Tim Rollins and K.O.S., The Scarlet Letter—The Prison Door (after Nathaniel Hawthorne), 1992-93

K.O.S., or “Kids of Survival,” is a group of at-risk students from the South Bronx. Many of them have learning disabilities. The kids gather after school to listen as an art teacher reads aloud while they free-draw. What’s being read? Kafka’s Amerika, Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things, Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage. And their artwork is in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art and the Tate Modern, and has been shown in over 100 galleries across the nation.

Credit their exposure to the teacher turning the pages: Tim Rollins, a School of Visual Arts (NY) professor who, from 1981, would inspire a generation of students to “make art…and history”. A lifelong fan of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rollins believed that “making history” meant giving a voice to the voiceless—a creative outlet to struggling students. So when a junior high school principal recruited then-26-year-old Rollins to develop a new art curriculum for his South Bronx classrooms, Rollins signed on. Just as King had hoped for “a beautiful symphony of brotherhood”, Rollins believed art could bring people together. He didn’t want to start just another art program—he wanted to create a community.

The K.O.S. took a fresh look at fine art by “jammin’”—a highly collaborative style of layering bold shapes over pages from classic texts, inviting conversation among students about the written word. In the piece I See the Promised Land, a vibrant red triangle dominates a white background. Lean in closer, and the text of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s last sermon—the one delivered the night before he was assassinated—appears like a watermark beneath the geometric form. Both dynamic and static, this abstract work coaxes the eye upward to the tip, visually summarizing King’s belief that history is steamrolling toward justice.

Rollins’s work with K.O.S. has spanned two decades. He’s had the privilege of seeing K.O.S. expand to include workshops with other schools and arts institutions, while many former students have gone on to become successful artists. A retrospective, Tim Rollins and K.O.S.: A History, is on display at the Frye Art Museum from January 23–May 31. It’s the most comprehensive look at the group’s work to date; more than 20 years since their first exhibit, Rollins and K.O.S. show no signs of stopping. King would be proud.

Don’t miss Rollins’s talk with former K.O.S. student Angel Abreu on March 18 at 7pm, or the concurrent student exhibition, inspired by the K.O.S. model, that provides elementary through high school students the chance to display their work somewhere other than a refrigerator.

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