Welcome to WAM Updates

WAM Updates are short, informal posts that put the spotlight on small, but exciting, Museum-related projects, such as the addition of a new painting or sculpture to a gallery. They also serve as updates on staff, new services or programs, and other WAM news.

We hope you like reading the Updates! If you are interested in learning about something specific, or have a suggestion for a WAM Update, please update us at wamupdates@worcesterart.org

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Transforming a Scarlet Letter into a Transcendent Emblem of Pride

“What we're doing changes people's conception about who can make art, how art is made, who can learn and what's possible, because a lot of these kids had been written off by the school system. This is our revenge.”1

In 1981, principal George Gallego of Intermediate School 52 in the South Bronx recruited artist and educator Tim Rollins (1955-2017) to develop an art curriculum for students classified as emotionally or academically “at risk.” Frustrated at the limitations in the classroom, Rollins formed an after-school program, Arts and Knowledge Workshop, where he honed his pedagogy. Together Rollins and his students, who named themselves K.O.S. (Kids of Survival), engaged in a process called “jammin’” where they would read literature aloud as other students would draw and paint.

WAM docent Mary Dowling explains the significance of The Scarlet Letter VI during a gallery 
tour. Tim Rollins and K.O.S. (founded 1982), The Scarlet Letter VI, 1993, oil and acrylic on 
book pages mounted on canvas, Gift of Rosalie T. Rose in memory of Sidney Rose, 2012.94

In one instance, Rollins read from George Orwell’s 1984 and a student asked if he could draw on a page from the book.2 After this “eureka moment,” Rollins and K.O.S. would tear up the book being read, lay out the pages in a grid formation glued to a canvas, and place the artwork directly on this layout.3 The subsequent images reflected the students’ lived experiences of poverty, prejudice, and isolation.

While Rollins sometimes selected the text, in other instances it was an act of fate. A student once came into the workshop protesting his dismay after being assigned Nathanial Hawthorne’s 1850 novel The Scarlet Letter for a school project. Rollins countered, arguing, “Oh, but The Scarlet Letter is one of the great books,” despite, many years later, admitting that he had never actually read the novel.4

After quickly reading the text, Rollins realized that his students’ experiences in the South Bronx resonated with the 19th-century novel about Hester Prynne set in Puritan New England. The Scarlet Letter VI from 1993 exemplifies the collaborative creative process between K.O.S. and Rollins. Students began by painting over pages from The Scarlet Letter with their own versions of Hester Prynne’s red letter “A.” In the novel, Hester is forced to wear the red letter as punishment for adultery. Following a discussion of the text, the students collectively worked to develop a statement based on their thematic variations of the red “A.” These were then painted over cut-out pages of the book laid out in a grid and glued to a canvas.

Seven variants of the red letter represent the students’ own stylistic interpretation—from graffiti forms to medieval historiated initials. Together, these variant motifs form a commentary on dignity despite social stigmatization. Rollins explained, “Just as Hester is wrongly condemned to a life of poverty and silence, so is the South Bronx and too many of its inhabitants. The kids are really into signifying and identity. This is the major impetus behind graffiti—this verifying of an identity in a hostile environment. And so, our Scarlet Letter is about taking an unjust stigma and turning it into a transcendent emblem of pride."

In 1986, Rollins and K.O.S. had their first gallery exhibition. This was a major turning point to distinguish themselves from other student-teacher collaborations by demanding that their work be seen as fine art.

In the early 1990s Rollins began to expand to other cities nationally and internationally, developing workshops with local students. Even as membership in the group changes as students graduate or move on, many of the original K.O.S. remain involved.

Have you ever had a teacher that went above and beyond? What different did they make for you in your life?

Learn more here about how Tim Rollins legacy as an artist, teacher, and activist is being continued through K.O.S. today.

—Paul Steen, WAM docent
    Edited by Erin-Corrales-Diaz, Assistant Curator of American Art
    May 12, 2020

1 https://www.xavierhufkens.com/artists/tim-rollins-and-kos
2 Tim Rollins, “How Do You Get to Prospect Avenue?” in Alice Wexler, ed., Art Education Beyond the Classroom: Pondering the Outsider and Other Sites of Learning (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), 40.
3 Ibid.
4 “Conversation with Tim Rollins and K.O.S.” from Nicholas Paley, Finding Art’s Place: Experiments in Contemporary Education and Culture (New York: Routledge, 1995), 42.

Recent WAM Updates