Art and Knowledge

Tim Rollins, His Grandmother, and the Value of Education

There is a story that the artist Tim Rollins liked to tell about his grandmother, Alice Rollins. She worked at Colby, in Foss dining hall, from 1957 to 1975.  One winter evening when Tim was eleven or twelve, she called her son, Rollins’s father, to ask for a ride home from work, adding, “Bring Timmy with you.” When they arrived on campus to pick her up, she told her grandson to look around at the college. Someday, she said, he would go to a school like this.

Alice Rollins (front row, left) with coworkers at Colby College.

Rollins, who died last December at age sixty-two, didn’t enroll at Colby, but he did go to college, first at the University of Maine and then at the School of Visual Arts in New York, where he earned his BFA in 1980. His grandmother’s insistence on the value of education, the idea that a high-quality education can and should be accessible to everyone, was something he carried with him into his work with the collective that became known as K.O.S.—Kids of Survival.

After completing his BFA, Rollins took graduate courses in art education and philosophy at New York University. In 1981 he took a job teaching at a middle school in the South Bronx. He was tasked with designing a curriculum that would integrate art making with reading and writing lessons; his students were classified as “at risk” academically or behaviorally. It was quite a different setting from Pittsfield, Maine, where Rollins had grown up, but the experiences of Rollins himself and of his students were more similar than they might at first have appeared: these kids were from families in which no one had gone to college, kids who needed someone to tell them that they might belong in a place like “this”—whether “this” meant an elite liberal arts school or the galleries of the New York art world.

The process Rollins developed with the students remained the same, more or less, through three decades of collaborative work with the members of K.O.S.—some of whom have been with the group since its beginnings in the Art and Knowledge Workshop, an independent after-school program that Rollins began for his students in 1984. One person would read aloud from a book—the texts were by authors who ranged from Shakespeare to Kafka to Malcolm X—while the others drew or painted their responses; eventually, they started putting the art directly on the pages themselves. By 1985, a core group solidified and took on the name Kids of Survival. Their upward movement through the art world was rapid: they were included in the Whitney Biennial in 1985, had their first gallery show in 1986, exhibited at documenta in 1987 and the Venice Biennale in 1988. It was a stunning trajectory for a bunch of kids from the South Bronx and their young teacher.

Tim Rollins and K.O.S., Studies for “On the Origin of Species” (after Darwin), 2012. Ink and watercolor on book page, 9 x 6 in. (22.86 x 15.24 cm). Colby College. Museum purchase from the A.A. D’Amico Art Collection Fund in honor of Colby President William D. Adams, 2014.001.

Everything Tim Rollins and K.O.S. did, from their collective process to their finished products, was rooted in the idea of democratizing education, making it accessible to those who are too often excluded from sites of knowledge and the arts. In the early days, Rollins insisted that members maintain a C average to participate in the group; after-school sessions at the Art and Knowledge Workshop were as much about getting homework done as creating art. From the beginning, the paintings they made as a group were ways of understanding complex texts.

In 2014, Tim Rollins and K.O.S. had an exhibition at the Savannah College of Art and Design Museum of Art. Three of the works in the show were created in collaboration with middle-school students from Garrison Junior High, a Savannah public school focused on visual and performing arts. Rollins insisted that the students do their work with the seasoned artists of K.O.S. in a studio on the college’s campus. He wanted them to have the chance to work in a college environment. Like his grandmother had done for him, he wanted to make sure they knew that they could belong at a school like that.

Tim Rollins with his grandmother, Alice Rollins.

A work by Tim Rollins + K.O.S., Study for the Origin of the Species (after Darwin), is on view in Contemporary Highlights through August 26. It is presented in remembrance of Rollins and his grandmother’s years of service to Colby College.