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Tim Rollins was born and raised in Pittsfield, Maine. He credits his upbringing to the art he’d later produce with K.O.S. "I learned a lot from going to quilting in rural Maine," recalls Rollins. "These women—almost always women—would get together. They would try to blow each other away with their patch, but when you put it all together, it's absolutely beautiful and stunning. It's democracy made visible and made material."
Rollins studied fine art at the University of Maine in Augusta and later earned a BFA at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. In 1981, he began teaching special-education in the South Bronx. It quickly became clear to him that communicating art to schoolchildren was his life’s calling. In 1984, he launched the Art and Knowledge Workshop, which ultimately led to the formation of K.O.S. (Kids of Survival), an artist collective that continues to work together and run workshops for children.
"We do everything through the power of our," explains Rollins. "That was the incubus for K.O.S. . . . I said, "You know what?" If you want to build a barn, you don't study the theory and practice of barn building. You build a damn barn, and if the barn's broken, what do you do? You fix it. I just took that homespun philosophy, and we created our own situation. Independent, libertarian. I got that from home."
It’s a method of working that took time to develop. “Early on,” says Angel Abreu, “we weren't quite mature enough to really understand. We couldn't necessarily check our egos, our entire egos, at the door like we do now. What it's turned into is, it's more like a think tank. We sit around the table, and essentially we'll be mining through text, and just looking for certain key points that resonate with us, for whatever reason.”
The group’s collaborative process, along with their innovative use of music and literature as inspiration and oftentimes actual material, proved fruitful. By the late 1980s, Tim Rollins and K.O.S. had an impressive number of exhibitions in both museums and galleries including, in 1985, their first of two appearances in the Whitney Biennial. They continue to exhibit throughout the world, and their work can be found in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Smithsonian, the Tate Modern, and over 100 more institutions. Since the late 1980s, the group has also hosted workshops for young people throughout the country.
Unbound: Tim Rollins and K.O.S. presents a survey of the group’s work in a variety of media, both on loan and from the PMA collection, including Adventures of Huckleberry Finn—Asleep on the Raft (After Mark Twain), The Great Gatsby (after F.S. Fitzgerald), and The River Meander II (after Edward "Duke" Ellington).
Their works frequently use classical literature to address contemporary issues, and Unbound includes a number of works that directly address race in America, including Asleep on the Raft, but also artwork that emerged from their interpretation of writing by Malcolm X; Ralph Ellison; Martin Luther King, Jr.; and Harriet Jacobs’ haunting 1861 book, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. By consistently returning to the narratives that explore race in America, their paintings continue to remind us of just how hauntingly, at times tragically, diverse the American cultural experience is.
“There’s nothing arbitrary about what we do,” Abreu offers. “We don’t take anything for granted whatsoever. We put a tremendous amount of time and research into every single thing that goes into our work."
Throughout their career, Tim Rollins and K.O.S. have sought out inspiration from a wide range of literature and music, and their choices reflect the variety and breadth of the American and European canon. Unbound, the first PMA exhibition for the renowned artist collective, offers more than a dozen works—inspired by Duke Ellington, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Mark Twain, Malcolm X, and more—to complement and provide deeper context for this major acquisition.