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It's All About 'Survival' For This Groundbreaking Modern Artist

Tim Rollins is being honored with a new exhibit in his home state.
"We didn’t make art to win awards … we made art to survive,” Tim Rollins (third from left) has said. 
"We didn’t make art to win awards … we made art to survive,” Tim Rollins (third from left) has said. 

A pioneering, Maine-bred artist is being honored with a career-spanning exhibition in his native state.

Unbound,” which opened Sept. 16 at the Portland Museum of Art in Portland, Maine, showcases the work of Tim Rollins, who is best known for his artist collective, the Kids of Survival, or K.O.S. Born and raised in Pittsfield, Maine, Rollins moved to New York in the late 1970s, eventually becoming an art teacher in the Bronx.

In New York, Rollins was asked to create a curriculum that melded art with reading and writing skills for students who were designated as being academically or emotionally “at risk,” including many youth of color who were living close to, or below, the poverty line. Hence, the work of the K.O.S. takes elements of classic literature, with nods to F. Scott Fitzgerald, Mark Twain and others, and “reinterprets” them in a modern, allegorical way, addressing issues of race, sexuality and class.

“I love the idea of education as a medium,” Rollins, who is openly gay, recalled in a museum podcast, which can be heard below. “We didn’t make art to be cute. We didn’t make art to win awards … we made art to survive.”

The exhibit coincides with the museum’s acquisition of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” a dazzling, 13-by-34 foot installation inspired by the Shakespeare comedy that will become a part of the permanent collection in Portland.

Museum officials see Rollins’ work, which can also be found at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and London’s Tate Gallery, as having the “spirit of radical inclusiveness” that speaks to audiences from all walks of life, including the LGBT community.   

"A Midsummer Night's Dream" is composed of floral-like blotches on printed sheet music, and will become a part of the Portlan
"A Midsummer Night's Dream" is composed of floral-like blotches on printed sheet music, and will become a part of the Portland Museum of Art's permanent collection.  

“The sense of possibility and belonging absolutely reverberates through the story of K.O.S. as well as the art that they have made. This is a group of young people—mostly of color, mostly poor—who were told they simply didn’t belong, that art and culture were not for them, that they had limited prospects in American culture and society,” Jessica May, who is the Portland Museum of Art’s Curator of Contemporary and Modern Art, told The Huffington Post.

Ultimately, Rollins and the K.O.S. “made a family,” May added. 

“To me, that radical inclusiveness—which encompasses human relationships, a very broad and open notion of family, and also art and literature—that is fundamentally appealing to me as a lesbian, as well as a curator, an art historian, a mom, a friend, all the rest of it,” she said. 

“Unbound: Tim Rollins and K.O.S.” runs at the Portland Museum of Art in Portland, Maine through Dec. 31. Head here for more information. 

  • Adventures of Huckleberry Finn -- Out of Bondage (after Mark Twain)
    Portland Museum of Art
  • Adventures of Huckleberry Fin -- Out of Bondage (after Mark Twain)
    Portland Museum of Art
  • Adventures of Huckleberry Finn -- Asleep on the Raft (after Mark Twain)
    Portland Museum of Art
  • The River -- Meander II (after Edward "Duke" Ellington)
    Portland Museum of Art
  • The River -- Meander II (after Edward "Duke" Ellington)
    Portland Museum of Art
  • Where Do We Go From Here
    Portland Museum of Art
  • Winterreise (after Schubert)
    Portland Museum of Art
  • The Great Gatsby IV (after F. Scott Fitzgerald)
    Portland Museum of Art
  • A Midsummer Night's Dream
    Portland Museum of Art
  • A Midsummer Night's Dream
    Portland Museum of Art
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