An Iowa Elementary School’s Treasured Keith Haring Mural Finally Goes on View

A new exhibition at the Stanley Museum of Art showcases a mural the pop artist created as a gift for Iowa's Ernest Horn Elementary School.

Black and white photo of man painting mural with his back to a row of seated children watching
Keith Haring at work on the mural at Ernest Horn Elementary School in 1989. Photographer unknown/© Keith Haring Foundation

In 1989, Keith Haring was undoubtedly at the height of his fame. But despite the artist’s status as an established icon of pop art with more than 100 exhibitions under his belt, he still made time to visit Ernest Horn Elementary School, the Iowa grade school that had begun supporting him years prior, where he painted a large-scale mural complete with visual puns and bright, colorful characters.

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Haring’s A Book Full of Fun, which took just one day to paint, is now being exhibited publicly for the first time at the University of Iowa’s Stanley Museum of Art. It is featured in “To My Friends at Horn: Keith Haring and Iowa City,” which opened on May 4 to commemorate what would have been Haring’s 66th birthday and celebrate the late artist’s commitment to education, activism and local communities.

Wall mural with white background and colorful drawings of numbers, letters and small characters
Keith Haring, A Book Full of Fun, (1989). Photo by Tim Schoon/Loan of Horn Elementary, Iowa City Community School District/© Keith Haring Foundation

By the early 1980s, Haring had entered the public eye for the hundreds of chalk drawings he created across New York City subways. It was during this time that he received a postcard from Colleen Ernst, a teacher at Ernest Horn Elementary known as “Dr. Art” whose students were fascinated by the artist. Following a year-long pen pal correspondence between Haring and Ernst’s fifth- and sixth-grade classes, the pop artist visited the school during a brief 1984 residency at the Stanley Museum of Art, then known as the University of Iowa Museum of Art, which saw Haring deliver a public lecture, conduct drawing workshops and visit classrooms.

Gifting a mural to his friends at Horn

Despite his fame skyrocketing following that residency, Haring continued to keep in contact with students at Horn via letters that typically opened with “To All My Friends at Horn,” a greeting that inspired the title of the Stanley Museum of Art show. In 1989, he visited Ernest Horn Elementary a second time, and it was during that visit that he painted the A Book Full of Fun mural as a gift to the school.

“Keith returned to Iowa City in 1989 because he wanted to make his mark here,” said Ernst in a statement, adding that she hopes the importance of Haring’s collaboration will be clear to visitors. “It’s easy for people to forget what it was and what it stood for.”

Three people stand outside of school entrance with hanging sign reading "Welcome back Keith."
Paul E. Davis, principal of Ernest Horn Elementary School, Keith Haring, and art teacher Colleen Ernst pose in front of the school, 1989. Courtesy Colleen Ernst

Haring was diagnosed with AIDs not long before his second visit to the elementary school and died from complications related to the illness in 1990, less than a year after painting the mural. After learning of the artist’s diagnosis, Horn Elementary organized an AIDS educational event. “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,” wrote Haring in a letter to his friends at the elementary school in 1989. “It makes me proud I had the courage to talk about it in the first place. Education is the key to stopping this thing!”

Before his death, the artist would go on to establish the Keith Haring Foundation to support both AIDS organizations and children’s programs. The foundation is still in operation today and played a part in the conservation of the artist’s A Book Full of Fun mural in partnership with Horn Elementary and the museum.

Woman looks at hanging print with red background and three yellow figures
Visitor views the print, Ignorance = Fear, Silence = Death, by Keith Haring in the Stanley Museum of Art gallery, May 2024. Photo by Mahvish Farid/Courtesy Stanley Museum of Art/© Keith Haring Foundation

The work was temporarily relocated from the elementary school last year amid building renovations. In order to safely move the mural, which is bolted to the elementary school’s cinderblock wall, conservators had to saw the 4,000-pound work from the rest of the wall and transport it to the Stanley Museum of Art, where it will be stored until its return to Horn next year. Haring’s colorful gift to Horn will be displayed at the museum until January of 2025 alongside other works by the artist showcasing his ties to Iowa City. The exhibition includes a tarp piece created by Haring during his 1984 residency; Haring’s first experimental video, Painting Myself into a Corner; and Ignorance=Fear/Silence=Death, a print calling for viewers to educate themselves about the AIDS crisis.

“Much like the mission of the Stanley, 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,” said Lauren Lessing, the Stanley’s director, in a statement. “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.”

An Iowa Elementary School’s Treasured Keith Haring Mural Finally Goes on View