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Tim Rollins & K.O.S.
Amerika: For the Children of Tampa
The Frogs: For the Children of Tampa
, 1997

University of South Florida, Tampa
Anchin Center Rotunda and Education II Buildings

The Tim Rollins and K. O. S. commission consisted of two murals designed for the rotunda walls of the USF Anchin Center and Education II Building. The imagery for the murals was derived from Franz Kafka’s unfinished novel, Amerika and Aristophanes’ play, The Frogs. The designs for the murals were created by public school students from Hillsborough, Pinellas and Pasco Counties. Working under the direction of Tim Rollins, elementary school students were introduced to the work of Aristophanes and asked to create drawings that were expressive of the play, The Frogs. Similarly, middle and high school students studied Amerika. During the course of three-day workshops, scale drawings of the murals were developed and refined by the children. In their New York studio, Tim Rollins and K.O.S. worked directly from the scale drawings to execute the full sized murals. The two murals were painted on individual linen panels that were later bonded to the walls in the Education facility. Tim Rollins, working in-situ in the rotunda, completed the murals by painting the design where the panels were seamed.

The history of Tim Rollins and K.O.S. (Kids of Survival) is a story of art and education triumphing over the hardships of life. It is a story which might have been torn from the pages of great literature. In fact, the group uses pages cut from classical literature as the groundwork for many of their paintings and as the source of imagery for their works.

The group’s story begins in 1980 when Tim Rollins was hired to teach at-risk kids at Middle School 52, located in South Bronx, New York. He was given a class of 11 kids, ages 9 to 13 who could not read. Through the mediation of great literature and visual arts, a collaborative was formed which would transport his students from the tough streets of New York to the inner sanctums of major museums as celebrated artists. Along the way, they learned to read. Nine of his formerly illiterate students went on to college. Their tuition was paid for from the proceeds of their canvases, which were purchased by important museums and collectors internationally.

Tim Rollins and K.O.S. were selected for the commission at the USF College of Education in part because their success as artists, but even more importantly they were selected because of their success in education.

The education of Tim’s students began with the basics. Since the kids could not read, Rollins read to them. He read the classics and asked them first to understand, then to interpret and finally to visually express the potent message of great literature. They collaborated on paintings, adding nuances gleaned from the personal perspective of each participant. They gained confidence and with it the nerve to stand in front of the class and make their way haltingly through the paragraphs of the literature they were asked to study. A bond was formed. Rollins moved to their neighborhood and opened the Art and Knowledge Workshop in an abandoned building adjacent to Middle School 52. When the school bell rang to mark the day’s end, they left the corridors of their formal education and entered the realm of a personal education. They collaborated on life’s problems from homework to home-life and they created art to share their insights with the world.

Their first exhibitions were humble affairs shown locally, but soon their work came to the attention of gallery dealers in Manhattan, one of the world’s most important art markets. Their canvases, based on literature and painted collaboratively, which conversely became their means of coping with life itself, caught the imagination of the critics. Their enemy had become their savior. Art led to knowledge and the Kids of Survival got an education.

Since it was education as much as the art that won Tim Rollins and K.O.S. the public art commission for the new USF Education Facility, we wanted Rollins to bring a bit of his process to the Tampa Bay area. We invited him to work with a group of K-12 students to develop the concept for the murals. He agreed and asked that we make arrangements for him to meet administrators from the K-12 programs in the surrounding counties. A meeting was held during which twelve art teachers were selected and charged with identifying students with reading problems who might benefit by participating in the project. Through this process, 34 students from 12 schools in Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties were nominated.

Rollins divided the students into two groups based on age and grade level. A group of 17 students from elementary schools developed the imagery for The Frogs, a play written by Aristophanes in 405 BC. Franz Kafka’s Amerika was the literature selected for a mural to be developed by middle and high school students, based on the unfinished novel. Rollins held three-day workshops with each group, where he introduced the students to the respective literature, for which they would develop visual images. While he never picked up a pencil, nor showed the students images previously developed by Tim Rollins and K.O.S. for a series of paintings based on The Frogs and Amerika, he managed to bring forth from the students imagery remarkably similar to their signature visual style. He described his technique as similar to that of an orchestra leader – bringing forth complex music from a group of individuals.

During the workshops, each student created 20 or more graphite drawings. Rollins and the group selected images from these drawings, which were traced onto a full-scale maquette of the mural. This maquette was taken to New York where the members of K.O.S. reproduced the maquette in watercolor. The sections of the watercolor maquette were then projected onto full-scale canvas sections and painted in acrylic paint by Rollins and K.O.S. The finished sections were shipped to Tampa and installed on the walls of the rotunda at the USF College of Education. Once installed, Rollins completed the mural by painting the connections between the seams of the various sections of the murals.

The finished works titled, Frogs: For the Children of Tampa and Amerika: For the Children of Tampa celebrate education, literature, the visual arts and the collaborative process which distinguishes the human species.


Detail of Amerika.

Detail of The Frogs.

Tim Rollins touching up Amerika before installation.

A high school artist at work on Amerika.

A member of K.O.S. at work on The Frogs in their New York studio.

Tim Rollins touching up The Frogs during installation.

Tim Rollins with K.O.S. group.

Process shot.

Amerika: For the Children of Tampa and The Frogs: For the Children of Tampa made possible by Florida's Art in State Buildings Program