As part of the new exhibit, Picture: Literature, Tim Rollin’s piece A Midsummer Night’s Dream now hangs in the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA). The Picture: Literature exhibit as a whole explores the ways in which works of literature can be translated into images, as Rollins has done in A Midsummer Night’s Dream with his visual representation of Shakespeare’s classic play.
This piece came out of Rollins’ work with at-risk youth in 4th through 8th grades, in a program he calls Kids of Survival (K.O.S.). Rollins not only works an artist, but also a teacher and activist. He began K.O.S. in 1981 in an elementary school in the South Bronx, with the goal of creating a program that would combine art-making with reading and writing for students considered to be academically or emotionally “at-risk.” Rollins uses a process he calls “jamming,” in which one student reads literature aloud as the other students draw or paint their own visual interpretation of the text as it relates to them, thus using art to express literature on a personal level as they see and experience it. The program has now expanded to include members in Philadelphia, Memphis, San Francisco, and Seattle.
Rollins and students from nearby elementary schools in Clarksburg, Savoy and Florida, Mass., created A Midsummer Night’s Dream at a Kidspace event at MASS MoCA’s artist residency in March 2005. In order to create the final piece that now hangs in WCMA, Rollins had his students paint watercolor florets to represent the “love-in idleness” flower, which Shakespeare’s character Puck applies to the eyes of the sleeping characters in order to make them fall in love with the first person they see upon awakening. The students listened both to Shakespeare’s story and the Mendelssohn piece A Midsummer Night’s Dream as inspiration for their personal interpretations as they painted their florets.
For the final product, Rollins pasted the students’ watercolor florets in a collage onto a background of Mendelssohn’s scores for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The result is a brightly colored chaotic blend of psychedelic floral spheres that pop out at the viewer from a uniform, nearly unrecognizable background of musical notes. The multitude of flowers in orange, red, blue, yellow, green and everything in between completely fill the space of the canvas, appearing haphazardly placed. Some florets closely resemble flowers; some appear more like planets or constellations; one even features a face, perhaps of Puck himself. The flowers themselves, each an essential component of the larger scheme, are all unique in their color, pattern, size and shape. Each of the beautiful florets, bursts of color scattered across the pages of notes, is a child’s imagined manifestation of Shakespeare’s words and Mendelssohn’s music.
From afar, the flowers in all their frenzy and confusion distract the viewer from what lies underneath. A closer look reveals Mendelssohn’s notes peaking out from between the overlapping clusters of florets. An even closer look at the work reveals the notes showing through the slightly transparent watercolor paper.
This is perhaps symbolic of Rollins’ project. The work of the children is what first catches the eyes of the viewers, while the music and the story that inspired their work lie underneath, nearly unnoticeable at first, yet supportive of and essential to the composition of the piece. The art exists, as does the piece itself, on two levels: that of the children and that of the artist. Rollins, as a teacher, inspired his students to create art from the lessons of literature. Rollins, as an artist, compiled the work of his students and masterfully prepared them in a presentation worthy of the greatness of both their work and the aims of the program itself.
WCMA allows viewers of Rollins’ piece an opportunity to share the experience of his students by providing audio of both Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Mendelssohn’s piece. Both help to bring the process of translating literature and music into imagery to life.