Tim Rollins has been called "unorthodox" and "far out" for his approach to art education and art-making itself.
In the early 1980s, the Bronx-based artist and public school teacher opened up his studio to "at-risk" youth and "unteachable" students—and please note that when Rollins talks, he uses air quotes around those terms since most of them quickly proved themselves otherwise. The formally-trained painter engaged these "Kids of Survival" with art supplies and straight talk, collaborating with them on large-scale works inspired by the same literature and music they once eschewed in the classroom.
"I knew there was something transgressive about it, but I wasn't doing it on purpose," chuckles Rollins, who was raised in rural Maine. "I come from a real working class situation, and so do these kids. I wanted to get them to see that art and music and literature are for them, too."
Using a signature method that involves deconstructing first edition books and mining the yellowed pages, Rollins and K.O.S. began creating canvasses and conceptual works that explore themes of classic art and social justice, of history and how to find one's place in it. They call it "honorific vandalism," a process that imbues each piece with the spirit of the book's author.
More than 30 years later, it's clear the experiment worked. Rollins and his now-grown posse of former students continue to create together and travel the country hosting workshops for teachable students of all kinds. Their collaborative paintings are currently in the permanent collections of almost a hundred museums around the world.
"We started out as an after school program, then we became a fraternity," he says. "Now we're a family."
The latest Tim Rollins + K.O.S. exhibit is RIVERS, opening this week at the SCAD Museum of Art and running through June 8. Part of SCAD's deFINE ART showcase taking place simultaneously at SCAD's Savannah, Atlanta and Hong Kong campuses, RIVERS functions on a dizzying number of levels, moving between different media and various centuries until all lines have been blurred.
But that's exactly the point of deFINE ART, a program of exhibits and lectures collated to stretch the mind beyond mainstream definitions.
"The goal is to bring in artists who are pushing the envelope of what contemporary art can be," explains SCAD's executive director of exhibitions, Laurie Ann Farrell. "Artists who are moving issues forward, artists who will inspire."
For deFINE ART, Rollins and the K.O.S. team selected pieces specifically to display in SCAD MoA's sweeping central gallery space, which Rollins saw on a visit to Savannah last spring. He and K.O.S. also constructed the show along Southern themes with a focus on African-American perspectives, and senior curator Melissa Messina calls the exhibit's confluence with Black History Month "a happy coincidence."
"They literally use the layers of history as their canvas," points out Messina. "There's this metanarrative going on in every piece."
Several historical periods and pieces of literature inform the works of RIVERS, beginning with the Mark Twain-inspired "Asleep on the Raft," a massive rendering of a pen-and-ink drawing from the first-edition book that composes the first layer. The drawing is visible in the upper right corner under the whitewash, and the transposed larger indigo version is painted in the exact veins of the original hatch sketches, right down to the illustration's original signature.
"You can think of the Mississippi river as a metaphor for America," offers Rollins, constantly shifting between his roles as artist and teacher. "We're all together on the raft, you know?"
The tension of history is heightened by the Messina's placement of the exhibit: The two panels of "I See the Promised Land," a pair of isosceles triangles posing like mountains atop the works of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., face the richly-textured "Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl," its ribbon tendrils trailing the floor.
The space between serves as a symbolic crossing, bisected on the far wall with a single portrait-sized canvas featuring a page from Langston Hughes' poem "I've Known Rivers."
The referential loop of the metanarrative is everywhere, flooding the banks of the imagination.
"You can't step in the same river twice, right?" muses Rollins. "A river has motion, it has flow. It's a great metaphor for what art making is all about."
On Rollins' last visit to Savannah, he brought original K.O.S. members Rick Sauvinon and Angel Abreu to engage with local students from Garrison School of Visual and Performing Arts. With the help of art teachers Briana Thayer and Catriona Schaefer, the New Yorkers and 50 students created two installations for RIVERS, debuting at the museum Tuesday, Feb. 18.
The haunting "Darkwater," a series of pages swathed in black and gold, came from the writings of African-American essayist W.E.B. Du Bois, an unfamiliar figure to most of the Garrison students. By the end of the three-day workshop, however, they had an intimate understanding of Du Bois' essays, including "The Damnation of Women" and the "Immortal Child."
"At first it seems almost sacreligious to break apart any book, but we're having a conversation with history," explains Abreu, who will be reunited with his students at the deFINE ART event. "We feel like Du Bois is a part of the collaboration."
Coming up with museum-quality work with middle school students might sound like a long shot, but K.O.S. comes prepared.
"We bring the protocol and the materials, but we don't know exactly what's going to happen. We go with the flow," continues Abreu. "But we also ask students them to elevate their game, to come up to our level as artists."
He and the rest of the team tested dozens of colors in advance to come up with particular shade of indigo used in The River, another collaboration based on Duke Ellington's 1970 ballet score of the same name. K.O.S. played YouTube videos of Ellington while they worked with the materials, then helped collate the individual interpretations into one collaborative piece.
All the while, without really trying, the students absorbed the leitmotif of how rivers, both the literal ones like Huck Finn's Mississippi and the allegorical ones like Ellington's ballet, inform the historical, economic and cultural aspects of their lives.
"It's not just dipping the pages in the ink," admires Messina. "They're immersing themselves in the metaphor."
For Rollins, this total immersion has proved a successful educational model that helps students navigate the not only the deeper waterways of history and literature, but how to find the value of their own contributions. It also provides context for learning itself.
"Look, I get teaching to the standards, because, hey, we need standards. But we can go way beyond that," he says.
"What our young folk really need is to commune with the genius of the ages."