Keith Haring painted a mural in Philly in 1987, I didn’t know exactly where until I moved a few blocks away from the wall in 1989. I remember stumbling across it, dumbfounded. I took some photos, and since the paint was peeling off the wall in sheets, I took some chips and stashed them in my black book. I was mad that I missed an opportunity to paint with Keith, mad enough to tell anybody who’d care that I helped paint the wall on 22nd street. I’ve told a million lies in my time, but this one was different in that it was meant not to impress (ok a little), but to visualize the wildest dream I could dream. to paint alongside the only artist that mattered.
It wasn’t long after I saw the mural when Patty told me Keith Haring died, issuing the bulletin from the back seat of Mary Anne’s Chevette. I was struck numb, and then cold when she followed up the news with a question, “You met him didnt you?” I replied with my well-polished tale in the automatic tone of an outgoing answering machine greeting. We then rode in silence, my obvious grief filling the car with awkward dread. Mary Anne dropped off Patty at her train and seeing me falling to pieces, drove us back to her rented room on Chester Avenue and I confessed that I never met Keith Haring, that I had only lied because I knew one day I was going to cross his path and I tell him myself what a liar I was. Then me and Keith would laugh and maybe go to Danceteria.
So there I was, a liar left with half a story in need of a new ending. I wont bore you with my memoir of 20 years in search of Keith Haring, but finally, in 2009, when we started painting Love Letter in West Philly, I started making work in public with the public. Its usually not a perfect collaboration, Keith’s walls aren’t either, but when we get close to 50/50 its magic. I might have upped Keith in running community meetings, but then again by this point, he probably would be painting the Washington Monument (thats easy to visualize, right?!). This is not the ending, this is only the beginning of the ending.
The ending is the beginning of a friendship with a guy named Kermit Oswald who walked into ICY SIGNS in March and hung out for an hour just shooting the breeze with Matthew. At the end of his visit, he put a couple paintings on hold and left an invitation for me to meet him for lunch. I met Kermit and his daughter at Fanelli Cafe, a restaurant chosen specifically for the fact that it hasn’t changed, ever. Over grilled cheese and tomato soup, Kermit told me his life story, of which I knew very little at the time. He and Keith Haring were friends from back home in Kutztown PA, a 3 hour drive in straight line from New York. They attended SVA together, and as Keith started becoming Keith Haring (TM COPYRIGHT C), Kermit was the craftsman that gave him technical support and structure that now I see in Keith’s work. On a wall at Kermit’s house is an early Haring piece, all layers of i wood with a top panel perfectly carved with a skull laced with Keith’s figures. Kermit shop talked its construction: “Dremel carved, then we cleaned out all the burrs with a #12 screw, primer, florescent paint, (in the carving) then dry roller with enamel on the flat surfaces”. I’m hearing the ingredients for soda, but the visual result is champagne.
I was at the house to deliver the paintings Kermit now owns and are hanging next to the Harings. While I was there he gave me the tour of his vast Keith holdings, and of course, I tripped out on every little nuance. Keith is still alive in Kermit, its awesome and affirming to see. In the face of all that legacy I took inventory of how much and how little I’ve lived up to the line that Keith Haring left for every artist working in the street to pick up and continue. I can lace up 300 feet of wall with only a can of black paint in my hand . I can collaborate with a community to make work that speaks for and to the community. But I haven’t made enough art that speaks against the everyday horror that washes over humanity like so much sewage. Ok, I’ll work on that. And thanks to Kermit, I got a fresh battery in my back to power on, and a true story to tell.