Going Big and Coming Home

Maine artist Tim Rollins brings his internationally celebrated work to the Portland Museum of Art


The Portland Museum of Art has 18,000 pieces in its collection, including works by names even those unschooled in art will recognize: Renoir, Picasso, Wyeth. A less- familiar but deeply important name will tower above those greats when the PMA unveils a massive installation in September, permanently imprinting the largest museum in the state with work by Maine-native Tim Rollins and his art collaborative K.O.S.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a 13- by 34-foot piece inspired by the William Shakespeare play and the Felix Mendelssohn orchestral work of the same name. Bright splotches of color are splashed across a backdrop of Mendelssohn’s musical score, representing the flower juice that mischievous Puck drops in the eyes of sleeping lovers to make them fall in love with the first beings they see when they wake up. Tim Rollins and K.O.S.’s original artwork has been digitally recreated as a wall covering by the textile company Maharam and will be the first thing visitors see when they enter the Selma Wolf Black Great Hall. “I think it’s going to be one of those great new surprises for our visitors,” says Mark Bessire, director of the PMA. “It’s in one of those locations that you might not expect for a great piece of art.” The best view will be from the third floor overlook, where museumgoers can also listen to selections from Mendelssohn’s score.

“For the PMA, it’s a real coup,” says Graeme Kennedy, the museum’s director of marketing and public relations. “What K.O.S. is doing is revolutionary.”

A native of Pittsfield, Rollins established himself as an artist in an environment that could not be more different from his rural Maine roots—the South Bronx. Educated at the University of Maine at Augusta and the School of Visual Arts (SVA) in New York City, he was recruited in 1981 to teach “at-risk” kids, creating a program that combined art with reading and writing. Rollins introduced his students—all children of color who were in some way learning disabled—to great works of literature by having them draw or paint as the text was read aloud. The group came to call themselves K.O.S.— Kids of Survival; their work “changes people’s conception about who can make art, how art is made, who can learn and what’s possible,” says Rollins.

Tim Rollins and K.O.S. established themselves as major players in contemporary art, participating in the prestigious Whitney Biennial for the first time in 1985 and presenting their first solo exhibition in 1986 at a gallery in New York City. Their work continues to connect to literature, as well as music, with paintings, often created using book pages or sheet music as the canvas. It has been featured in exhibits at nearly every major art museum in the country and is in the permanent collections at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, and the Tate Modern in London, among others. Rollins, now a full professor at the SVA, lives in the Bronx, but this “city kid in a country body,” as Rollins refers to himself, never lost his fondness for Maine.

Over the years, Rollins has returned to the state to visit family and friends, and to make art with young people, most notably a piece honoring former U.S. Senator Margaret
Chase Smith that was installed in 2013 at the federal courthouse named for her in Bangor. The Portland museum show will be his first major art event in Maine. “I am extraordinarily excited about exhibiting at the PMA,” he says.

The exhibit, Unbound: Tim Rollins and K.O.S., opens on September 16, the same day A Midsummer Night’s Dream will be unveiled. Both are the result of a conversation between Rollins and PMA chief curator Jessica May. “We were very lucky to encounter her,” says Rollins. “We’re very selective about where we are going to work—we have to be—and this just felt so right and so special.”

May, who joined the PMA in June of 2012, said she was surprised to find the museum did not have a major work by Rollins and K.O.S. At her urging, the PMA acquired one, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – Asleep on the Raft, (After Mark Twain), that fall. Last year, when the group gave a lecture at Colby College, they toured the PMA. “I said, ‘We have two really big walls. What do you think?’” says May. Rollins suggested she call Maharam, which recently began digitally reproducing the group’s work.

What Rollins and K.O.S. didn’t know, May says, is that the installation of a wall covering dovetails with the museum’s efforts to display more of its decorative arts collection, one of the ways the museum is broadening its mission through a multiyear project called Your Museum, Reimagined. With works like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the PMA is also encouraging the public to think of the museum as a center for cultural conversation. “We’re always trying to look at those places where what matters to our neighborhood speaks broadly to what’s going on in the world,” says May. By challenging traditional ideas of who can make art and incorporating the work of writers like Mark Twain, Ralph Ellison, and Malcolm X, the art of Rollins and K.O.S. offers “a really vital and electrifying way to talk about America and race.”

Unbound is also a natural fit with the PMA’s new season, which is focused on books and literature. The Art Books of Henri Matisse opens October 6, and Of Whales in Paint, featuring artists’ responses to Moby Dick, from Rockwell Kent to the present—including work by Tim Rollins and K.O.S.—opens October 15.

The purchase of A Midsummer Night’s Dream was funded by the Maine Center for Creativity, which will honor Rollins, along with the Burke family, owners of the Portland Sea Dogs, with the Maine Creative Industries Award at two events next month—a gala at the PMA and a family-friendly celebration at Hadlock Field.

Working with the PMA has given Rollins and K.O.S. a creative boost, he says. Inspired by the city, the group is doing work based on Portland native Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem The Golden Legend.

“What’s wonderful is after 35 years of work you create these beads, and what evolves is the thread, and that’s what connects the work,” says Rollins. “It’s fascinating because I’m working with folk I met when they were 11, 12, 13 years old and now they’re in their 40s. It was a fraternity. And now it’s a family. I’m a grandfather; I’ve got eight grandchildren. That’s a Maine thing.”

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