Kay A. Haring is a dedicated mother, wife, and writer, as well as the younger sister of the late artist Keith Haring. Since Keith’s tragic passing in 1990, Kay’s time has been devoted to spreading the kind, genuine, and hard working talent of her brother to the younger generations. Not only is Kay Haring an influential philanthropist, but she is also the talented author of the children’s book “Keith Haring: The Boy Who Just Kept Drawing.” Kay’s motivation to write the children’s book was to educate people about Keith’s compassion, kindness, and how he valued working with children. The book is both a memoir and an inspiration, in which she and her family advocate that Keith truly never gave up, and that he just kept drawing
The author explains, “he started out as a kid, and he was always drawing…practice, practice, practice and a love of it. And then he developed this desire to want to share that with everyone…that was a lot of the impetus, I think, for Keith's success, because he was so genuine in that and continued to exalt it.”
Upon beginning the process of writing the manuscript and finding the right publishing company, Kay soon learned that writers typically do not have control over the illustrations due to the contracting. From the get-go, she wanted to include Keith’s artwork in order to chronologically visualize his life. Kay then met illustrator Robert Neubecker, for whom she expresses gratitude for, citing that it was a coincidence that he lives in Park City, where Kay and her husband frequent. The story is also biographical, and Kay provided photographs and archived images, alongside being Keith’s sister with both access and the intention of telling the true story of her brother. Kay reveals the long timeline in which the construction and publication of the book took place. She outlines,
“It was a four or five-year period…this is a different project because I was bringing artwork, and we involved the Keith Haring Foundation. And so then there were extra contracts and because there was a lot of artwork, Robert had to do more revisions, you know, it wasn't just about him drawing, it was about incorporating some of the pieces of Keith's work that I had, and then doing it in the right context.”
Centered on the cover of the book and dispersed throughout is one of Keith's most well-known figures, the Radiant Baby. I was keen to know if Keith’s love for children, his crawling baby symbology, and his reputation for being a childlike genius influenced Kay’s decision to write a children’s book. The author explained, “I think that love of children, which certainly emanated from our family, the immediate family, extended family that were around is how it came together that way. Again, it wasn't a very conscious decision, it was something that grew out of what I think is representative of the Haring family.”
The Haring familial bond is eminent through the book beginning with the first two pages, where Keith and his two younger siblings are depicted drawing with their father, Allen, as they lie belly-down on the floor surrounded by crayons and pieces of paper ornate with sketches.
The author herself has indulged in her passion for creativity since she was a child, but took journaling and poetry seriously in her 20s after embracing words as her tool to reach others, rather than drawing as she often did in her childhood. Kay discusses that short-form writing with a strong message is a communicative agent, which lends itself to her position in the fundraising world, and her ability to convey Keith’s story.
As I turn the pages in the book, it transports me to a time in which young Keith received push-back from teachers and friends, as he always doodled on his school-papers and wrote in symbology. But Keith continued to encourage his friends to draw with him, often inviting them to the clubhouse in his backyard to create together. Keith’s childlike genius persona and career were uncompromisingly devoted to being an artist for the public, for the people, and for the children.
Kay explains, “When I give my presentations to elementary school kids, I point this out. It's like, ‘hey, look, this is what Keith was doing in second grade. Doesn't that look like what you guys are doing?’ Because the point is, he was just a kid.”
The Haring family has a lineage enveloped in creativity. During her childhood, Kay and her siblings would gather together and draw, or play outside and create new things rather than watch television. Kay’s father was an amateur artist as a hobby and often drew with his children when they were young, and he still draws with his great-grandchildren and grandchildren today. Kay’s eldest uncle was an art teacher, and her other uncle went to art school, though he became an English professor.
Kay emphasizes, “It's more about creativity and always making things with your hands. My dad was actually a hand radio operator and made a lot of things. So he was creative in a lot of different ways, not just drawing.”
Around the same time, Keith won his first art prize and offered his artwork to others free-of-charge. When questioned why he didn’t want to be compensated, he just kept drawing. His passion for creativity eventually led him to Pittsburgh, PA, where he attended art school. One day as he sat outside and watched as boys breakdanced in front of him, he was inspired by their contorted bodies. This influenced some of his most iconic and well-known figures, such as the famous Dancing Man.
At 20 years old, he moved from Pittsburgh to New York City, and he drew on everything he could find—from abandoned black poster boards in subways with white chalk to walls in the Manhattan streets. Being a street artist is innate with risk, from getting caught by law enforcement to having your work erased or destroyed. When Keith was asked why he drew on surfaces that ensured his work would be jeopardized, he was busy finding his next medium. When he was caught by the police, he paid his fines and just kept drawing.
As a teenager, “he liked to draw in his bedroom with music playing LOUD. He would draw on every piece of paper he could find.” When his mother asked him to turn the music down and take a bike ride, he just kept drawing. Kay reveals that one of the sketches—filled edge to edge with the number seven, intricate line work, and detailed figures—was a card Keith made for their younger sister Kristen when she was seven years old. Another of Keith’s sketches illustrates the 70s, with Kay adding, “these were flower people and flower children protesting the war and it was the age of hippies. It's not always that apparent, but when you start to think about it, that it was the 70s and he was in high school. That was all over his room at the time.”
Kay’s eyes lit up with excitement as we turned the page to a scene in the book that depicts Keith drawing a mural in Manhattan. The image in the book comes from a photograph that Kay took in 2008 of a recreation of a mural Keith painted in the 80s—a celebration of Keith on what would have been his 50th birthday. She gave the photograph of the recreation of the mural to Neubecker, who manipulated the image to slightly clean it up, and then added illustrations of the figures and small details. In this example, Kay highlights her brother’s intentions to enlighten the city, saying “It wasn't a place that people thought to visit, and so he wanted to clean this space up…He used bright colors and it transformed, even if it was just a block in New York City.” She continued to explain the lesson behind this story as something that Keith did on his own, and without permission.
In the height of his career, as Keith gained attention and his artwork began to sell out in galleries, he used the money to help underprivileged children. Kay clarified that giving back is of primary importance to telling the proper story of Keith, for which his generosity hugely impacted his popularity. She discusses that he treated all people with the utmost respect, no matter their status. Kay writes in her author’s note that his exhibition openings were attended by everyone, from celebrities and wealthy art collectors to families with young children, and some who had never been in an art gallery before. She writes, “It was always a diverse crowd, all brought together by his dynamic personality and vibrant artwork.” Keith was focused on reaching people, and he lived to see that reciprocated.
There is as much downside as there is upside in the world of fame, though. Kay took a deep breath before revealing that watching her brother quickly rise to stardom was an out-of-body experience. Despite there being an intimate and human side to the perils of fame, there were moments in which Kay saw the attention get to Keith’s head. She expressed that it was difficult to see people start to treat Keith differently with the increasing success of his career. Kay examines that there is an appreciation for the efforts that one goes through to shield themselves from the attention when in the public eye.
Kay’s dedication to sharing the true story of her brother is palpable, and she is committed to sharing how Keith Haring emulated a lifestyle and career of thinking big, working hard, and giving back. Kay reveals that Keith’s story is all about not letting other people squash your dreams. She continues, “the ‘work hard’ is important because that's something that I think is missed with Keith. It looks like he had a life of parties and fun and fame and fortune. But no, he really would work his ass off.” Kay’s manuscript truly exudes this message through simple yet powerful linguistics, matched with some of Keith’s most iconic artwork, some never-before-seen.
Kay emboldens and accentuates the word “WHY?” throughout the book. Not only is this a literary technique in which repetition makes impressions upon young readers, but it gives light to his answer that concludes the book, “I draw all the time because there are many spaces to fill. I give my drawings away to help make the world a better place. I draw everywhere because EVERYONE needs art!!”
I was eager to ask what lessons Keith taught Kay that will forever be dear to her heart. She responded,
“Live every day. Don't waste time. Party hard, work hard. Go out and see the world. He certainly introduced me to things. He was probably braver then I was. He was the older brother—he was always someone to look up to and follow. And he wasn't afraid to try new things because he was determined and believed in them.”
Keith Haring tragically passed away on February 16, 1990, of AIDS-related complications. Keith will forever be known as one of the most genuine, generous, and talented artists of the 20th century. He intentionally constructed his artwork with messages to spread kindness, awareness, and respect for humanity.
Kay preserves the legacy of Keith Haring through her writing, the publication of this book, and The Keith Haring Foundation. A portion of the proceeds acquired by the book sales are donated to The Youth Advisory Committee (YAC) of Berks County Community Foundation. This foundation would resonate with Keith because their philosophies of giving back and helping the underprivileged deeply align.
The Keith Haring Foundation
Mission: “The mission of the Keith Haring Foundation is to sustain, expand, and protect the legacy of Keith Haring, his art, and his ideals. The Foundation supports not-for-profit organizations that assist children, as well as organizations involved in education, prevention, and care related to AIDS.”
Kay expressed of the foundation, “And I guess just one plug for that's why The Keith Haring foundation is important, and I don't know if Keith even understood life enough at that point. He was 29 for God's sake when he set up his foundation. But he did it in order to preserve his work and I don't even think he had any idea how important it would become. And even though they don't authenticate work, it is important… that they should be the place that people go to make sure that they're learning about and seeing the real Keith Haring.”
Visit https://haring.com/ to learn more about the Keith Haring Foundation.
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