ON THE SECOND FLOOR OF THE Longwood Community Center in New York City's South Bronx, as rap music pounds from a boom box, a small group of young men labors amid a clutter of drawings, paints and pencils. Danny Castillo and Emanuel Carvajal, both 15, are making preliminary sketches of surrealistic eyes that will eventually be part of a large-scale oil painting inspired by Sophocles's Oedipus Rex. Jorge Abreu, 17, is creating a study for a painting based on the Death and Transfiguration tone poem by Richard Strauss. Through the hubbub moves Tim Rollins, 41, encouraging, criticizing, scolding. "You may think you're making art," he declares at one point, "but you're going to make history."

The young men have already made art history of sorts. Founded by Rollins in 1984 as an after-school arts program for special-ed students, Kids of Survival, as the group is called, is getting attention. A film about KOS, which opened in Washington earlier this month, was recently nominated for an International Documentary Association Award. The students' canvases hang in New York City's Museum of Modern Art, the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington and the Philadelphia Museum of Art—and one sold for $100,000. More important, the group has given its members a vision of life far different from the one they see on the streets. "I could have made $2,000 a week by pressing a button, advising somebody that the cops are coming," says Rick Savinon, 25, a KOS member since he was 13, "but I don't want to do that because I'm an artist."

The group's members, all young Latino males, some with learning disorders, meet after school at least three times a week and sometimes on Saturdays. They are paid modest monthly stipends, which come mainly from the sale of their paintings. The $50,000 annual budget also covers a scholarship fund that helps pay college costs for three of the older members, including Savinon. Rollins insists on strict discipline, and staying in school is a requirement for membership. Rollins doesn't tolerate drug use, criminal activity or teen paternity—all grounds for expulsion. "I make it clear," he says, "that education is the key to transforming their lives. If you act up, I won't have anything to do with you."

The son of a factory worker and a hospital secretary, Rollins grew up in Pittsfield, Maine, and was doing graduate work at New York University when he was hired to teach art to special-education students in The Bronx. Within a year his program had evolved into a studio. In 1984, frustrated by the public school system's small art budget, he rented space with a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Within a year, as the kids of KOS began to sell their work, the art world took notice. "Art has to deal with the truth," says David Ross, director of New York City's Whitney Museum of American Art. "Rollins is teaching kids whom the system has overlooked."

The truth that the KOS kids strive for begins with reading and study, precisely the skills that have given them the most trouble in school. Rollins picks a text—anything from Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage to Franz Kafka's Amerika—and the kids study it and discuss it. Then, beginning with cut-out pages pasted to a canvas, they create a work they feel adds to the power of the words. For Crane's Civil War classic, KOS members made a series of paintings depicting the wounds of urban life, one of which sold for $50,000 in 1992. "For my kids," says Rollins, "books were the enemy. The art gave us a way to have dialogue with people like Melville and Ralph Ellison."

Although the South Bronx is no longer the burned-out battleground of Fort Apache fame, it can still be a dangerous place, and Rollins's best efforts aren't always enough. In 1993, Chris Hernandez, 15, a KOS member for four years, was one of six people murdered when they were caught up in a revenge killing. The killing left the other KOS members with a heightened sense of fragility—about themselves and their art. It's a feat, says Savinon, "just to survive in The Bronx—your friends getting shot, or if you get shot. And there's all these temptations."

The odds are against these young men, and they know it. But at KOS the odds don't matter. "Dreams come through discipline," says Rollins, "and 'can't' is a four-letter word."

MICHAEL NEILL
ELIZABETH McNEIL in The Bronx

  • Contributors:
  • Elizabeth McNeil.