Keith Haring Painted This Mural on the Wall of an Iowa Elementary School Library

Ahead of planned construction, experts removed the 4,000-pound wall behind the 1989 artwork, which is now on public display for the first time

Keith Haring at work on the mural at Ernest Horn Elementary School
Haring created this whimsical mural, A Book Full of Fun, nine months before his death. Colleen Ernst / © Keith Haring Foundation

For over three decades, students at an elementary school in Iowa were able to examine a mural that renowned artist Keith Haring had painted on the wall of their library.

Now, as the school undergoes renovations, the work is on public display for the first time as part of a new exhibition—“To My Friends at Horn: Keith Haring and Iowa City”—at the University of Iowa’s Stanley Museum of Art.

Haring created the mural, A Book Full of Fun, for Ernest Horn Elementary School in 1989. He had a longstanding relationship with art teacher Colleen Ernst, who had sent him a letter saying that her students were “fascinated” by his work, per a statement from the museum.

In March 1984, Haring decided to visit the school, where he led activities and discussions with the students. He appreciated the feedback from the young art critics, who provided new perspectives on his work.

“For me, it’s the hardest audience. They’re the most honest,” Haring told the Iowa City Press-Citizen’s Kanchalee Svetvllas in 1989. “They have fresh ideas and good imaginations. I learn a lot from them. It’s hard to say what it is, but I do learn from them.”

The students who attended the school in the ’80s reciprocated these sentiments.

“To hear stories of some students who met him is to hear them describe someone who came, met them on their level and respected them as thinkers—as creative spirits worthy of his respect,” Diana Tuite, curator of the new exhibition, tells Elijah Decious of the Gazette.

Mural in progress
The students of Ernest Horn Elementary School pose in front of Keith Haring’s in-progress mural in 1989. Colleen Ernst / © Keith Haring Foundation

After the visit, Haring stayed in touch with Ernst and her classroom. The artist would write the students letters addressed to “all my friends at Horn,” per Hyperallergic’s Rhea Nayyar.

Haring made a final trip to the school on May 22, 1989. During this visit, he painted A Book Full of Fun in the library. The piece depicts a thought bubble of bold, cartoonish figures and images springing from a book: A girl sits on top of a pig. A man rests in the pouch of a kangaroo. Sprinkled in between the figures are letters and numbers in bright colors.

Haring received his AIDS diagnosis the year before his last visit to Horn and died nine months after painting the mural. After his visit, the school organized an educational event about the stigmatized illness, per the Art Newspaper’s Allison C. Meier.

“It’s really incredible to me that the school took the initiative to institute a discussion about AIDS—mostly because of the students’ contact with (and caring for) me,” Haring wrote to the school. “It makes me proud I had the courage to talk about it in the first place. Education is the key to stopping this thing!”

After Haring’s death, the mural remained in the Horn Elementary library for decades. Recently, ahead of planned renovations, the school had to find a way to preserve the artwork and turned to the Stanley Museum for help.

“I didn’t have very much bandwidth, but I did go out and look at the mural, and I realized that it was wonderful,” Lauren Lessing, the museum’s director, tells the Art Newspaper. “They were about to embark on a renovation project at the school, and the mural itself was on a wall that was slated to be demolished in the summer of 2023.”

Removing the artwork was no small feat. Haring had painted it on a layer of plaster on top of plywood panels, which were bolted to the wall. Experts carefully remove the entire 4,000-pound wall using a saw before taking it back to the Stanley for conservation.

In addition to A Book Full of Fun, the new exhibition will feature several other works on loan from the Keith Haring Foundation, including Totem (1988) and Ignorance = Fear, Silence = Death (1989). When the school’s renovations are complete, the mural will return home.

“The mural demonstrates the power of education, the reciprocity of inspiration and the role that creative artists play in helping us to see one another and know ourselves,” Lessing tells the Observer’s Alexandra Tremayne-Pengelly. “Keith Haring’s mural is a poignant manifestation of one community’s embrace of the arts and a love letter from an artist who found acceptance in an adopted community.”

To My Friends at Horn: Keith Haring and Iowa City” is on view at the University of Iowa’s Stanley Museum of Art through January 7, 2025.

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