Art Meets Life in the 21st Century

Caitlin Holbrook

On Monday, October 1, Colgate University welcomed the celebrated art educator and artist Tim Rollins as part of its ongoing lecture series for CORE 329: Passion, Promotion and Public Awareness, Thinking About the Arts in the 21st Century. The class is team taught by Director of the Institute for the Creative and Performing Arts and Professor of Art History Mary Ann Calo and Director of the Upstate Institute and William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Geography Ellen Kraly. This new course combines an examination of the arts with the study of the communities they correlate to, and includes a series of speakers who are connected to the themes of the course.

Rollins, for his part, energetically spoke on Monday of his unconventional ideas and experience as an art educator in the Bronx. According to Rollins, he came to a poor junior high school in the South Bronx in 1980 to teach art to so-called “special education” students for two weeks.

He came in with what he called a naive “Caucasian missionary attitude,” taking the job so that he could congratulate himself for his noble efforts. However, Rollins was unprepared for the harsh living standards he witnessed in the Bronx, and when a student asked him to stay, he caved.

Together with his students, Rollins ended up cooking up something more than just a couple of sketches in art class. His creativity and zeal for art began to also affect his students and gradually infiltrated the community. The class began working on their projects after school until six, seven, eight or even nine o’clock at night, while some parents, supportive of the children’s new interests, brought them dinner and snacks while they worked.

Rollins’ students, who call themselves the Kids of Survival (K.O.S.), have since produced artwork displayed in many prestigious art institutions, including The Hirshhorn Mueum, The National Gallery of Art and the Whitney Museum. Rollins enthusiastically encourages his students to push themselves to explore different styles and ideas, and has expanded his class to make it a learning environment in which all subjects are covered. In the beginning, Rollins even recorded his own books on tape for his students to ensure that his students would be exposed to great literature while they worked. Through class collaboration, Rollins and the K.O.S. have produced giant works of art that often pertain to the literary works or historical events they discuss.

Rollins thus provided Calo and Kraly with an excellent example of an artist who has positively impacted the community in which he is active, as Rollins helped these overlooked special education students reach their potential and gain global recognition for their artwork.

“We can think of arts as an agency of change,” Kraly surmised. “Art is a way to change lives and thereby communities.”

Calo supported this idea, adding that in CORE 329, students learn of the arts’ connection to the community, as well as to public policy.

“We wanted to offer a course that combines thinking about public policy with the arts and also how the arts relate to the community they serve,” Calo said of CORE 329. “Students [in CORE 329] are learning that the arts interact with their lives in so many ways, which I think is great.”

Kraly was also excited about the course and its message.

“I’m increasingly confident that the arts and performance can impact a region,” Kraly said.