Drawing on Walls – A Gentle Introduction to a Difficult Subject

World AIDs Day, Dec 1st, is not a particularly glamorous or optimistic topic. For many, it is primarily a day of mourning. Not just for those lost as they were, but for the more intangible loss of their potential. That being said, remembrance doubles as a celebration of the extant. Despite it all, we were here, we are here now, and we will be here in the future. Drawing on Walls: A Story of Keith Haring by Matthew Burgess exists first as an art book and secondly as a children’s biography of the eponymous artist lost too soon to AIDS-related complications.

As an art book, it speaks to the color and vivacity that defined Haring’s life and career. Brilliant blocks create striking palettes; curves and wiggles undulate endlessly. And children are everywhere! Some of the perspective drawings of his famous works are done from a minute worm’s eye as if someone shorter was looking up at them. It’s a striking interpretation that speaks perfectly to the intended audience.

The biographic side is harder to nail. How do we honestly and fairly tell the story of a tragedy? Especially one aimed at younger audiences. Burgess’ posited response is a focus on Haring’s legacy, his physical artwork and social impact that have and will long outlive him. The early sections are depictions of Haring’s childhood, focusing on his relationship with his siblings and the development of his trademark whimsical style. His foundational career experiences in New York are similarly earnestly and simply described.  AIDs is mentioned precisely once in the book and described only as a “serious illness”.

There are some ways in which this is deficient. Haring’s decision to “live each day as though it was his last” given the cultural discussion surrounding the AIDs crisis was presumably much more nuanced, especially noting his more socio-politically themed later works. However, endings are one part of stories, and Haring’s tragedy is one part of his. Burgess presents legacy to children as that celebration of the remainder, using the metaphor of Haring’s distinctive flowing lines to represent art carrying on through people. Children are present in every description of his major works, and their commentary and interactions are presented as the highest praise to be given. And herein lies the true mettle of this book.

Drawing On Walls is not intended as a catch-all biography replete with every convolution and context. From the opening page depicting a mural in Tama City, Japan, made in part by hundreds of school-age kids, to the back cover quote “whatever else I am, I’m sure I, at least, have been a good companion to a lot of children and maybe have touched their lives in a way that will be passed through time”, it is intended as a celebration of the art Keith Haring made and the children who were a part of it. As we consider World AIDs Day and all that has been lost, we should also consider everything we have yet to find.

Photo Credit: matthewjohnburgess.com