A Mural Keith Haring Painted in an Elementary School Gets a Rare Showing

The work features in Stanley Museum's exhibition, "To My Friends at Horn: Keith Haring and Iowa City."

Students posing in front of Keith Haring’s mural in progress at Ernest Horn Elementary School, 1989.Image courtesy of Colleen Ernst © Keith Haring Foundation

A mural that the late pop artist Keith Haring once painted during a visit to an elementary school in Iowa has been seen mostly by children who attend the school for the last three decades. Now, because of a major renovation on the campus, the work will go on view to the public for the first—and likely last—time ever.

Haring developed a connection with the students at Horn Elementary School in Iowa City after he was first invited to speak to them by teacher Colleen Ernst. He maintained a close relationship with Ernst, corresponding with her in letters. He visited again in 1989 to paint the mural, titled A Book Full of Fun, just months before his death from AIDS in February 1990.

“I liked Keith’s chalk drawings and thought my kids could be interested in them,” Ernst said in an email. In classes, her students would ask her why she always talked about dead artists and so sought out the Pop artist, writing to him simply to ask for some photos and commentary of his work.

“I hadn’t known his work before looking for a living artist and didn’t look any further,” Ernst said, adding that she didn’t reach out to any other popular artists making work at the time such as Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat. She felt that Haring’s artistic style would receive greater appreciation from her students, she said.

A vividly playful mural by Keith Haring presents a dynamic assortment of his signature animated characters and symbols, interspersed with letters and numbers, swirling around a central, grinning book. The artwork, titled "A Book Full of Fun for My Friends at School," is dated 5.22.89, capturing Haring's iconic style with its energetic lines and bright, primary colors. This engaging piece is an homage to literacy and learning, designed to inspire and delight young minds.

Keith Haring, A Book Full of Fun (1989). Photo by Tim Schoon. Loan of Horn Elementary, Iowa City Community School District © Keith Haring Foundation

Diana Tuite, the curator of the exhibition, said the experience and mural could have been radically different if Ernst had reached out to a different artist. Haring “thought about children as kind of his primary audience” in ways that other artists did not, she said. The artist had painted other murals specifically for children, including at Mount Sinai Children’s Hospital in New York.

“Some of the former students who remember interacting with him said that there was just no pretense—he was so unassuming and there was no condescension. There was no posturing. It was just almost like talking to a peer,” Tuite said. “That, I think, is really part of the magic of what he was just able to bring to any situation.”

Ernst recalled that, during the 1984 visit, Haring’s time was divided between activities in school with the kids and painting a large canvas mural at a shopping mall downtown. At one point, he and the kids drew an exquisite corpse on the chalkboard. “He really enjoyed interacting with them as they drew and painted,” Ernst said of his visits. “They loved him. He talked to them, gave his time, they enjoyed watching him paint.”

The students would watch Haring paint the mural in shifts. At one point, he turned to the kids watching him and asked for suggestions. “I recall that one suggestion was a toaster, and suddenly there was a toaster,” Ernst said. Part of the time Haring painted, he was accompanied by the Johnson County Landmark Jazz Band. He previously had painted a mural at the Montreux Jazz Festival during a concert by the band.

An artist stands on a stool, meticulously adding to a mural of cartoonish figures and shapes, as a group of children watch with fascination. The artist's clothing is splattered with paint, indicating a deep engagement with his creative work. The kids, some gazing up and others chatting, are part of an interactive art demonstration, learning firsthand about the artistic process.

Keith Haring at work on the mural at Ernest Horn Elementary School, 1989. Photographer unknown. Courtesy of Colleen Ernst. © Keith Haring Foundation.

As for the content of the mural, Ernst said the act of painting a work was planned but that neither she nor the administration knew what it would be. Ahead of the artist’s visit, workers at the Stanley Museum installed a painting surface that Ernst gessoed. “The superintendent of schools agreed to the event and signed a letter to Keith that it would never be sold,” Ernst said. “I don’t recall that anyone criticized the visit. All I heard was excitement and gratitude.”

The mural now stars in “To My Friends at Horn: Keith Haring and Iowa City,” a larger exhibition of Haring’s work curated by Tuite at the Stanley Museum. The show even includes a work by Ernst, who is also an artist, almost “putting their work in conversation,” said Tuite.

“I am excited and very happy about this exhibition. It’s about time,” Ernst said of the mural going on display. “Despite all the publicity at the time of his visit, Keith’s mural has been an unintentional secret. I want everyone to see it.”


The work resurfaces

The mural remained the school’s well-kept secret for years. It wasn’t until the summer of 2022, when the school’s principal reached out, that Lauren Lessing, the director of the Stanley Museum, learned about the work. “I was initially skeptical that she had a Keith Herring mural and went there and just had my mind blown by the fact that, not only did she have a mural, but she had stacks and stacks of scrapbooks and drawings and videotapes and archives related to his visits,” Lessing remembered. She said she was surprised that the work was in “pristine” condition, considering its three-decade placement in an elementary school library.

Three individuals stand smiling outside a building with a sign that reads "Welcome Back Keith," suggesting a warm greeting for someone named Keith. The older gentleman on the left is dressed in a classic white polo and gray slacks, while the young man in the center sports a retro, casual look with a letterman jacket, high-top sneakers, and acid-wash jeans. The young woman on the right wears a vibrant ensemble featuring a checkered pair of pants and a colorful sweater, embodying the lively fashion sense of a past era.

Paul E. Davis, principal of Ernest Horn Elementary School, Keith Haring, and art teacher Colleen Ernstpose in front of the school, 1989. Photographer unknown. Courtesy of Colleen Ernst.

The principal further revealed to Lessing that the administration was about to begin renovations of the library that housed the mural, a complete rebuild. The Stanley Museum was just about to reopen itself, after a 14-year closure.

The museum and school officials agreed that the institution would safeguard and display it during the renovations. But months later, after analyzing it, conservators realized that moving the mural would be tricky business. The panels attached to the wall used Liquid Nails, a tough construction adhesive to remove, before they were then bolted to the wall and plastered over.

A group of captivated children sits on the floor of a classroom, watching intently as an artist paints a mural with whimsical black lines. The artist, focused on his work, is perched on a tarp-covered table, a jar of paint in one hand and a brush in the other. This educational setting is infused with a creative spirit, exposing young minds to the process of art-making in real-time.

Keith Haring at work on the mural at Ernest Horn Elementary School, 1989. Photographer unknown. © Keith Haring Foundation.

“We discovered that the only safe thing to do would be to cut and move a section of wall,” Lessing said. The Henry Luce Foundation and the Haring Foundation provided emergency grants to remove the 4,000-pound wall and transport it across town, contingent on its return to the school after construction.

Gearing up for its trip across town, the team enlisted structural engineers who built a padding and plywood stabilizing structure to secure the wall as it was cut. Then, a steel frame was clamped around the wall after it was removed to hold it in place before it was set on a custom-made device the team nicknamed “the skateboard” to roll it onto a truck.

One summer night in 2023, a police escort accompanied the truck as it headed to the Stanley Museum—partly to protect the two-ton wall from theft and partly so that the truck could legally run traffic lights to ensure it wouldn’t be damaged if the vehicle had to make a hard brake.


The future of the mural

The mural will not be displayed in the same location when Horn Elementary reopens in 2025. The school is building a new library equipped for the 21st century that can accommodate more media centers, instead of outdated reading wells. What was the library will be converted into classrooms. “They’re creating a new spot for it. And I think that’s still a moving target where it’s going to be when the school reopens in 2025. But we’ll have it until then,” Lessing said.

The Stanley Museum will be providing museum-grade plexiglass to protect it from ultraviolet light and other damage for its return. The mural will also continue to be protected by the nature of its location, behind the security and bulletproof glass doors of an American public school.

“It’s not easy to get in and out of schools these days. You have to be checked in and out,” Lessing said. “When it goes back to the school, it will be in a space where only kids and staff members can see it.”

A family sits together in front of a playful, pop-art style mural by Keith Haring, who holds a baby in the left of the frame. Also pictured are a woman with glasses, alongside a child in pink, smiling for the camera with another man.

Keith Haring with Colleen Ernst, her husband, Bill Radl, and their two children, Sophie Radl (left) and Max Radl (right). Photographer unknown. Courtesy of Colleen Ernst. © Keith Haring Foundation.

But even when the Keith Haring mural goes behind closed doors again, Tuite said it would continue to have a legacy in Iowa City.

“Someone shared a story via our web portal about how they were someone in the Iowa City community who was not associated with Horn Elementary School, but who volunteered in a big sister program and would meet on a regular basis with a school child that she was assigned to in the library near the mural,” Tuite said. “The mural really became sort of way to break the ice and get to know one another, talk through things. So, I think of it touching the lives of people who had only the most tangential relationships to the school, too.”

To My Friends at Horn: Keith Haring and Iowa City” is on view at the Stanley Museum of Art, 160 W Burlington St, Iowa City, through Jan 7, 2025.

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