My memories are being dredged by someone who wants information. Snippets of color. Riffs of music. Phrases from a book. Sketches. Conversations. Random addresses. Facts. All surfacing from the black depths where I had finally assigned them a few years ago when it seemed that no one really cared about them.
The art school was described by Sweetpea in a Rolling Stone, or maybe it was in Art in America, interview once a long time ago as being “an obscure little art school in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania”. It was. Obscure. And ever since reading that quote, that’s what I called it too. By the time that interview had come out, the school had been dead a good five years or more and didn’t even exist. Extinguished. Done. Poof.
Our time in Pittsburgh was spent more in community with each other and doing our own work than it was taking school seriously. For two people who wanted to be fine artists, the Ivy School of Professional Art was limiting, like living as a liberal in a conservative town. It was a technical, structured school in a blue collared city where working hard was respected. We learned to spec type by hand. We learned Color Theory. Advertising. Illustration. Commercial Photography. We learned to meet deadlines. Even our painting classes were technical and realistic. It was really good for all of those subjects and many students benefited from the experience. Many of the students loved their time there and went on to work their entire lives in graphic design, advertising, or photography studios, or print shops.
Haring was a hippy with a long, unbecoming plait, who frittered away his leisure time listening to the Grateful Dead and smoking dope. Flunking out of college, he took on a series of bum jobs and by the time he reached tolerant, gay-friendly New York in 1979, he was gagging to make up for lost time. — Dominique Lutyens, The Guardian Weekend, June 2001
Sweetpea lasted two quarters. Some writers said he flunked out, but if he did, he did it on purpose. I really don’t think it was really possible to flunk out of Ivy. I don’t remember anyone leaving because the school made them leave. I remember two foreign students that left because their parents were footing the bill and they didn’t feel the education was up to snuff. I finished the program because I was made of that stout Western Pennsylvania stock that doesn’t quit, no matter what. It doesn’t matter so much about me, I went on to immerse my fine art self in another obscure art department in the California State University system and filled my days with an insane number of studio time units so I could catch up to myself. To the place where I thought I should be. Keith and I were both gagging to make up for lost time, on opposite sides of the country, now out of touch, where life had flung us.
Many writers are dismissive of Haring’s time in Pittsburgh. I’ve had Art Historians wave me off when I told them that I had spent time with him during the Pittsburgh years. Was it because Keith himself was dismissive of that time period? Did he feel he made a mistake in going there? There are no mistakes in life, only lessons. It was no cosmic mistake that Keith spent those two years in a town that, in the end, only made him seethe inside. I think that if Keith had been able to live out a “normal” lifespan, he may have come to see that himself.
Keith arrived in Pittsburgh as a teenaged, pot smoking, Deadhead, hippy, Jesus Freak and left as a burning fire on the cusp of becoming a man. Pittsburgh was his incubator. As like all of us who were there with him, it was his transition time. It was a place to experiment, find the boundaries and break out of them. Almost all of us were teenagers. Full of ourselves while still being insecure with our first period of time out in the world, trying to make our way and thinking that our time there mattered.
He was far from being a flunky. Nor did he fritter. The guy worked from the time he woke up until he went to bed. Constantly doodling in his sketchbook that he carried with him. If he wasn’t doodling, he was writing, and if he wasn’t writing he was thinking. When he couldn’t find the classes he wanted at Ivy, he found teachers in other places, like CMU, or at the art center. When his friends at Ivy couldn’t keep up or got too busy with school requirements, he sought out the early community at The Mattress Factory that was just developing on the lower Northside of town.
Keith seemed to attract women around him. In Pittsburgh though, at least in my case, it had nothing to do with erotic attraction. He came to us as a little brother. The women he attracted there were his protectors, his muses. We circled the etheric wagons around him and allowed him the space to be himself. Something he hadn’t gotten in his younger days. His friends in Pittsburgh were his cocoon. Until he was ready to fly. And then we were done, and had to let him go.
In the end, it wasn’t really the obscure little art school in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania that mattered. It was the people. The friends. The support. The circle. The love. The frustration. The criticism. The back and forth. The parties. The drugs. The drama. The music. The sharing. The experience.
As an aside, think what you might about the two short years he spent in Pittsburgh. Had he gone straight to New York instead, in the same way and form he came to us, I think, and it’s only my opinion, his outcome would have been very different. He needed that incubation time to become the person and artist he became.