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Music by John Coltrane played on a small boom box in a classroom at Miami Beach Senior High as a group of students from several Dade County schools, their art teachers, and some artists from the South Florida Art Center quietly painted pictures of gold trumpets on pages torn from a copy of Franz Kafka's Amerika.
Tim Rollins and two long-time members of his Bronx-based teenage artists' collective Kids of Survival (K.O.S.) were conducting a workshop at the high school in conjunction with Youth Matters, an exhibition now at Miami Dade Community College's Centre Gallery. Several collaborations by Rollins and K.O.S. are included in the show, along with work by three other artists whose art deals with teenage life.
Toward the end of the morning-long class on September 20, Rollins, in suit and tie, got up in front of the room and quizzed the students on material they had gone over earlier. Together the group had read Amerika's eighth chapter, "The Nature Theatre of Oklahoma," in which the book's alienated immigrant protagonist comes upon a sign soliciting members for the theater that states "everyone is welcome." At the theater's recruitment site, hundreds of women dressed as angels are blowing on long golden horns.
"What's the name of the book? Who wrote it? Where is the author from? What's the motto of the Nature Theatre of Oklahoma? What's the name of the musician whose music is playing now?" Rollins fired off questions, calling on students individually. They answered hesitantly, if at all.
"Don't play small!" Rollins boomed suddenly, spitting the words, his New England accent tinged with Bronx attitude. "What I don't like about this generation is that it's not cool to be extraordinary."
He pointed to one of the students. "Say 'May I take your order please.'" The boy, perplexed, complied: "May I take your order please?"
"If you play small, that's all you're ever going to do," Rollins shrugged as his audience laughed. "So you better get used to it. You might as well leave school right now.
"Everyone of you is so talented," he said. "I demand that all of you go to college. School is easy compared to life, believe it or not."
Rollins has been perfecting his somewhat polemic tough love approach to education since the early Eighties, when he began teaching in a program for students with learning disabilities at a South Bronx junior high school. He subsequently founded the Art and Knowledge Workshop where a group of fourteen- to eighteen-year-old Hispanic students, dubbed the Kids of Survival, began meeting after school.
"A lot of my kids were really into art but their parents didn't understand, their teachers didn't understand," Rollins told the Miami Beach workshop participants. "They were different, and people thought they were dumb. Most of my kids' art experience was hiding in the back of math class slumped down in their seat and doodling in a notebook."
Rollins comes from a small town in Maine, and was the first member of his working-class family to graduate college. He moved to New York in the Seventies, studying with conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth at the School of Visual Arts, and taking education courses at New York University. Before he started working in the Bronx, he cofounded the socially committed artists' collective Group Material.
In the devastated Bronx neighborhood where he has been living and working for over a decade, Rollins offers art as an alternative to drugs and gangs. The workshop's door is open to anyone, but there are rules: Stay in school; no teenage pregnancy; no criminal activity. Over the years, kids have come and gone. (Rollins has a particularly hard time keeping girls in the workshop. He says they don't stay because they have more responsibilities at home, or they simply don't feel comfortable in the male-dominated environment.) Others have stuck with Rollins through high school, and then gone on to college, such as the two who were with him at Miami Beach Senior High. Rick Savinon, one of the founding members of K.O.S., has started his own graphic design company. Robert Branch is a freshman at prestigious Cooper Union in Manhattan.
Strolling the aisles of the classroom, Branch stopped to compliment the work of a young man who had painted an elaborate curlicue trumpet. Like the student next to him, who also showed talent, the young man wore fashionably droopy jeans and a towel around his neck. Both students want to draw comics for a living.
"I was into comic books at first too," Branch, who was wearing neatly pressed dress pants and shined leather boots, commented. "But then I started looking at paintings, and I realized that while comic books were written in one language, a painting spoke in every single language possible. When you find out how art is relative to you, how could you not want to paint?"
Rollins joined the conversation. "Comic books are a nice start," he allowed, adding that he once sold his own valuable comic book collection for art school tuition. "But they're not going to last. I don't know if 100 years from now anyone's going to care about it any more. The thing about art is that it lasts so long. It's of enduring excellence. There are very few things that last so long. It's not like a TV show. It's not like fashion...When you make art, you're making something; you're making history."