Iconic artist Keith Haring was the visual stylist of the 1980s. From public murals and pop culture to major exhibitions, his bold, bright, signature style dominated the decade, up until his death in 1990. Although his career was brief, his legacy is long lasting. Haring’s work is taught to school children, and the non-profit Keith Haring Foundation he established before his death continues to provide funding to AIDS organizations and children’s programs. This month, Haring’s younger sister, Kay A. Haring, is releasing a picture book biography, Keith Haring: The Boy Who Just Kept Drawing, sharing her brother’s story and message with a new generation: Art is for everyone.
How did the book go from idea to reality?
I had this idea more than a decade ago! I drafted numerous outlines and storylines over the years. Five years ago I joined a writer’s group and needed something to present, so I resurrected those drafts I had made over the years. I knew this was a project that had to come to fruition. So, I started to explore the process to publish and joined the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. I found an agent the first time I made queries about the project, and within three months we met with four publishers and had two offers. After accepting an offer, it has taken three years to get to print. Much of this time was spent on carefully integrating Keith’s artwork with Robert Neubecker’s illustrations, and selecting artwork and obtaining permissions to publish Keith’s work.
You wrote that your dad taught Keith how to draw. Was your father an artist or he did just love to draw?
My Dad is a 100% all-around creative person. I wouldn’t call him an artist per se, however, he is an awesome photographer, woodworker, gardener, ham radio operator, and can do anything with his hands. The artistic gene definitely runs in the family. In the extended Haring family we have art teachers, tattoo artists, art history majors, and my younger daughter is a visual artist. Keith was encouraged, as we all were, to follow where our skills led us. There was a no-nonsense approach to hard work, however, and we were expected to work for a living. My parents insisted Keith attend a commercial art school so he could learn a trade, which he did after high school when he went to a commercial art school in Pittsburgh. My parents recognized they couldn’t stop him when he announced he had to move to New York City — that’s where the real action and real artists were. The agreement was he had to take classes there, too, and he enrolled in classes at the School of Visual Arts.
Keith is part of many children’s art education. What is it about his work and message that you think appeals to kids? What do you think Keith’s reaction would be to his role in children’s art education today?
Keith’s art appeals to everyone, kids included. He would love that so many schools continue to use his artwork as inspiration for kids to draw.
From the Statue of Liberty banner to painting a children’s hospital to his nonprofit foundation, your brother had a major commitment to youth, which continues today. How did that develop? Was it innate?
Yes, I believe it was innate, as was his general commitment to help others. Keith loved the creativity that children show and their willingness to try new things. He would say that children still have an active imagination that is not squashed by the burdens of adulthood, and they had not lost their ability to be open to new ways of thinking, to new ways of looking at art. One activity we participated in as teenagers was mentoring children by sharing art projects with them. Our church youth group volunteered at an after-school program at an inner-city church when we were in high school. One of our parents would drive us into downtown Reading, Pa., and we’d hang out with the kids and help them with arts and crafts. He was always encouraging them and joking and having a good time, bringing the best out in the kids.
What was it like writing the story of your older brother? What was your relationship like growing up?
The actual content of the story was easy to write. I wanted to give children an example of his generosity and his easy going, fun-loving personality. There were dozens of scenarios I could choose from where he gave away his artwork or his time to benefit others. Over the years there were a few situations that stood out to me as hallmarks of Keith’s dedication and his care for other people. The difficult part of a story like this is to edit it down to a reasonable length. Many scenes had to be cut or trimmed back, and my editor helped shape the final messages.
Keith was a typical older brother; sometimes irritating, as all brothers can be, someone to look up to, but he was also immersed in his own world. As a teenager, Keith would spend hours and hours in his room drawing. He liked painting, drawing with markers, anything with art. Keith was passionate about art from the time he was young, and by high school he was known for one thing — his love of drawing. He was interested in making art more than anything else in school. I was more of an intent student and also loved track and field hockey and the outdoors, so are paths were less entwined as we went through high school.
You write Keith liked to listen to music while drawing. Who were some of his favorite bands/musicians?
The Monkees as a kid, then The Beatles and The Grateful Dead as a teenager. In the ’80s it was The B52’s, Run DMC, Public Enemy, and Sade. And dance music — lots of heavy beat, hip hop, dance music.
Do you have a favorite piece among your brother’s work?
That is a really hard question. I love some of his later canvases that comment on love, money, sex, and art — all the human basics. I also love the pieces where body-shapes are intertwined and his painted black lines appear as a backdrop; there’s a color version similar to this called Monkey Puzzle.
What is the message children should take from this book?
Dream big, work hard, give back! My book tells the story of how Keith kept drawing, no matter who questioned what he was doing or why. His drive to share art with people, to paint and draw where all people could experience it, is demonstrated by the murals he did on the streets in New York and in the subway and the six-story building he painted at the Necker Children’s Hospital in Paris. He did these, as he often did, for no compensation, and in the early years, he painted without permission and often was fined or criticized. But that didn’t stop him.
I also want children to know that success comes with hard work. At Keith’s first big exhibit in New York, I remember hearing from many people on opening night that Keith’s work was so different, vibrant, and fun, but they also raved about how hard he worked to paint the walls and hang as much artwork as the space could hold. They had not seen another artist work with such a sense of obligation. Keith was so humble and accommodating — he signed autographs and talked to people all night long. He never turned anyone away.
Another example of Keith’s tireless devotion was when he was out in public, it was not unusual for dinner guests or complete strangers to go home with an impromptu drawing on their clothing, a napkin, or a spare piece of paper. He was truly, always drawing.
Keith was an extraordinary person and gave away countless drawings and an inordinate amount of his time and money. Keith used his work as a tool for organizations to raise money, to raise awareness, and to disrupt society norms. He bequeathed most of his estate to the Keith Haring Foundation in 1989 to expand and sustain his artistic and philanthropic legacy through the preservation and circulation of his artwork and by providing grants to underserved youth and those affected by HIV/AIDS.
To highlight his philanthropy and inspire youth to give back in their own community, I am donating 25% of my proceeds to a youth organization in our family hometown. I encourage parents to challenge their kids to find ways to donate their time, energy, and creativity in ways that will make their neighborhood a better place.