Let There Be Art!

Last Wednesday, celebrated artist Tim Rollins, along with a panel of distinguished Colgate faculty and staff, held an interdisciplinary lecture in Golden Auditorium to discuss Rollins’s and K.O.S.’s exhibition Let There Be Light and its musical and literary counterparts.

In front of a packed audience, Professor of Art & Art History DeWitt Godfrey explained that Rollins has teamed up with the Kids of Survival (K.O.S.) since the early 1980s when he began a workshop in the South Bronx for students with learning disabilities.

Since then, Rollins and K.O.S. have used a collaborative art process to create pieces based on classic literature, showing in over 70 museums around the world. Godfrey highlighted Rollin’s commitment to the “transformative power of art” as he provided background about Let There Be Light, on which Rollins and K.O.S. collaborated with Washington, D.C. area students. Let There Be Light was inspired by Franz Josef Haydn’s 1798 oratorio The Creation, itself based on the book of Genesis, the book of Psalms, and John Milton’s Paradise Lost.

Rollins first spoke about his desire to be not just a teacher, but an educator, to pull vision from a child like one pulls water from a well. As he traced his personal history growing up in Maine, he recalled the first time he heard The Creation after receiving free tickets to a performance.

“It just hit me with such force,” Rollins said.

Rollins was so moved that he presented his students with watercolors and the music and said simply, “Play God.”

“I told them, ‘Let’s create our own world, because the one we inherited isn’t good enough,'” Rollins said, alluding to the impoverished conditions of his students’ hometowns. Referencing individual students by name, Rollins said, “If you can make something beautiful on this seven by seven inch paper, you can make something beautiful in your life.”

Godfrey then opened the floor to the five Colgate faculty and staff panelists to discuss the nature of creation and inspiration. Professor of English George Hudson mused that Milton would have liked the educative value of Rollins’s work as he spoke of the motif of music in Paradise Lost. He drew an interesting parallel between the way Milton “makes the words bear the weight” of his images by using nouns in reference to God and verbs in reference to creation, a technique Haydn executes by using different musical keys.

Professor of Philosophy and Religion and Jewish Studies Lesleigh Cushing then spoke about Genesis, explaining that God not only speaks the world into being, but also creates beings in a tactile and physical style. In this way, God sanctifies and encourages humankind’s own creation, as God provides a model for how everyone can create.

James Niblock, Choral Director, outlined the three parts of Haydn’s oratorio: celestial, creation here on earth and creation reflected in Adam and Eve. He also explained how three soloists represent the three angels, and later two soloists represent Adam and Eve.

Professor of Geology and Environmental Studies Paul Pinet framed the idea of creation in terms of geological time and introduced the idea of the necessity of destruction in creation.

“The act of creation is about silence, then about activity,” Pinet said.

The last panelist, University Chaplain Mark Shiner, discussed creation in terms of personal anecdotes – specifically his experience with jazz music – as well as in terms of the iconography of Christ. Shiner also commented on the need for hope in the destitute neighborhoods where Rollins works. This absence and suffering is found in religion as well, Shinier said, as both are about “looking for something and making living worthwhile.”

Fielding questions from the audience, Rollins noted the “deliberate tension” achieved within the art pieces themselves. Behind the chaos of the watercolor is an image of Haydn’s score, its orderly syntax just visible behind the “Hubble space telescope” swirls of color. These pieces are not only a dialogue with the music and texts and an homage to the composers and authors, Rollins said, but a “factor and a product of inspiration.” This “bottomless history and bottomless mystery” is in part what encourages a “practice first, theory later” rule in Rollins’ workshop. Listening to scholars’ speak on the topic of creation affirms what Rollins and his kids have intuited all along, he explained.

“Rollins is such a captivating speaker,” Sophomore Kate Gunderson, an attentive attendee. “I especially liked his explanation about how to make learning interesting and fun. Because the way he educates is unconventional, it makes you rethink the value of music or art in schools – it can obviously be very powerful.”

Rollin’s next project will be a collaboration with students on the lower east side of New York City based on Felix Mendelssohn’s score A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In the meantime, Let There Be Light will be on view at Clifford Art Gallery in Little Hall through April 6.