IN an old convent on the Upper West Side, students at the Ascension School go about their ordinary business, attending classes on art or dance. But if they take the stairway to reach their destination, they will pass by something decidedly out of the ordinary: a bold mural, spanning three floors and 85 feet, by the artist Keith Haring.
Along the stairway wall, Mr. Haring’s starkly simple figures dance, pose, slip and jump. Radiant Baby, Mr. Haring’s most iconic character, begins the piece. His other familiar forms are there, too: the barking dog, the man with a hole in his stomach.
Though museums and collectors covet the works of Mr. Haring, who died in 1990, this Haring, painted in the early 1980s, has remained relatively hidden.
Jeffrey Deitch, the owner of Deitch Projects, the gallery that represents the Haring estate, said the mural in the church building, on West 108th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam Avenue, was unknown to him. “But Keith had a really wide network,” he said, “and one of the great things about him is he was into building relationships with communities that aren’t part of the inner art world.”
Julia Gruen, director of the Haring Foundation, said she had known of the mural’s existence since 1984. But, she said, “Considering that Keith was such a presence in New York City and such a public figure and celebrity, it is quite remarkable that this mural has not been generally acknowledged.”
The story of the mural begins with Grace House, a Catholic youth organization that leased the convent beginning in 1977.
Two veteran members of Grace House, Benny Soto and David Almodovar, said that they and others at Grace House often visited the Paradise Garage, a downtown dance spot and virtual Haring clubhouse. Around 1983, Mr. Soto and Mr. Almodovar became friends with Mr. Haring, and both went to work for him, Mr. Soto as an art assistant and Mr. Almodovar later managed Mr. Haring’s Pop Shop in SoHo.
The two invited Mr. Haring to Grace House. He visited a few times, met the program’s director, Gary Mallon, and along with Mr. Haring’s lover, Juan Dubose, even served as the D.J. at a Grace House party. After six months of prodding from Mr. Haring and the teenagers, Mr. Mallon agreed to allow the artist to paint the mural.
Mr. Haring painted it on a Saturday night in March of 1983 or 1984. More than 50 kids were staying at Grace House for a retreat, and a handful watched Mr. Haring work. In all, it took less than an hour and a half.
“It was mesmerizing to watch him, and for me, I was very proud of having him there doing that,” said Mr. Soto, who is now a party promoter. “I felt like it was for us.”
Kinah Ventura, another member of Grace House, remembers the night vividly. “For kids who were into graffiti,” she said, “it was a different spin on what art is and what art is about, especially because he was so positive.”
The mural is also regarded as a significant work of Haring’s. “In terms of the imagery, it’s like a lexicon of his vocabulary,” Ms. Gruen said.
It might have remained obscure but for Joe Hickey, a member of the Ascension School Advisory Board, who realized it could be worth much money. The Roman Catholic Church of the Ascension parish, which was established in 1895, is exploring ways to profit from its hidden Haring.
The mural was not the only time Mr. Haring’s work would appear at a church. The Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine on the Upper West Side, Grace Cathedral in San Francisco and Saint Eustache in Paris contain altarpieces by Mr. Haring. What many consider Mr. Haring’s greatest public work, “Progetto Italia,” is painted on a church wall in Pisa, Italy.
Like churches, children are a theme in Mr. Haring’s artistic life. He created works with young people in several cities, and one of his murals can be seen at the Lower East Side Boys and Girls Club.
Melissa Staiger teaches art in a room next to the Ascension mural, and her students study the work. “They ask, why did he paint a baby?” she said. “I say to them, we’re all babies.”
Mr. Soto said of Mr. Haring: “He taught me how to have fun. He was like a rock star. I met Madonna, Boy George, Andy Warhol, Diana Ross. I was a kid from the South Bronx. I still can’t believe it.”