What’s in a Name?

Artist Tim Rollins’ surname is only one of his many remarkable connections to the College.

(Photo by Scott Cook)

Using a speaking technique that is part lecture, part conversation, and part tent revival meeting, Tim Rollins speaks passionately about K.O.S. (Kids of Survival), at-risk students from the South Bronx that he has mentored and nurtured into a thriving group of artists—and well-rounded students—for more than 30 years. “Art is a means to knowledge, since the creative action manifests thinking in material and experience,” he says. “Art making is exciting, and I believe that is why the K.O.S. project attracts young folks who hate school but love art.”

Rollins takes an interdisciplinary approach to the project, connecting the visual arts to literature, history, and music. Using a masterwork as a springboard, he guides students to create powerful works that often hang in museums, private collections, and other venues—such as The Alfond Inn—throughout the world. “Our collective will soon be reaching our 100th museum and public collection watermark,” he says. “This is a source of great pride and affirmation for our work and struggle for all these years.”

“Struggle” is an understatement. Rollins was a young conceptual artist with a degree from New York University when he agreed to teach an art course for disadvantaged students at Public School 52 in the South Bronx—for just a few weeks. He soon discovered that his students responded to art as he presented it, which he insists isn’t teaching. “I don’t teach. I educate,” says the Pittsfield, Maine, native. “There’s a world of difference between the two actions. Teachers tend to demonstrate skills, lead students to information and resources, examine and test learning results. In contrast, educators discern, discipline, develop, and promote the gifts already present, living, and inherent in the person they are engaging with.”

Working in a graffiti-covered room with minimal materials, Rollins brought his passion for education to these at-risk students, and he soon found that he couldn’t leave them behind. He founded K.O.S. in 1982, running a contest to establish the name; the winning student came up with “Kids of Survival,” and it stuck. Since then, despite a number of setbacks and tragedies, including the murder of one of his students, Rollins has worked collaboratively with his students to create bold and kinetic works that have garnered international acclaim.

It’s fitting that one of these works has found a home at the Alfond Inn. With its harmonious convergence of art, music and literature, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream (after Shakespeare and Mendelssohn)” taps into the celebration of the liberal arts that is the hallmark of a Rollins College education.

During his visit to the College earlier this month, Rollins was struck by the many connections between himself and the school, beyond just his surname. “The first thing I experienced upon arriving at The Alfond Inn was a large white neon work by my life mentor, Joseph Kosuth,” he says of the work that reads “Language must speak for itself” and hangs behind the reception desk. “I was moved—even shocked—by the welcome,” says Rollins, who began his artistic career as an assistant to Kosuth.

The connections continued when he realized that the College’s founder, Alonzo Rollins, was born in Maine, where Tim Rollins’ family has lived for generations. And after meeting Rollins alumni Barbara ’68 and Ted ’68 Alfond, who donated the Inn’s collection, he learned that the Alfond family owned the Dexter Shoe Company—“The very same shoe shop in Maine where my daddy worked as a hand sewer for years,” Rollins says. “Things were getting uncanny.”

But the biggest association between Tim Rollins and Rollins College is the passion for the arts and education that both share: “A whole and full education is always a dialogue, a conversation, a reciprocity of intelligence and feeling that is bottomless in scope,” he says. Tim Rollins’ interdisciplinary approach and passion for his students is clearly mirrored at Rollins College, and his talk at The Alfond Inn was a powerful affirmation of the importance of the arts in education.

Tim Rollins and K.O.S.
A Midsummer Night's Dream (after Shakespeare and Mendelssohn), 2011
60 x 72 in.
©Tim Rollins and K.O.S., Courtesy of the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong

(Photo by Scott Cook)