What we can learn from Tim Rollins (1955-2017)

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Tim Rollins and K.O.S. Workshop for Amerika IX, 1987. Mint Museum of Art, Charlotte, North Carolina.

With the very sad news that Tim Rollins (1955-2017) has passed away, it is important that we recognize and harness the lessons he taught generations of inner city youth and the art world at large. Tim Rollins, was an artist, activist, and most importantly, a passionate educator who co-founded the activist art Group Material in 1979 and “The Art and Knowledge Workshop,” which introduced the world to K.O.S (Kids of Survival) around 1984.

Rollins and K.O.S showed us that no one is beyond the reach of a good education. The model of pedagogy Rollins developed as his curriculum at I.S. 52 in the South Bronx, was a cross-disciplinary student centered form of learning, which sought to empower and inspire at risk youth. Initially, Rollins (who was already a well-known contemporary artist and activist) was hired by the school’s principal to create a visual arts program that would help academic or emotionally at risk middle-school youth with their reading and writing. What transpired in Rollins’ classroom became history in the making. Rollins made learning personal and engaging by enabling student choice within a lesson so that learning history and literature had unique relevance to the students’ own experiences.

Rollins understood that by connecting newfound knowledge (from the books they were reading in school) to personal and significant daily encounters, students become thirsty for learning and are emboldened to ask or take on ‘big questions.’ In other words, they become life-long learners who aren’t afraid to take risks or make mistakes, because one of the major tenants we learn from art education is that there are no mistakes in art.

Rollins knew that his students were exceptional, and together they formed an art collective called Kids of Survival or K.O.S, through which they created major works of art that related text to visual imagery and interpreted literature within the lens of contemporary issues such as race, gender, and social justice. Putting Paulo Freire’s (1921-1997) teachings into practice, K.O.S. developed an educational model where the students, teacher, and society (in this case the art world and museum/gallery visitors) can learn collaboratively with each other. The learners became co-creators of knowledge.  For K.O.S, art was a means for survival and education was the material that was used to transcend the tough and seemingly hopeless environment that they grew up in.

Tim Rollins’ memory will be a blessing because his collaborators in K.O.S continue to tackle ‘big questions’ in their works of art and will no doubt inspire future generations of at risk youth to do so as well. All of our students have the potential to succeed. Art presents us with a blank canvas where we can combine the knowledge we learn (in other disciplines) with the personal lessons, trials, and tribulations we experience.

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What we can learn from Tim Rollins (1955-2017)

Social and Emotional Learning – Our Public Space, our Personal Experience Pt. 1

Freire (1970) called for an educational model where we learn by participating in social and political events. To him, education and politics are inseparable and the student is as equally responsible in the creation of knowledge as the teacher is. There are many examples from contemporary art that vividly depict these ideas. This ongoing examination will take a look at socially engaged works of art within the public space that are made in collaboration with diverse populations.

Ofri Cnaani’s Moon Guardians (2013), was a video installation (produced by More Art), which the artist projected on a historic building in Gansevoort Plaza. The site-specific project examined the socio-historical context of New York City’s Meatpacking District, which has undergone significant changes throughout its storied history. In realizing this project, Cnaani worked with local public High School students who interviewed several longtime residents from the neighborhood. Many of these residents, including a butcher, a drag queen, an art gallerist, and an elderly couple, could no longer afford to live there. By reflecting on their memories of the neighborhood before it became the fashionable hub it is today, they portrayed a vibrant narrative of its diverse history. Cnaani filmed them in a style that is distinctly haunting. Each of these characters appeared every night, lit up from a vista on the building, and performed moments from their lives when they lived there. The result was a powerful juxtaposition of old and new New York.

Moon Guardians symbolically details the relationship between the oppressor (gentrification) and the oppressed (displaced longtime members of the community) by conflating the two groups together. We are invited into the past, but cannot fully escape reality because we are aware that the people we’re viewing are essentially spectres that appear from within an unfamiliar frontier. The working class, small business person, and loft dwelling artist have vanished in favor of high-end products, chic-boutiques, and luxury apartments. The contradictions between the gentrifiers and the gentrified and the realization of the inequity between the two groups is exemplary of what Friere coined the ‘critical conscious.’

Ofri Cnaani speaks about Moon Guardians (2013) from More Art on Vimeo.


Notes:

Freire, Paulo (2007). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum.

Social and Emotional Learning – Our Public Space, our Personal Experience Pt. 1