., or a kid who could reproduce perfectly a long rap off a record was disabled by a learning disorder. Influenced by the theories of educators John Dewey, Jane Addams, Ivan Illich, Robert Coles and Paulo Freire, Rollins was also inspired by the actual writings of Martin Luther King as well as Emerson and Thoreau. "I have always thought that art, at its best, was a form of civil disobedience," he said. "We are not going to take it the way it was given to us. We have the audacity to have a vision of something new."
Organizing at-risk kids to make art wasn't entirely new then and it isn't now, but Rollins' approach is still notable. He paid attention to product as well as process, discarding either the expected representation of social conditions ("abject art") or empty affirmations of the "we can make a difference" variety. And he used the art-making process to increase knowledge, as the group researched and explored their projects through classic literature (at first by Rollins reading it aloud).
The result is a variety of striking art, handsomely reproduced in this large-format volume: from the early cartoon-influenced paintings responding to Frankenstein and Dracula, through the surreal golden trumpets inspired by Kafka, and various projects including conceptual and installation art connected to the words of Orwell, Flaubert, Aristophanes, Ralph Ellison, Mark Twain, Harriet Jacobs and H.G. Wells, as well as the music of Haydn, Schubert and Strauss. Rollins believed his students needed these alternatives to the otherwise inescapable contexts of their lives, and felt an ethical responsibility to involve knowledge, rather than simply teach art to students "who couldn't spell ‘artist.'"
This excellent volume doubles as a catalog for a traveling exhibit that is now at the Frye Art Museum in Seattle, until May 31.