On the walls beyond, however, you’ll notice something seemingly abstract, but very familiar. Darwin’s first “Tree of Life” as a foreground basis for the canvases displaying select pages from Darwin’s greatest literature, ‘On The Origin of Species’.
The unusual concept was developed by Tim Rollins and his collaborators, “learning disabled” students of the South Bronx who call themselves K.O.S. (Kids of Survival). Since the 1980s, Rollins has engaged his students’ minds, and hands, encouraging them to draw or paint pictures in books of classic literature that the students were reading. Several of the students who started with Rollins in the beginning of K.O.S, when they were 11 to 13 years old, are still taking part in the program today as adults.
In 2007, Rollins and the K.O.S. were approached by J. D. Talasek, the director of cultural programs at the National Academy of Sciences, to create a piece based on Darwin’s seminal work. “We’ve been trying to tackle Darwin for years and years," says Rollins, but "[Talasek] really put a fire under us.”
The group, which consists primarily of eight artists ranging from ages 16 to 37, plus Rollins, 53, pulled together any information they could find on Darwin. “It was a big scavenger hunt in terms of information," Rollins says. They read through On the Origin of Species, pondered the "poetic passages," watched documentaries on Darwin, gathered magazine articles, and researched existing art that was inspired by the text.
The group decided early on that they did not want a traditional image of Darwin and evolution; they wanted something intuitive, not literal. “We wanted to see what evolution looked like,” says Rollins. Visually capturing evolution proved a real “struggle,” the artist says. The group abandoned two concepts, before pursuing the one that went on display at the National Academy of Sciences on 2 February 2009.
Their “eureka moment," Rollins says, was inspired by the original “Tree of Life” that Darwin sketched on a notebook page, and the statement that accompanies the image: "I think." They scanned Darwin’s rough diagram and decided to extend and expand it over the canvas—to "replicate the process of natural selection, the randomness, the excitement of life," Rollins says.
Darwin’s words, faintly visible beneath a thin veneer of white matte acrylic, are covered by a branching network of black ink made from beetle shells and carbon. A key decision, Rollins says, was to have the origin of this network remain hidden, with just a line to it extending off canvas, from above. This tries to capture the “amazing mystery of creation," according to Rollins.
The artist notes that people viewing the work often don’t see the connection of the branching pattern to Darwin, with some asking ‘Where’s the fish, the birds, the finches?’ But Rollins says he and the K.O.S. wanted to capture Darwin’s “intense free inquiry … the love of questioning where things come from, where things are, and where they are going." "I definitely think that you feel that flow in the painting," he says.