Growing in Bulgaria, one of my most cherished objects was also one of the first fragments of American culture to enter our home after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the rise of the Iron Curtain — a small square desk calendar in a clear plastic clamshell, containing twelve illustrated cards, each vibrantly alive with tiny black-contoured figures dancing in various jubilant formations amid a festival of primary colors. I would look up to savor its mirth between math equations and domestic disquietudes. However gloomy a day I was having, however sunken my child-heart, these figures would transport me to a buoyant world of sunlit possibility. I knew nothing about their creator beyond the name on the back of the clamshell: Keith Haring (May 4, 1958–February 16, 1990). I knew nothing about the bittersweet beauty of his courageous life, nothing about the tenacious activism behind his art, nothing about the enormous uninterrupted chain of human figures bonded in kinship, which he had painted on the remnants of the very wall whose collapse had placed this miniature monument to joy on my desk.
Nearly three decades later, having traded Bulgaria for Brooklyn by some improbable existential acrobatics, I encountered Haring’s work again in a magnificent mural he had painted for a young people’s club in New York City in the final year of his twenties, not long before his death, which my friends at Pioneer Works had resurrected and brought to our neighborhood. The same rush of irrepressible gladness poured into the grownup heart from twenty-five-foot wall as had poured into the child-heart from the five-inch calendar. I grew attuned to the echoes of his sensibility bellowing down the corridor of time, reverberating strongly in the work of established artists in my own community.
Long before he moved to Brooklyn in pursuit of his own calling, poet Matthew Burgess had a parallel experience of Haring’s world-expanding art, which he first encountered on the cover of a Christmas record at fourteen, living behind the Golden Curtain of suburban Southern California as a budding artist and young gay man trying to find himself. “For those of us who grew up before the internet became ubiquitous, a bright fragment from the outer world can feel like an important discovery — and a call,” Burgess writes in the author’s note to what became his serenade to the artist who opened minds and world of possibility for so many.
A decade into teaching poetry in public schools, Burgess encountered Haring’s work afresh in a retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum. After mesmeric hours in the galleries, he wandered into the museum bookshop and went home with a copy of Haring’s published journals, which he devoured immediately. On its pages, he realized that the special native sympathy between children and Haring’s art is not an accident of his line and color but at the very center of his spirit. In an entry from July 7, 1986, Haring writes:
Children know something that most people have forgotten. Children possess a fascination with their everyday existence that is very special and would be very helpful to adults if they could learn to understand and respect it.
Having previously composed Enormous Smallness — the wondrous picture-book biography of E.E. Cummings, another artist who so passionately believed that “it takes courage to grow up and become who you really are” — Burgess was impelled to invite young people into Keith Haring’s singular art and the large heart from which it sprang. And so Drawing on Walls: A Story of Keith Haring (public library) was born — a splendid addition to the most inspiring picture-book biographies of cultural heroes.
Burgess’s tender words, harmonized by muralist and illustrator Josh Cochran’s ebullient art, follow the young Keith from his childhood in small-town Pennsylvania, drawing at the kitchen table with his dad and dipping his little sister’s palms in paint to make her a mobile of handprints, to his improbable path to New York City.
One fateful day, home for the holidays from Pittsburg, where he had gone to study commercial art but had grow disillusioned with the prescriptive form, hungry “to be spontaneous and free,” Haring chanced upon The Art Spirit — Robert Henri’s 1923 masterwork, which would go on to influence generation of artists as sundry as Georgia O’Keeffe and David Lynch. “Rise up if it kills you,” Henri had written to O’Keeffe’s best friend. “I’m for the person who takes the bit in his teeth & goes after what he believes in.” Henri’s book — an invitation, an incantation, to “do whatever you do intensely” — invigorated the young artist to take the bit of his own talent and unexampled creative vision in his teeth and go toward that intensity.
After hitchhiking across the country with his treasured copy of The Spirit of Art, he went to New York City.
At twenty, he enrolled in the School of Visual Arts. (Cochran, whose illustrations bring Haring’s life to life in a rare acrobatic triumph of honoring another artist’s art in art that is both deliberately referential and thoroughly original, now teaches at the School of Visual Arts — a lovely testament to Robert Henri’s conviction that “all any man can hope to do is to add his fragment to the whole.”)
One day, he foraged some rolls of paper lying in the gutter between the bustling New York sidewalk and the bustling New York street, and spontaneously “began making bigger and bigger pictures.”
Keith especially liked painting on the floor by the open door where the sunlight poured in.
People passing on the street would stop to watch or talk with him about what he was making. Keith loved it!
He didn’t believe that some people understand art while others don’t — or that art should be hidden away in galleries, museums, and private collections.
Keith wanted to communicate with as many people as possible. “The public has a right to art… Art is for everybody.”
Tracing Haring’s inviting self-discovery on vacant subway billboards and graffiti-populated walls, Burgess affirms this credo by spontaneously breaking into his own art-form — the delightful surprise of the book’s sole verse:
Maybe it makes them smile,
maybe it makes them think,
maybe it inspires them to draw
or dance or write or sing.
Meanwhile, we see the bower of the young artist’s imagination grow decorated with the experiences of a life fully lived — he falls in love, starts a club in a church basement on St. Mark’s Place with his friends, discovers the vibrant graffiti culture of Alphabet City, listens to his boyfriend’s music as he paints and they cook together.
Like artist Agnes Martin and the astonishing array of employments by which she sustained herself as she revolutionized art, he takes a series of odd jobs to survive in New York — bike messenger and sandwich-maker and gallery assistant in Soho and wildflower picker in Jersey and always, always his favorite: drawing with children at a Brooklyn daycare.
All the while, he keeps drawing on walls, savoring that small, enormous moment when a stranger pauses mid-stride in this unstoppable city for a colorful moment of unbidden wonder. Burgess writes:
For Keith, this was what art was all about — the moment when people see it and respond.
At last, four years after leaping into the glorious uncertainty of life as a young artist in New York City, his big breakthrough came — a major solo exhibition at a Soho gallery. It tipped a Rube Goldberg machine of opportunities and invitations, making the world his canvas — from the wall of an Italian monastery to the Berlin Wall to the wall.
But no matter how busy he became or where in the world he went, he always made time for children.
Keith understood kids and they understood him.
There was an unspoken bond between them.
And since children often asked him to draw on their t-shirts, skateboards, and jeans, he always kept a black marker handy.
In the remaining seven years of his life, as the art world grew to lavish Haring with recognition and plaudit, his drawings would come to cover the walls of orphanages and hospitals and daycare centers. When he spent five days painting the wall of a Chicago high school together with its 500 students, one walked up to him and said, with that special way children alone have of seeing into the heart of things and naming what is there without self-consciousness or pretense:
I can tell, by the way you paint, that you really love life.
Not long after that, Haring’s vivacity was stamped with the four letters that would spell certain death for so many young people of his generation. But even his AIDS diagnosis didn’t stifle his exuberant love of life — it only amplified it. Burgess quotes Haring’s diary:
I appreciate everything that has happened, especially the gift of life I was given that has created a silent bond between me and children. Children can sense this “thing” in me.
Drawing on Walls radiates that singular thingness with its sensitive, courageous homage to an artist whose short life cast a widening pool of light on so many, rippling across space and time. Complement it with Maya Angelou’s lovely verses of courage for kids, illustrated by Haring’s contemporary Jean-Michel Basquiat, and with the picture-book biographies of Wangari Maathai, Maria Mitchell, Ada Lovelace, Louise Bourgeois, E.E. Cummings, Jane Goodall, Jane Jacobs, John Lewis, Frida Kahlo, Louis Braille, Pablo Neruda, Albert Einstein, Muddy Waters, and Nellie Bly, then revisit E.E. Cummings — the subject of Burgess’s first picture-book biography — on the courage to be yourself.
Illustrations courtesy of Enchanted Lion Books; photographs by Maria Popova