by Meghan Pipe
Pianos painted with beets planted in neat rows. Pianos painted with mermaids looking out to the watery horizon. Pianos painted with trains and bikes – so many bikes! – and raptors and hot-air balloons, local landmarks and fantastical scenes, all in a rainbow of colors. Scattered around Fort Collins, the painted pianos of Pianos About Town have brought local art and spontaneous music to the community since 2010. Community members watch as local artists transform donated pianos into public art. Once finished, the instruments join a fleet of pianos dispersed among 20 locations in the summer, and six locations in the winter, all inviting us to make and listen to music together.
Eight years and nearly 100 pianos later, there are countless stories about the pianos’ presence in Fort Collins. “Music is all about connecting, and the painted pianos across our community are points of connection,” said Tom Scharf, Chief Music Officer at Bohemian Foundation, which started the program with the Downtown Development Authority and the City of Fort Collins. “Whether it’s to stop and admire the colorful art or to take part in a spontaneous concert, the pianos offer opportunities for us to engage with art, music and each other.”
To visual artist Chris Bates, who has painted three pianos, engaging with the public is what makes the experience of painting pianos unique. “Sometimes, people will come up to play the piano while I’m working on it,” said Bates. “I welcome it. I just rotate to a different part of the piano while they play.” These community interactions can sometimes yield surprising and genuine connections. While working on his most recent piano in mid-May, Bates was approached by a man who recognized the instrument. “It was the one he’d donated,” said Bates. “He told me the piano’s history; how his grandfather bought it new in 1906 as a gift for his grandmother, and how he remembered her playing it in their living room.”
Tom Austin, Murphy Center Director, said the piano that lives outside the Murphy Center “is a huge opportunity to bring people together here.” He described a recent morning at the Murphy Center that ended in an impromptu sing-along. A volunteer group served breakfast items to guests, and when the meal was finished, one of the lead volunteers hopped on the piano and began to play and sing. Within minutes, guests and volunteers were all huddled around the piano together.
Fort Collins resident Shayla Hunter began to practice on the Pianos About Town after selling her own piano because it wouldn’t fit in her apartment. For her, “a prize moment was performing to strangers trapped by heavy rain during the middle of Bohemian Nights. It left me feeling euphoric because I could make strangers smile and applaud when their plans were interrupted and their clothes soaked. Pianos About Town offers moments like these and more every day.”
Hunter wasn’t the only person drawn to the pianos when faced with the loss of an instrument. Heather Shaffett moved to Colorado from Louisiana, where her two pianos had been lost in a flood. “When you’re a musician without your instrument, it’s hard,” she said. “It’s a true gift to me to be able to go and play.”
“It’s an amazing way to let your soul dance free for a little while,” continued Shaffett. “We’re so constrained by the stresses of paying bills and going to work and getting everywhere on time that if you’re able to just sit down – even if you can’t play – and pluck a few keys, it really takes the weight of the world off you.”
The community is invited to celebrate the 100th piano milestone on Aug. 2. The event will feature the unveiling of a special 100th piano as part of Bohemian Nights Presents Thursday Night Live in Fort Collins’ Old Town Square.