A + EArt Notes

‘Play On, Athens!’: Pull Up a Bench at the New Public Art Pianos

The latest public art project unveiled by the Athens Cultural Affairs Commission, “Play On, Athens!” is a series of functional pianos hand-painted with unique designs by local artists. The instruments were installed last weekend at four publicly accessible locations: the Athens-Clarke County Library, Bishop Park, the Classic Center and the Athens Community Council on Aging. Everyone, regardless of experience or musicianship, is invited to take a break and play. 

“The very first time I came across ‘street pianos’ was when I was a resident of Cleveland, OH,” says leading organizer Grace Huang. “British artist Luke Jerram’s ‘Play Me, I’m Yours’ street pianos were everywhere in town for a period of time. Being a pianist myself, I was particularly fascinated by these fantastic, interactive works of art.” 

After becoming a member of the ACAC, Huang saw an opportunity to establish a similar project in Athens. She began by researching public art pianos in cities across the country from Lancaster, PA, to Portland, OR, and even nearby in Atlanta, home of the “Play Me Again Pianos.”

Given the green light to start the process, she began looking for used upright pianos and benches, which were generously donated by Chick Music, Vic Peel of Vic’s Vintage, Martha Thomas of UGA’s Hugh Hodgson School of Music and the music staff at St. Gregory the Great Episcopal Church. Once the pianos were secured, the ACAC consulted with members of the Athens Area Arts Council to brainstorm potential artists to showcase, ultimately deciding to invite Kim Deakins, Darya Kalantari, Marisa Leilani Mustard and Elinor Saragoussi to participate. 

Then came the challenge of finding a location that was both large and well-ventilated enough to host the artists as they worked. Fortuitously, Spencer Frye, the executive director of Athens Area Habitat for Humanity, offered the Habitat ReStore East on Barber Street. Once the pianos were sanded, primed and prepped by volunteers, the commissioned artists steadily dropped by throughout the course of a month to paint their designs, much to the delight of visitors who were able to watch their progress unfold in real time. 

“As a pianist and educator, I’m always hoping to enrich the musical lives of students and our community in various ways. It’s particularly exciting to see the piano become a canvas for the artist, and to see an old piano transformed so that it is given a second or third musical life,” says Huang, who is an assistant professor of piano pedagogy at UGA.

“Equally exciting, my ACAC colleagues and I absolutely loved seeing the excitement of all the families and community members at the kickoff party—the kids and adults had a great time hearing performances on the finished pianos and getting to interact with the pianos, artists and musicians afterwards. We hope our community takes pride in these instruments and will spend some time sharing and creating music with others. We’re also hoping there will be future mini pop-up performances.”

Mustard is no stranger to painting unconventional surfaces, and has lately been decorating everything from guitars and bridges to functional items like mailboxes and light switches. Customized in her signature style, her piano at the ACC Library relies heavily on crisp line work and a boldly colored flower motif. 

Similarly inspired by botanicals, Deakins’ pink and yellow piano at the ACCA is covered in a tropical pattern of monstera deliciosa leaves. An MFA graduate of UGA’s Lamar Dodd School of Art, Deakins is the owner of Pink Goblin Tattoo. 

A fellow Dodd alumnus and current apprentice at Chico Lou’s Fine Tattoos, Kalantari created a celestial fantasy land with her paintbrush. On view at Bishop Park, her piano depicts a sun, moon, rocketship and flying saucer above a silhouetted kingdom. 

Carrying the imaginative spirit, Saragoussi’s piano at the Classic Center is a hodgepodge of expressive, cartoonish humans and animals that lend themselves to a loose narrative. A musician herself who performs in Baby Tony and the Teenies, she captures the exuberance of pop through her use of bright colors. 

“Public art is art for all,” says Huang. “Public pianos engage people and create a sense of community pride and ownership, create fun nontraditional performance venues, break down barriers between the performer and audience, and encourage creativity and spontaneity.” 

“Play On, Athens!” demonstrates how several community organizations can pool their resources to make public art both possible and affordable. Through the labor of volunteers and generosity of donors, the majority of the ACAC’s budget for the project went directly towards compensating the artists, with additional expenses—like hiring a professional tuner and mover—ensuring that the pianos are kept in tip top shape. 

Each piano will remain on display for at least two months, or potentially longer if weather permits, and will then be donated to a secondary location for long-term installation. Three of the four pianos are still seeking their permanent homes, and interested nonprofits or community organizations are encouraged to contact for further information. The ACAC anticipates organizing another round of public art pianos in the fall of 2020 that will invite student artists.