Keith Haring's artwork getting a move on
The year after pop artist Keith Haring died at 31 of AIDS-related causes in 1990, six animated shorts inspired by his artwork?aired on the children's television show "Sesame Street."
The cartoons weren't created by Haring. They were created by animator Bill Davis, with the approval of the Keith Haring estate.
Currently a baker's dozen of animation cels and drawings by Davis are on display at the ToonSeum, Downtown, showcasing three of these animated shorts • "Exit," "1-10" and "What Comes Next?" Together they comprise the exhibit "Animating Haring!"
As visitors will see, each of the shorts feature the same playful dancing men, colorful dogs and other iconic symbols Haring used throughout his career.
"These original production cels and sketches are from animated segments produced for "Sesame Street" • under the guidance and approval of the Keith Haring Foundation," says ToonSeum executive director Joe Wos. "He didn't animate these himself. All animation is done by studios these days. But they were inspired from his works, which provided the design and concepts, and the foundation did approve all these animations."
Wos says that Haring was a pop artist and social activist whose cartoon-inspired street art was a natural choice for adaption into a series of animated segments for "Sesame Street," especially because, "Disney was one of Haring's biggest influences," Wos says.
Born in 1958 in Reading and raised in nearby Kutztown, Haring learned the basics of cartooning from his father as well as copying what he saw in Disney and Dr. Seuss cartoons on television.
After graduating from high school in 1976, he enrolled in the Ivy School of Professional Art in Pittsburgh (now defunct), with the goal of becoming a graphic artist. But after two semesters, he dropped out.
While in Pittsburgh, Haring sat in on art classes at the University of Pittsburgh and continued working on his own art. Involved in the local arts scene, he was given his first solo exhibit in 1978 at Pittsburgh Arts and Crafts Center (now Pittsburgh Center for The Arts), after one of the scheduled exhibits was cancelled.
Soon after he moved to New York City and enrolled in the School of Visual Arts. While a student there, he became heavily involved in New York's graffiti scene, producing hundreds of what he called "subway drawings" and other pieces of "public art" that would launch a very successful art career.
"Exit" was the first Haring-inspired animated short Davis created for "Sesame Street." It was based on a large wall mural Haring created in 1987 for the Milliken Clubhouse, a Boys Club in New York City. In the animated sequence, several figures like the ones in Haring's mural dance with live children as the narrator sings about the word "exit" in the background.
In the gallery, several small black and white drawings and overlay cels by Davis show how this was achieved.
"This would have been the first time Haring's dancing men really got to dance, because they were brought to life," Wos says. "It's fascinating that (Davis) took these sort of hieroglyphic characters and thought about how they would move. And each character moved differently based on the pose. They were rigid, but then there would be moments when they were fluid and had a sort of bounce to them."
The counting exercise "1-10"?is a colorful animated journey that was designed to teach children to count from one to 10. Each number is preceded by an energetic sequence of people and animals interacting with the number that is about to be shown. For example, in one cel a muscle man lifts seven elephants. In another, a girl counts the eight "legs" or tentacles of an octopus.
Some of the characters in the cels, such as the girl with the octopus, look uncharacteristic of Haring's work at first glance, lacking that hieroglyphic or silhouetted quality and thick line-work Haring became known for. But Wos is quick to point out that the characters were entirely inspired by characters Davis found in a coloring book Haring created for children a few years earlier.
"Obviously, we think of Keith Haring as doing this very adult material, but he really loved doing work for children because, again, his passion was for early animation," Wos says.
The last sequence, entitled "What Comes Next?," teaches kids about recognizing patterns. First a figure of a baby wanders on to the scene, immediately followed by a barking dog and then again by another baby until the end of the short when the viewer is asked by the narrator, "What comes next?"
Cels from this animation were inspired by Haring's iconic barking dog, except here the dog is drawn with a window in its belly so that Davis could animate different objects or characters inside it.
Of the three animated shorts, "What comes next?" is clearly the most experimental in nature, and one Wos surmises Haring would have found inspirational as well, had he lived to see it.
"I think in a lot of ways this is probably what he was leading up to," Wos says. "I can really imagine that, had he been with us longer, we would have seen him go into animating himself. I think it would have been a world he would have really longed to go into, because it was the one that inspired him first."Additional Information:
When: Through Feb. 26. 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Sundays
Admission: $5; $1 for ages 6-16; free to age 5 and younger
Where: ToonSeum, 945 Liberty Ave., Downtown
Details: 412-232-0199 or toonseum.org
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