hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


Arts & Culture August 2018


Pianos take to the streets — and parks

Outdoor art project invites music making, raises funds for school


Susan Sabino photo Pittsfield PianoEnrique Paredes stops to plunk out a tune on a piano as he walks his dog through The Common in Pittsfield. The brightly painted piano is one of 16 that have been positioned throughout Berkshire County this month in an outdoor art project that will raise funds for the Berkshire Music School. Susan Sabino photo


Contributing writer


These colorful pianos are meant to be seen as well as heard.
This summer, 16 pianos are making guest appearances outdoors in parks, library lawns, and other public spaces around Berkshire County to support a fund-raising effort for music education.
The seasonal display, which began July 18 and continues through Aug. 25, is called the Painted Piano Project. Each of the 16 pianos has been painted with landscape scenes or creative designs, words, phrases or other features. At least one piano was structurally altered to create a stylized sculpture.

The pianos offer an invitation to impromptu music making. Adults and children stop to tickle the ivories as they walk past, and some of the pianos are being featured in concerts and other pop-up events.

The Painted Piano Project was organized by the Berkshire Music School, a Pittsfield-based nonprofit that has been offering music lessons and educational programs locally for more than 75 years. Other arts organizations, public libraries and businesses are collaborating on the project.
“We started planning it about two years ago,” said Tracy Wilson, executive director of the Berkshire Music School.

One factor that inspired the effort was a nationwide program organized by The Collaborative Summer Library Program, a consortium of states that organizes summer reading programs and materials for public libraries. This summer’s program has a musical theme, “Libraries Rock.”
“Libraries throughout Berkshire County are participating,” Wilson said. “It seemed like a natural thing for us to get involved with, and I jumped in with both feet.”

In addition, this year there are many activities nationwide marking the 100th anniversary of the birth of the composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein, who was closely associated with the Tanglewood Music Festival in Lenox at points throughout his career.

“The celebration of that is a big deal, with many events to commemorate him,” Wilson said. “He was also part of the history of the Berkshire Music School, because he played a benefit concert for us in 1942. So we wanted to do something to mark it.”


New twist for outdoor art
Over the past decade or two, a series of communities have undertaken outdoor art installations, often with similarly shaped figures that are individually painted or decorated by local artists. Pittsfield was an early pioneer in this trend with its 2004 Sheeptacular, which featured painted sheep statues around the city’s downtown. Bennington did something similar with moose, while Saratoga Springs of course had horses.

Wilson said musical organizations in other regions have done variations on the idea of painted pianos.

But there was another inspiration for using pianos: Used pianos are in plentiful supply, and the 16 pianos used for the outdoor installation all are past their prime mechanically.

“At the music school, we’re constantly getting calls from people offering to donate their old pianos to us,” Wilson said. “Often we can’t accept them, because they are not in suitable condition or we don’t have the space. But this is one way we could put people’s old pianos to good use.”
Nationally, a large number of pianos produced in the 20th century have reached the end of their lifespan, and in many cases it is more expensive to recondition an old piano than to purchase a new one or an electronic keyboard. As a result, disposing of old pianos has become a challenge for their owners.

But Wilson said a more important goal for the event is to raise the profile of the Berkshire Music School in the region.

“Even though we’ve been here since 1940, many people in the Berkshires outside of Pittsfield aren’t aware of us,” she said. “This is a way to put ourselves in the public eye throughout the county.”

The installation also will raise funds for the school, which is at 30 Wendell Ave., just down the block from the city’s public library. On Aug. 26, the pianos -- or sections of them -- will be auctioned off, with proceeds going to the school’s music education and scholarship programs. The pianos will be dismantled prior to the auction, with painted or decorated surfaces being sold and other portions discarded.

“They are not desirable as pianos,” Wilson said. “Instead, the individual sections have been painted as panels that are very attractive as artwork on their own. They can easily be placed in people’s homes or other locations.”

However, anyone interested in purchasing an entire piano can do so if they contact the music school in advance.


Carrying a heavy load
The planning and logistics of establishing locations, selecting artists and moving the 16 pianos was a major undertaking.

But Wilson said Berkshire Music School had a lot of help from local libraries, the Massachusetts Cultural Council and local cultural councils, arts organizations, municipalities and business sponsors. Artscape Pittsfield, a volunteer committee that works on public art in the city, helped coordinate the project’s planning and implementation.

Banks and other local businesses supported the painted pianos through sponsorships, and small grants were obtained to pay participating artists from local cultural councils.

A major practical hurdle was cleared when All-Ways Moving Company offered to transport the pianos.

“They were rock stars in this,” Wilson said. “They were very enthusiastic about it and offered to pick up and move the pianos. They worked the pick-ups into their routes this winter and spring. They also provided a crew on two days in July to place the pianos in their locations.”

The town of Adams gave permission to use the vacant Adams Memorial Middle School to store the pianos as they were collected for the project, and the town also allowed time and space for artists to paint them there. The Adams Arts Advisory Board hosted the hours for working artists.
The libraries and other organizations that are hosting individual pianos agreed to protect them from the elements, including covering them with tarps during rain or storms.

Artists from each participating city or town were invited to paint a piano.
“We wanted the pianos to represent artists who live and work in the individual communities,” Wilson said. “At first, some of the artists were reluctant because they had never painted a piano and weren’t sure they could work with them. But then they became very excited and saw it as an opportunity to learn a new medium.”

The artists and the locations of their pianos are as follows:
• Keith Bona at Berkshire Music School, Marge Bride at Park Square, The Funky Phoenix at Pittsfield Commons, and Michael Rousseau at Palace Park, all in Pittsfield;
• Richard Haskins at the Train Station and Henry Klein at the Firehouse Café, both in Adams;
• Robert Lafond at Milne Public Library in Williamstown;
• Keith Bona at North Adams Public Library and Danny O at Gallery 51 in North Adams;
• Mario Caluori at Lee Library in Lee;
• Joanie Ciolfi at Lenox Free Library and Andrew DeVries at Highwood Gate at Tanglewood in Lenox;
• Terry Wise outside the Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge;
• Eli Merritt at Stanmeyer Gallery and Shaker Dam Coffeehouse in West Stockbridge;
• Adam and Ezra Gudeon at the Mason Library in Great Barrington; and
• Sue MacVeety at Bushnell Library in Sheffield.
A printed brochure and map with the specific addresses has been distributed around the Berkshires and is available online at www.berkshiremusicschool.org.


Local color and themes
The artists were generally given a free hand in how they chose to design their adopted pianos. As a result, the painted pianos display a wide range of themes and styles, from subtle to gaudy.
Many of the designs directly reflect local communities, either through visual scenes, musical themes or metaphors about creativity and other concepts. Several combine different ideas.
Terry Wise, for example, chose the motif of the antique Blue Willow plates displayed in the Red Lion Inn, for her piano outside the historic inn in the center of Stockbridge.

Keith Bona created two pianos. One, in North Adams, is named “Thus Spake Zarathustra” and depicts galaxies and outer space to honor the late state Rep. Gailanne Cariddi, who represented northern Berkshire County and died in office in 2017. Cariddi was passionate about astronomy.
Bona’s other piano, placed outside the Berkshire Music School in Pittsfield, is colored red, white and blue and includes graphics of fireworks, a reference to the city’s popular Independence Day parade and celebrations.

Although most of the pianos are solo works created by the designated artists, one, at the Pittsfield Common, was a community effort. Kristina Cardot, co-owner of the Funky Phoenix salvage-art studio and gallery on North Street downtown, took the lead on that one, calling it “Pittsfield Positive.”

Cardot is a member of the local Artscape committee and an arts educator who runs Re-Formation, an art-and-healing program. She said she studied at Berkshire Music School when she was young.

Her piano was kept at the Funky Phoenix store for about a month. She created the basic design and wording, and then invited visitors to the shop to participate in painting it. She also placed sections of the piano outside during two city-sponsored downtown public festivals, Third Thursday and the First Fridays Artswalk.

“We told people ‘Here’s some paint. Go for it,’” she said. “Kids and adults painted on it in individual ways. We even have a baby’s handprint on it.”

Another piano became a tribute to the composer Igor Stravinsky and was created by Eli Merritt, a sculptor from West Stockbridge. Merritt dismantled a player piano and reconstructed it as an abstract sculpture. For a portion of the sculpture, he used piano strings and other elements of the piano mechanism to create a stylized representation of the composer’s head.

A different inspiration powered Pittsfield artist Marge Bride, who painted a winter scene of Park Square, at downtown’s central intersection, across the front panel of an upright piano. Her piano now sits in the same park she depicted.

“We moved pianos to their public locations during that period in July when the temperature was in the 90s,” Wilson recalled. “After Marge’s piano was placed, the crew took a break and stared at it to feel cooler.”


Common roots with Tanglewood
The Berkshire Music School began as the Pittsfield Community Music School, founded in 1940 by Winnie Davis Long Crane. She was a musician, a philanthropist and a leader of the Berkshire cultural community. She was also an incorporator of the Berkshire Symphonic Festival, which later became the Tanglewood Music Festival.

The music school is located in a historic 1870 home with a carriage house that serves as a studio and recital hall. The Pittsfield school was renamed the Berkshire Music School in 2002.
The school’s stated mission is to “foster the love and pursuit of music for all ages through quality music education activities, community collaborations, and performance opportunities.”
This includes early childhood exposure to music as well as lifelong learning for adults. The school says it is committed to access for people of all backgrounds, skill levels and financial resources.

Its activities include private and group lessons, ensembles, workshops and seminars. It also holds on-site performances recitals, concerts and master classes as well as off-site performances and residencies.

During their lives, Winnie Crane and her husband, Bruce, filled the annual gap between the school’s tuition income and operating expenses. Crane also set up an endowment that has continued to provide basic support to the school since her death. The school also relies on grants, contributions, earned income and special events such as the Painted Piano Project to cover its expenses.


The live auction of the painted piano pieces is scheduled for 5 to 7:30 p.m. Aug. 26 on the lawn of the Berkshire Music School. Tickets are $25, and advance reservations should be made by calling the school at (413) 442-1411.