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Most conversations with visiting artists don't involve a theoretical takeover of walls in the museum, but Tim Rollins and K.O.S. are not most artists. What began as a hypothetical musing between friends quickly morphed into a PMA acquisition of the highest order.
On September 16, the PMA will unveil its latest acquisition: Tim Rollins and K.O.S.’s A Midsummer Night's Dream—a dazzling installation of approximately 13 by 34 feet, which will fundamentally transform the museum’s Selma Wolf Black Great Hall and be among the first works each and every visitor will see upon entering the museum.
Tim Rollins and K.O.S. have exhibited 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, but the PMA’s A Midsummer Night's Dream breaks new ground for the group, who collaborated with a textile manufacturer to produce their artwork at such scale for the first time.
The work is also highly significant for the PMA, as it encapsulates the major tenets and themes of the PMA's multiyear project, Your Museum, Reimagined, by bolstering the museum collection, communicating the influence of Maine-born artists on the contemporary art world, and embodying the power of art to transform lives.
"This work that's going to be at the Portland Museum of Art is going to be the debut of this major project we did with a group called Maharam," shares Rollins. "To be honest, I was skeptical at first, because [this is going to be a] digitally produced wall covering. . .The technology now, this is not a reproduction, this is not a copy. This is the real, real thing."
The story of this work begins with one foot in the pastoral farmland of rural Maine in the 1960s and the other in the streets and public schools of the South Bronx during the hip-hop era of the early 1980s.
Raised in Pittsfield, Maine, Rollins came from a Baptist Pentecostal background. He credits aspects of his upbringing to the art he’d later produce with K.O.S., which—in the case of A Midsummer Night’s Dream—involves collaboratively applying watercolor, inks, mustard seed, and other materials to printed sheet music.
"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."
As he got older, Rollins studied fine arts 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 a two-week stint as a special-education art teacher at the Intermediate School 52 in the South Bronx. After one day, he was hired full time, and it quickly became clear 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), where he was able to apply the cooperative and communal qualities of Pittsfield life even more profoundly.
"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."
Now, with the acquisition by the PMA of A Midsummer Night's Dream, the collaborative process that defines the work of Tim Rollins and K.O.S. has come to Maine, though staying true to the spirit of K.O.S.'s beginnings in the Bronx.
"Essentially, for those who don't quite understand what we do," describes K.O.S. member and artist Angel Abreu, "is we take a book, or score, and carefully adhere it onto the canvas in a grid-like fashion, and then we do whatever it is that we do on top of it. For A Midsummer Night's Dream, we use this beautiful tied Mulberry paper that's almost like toilet paper. It's a little stronger, but it's just as thin, and we fold those into two. We use beautiful inks, and juices, and whatever we can find to make these flowers, essentially, and we undo both. You've got basically a mirror image, and it's to signify both the fantasy world, and the real world that's at play in the play."
A Midsummer Night's Dream is inspired by the character Puck in William Shakespeare's 16th- century play of the same name. Puck, precocious and mischievous, sets Shakespeare's play into motion by spraying a potion onto the sleeping eyes of various characters, making them fall in love with the first living creatures they saw.
"Listen," Rollins recalls telling his students, "this is what I want you to do. I want you to become Puck—the little rascal. The one that just loves to transform things, just for the sheer joy of it, [with] no agenda. It's like the bad kid in the class—'Yeah, I just wanted to make something happen. I'm bored, I want to do something. Let's make it happen.'"
In addition to the characters and themes of Shakespeare's play, the artwork by Tim Rollins and K.O.S. is heavily influenced by a composition by German composer, pianist, and conductor Felix Mendelssohn. That work, also titled A Midsummer Night's Dream, became a critical component of art-making for Rollins and his workshops.
"We'd always have music on," explains Rollins, describing a workshop he led at Martha Washington Elementary School in West Philadelphia with a class of autistic fifth graders. "And it was fascinating because if we had a commercial radio station on, the commercials would come on—they would all bang their ears, like 'Stop, stop, stop!' I'm like—this is magic. I go, 'What should we listen to?' They go, 'classical.'" "I said, 'All right. I know little bit about this stuff.'" My main music's gospel, but all right. That was the first work we played, was A Midsummer Night's Dream—Mendelssohn. I said, 'There's something here.'" "They all just responded to it, and went crazy. I said, ‘This is the dress rehearsal for heaven.’”
The story of the workshops and how the artwork came to fruition perfectly encapsulates the method and philosophy of Tim Rollins and K.O.S. It demonstrates the power of collaboration and the transformative potential and capacity of education. "I fell in love with the idea of education as a medium," states Rollins. "It's not just that painters use paint, printmakers use printmaking, sculptors do materials—but I love the idea of education as a medium. That's how I got involved with K.O.S."
It's a firm belief in education as a force for good that defines the work of Tim Rollins and K.O.S. Art has the potential to change lives, and through creating art, artists have greater access to and understanding of the world as a whole, and—with the artistic practice of Tim Rollins and K.O.S.—the great literary works of humanity.
Recalls Abreu, "Tim would always quote the great W.E.B. Du Bois quote from The Souls of Black Folk that says, ‘I sit by Shakespeare and he winces not.’ I remember thinking, ‘What? What does that mean?’ initially. Then it made sense. These books weren't written for Ph.D candidates. They're written for all of us."
Everything about this acquisition, from the relationship between the artists and the museum, to the collaborative efforts in the community, to the scale of the installation and what it means to the region, speaks to the goals and vision of the PMA and its Your Museum, Reimagined project. The Portland Museum of Art is pivoting its focus back onto its collection, undertaking projects that improve access to it, adding significant and monumental works to it, and designing programs that engage the community and visitors with it. Through the acquisition of A Midsummer Night's Dream, the PMA is demonstrating its commitment to the collection and connecting the visual arts to the daily lives of Mainers.
In conjunction with the unveiling of A Midsummer Night's Dream, on September 16 the PMA will also open Unbound: Tim Rollins and K.O.S., a special exhibition curated by the museum in collaboration with the artists. Featuring several of the group's most revered works, including Diary of a Slave Girl (After Harriet Jacobs) and The Great Gatsby (after F.S. Fitzgerald), Unbound perfectly complements the acquisition of A Midsummer Night's Dream by providing additional context and insight into the remarkable career of the group.
Unbound will also feature several works created specifically for the exhibition. These include works inspired by composer Franz Schubert's Winterreise, Maine poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Herman Melville's Moby Dick. The work inspired by Melville, in particular, holds special meaning to the museum, as the PMA will simultaneously exhibit illustrations by Rockwell Kent that were inspired by the canonical novel in Of Whales in Paint: Rockwell Kent's Moby Dick (opening October 15). Both exhibitions highlight the influence of literature in the visual arts in addition to making connections between artistic luminaries who are closely tied to Maine.
With an extensive collection and nationally renowned exhibitions, the Portland Museum of Art is the cultural heart of Maine. The PMA boasts significant holdings of American, European, and contemporary art, as well as iconic works from Maine—highlighting the rich artistic tradition of the state and its artists. The museum brings it all to life with unparalleled programming. From special members-only events, Free School Tours, and a commitment to family activities, to PMA Films, curator talks, and exclusive tours of the Winslow Homer Studio—it’s all happening at the PMA.
The museum is located at Seven Congress Square in downtown Portland.
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Winslow Homer Studio tours are available by reservation. For more information, call (207) 775-6148 or visit portlandmuseum.org. For more information on Your Museum, Reimagined, the PMA’s multiyear project focused on improved access to the museum’s collection, visit portlandmuseum.org/reimagined.