A Children’s Book Brings Keith Haring’s Work Alive to a New Generation
Eduardo Gion Espejo-Saavedra,
Keith Haring’s young sister, Kay Haring, opens up about her brother’s childhood and adolescence, his first works and what influenced him as an artist. She is helping to keep Haring’s legacy alive via a colorful children’s book that underline’s the artist determination to never give up on his passion and to perceiver no matter what.
A version of this exclusive interview first appeared in the pages of the 12th issue of ODDA Magazine.
Q: How was Keith Haring as a child?
A: Keith was creative, curious and friendly in a quiet way. And he was always drawing. Mostly, though, he was your typical older brother. He liked to organize events in our backyard. We created games and announced a “penny fair” with a flyer and invited all the neighborhood kids. We did everything; handed out prizes, sold lemonade, had a pet show, ran a penny toss and made a profit on our games!
Q: At what age did Haring begin to draw?
A: I don’t know the exact age however, it was from the time he was a toddler. My dad would draw with us, usually sitting around the kitchen table. He’d draw something, then hand it to us and have us add to it. We spent lots of time that way, creating characters or stories with pictures or just doodling. Keith continued to draw and was interested in art from the time he was a young teenager and by high school he was known as one of the artsy students. He was interested in making art more than anything else in school.
Q: Was he inspired by the cartoons he saw on television?
A: I’m sure he was inspired by cartoons, but not in a specific way I can detail by example. Walt Disney was definitely an influence. Our parents would read Disney illustrated stories to us and we had many books by Dr. Seuss.
Q: What were your inspirations at that time?
A: I liked to draw when I was a teen, too. For me, it was a good way to spend quiet time by myself. I loved nature and hiking, camping, being outside, so I would draw trees. Big, beautiful, old maple trees in full bloom, like in our neighborhood. I never painted, but used pencil, pen, sometimes oil crayons. I also copied portraits of models I found in magazines but could never could get the faces to look realistic and that’s when my interests turned more to writing and sports.
Q: What was Haring like when he was a teenager?
A: As a teenager Keith would spend hours and hours in his room drawing. He liked making paintings, drawing with markers, anything with art. He drew animal characters like the “pigs from Pennsylvania” and he started drawing detailed pen and ink or pencil drawings, often with rows and rows of people and every space on the paper covered.
Q: Haring had his first exhibition in Pittsburgh when he was 19 years old. Do you remember that exhibit?
A: I did not attend his exhibition in Pittsburgh. I know it was exciting for him and he felt quite important about getting a chance to show his work. Once Keith got to New York City and had exhibitions, he always invited the whole family and we attended quite often. It was a different world for us to participate in, however Keith was gracious and introduced us to his friends and the celebrities that had started to take note of his work. The first big show in New York I went to was exciting with many, many people on opening night and everyone exclaiming that Keith’s work was so different, vibrant and fun, yet also had meaning. They raved about how hard he worked to paint the walls and hang as much work as the space could hold. Keith was so humble and accommodating – he signed autographs and talked to people all night long. He never turned anyone away. I try to capture the diversity and intensity of that memory in a scene in the book.
Q: Haring loved children and drew a lot of inspiration from them.
A: Keith loved the creativity that children showed and their willingness to try new ways to make art. He would say that children still have an active imagination that is not squashed by responsibilities we take on as we grow into adulthood. He felt adults were too occupied with meaningless competition in the corporate world and had lost their ability to be open to new ways of thinking, to new ways of looking at art. Keith started doing art projects with children when we were teenagers. 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.
Q: You have released a book of drawings with stories based on your brother when he was young. Tell us why you wanted to do the book?
A: I always wanted to tell my brother’s story emphasizing his generous nature. Keith was an extraordinary person and gave away countless drawings and an inordinate amount of his time and money. He was always drawing when he was out in public and 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. Keith used his work as a tool for organizations to raise money, to raise awareness and to disrupt society norms. My book tells the story of how Keith kept drawing, no matter who questioned what he was doing or why. I hope the passion he had, as an artist is apparent to the kids who read it. I also want to highlight his philanthropy and hope that it inspires children to give back in their own community. To honor his spirit, I am donating 25% of my proceeds to a youth organization in our family hometown. This project took many years to execute. Finding the right illustrator who could incorporate Keith’s artwork and capture his vibrant personality was no small task. Robert Neubecker was an illustrator in New York City in the 80’s and he understood the feel on the streets at that time and remembered seeing Keith’s work as it permeated the city. He was a great partner to bring my story to life. As an example, Robert used a photograph taken by me in 2008 of a replicate of the mural Keith painted in 1982 in the Bowery, NYC, then expertly illustrated the scene of Keith being admonished by an officer for painting the mural without permission. Just like Keith, I want to inspire kids to dream big, work hard, give back!
Q: How would you explain to a child who your brother was, and all the symbols of his drawings?
A: The best way to explain Keith’s work is to see it. Children, and adults, relate to Keith’s work because they can interpret it. They see things in it. And that’s exactly what Keith wanted. His drive to share art with people, to paint and draw where all people could experience it, is demonstrated in my book 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, France. 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 want children to be inspired by his determination and his hard work. No matter what opposition he faced, he kept drawing, because he knew in his heart it was good for people to have a closer relationship to art in museums and to interact with all types of art in the world around us.
Q: What did Haring want to show with his drawings when he was growing up?
A: I think he was exploring, trying to find his voice. Even then, he had a big heart and great empathy for people he felt were not being treated fairly. His drawings during high school were part fun and comical, and some were more an experimentation with lines. Then there were drawings like the one from 8th grade (“Hippies”, 1971) where he was expressing his sentiment for an alternate lifestyle that exuded love and tolerance and rebellion.
Q: Haring moved to New York to study at an arts school in the 1980s. Can you talk a bit about that choice.
A: Keith was enthusiastic to immerse himself in the New York City art scene in the 80’s. He knew he had to go to New York after only being in Pittsburgh for a year. He arrived at a magical time, too, when so many young artists and creative geniuses had converged in the city. He was pleased to enroll in an art school that explored many different genres and mediums and since it was a legitimate art school, it also kept my parents happy. They were quite sure that no decent young man could make a living by being an artist and an education was necessary.
Filmmaker, Journalist and documentary.
For several years working as an assistant director of short films and feature films in 35mm. His documentaries have been shown at festivals Festival de Cinema de Sitges, New York Film Festival, Portland Underground Film Festival, San Francisco Film Festival, and others.
Worked at events “080” in Barcelona, collaborating with photographers Miguel Villalobos for the production of the tribute to Thierry Mugler.
Writes and produces reports for magazines “Candy Magazine” to Luis Venegas, Also works for the magazine “Paraiso Magazine”, and Features Editor at ODDA Magazine.
Eduardo Gion Espejo-Saavedra
Filmmaker, Journalist and documentary. For several years working as an assistant director of short films and feature films in 35mm. His documentaries have been shown at festivals Festival de Cinema de Sitges, New York Film Festival, Portland Underground Film Festival, San Francisco Film Festival, and others. Worked at events “080” in Barcelona, collaborating with photographers Miguel Villalobos for the production of the tribute to Thierry Mugler. Writes and produces reports for magazines “Candy Magazine” to Luis Venegas, Also works for the magazine “Paraiso Magazine”, and Features Editor at ODDA Magazine.
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