When Jessica May arrived at the Portland Museum of Art as a new curator in 2012, one of the first things she did was seek out the museum’s paintings by Tim Rollins and K.O.S.

She didn’t find any.

“We didn’t have one, and it felt like this museum, especially, should have a really good painting from this group,” she said.

May, now the museum’s chief curator, rectified the omission, arranging the purchase of the painting “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – Asleep on the Raft (after Mark Twain)” early in her tenure. The painting is part of a new exhibition at the museum that features the work of Rollins, a Maine native, and the New York-based art collective Kids of Survival.

The centerpiece of the exhibition is another Rollins purchase, a colorful mural hanging in the Great Hall called “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Its central motifs are dense splashes of colorful flower blossoms spreading across a 34-foot banner. The theme riffs on the Shakespeare play, and the colors are printed on top of sheet music by the German composer Felix Mendelssohn. He wrote the music in the 1800s to accompany a version of the Shakespeare play.

The Rollins piece was inspired by the Shakespeare character Puck, a jester described as a “merry wanderer of the night.” A prankster, he sprays a love potion in the eyes of other characters in the play, spreading love. The splashes of color in the PMA mural might be interpreted as love potion.

Rollins and members of K.O.S. were at the museum last week to unveil the work. The museum purchased the piece in collaboration with Maine Center for Creativity. A museum spokesman declined to say what the museum paid, citing PMA policy.

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” will hang in the Great Hall for the foreseeable future, May said. Its colors complement those of the wall painting by Mark Wethli, “Transom,” also on permanent view in the Great Hall.

Rollins, who declined an interview for this story, grew up in Pittsfield, and has credited his childhood in rural Maine for his artistic vision. He remembers wide-open farm fields and patchwork quilts. He studied art, and moved to New York, where he taught art in a South Bronx intermediate school. Everything changed with that job, Rollins has said. He realized he could use art to help kids express themselves, and formed K.O.S. to give his students a voice.

Three decades later, the group is still making work with much of the same membership as in the early days.

As with the Huck Finn painting and the large mural hanging in the PMA’s Great Hall, the group works with printed source material to begin their paintings, sculptures and drawings. They create work around books and music in pop and literary culture, playing off the themes raised by the work.

They take pages from the book or score, or the printed words from a speech, and adhere them onto canvas in a grid‑like fashion. Collaboratively, they build their image on top of the pages, often making allegorical pieces that are rooted in politics and social change. For “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” they used Mulberry paper, inks, juices and whatever else they could find, working while the Mendelssohn piece played in the studio.

The group has exhibited widely, including at multiple Whitney Biennials, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and the Institute for Contemporary Art in Boston.

That’s why May wanted a Rollins painting for the PMA when she arrived here. Four years later, the museum now has two.


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