Painted pianos heard and seen across the Berkshire landscape
The Berkshire summer landscape just got more musical — and aesthetically pleasing.
From Williamstown to Sheffield, 15 used pianos have been placed at predominantly outdoor public areas as part of a Berkshire Music School art initiative to commemorate the 100th anniversary of virtuoso Leonard Bernstein's birth and the "Berkshire Summer of Music." (A 16th will arrive soon in West Stockbridge.) The Pittsfield-based organization collaborated with institutions from 10 cities and towns, as well as artists hailing almost exclusively from those municipalities, to give these "junker" pianos second lives as works of art. Fidgety-fingered passersby and to-be-scheduled pop-up concerts will ensure that these pianos are heard, not just seen, before parts of them are auctioned off at an Aug. 26 Berkshire Music School fundraiser.
"What an amazing day," Berkshire Music School Executive Director Tracy Wilson said on Monday after a team from All-Ways Moving & Storage ("rock stars," Wilson said) began transporting the pianos from Adams Memorial School.
The Adams Arts Advisory Board had been hosting most of the pianos at three rooms in the vacant building, allowing commissioned artists to choose their instruments and work on them in the space. (Some also took parts, or entire pianos, to their studios.) The board was happy to get involved with a project that has been two years in the making and was partly inspired by a Bernstein piano recital benefit for the school in the early 1940s.
"We were intrigued," Richard Tavelli of the Adams Arts Advisory Board said during a tour of Adams Memorial School in early July.
North Adams resident Richard Haskins had just begun putting paint to his piano on that particular afternoon. He wasn't sure what he was going to depict.
"Once I start painting, it kind of takes off," he said.
The final product, now housed at The Firehouse Cafe space, features a train and downtown area portrayed above the keys.
"I've gotten quite a few compliments," Haskins said on Monday.
It was Haskins' first time painting a piano, which was the case for all of the artists The Eagle spoke with for this story.
"It had its challenges," Terry Wise said, noting that her prior work on wood panels helped her prepare to work on the piano currently residing next to The Red Lion Inn.
"I had to almost learn a new medium to do this," Pittsfield artist Marge Bride said.
The piano that Bride designed is in Park Square. Unlike some artists, Bride knew where her piano would be situated and tailored her art to its location.
"It's a winter scene of the Christmas tree," Bride said of one panel.
A different Pittsfield piano was a group effort. "Positive Pittsfield" was spearheaded by The Funky Phoenix's Tina Cardot, but numerous community members and tourists worked on the piano, which Cardot kept in her North Street shop for an extended period.
"I'm all about public art," Cardot said.
The piano has a message: "Creativity is how your soul speaks ... listen." Others have words, too. The Sue MacVeety-painted piano outside Sheffield's Bushnell-Sage Library pays homage to anti-slavery icon Elizabeth "Mumbet" Freeman with "ALL MEN ARE BORN FREE AND EQUAL" depicted in front of its keys. Joanie Ciolfi's piano outside the Lenox Library includes a Bernstein quotation: "It is the artists of the world, the feelers and thinkers, who will ultimately save us; who can articulate educate, defy, insist, sing and shout the big dreams."
"For me, that's Berkshire County," Ciolfi said. "There's every form of art here."
Artists took a variety of different approaches to their assignments. Williamstown artist Robert Lafond rested a landscape picture on a piano outside David & Joyce Milne Public Library. Eli Merritt, who was still working on his West Stockbridge piano as of this writing, was deconstructing the instrument and planning to honor Igor Stravinsky. And Keith Bona got galactic with one of the two pianos he designed for the project.
But Michael Rousseau may have viewed the piano now resting in Palace Park the most abstractly.
"It's a metaphor for arts education, where we devalue our treasures until they become overlooked, underfunded, outdated and even inaccessible while continuing to expect transcendent experiences," he said, adding that it's also a metaphor "for potential greatness that lies below a less-than-desired exterior, the song waiting to be sung."
Adam Gudeon, who worked on a piano placed outside Great Barrington's Mason Library with his son, Ezra, is looking forward to passersby playing their lavender, character-filled piece.
"Any kind of spontaneous act of music is great," he said, mentioning that he has witnessed a similar project at New York City's Lincoln Center.
Daniel O'Connor, known in Berkshire art circles as "Danny O," already had the pleasure of seeing someone sit down at "Sweet Toon," a candy-striped piano outside MCLA Gallery 51 in North Adams.
After O'Connor finished his work, a Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art employee arrived unannounced and played it for about 20 minutes, O'Connor recalled.
"This is exactly the kind of magic that it was set up to be," he said of the experience.
Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.
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