Organizing at-risk kids to make art wasn’t entirely new then and it isn’t now, but Rollins’ approach is still notable. He paid attention to product as well as process, discarding either the expected representation of social conditions (“abject art”) or empty affirmations of the “we can make a difference” variety. And he used the art-making process to increase knowledge, as the group researched and explored their projects through classic literature (at first by Rollins reading it aloud.)
The result is a variety of striking art, handsomely reproduced in this large-format volume: from the early cartoon-influenced paintings responding to Frankenstein and Dracula and the Orwell-inspired portraits of political figures as Animal Farm figures, through the surreal golden trumpets inspired by Kafka (their first big art world success), and various projects including conceptual and installation art connected to the words of Flaubert, Aristophanes, Ralph Ellison, Mark Twain, Harriet Jacobs and H.G. Wells, as well as the music of Haydn, Schubert and Strauss. Rollins believed his students needed these alternatives to the otherwise inescapable contexts of their lives, and felt an ethical responsibility to involve knowledge, rather than simply teach art to students “who couldn’t spell ‘artist.’”
This excellent volume doubles as a catalog for a traveling exhibit that is now at the Frye Art Museum in Seattle, until May 31.