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Worth 1,000 Words

A celebrated artist uses Shakespeare to stir kids' creative juices in a workshop.


For most kids, spring break is a time to hit the malls, the beaches or just kick it with friends. But for 16 Santa Monica middle and high school students, spring break meant studying Shakespeare and creating museum-worthy art.

The kids were a mix of serious art students and the simply curious who wanted to participate in a free three-day workshop, organized by the Santa Monica Museum of Art and held at nearby Virginia Avenue Park. The payoff for giving up their free time? The chance to work with New York artist and arts educator Tim Rollins, who is something of a celebrity in the art world.

The 46-year-old Maine native has been teaching art to at-risk youths in the South Bronx for 20 years; he came to Santa Monica at the request of the museum as part of its educational outreach program. Using important literary works as touchstones for creating, Rollins and the Kids of Survival, as his Bronx group came to be known, worked as a collaborative. Their canvases were key passages of the texts themselves, whether it was Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter" or Franz Kafka's unfinished novel "Amerika."

Today, works by Tim Rollins & K.O.S. are in the collections of such institutions as the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., and the Tate Gallery in London. Rollins leads workshops around the world and was profiled in an Emmy award-winning documentary.

Los Angeles Times Thursday April 4, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 1 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
Student artist--A photo caption for a story about a student art program in Wednesday's Southern California Living section incorrectly identified one of the participants. She is 12-year-old Julia Seeholzer.

But the kids in last week's workshop hardly knew what to make of Rollins at first, in his black Versace suit, black shirt and black brimmed hat, a steady uniform over the course of the class. His teaching style, which might be described as rock 'n' roll-evangelist-disciplinarian-cheerleader, required a leap of faith among the students. There would be no goofing off, no "can'ts" and no raised hands. Instead, answers would be yelled out--not spoken; yelled.

"You may call me Tim unless you start acting like children," he said. With this, copies of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" were distributed. Rollins introduced the text using a loose Socratic method. In less than five minutes, every student in the room knew where the play was written (London), when it was first published (1600), the theater in which it was first performed (the Globe), and where the play was set (Athens), and they were yelling out the answers in a cacophonous chorus.

Next, the group went through the list of characters, their relationships, and the general plot, which, for those who can't quite recall their 10th-grade reading assignments, revolves around a real world and a fairy world, and the intersection of the two.

The class then watched the beginning of the 1968 film on tape, pausing to memorize key lines. "If you can know a Britney Spears song, you can certainly know Shakespeare," Rollins said. He stopped the tape after Oberon, king of the fairies, sends his attendant, Puck, on a mission to find a magical "love-in-idleness" flower. "The juice of it on sleeping eyelids laid/Will make man or woman madly dote/Upon the next live creature that it sees," says Oberon.

Rollins asked the students to draw the flower. "But this has to be a totally amazing, fantastic flower." Don't draw a rose or a daisy, he commanded. "Just draw. Get rid of yourself."

By this time, nearly everyone in the room was on board, but there were a couple holdouts. "I don't like drawing flowers," said 12-year-old Juan Perez. Earnest Richardson, 13, seconded that view. "That's girlie," he said. A couple seconds later, Rollins took a call on his cell phone from "Rick," a K.O.S. colleague in New York. He spoke to Rick a few seconds then passed the phone to Earnest. (This is one of several tricks in Rollins' substantial bag.) Earnest and the mysterious Rick spoke for a couple minutes. Whatever was said seemed to have an effect because Earnest started drawing. Juan still had his doubts.

On Day 2, the group continued with the flower image. Eventually, they worked in calligraphy ink using paintbrushes on very thin, archival Aqaba paper, which they folded in half. Whatever they painted bled through to the second layer, creating a mirror image suggestive of the two worlds in the play.

On the final day, each of the 12 students chose a favorite flower from those they had created. They pasted the flower and its twin over a particularly relevant passage from the play speaking to "imagination" and "the poet's pen" that Rollins had copied onto handsome 81/2-by-11-inch cotton paper. Rollins signed each of the 12 works alongside the students' signatures. The pieces will be on display at the Santa Monica Museum of Art through April 12.

"It's an honor," said Clarence Fujiyoshi, 17. "Probably I'll never get my work in a museum in the next millennium."

At the conclusion of the exhibition, the students will get to take home their individual pieces. "I highly recommend you take care of them," suggested Rollins. "And I highly recommend you frame them because they are of value" (Rollins ventures at least $1,000 apiece). He did have one last request: "Just don't sell them on Ebay."

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