Studio K.O.S. has persevered time and time again. Initially under the tutelage of the late artist and educator Tim Rollins, the members of this art and pedagogical collective have grown up to become great artists and educators in their own right. K.O.S. stands for Kids of Survival, a reference to each members’ struggles, both inside the classroom and within the South Bronx communities they were raised in. Rollins’ unexpected death in 2017, was another trial that this tight-knit creative coterie has endured.
I have referenced Tim Rollins and K.O.S. many times on this blog, because their philosophy and methodology exemplifies the benefits of integrating an art-centered pedagogy throughout the educational curriculum. With the understanding that art has its own powerful and unifying language, Rollins developed a curriculum intended as a way to improve literacy, by making required reading assignments relevant to his students’ prior knowledge and lived experiences. Rollins and K.O.S. expanded upon canonical texts by mining through and juxtaposing additional subject matter such as legal documents, musical scores and comic books; illustrating how seemingly contrasting elements of culture are not mutually exclusive. Using these resources as inspiration, their work re-presents standard forms of language on their own terms. Key themes which have connections to their personal experiences, their community and societal spectrum at large, become subject matter and media for their collaborative works of art.
Continuing and expanding upon their work with Rollins, Studio K.O.S. (main members include: Angel Abreu, Jorge Abreu, Robert Branch, and Nelson Ricardo Savinon) has been developing a significant range of educational programming and exhibitions. They are carrying on the work that they did with their beloved mentor, while bringing new insights and experiences into the mix. Their iconic works of art, such as Invisible Man (after Ralph Ellison), an intimate interpretation of Ralph Ellison’s 1952 novel “The Invisible Man,” have been re-presented using new technology and given updated social and cultural context that reflects the mood of our present epoch. The aforementioned artwork is a commentary on victims of violence and racial injustice.
Victims of violence and oppression are too frequently rendered invisible within a sensationalized mass media culture. This has been the case in the aftermath of many police shootings of Black men and women. Victims risk becoming mere footnotes in the narratives around their murder, and in some instances are re-victimized in the court of public opinion based on racist stereotypes. The formal features of Invisible Man (after Ralph Ellison) symbolically address this concern. As journalist Ted Loons (2020) writes in a recent New York Times article about Studio K.O.S., “The squared-off “I M” font comes from the last two letters of “victim” in a Daily News headline from the late 1990s about urban violence; the collective lost one of its members, Christopher Hernandez, in 1993 when he was killed in his South Bronx apartment building after he witnessed other murders. He was 15.”
Studio K.O.S. revisited Invisible Man (after Ralph Ellison) during a workshop with public school students and teachers in Philadelphia and Minneapolis. Collectively, they created an ongoing participatory artwork called, The Invisible Man 2020. The workshops reflect Tim Rollins’ pedagogical method of reading comprehension and visual literacy. Studio K.O.S. guided the participants through a process that Rollins dubbed as “jamming,” where one member of the group reads from a text while others create visual responses to the literary content. In the most recent iteration of Invisible Man (after Ralph Ellison), the participants created their own color schemes and digitally manipulated the initial composition to create abstract symbolic messages that address social justice themes (some good examples of student work can be found here). The digital images are composed in a video with an audio track of the prologue to Invisible Man being read.
This project embodies a similar ethos to the foundational work that Rollins and K.O.S. performed. The Invisible Man 2020 empowers students to express themselves and assert their unique identities within a collective discourse. One of the commonalities between making art, teaching and learning, is developing and nurturing a living legacy. Through artful experiences and creative expressions, we each have the opportunity to derive meaning from life and share meaningful moments with others in a manner that can encourage incredible social transformation. The arts teach us that our personal and collaborative narratives are worthwhile. Art education gives us the tools and skills to make our voices heard through an empathetic lens. Tim Rollins’ compassionate student-centered curricula led to K.O.S.’ understanding of themselves and the world around them; and Studio K.O.S. is paying it forward by inspiring similar social, emotional and cognitive transformation within the next generation(s).
References, Notes, Suggested Reading:
Harden, Brandon T. “Philly high school students get to be part of a famous art movement.” Philadelphia Inquirer, 17 July 2020. https://www.inquirer.com/news/digital-workshop-ralph-ellison-invisible-man-kos-collective-wexler-gallery-20200717.html
Loos, Ted. “The Kids of Survival Are Middle-Aged — and Transforming Yet Again.” New York Times, 15 January 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/15/arts/design/kos-kids-of-survival-art-collective.html