The Art Of Survival

February 01, 1990 10 min read

Rollins, 34, an artist dressed all in black this day, is seated at a long white table on the third floor of the Kelly center, in a room that obviously was once a basketball court. Backboards still hang from the walls. It is a studio now, the walls whitewashed and hung with canvases, the floor littered with plastic sheeting and here and there splotched with paint and dribbled with glue. Sunlight, or what passes for natural light on a hazy afternoon in New York City, filters in through the floor-to-ceiling grating, casting crisscrossed shadows against the far wall.

Carlos “Carlito’’ Rivera, 17, slightly built and shy, sits to Rollins’s right, while Richard Cruz, 19, tall and muscular, sits at the other end of the table, doodling in a newsprint pad. One of Cruz’s and Rivera’s “doodles’’ recently cost an ardent collector $100,000. In truth, it was not the work of Cruz and Rivera alone--and it was far from a doodle--but rather the exhaustive and collaborative effort of 15 Hispanic and black Bronx youths known collectively as the Kids of Survival, or KOS.

Some of their works--elaborate collages based, quite literally, on the pages of great literature, such as Franz Kafka’s Amerika and Stephen Crane’s Red Badge of Courage--are on permanent display in New York’s Museum of Modern Art and the Philadelphia Art Museum. Under Rollins’s passionate tutelage, they, too, have found a voice.

Occasionally, a critic or collector expresses surprise that these Bronx teenagers should be so successful. Implicit in that view, Rollins says, is the suggestion that success can’t be expected from troubled kids growing up in poverty. But Rollins, a former New York City public school teacher who holds a master’s degree in art education from New York University, says art blooms here because of the environment, not in spite of it. “There’s a lot of beauty and a lot of excitement here,’' he says. “It’s our home. The energy here was one of the things that made this happen. We really just take that energy and put it into the visual arts. The best art comes from struggle.’'

Serious collectors, including advertising magnate Charles Saatchi, are not unaware of the struggle involved, though most appreciate KOS art for art’s sake.

“I knew the story, although my interest was based on what the work looked like,’' says Mark Rosenthal, former curator of 20th century painting for the Philadelphia Art Museum. “I thought it was very touching, very poetic, and effectively so. The success they are enjoying has to do with the work, and not with their story.’'

As a success story, this one was a long time coming. It began in 1982, while Rollins was still teaching in the public schools. The early years of what is now called the Art and Knowledge Workshop were themselves a struggle. To begin with, the civic leaders who operate the community center were skeptical of Rollins’s plans to create serious political art with learning-disabled ghetto kids. They had to be persuaded. Start-up funds came from a variety of sources, including the National Endowment for the Arts; proceeds from the sale of one of the workshop’s first works, Amerika 1; and Rollins’s salary as a teacher. All the same, money remained, at most times, critically short.

“We spent a lot of time raising funds and convincing the local authorities that this was a serious art program,’' says Rollins. “We really suffered and paid our dues for years.’' Meanwhile, the kids were putting in long hours at night and on weekends.

That the workshop exists and flourishes today stands as testimony to the single-minded devotion of Rollins, but especially to the kids, who create the art around full school schedules.

Within the past two years has come the long-awaited cascade of acclaim, recognition in the art world, and, more recently, a tidy profit. All the proceeds of art sales are plowed back into the workshop, paying for trips to Europe to study the works of the masters, and for the salaries of several students, who are paid $5 to $12 an hour, depending on seniority and ability. The workshop, a nonprofit corporation, continues to receive local and federal grants.

For Rollins, the idea that would grow to become the Kids of Survival popped into his head seven years ago, while he was teaching art to special-education classes at the nearby public intermediate school, I.S. 52. “Most of our breakthroughs have been with the academically at risk,’' says Rollins. “Everyone at KOS has had that history.’'

Carlos Rivera, diagnosed as severely dyslexic and once extremely disruptive in class, is a case in point. “He was a reluctant new candidate to the special-ed program,’' Rollins recalls. “Most of the time, he would wind up sitting in the school office. He was always in trouble.’' Since other teachers had come to view art class as something of a dumping ground for incorrigibles, Rivera soon wound up in Rollins’s custody. The boy’s raw talent was immediately evident. “I looked at the back of his notebook, and the drawings were incredible, just beautiful. Soon, I started making deals with his teachers, and I’d get Carlos 8, 9, 10 periods a week. To this day, I have yet to see a more naturally talented artist.’'

It was also “Carlito’’ who inadvertently stumbled upon the method that would become the KOS trademark: painting on the pages of books. In the days before KOS became a recognized force, Rivera absently began drawing on Rollins’s personal copy of George Orwell’s 1984 during class. “I messed it up,’' Rivera timidly interjects.

When he saw what Rivera had done, Rollins hit the roof. But when he dropped back to earth, he began to see the beauty and the complexity of the ideas expressed in the method. Within days, whole pages were being torn from old copies of 1984 and glued to canvas. Entirely by accident, KOS was born.

It was, perhaps, an idea too big for the New York City Public Schools, which Rollins dismisses as “a monster and a beast.’' For some time, Rollins had been having serious misgivings about being able to accomplish anything within the highly stratified, bureaucratic structure of the city school system. He was tiring of the fire alarms, the bells, the staff meetings and, most obvious to him, the system’s failure to educate at-risk students.

“I remember being amazed that dyslexic kids knew words like ‘Toyota,’ ‘Coca-Cola,’ or ‘Battlestar Galactica,’' says Rollins. “And yet, they couldn’t recognize the word ‘arson,’ even though it’s a big part of living here. Richie was burned out of his house. They weren’t being taught words that mattered to them.’'

One day in 1984, Rollins left the “beast’’ altogether. He remembers crying the day he left I.S. 52, and yet he insists, “This is no way to educate anybody, and we had better think of another way to do it.’' One of the best ways to do it, in Rollins’s view, is through art. “I tell the kids that you have to create something in the world, and you’ve got to make history,’' he says. “So the only way some can do it is to pick up a brush. That is how somebody who is a nobody can make history.’'

As he speaks, Rollins is preparing the workshop’s collection for an exhibition at the prestigious Jonnen and Schottle Gallery in Cologne. He expects the group’s small study of West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl as a pig from Animal Farm to attract more than a little attention. Several of the kids will go along, as they always do. This will be Cruz’s fourth trip to Europe. Other shows have traveled to Dublin, Venice, Madrid, and Dusseldorf.

By any standard of measurement, the Kids of Survival are making history by the brush stroke, rendering soulful interpretations of Orwell’s Animal Farm, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic, The Scarlet Letter. The latter, represented by the kids’ “Study for the Scarlet Letter,’' is a collection of highly stylized letter A’s, each one as different from its neighbor as one person is from the next, representing the kids’ attempt to express individuality in the face of social stigmatization. KOS has also tackled the all-too-familiar problem of AIDS--several of the kids have lost family members to the immune disorder--in their interpretation of Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year. Here, the mystical word “Abracadabra’'--thought by medieval citizens to ward off the plague--is repeated in an inverted pyramid, more nearly a wedge, slashing downward through pages of the novel.

One of their most recent projects, soon to be displayed at the prestigious Kunstmuseum in Basel, Switzerland, is a reflection on Gustave Flaubert’s The Temptation of St. Anthony. Without question, there is more to KOS than meets the eye, as Rollins’s focus on such intellectually demanding works suggests. Certainly, the kids learn art and art-related skills. They know their way around the works of artists as diverse as Matthias Grnewald, James Ensor, and J.M.W. Turner. But they also have a deep appreciation of literary artists such as Flaubert, Crane, and Herman Melville.

There is a method to Rollins’s choice of books that aren’t on the reading lists at most schools--these books are relevant to kids growing up in the South Bronx. Defoe’s novel, for example, has special meaning to a community scarred by AIDS.

In Rollins’s view, the carefully chosen literature, which he reads aloud, is one way to open the eyes of learning-disabled children to timeless ideas and to instill in them a sense of intellectual accomplishment.

“I have no interest in teaching the kids ‘facts,’' says Rollins, with palpable disdain. “I want to teach them how to learn. It’s like Thoreau’s approach: You walk in the woods, and whatever you see, that’s what you study. It’s a poor people’s pedagogy, a pedagogy of the oppressed.’'

Cruz, looking up from his pad and pencil, agrees: “I’ve learned that if you don’t know something, you ask.’'

At the same time, the experience of creating and selling art has offered many of the kids the opportunity to develop marketable skills. “Richie could work for any artist in New York, and make good money at age 19,’' says Rollins.

The kids also learn practical math, as any artist who doesn’t want to starve must. They calculate percentages to figure out commissions and draw up budgets and time sheets. In short, Rollins says, they acquire skills they’ll never find in school, which he calls “a fantasy world, where bells go off every 45 minutes.’' In school, he says: “You don’t make anything. You don’t know what it means to make a buck, and you don’t know what it means to make a statement. Here, our work is not for the bulletin board, and it’s not for your mother’s refrigerator. It’s for the Art Board. Instead of assuming the kids don’t have what it takes, I’ve put them in a situation where their lives depend on what they do.’'

That’s not to suggest that every hard-core learningdisabled child who passes through the workshop emerges on the other side as a clean-cut, fiscally responsible Michelangelo. Although 15 kids are associated with the workshop at any given time, about 50 have come under Rollins’s influence since the program began. Some have been lost to gangs, others to drugs. Some have dropped out to get married. Even some of the more successful young artists still drift into the selfdestructive behavior that is characteristic of a learningdisabled child living in the worst of circumstances. “In learning to be a disciplined, responsible person, we make a lot of mistakes,’' Rollins acknowledges. “Still, we’ve won more than we’ve lost.’'

Rollins is hoping to elaborate on the success of the workshop by establishing a private South Bronx Academy of Art by 1992. As successful as the workshop has been, it “is not enough,’' he says.

He sees the need to teach to children’s strengths. Traditional schools, adhering to the classic college-prep model, don’t offer opportunities for success to children whose particular intelligence lies in areas other than the three R’s. “Not everyone is involved in English- or math-dominated activities,’' says Rollins. “That’s why we’ve got to open our own school. You’ve got to give kids success. I’ve never seen a kid who didn’t have some gift.’'

A version of this article appeared in the February 01, 1990 edition of Teacher as The Art Of Survival