When Keith Haring Painted a Mural for an Iowa Elementary School

Keith Haring may be a New York icon, but a part of his legacy lives on in Iowa City. The street artist’s special mural for the students of Ernest Horn Elementary is set to be displayed to the public for the first time while the school undergoes necessary renovations. From May 4 through the first week of 2025, the Stanley Museum of Art at the University of Iowa (UI) will present Haring’s conserved mural alongside several other works of his in To My Friends at Horn: Keith Haring and Iowa City.

Haring’s relationship with the midwestern city begins with Horn Elementary’s art teacher, Colleen Ernst, who invited the artist to her classroom in a letter explaining her students’ fascination with his work. Having kept in touch with Ernst and her fifth- and sixth-grade students through letters and postcards, Haring made the school one of his stops during a three-day trip to Iowa City that also included events at the nearby UI, during which he completed a public mural, led workshops, and held a public lecture about his art practice.

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Haring had long been promoting messages of sexual tolerance and safety amidst the AIDS crisis, and also addressed other sociopolitical topics like racial equality, the crack cocaine epidemic, environmental devastation, apartheid in South Africa, and nuclear proliferation in his artwork.

When asked how his messaging was received by the students and families at the time, Ernst told Hyperallergic that “the Horn community — kids and parents — were captivated by Keith’s visit and his art.”

Haring kept in touch with Ernst and her students over the years, addressing his letters to “all my friends at Horn” even as his fame grew exponentially. He returned to the school on May 22, 1989 to create a dedicated mural for its library, painting directly on plywood boards that were glued and bolted to the cinderblock walls. In “A Book Full of Fun” (1989), Haring depicted an open book, bringing readers into an imagined world of anthropomorphized animals communing with people surrounded by multicolored letters and numbers.

“It’s really incredible to me that the school took the initiative to institute a discussion about AIDS — mostly because of the students’ contact with (and caring for) me,” Haring wrote to his friends at Horn later that year. “It makes me proud I had the courage to talk about it in the first place. Education is the key to stopping this thing!”

Haring was diagnosed with AIDS in 1988 and died from complications related to the illness in 1990, only nine months after his last visit to Horn Elementary.

“Following his death I was deluged with calls from parents, teachers, and administrators offering me their sympathies,” Ernst recalled to Hyperallergic. “It was as if a member of my family had died. It was an overwhelming experience — it seemed like we had just seen him. The news was a shock.”

The mural lived at Horn Elementary up until last July, when the school had to deinstall it for necessary renovations. Upon finding that it was immovable, the school enlisted the help of the Stanley Museum, who enlisted experts to help shift the artwork, and the 4,000-pound wall it was attached to, back to the museum for conservation.

“A Book Full of Fun” will be displayed to the public for the first time at the Stanley alongside Haring’s painted plywood “Totem” (1988), his video performance “Painting Myself Into a Corner” (1979), his “Ignorance = Fear, Silence = Death” lithograph, and the untitled tarp mural he completed for the university in his 1984 residency.

Exhibition curator Diana Tuite told Hyperallergic that including the video performance brings Haring to life as he completed the piece at the same age as many of the UI students, and that the tarp painting, which was from the Keith Haring Foundation’s collection, “is an obvious pendant to the Horn mural.”

“Its imagery links up with Haring’s early subway drawings, contemporary cave paintings of a sort, at a moment when he was thinking critically about new technologies,” she explained.

Tuite also shared that it was important to her that the exhibition include a work that underscored the visual language of his activism, noting that the lithograph on view will have visitors “consider how resistance movements express themselves textually and encode their messages pictorially.”

“Every day, we can see how dissent, protest, and advocacy are being censored,” Tuite reflected.

“A Book Full of Fun” will return to Horn Elementary in 2025 after renovations are complete.

Source: Hyperallergic.com

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