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."
Works by Rollins and K.O.S. start with books. Kafka's Amerika inspired the group to paint celebratory images of golden horns, like the ones the Miami Beach students were working on. For their painting Amerika (more than a dozen versions exist), the Bronx group went to see the horns in the instrument collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and studied the fantastical images of them in Dr. Seuss books, as well as photos of Dizzy Gillespie and his bent trumpet. The artists pasted pages of Kafka's book on a large linen canvas, covering them with layers of gesso. After making dozens of sketches of imaginative horns, they decided on the best ones, orchestrated their arrangement on the canvas, and then painted them in gold.
For a painting based on the Red Badge of Courage, which is included in the Centre Gallery show, each member of the group drew his interpretation of a wound. These expressive holes and gashes have been painted on the canvas, laid out in an evocative composition that resembles a solar system -- a symbolic constellation of human beings. "The work is about taking a wound and flipping it so it becomes an emblem of pride and survival," Savinon explained.
In the Eighties, the group's emotional, impeccably executed paintings with a surrealist edge garnered considerable attention in the art world. Selling for up to $100,000, they were bought by New York's Museum of Modern Art, the Philadelphia Museum, and numerous other private collectors and institutions. Rollins uses profits to keep the workshop going and to pay each member of the group a weekly salary. Money has been a lot scarcer since the art market crashed at the turn of the decade, but the project survives without public funding. Rollins occasionally gives workshops on his method, like the one here last month, in other cities. Recently, he has been working with children who survived the Oklahoma City bombing. And he talks about starting a long-term K.O.S. project in San Francisco. But for now he continues to work in the Bronx, where so many neighborhood parents call on him for help with their kids that he says he sometimes feels like "the art Jesus."
But not everyone sees Rollins as a miracle worker. His detractors argue that what he does has more to do with social work than art, and that he actually limits his charges' creativity by exercising too much control over the groups' artwork. Others have gone so far as to suggest that Rollins, a white man, is exploiting his Hispanic and black students.
"Tim Rollins would like to think of himself as a kindly Geppetto, guiding a group of troubled, underprivileged teenagers into adulthood through the ministry of art," scoffed one critic, Edward Rothstein, in a New York Times review of a recent documentary, Kids of Survival: The Art and Life of Tim Rollins and K.O.S. (The film had its Miami premiere at the Alliance Cinema while the artists were in town.)
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The comment was inspired by a series of works the group did based on the story of Pinocchio. One of these is included in the "Youth Matters" show: a small log, lying on the floor, with two brown prosthetic eyes embedded in the wood that stare upward and seem to follow visitors around the gallery.
For Rollins, who says he considers himself a "maestro" or "conductor," the Pinocchio work also has particular significance. But his interpretation of the story, and its meaning in the context of the Art and Knowledge Workshop, is the opposite of that expressed by the New York Times critic. The woodcutter did not create Pinocchio, Rollins explained, he only set free what was already inside the block of wood. The moral of the story is that the mischievous puppet really came to life and did everything of his own will.
"Like Pinocchio, we are responsible for our own lives, our own volition," Rollins asserted. "Somehow, society has taken our legs, our ability to walk and talk. But we can't just sit there waiting. We have to carve out our own lives."
Youth Matters. Through October 30.MDCC Wolfson Campus Centre Gallery, 300 NE 2nd Ave; 237-3278.