Street Piano

Ceremony set to present Street Piano Project

The Fredonia Street Piano Project at SUNY Fredonia will unveil three pianos, each adorned with a one-of-a-kind design created by a local artist and ultimately weatherized so it can be played outdoors, at a ceremony on Wednesday, April 27, at 6 p.m.

Christy May, Erin Ruffino, Jodie White and Steve McChesney – all SUNY Fredonia alumni – decorated the upright pianos no longer in use in the School of Music. The artists will be recognized and a mini performance given on each piano at the event in Mason Hall 1075.

The unusual task of retrofitting the pianos to withstand rain, high humidity and other Western New York weather elements was handled by Graham Howes, head piano technician in the School of Music.

Placing artist-designed pianos in public spaces on campus, in the village of Fredonia and city of Dunkirk that members of the public can actually play is the ultimate goal of the project as envisioned by Marc Levy, facilities manager of Mason Hall in the School of Music. Mr. Levy was intrigued by a decorated street piano he saw in Montreal.

“Someone was actually playing the piano there; that’s where the inspiration came from, that we could do that in Fredonia and the surrounding area,” Levy explained. Street pianos have been placed in over 65 cities in the United States, and they’re quite popular in New York City. And with the well-known School of Music at Fredonia, it wasn’t a great leap to introduce street pianos here.

“The main thing about the pianos is that they become live art, where these pianos will actually be playable. We’ll encourage members of the community to play the pianos,” Levy said. “For me, it’s the creativity of the artist and bringing the piano to life. I want them to bring their own inspiration to the piano. Designs and artwork are different for each piano.”

Modifications allowing the pianos to be placed outdoors included moisture-proofing the keys, replacing felt components with plastic components and sealing spaces in the wood cabinets.

Mr. Howes, a piano technician for over 40 years, wore two hats: technician and consultant. His primary focus was on getting the pianos in shape so they’d be ready to be played, while also helping to prepare the pianos to be painted.

“The idea is to get them in a public space eventually outside, so that the public can play them; anybody who walks by can sit down and play,” Howes explained. He recently observed a street piano being played outside of a business on a recent visit to Gowanda.

Big L Windows & Doors, sponsor of the inaugural year of the Fredonia Street Piano Project through the Fredonia College Foundation, is also connected to SUNY Fredonia. Bill Horbett Sr., president of Big L, and retired marketing director Tom Walker, were part of the Department of Theatre in the 1970s. Mr. Horbett, who earned a degree in Theatre, and Mr. Walker pursued careers in theatre in New York City before returning to Western New York.

They never lost their passion for the arts and dedicated their sponsorship to the memory of Horbett’s son, James, a musician and composer, and Walker’s wife, Diane Gaidry, a film actress. They passed away in 2019. Both were extraordinary artists, and plaques recognizing them have been placed on the pianos.

All three pianos will live “inside” a SUNY Fredonia building until all modifications are completed and locations in the village, Dunkirk and the campus have been chosen.

Members of the Fredonia Street Piano Project committee were drawn from the School of Music and the departments of Theatre and Dance, and Visual Arts and New Media. An artist adjudication panel reviewed applications from artists interested in participating in the project.

Ms. May, who has a B.F.A. in Visual Arts and New Media: Animation and Illustration, drew upon inspiration from the style of street graffiti to create her project, “Camo Drip.” The main element is a camouflage pattern, but she also added more motion and fluidity to the design to make it more visually interesting.

“Our goal was to illustrate the properties of gravity and volume through a dripping effect,” explained May, who was supported by a “wonderful painting assistant” and close friend Amanda Mason. Both spent many late nights painting in a RAC studio.

May began her project a few days before graduating in May 2021, and commuted from Buffalo that summer to complete the project, “painting every blob of color and every stroke of fine linework in crisp detail.” And while the Street Piano Project was on a pandemic-driven hiatus, May taught herself to play piano.

“I am grateful for this opportunity as I have never had the chance in my artistic career to paint on this type of scale. This project has allowed me grow my skills as a painter and continue to explore my style of street art and graffiti,” May said.

Ms. Ruffino, who received a B.F.A. in Visual Arts and New Media: Drawing and Painting in 2019, describes her project, “Beneath Us, Between Us,” as a colorful interpretation of geological layers of rock underfoot in Western New York.

“The bands of color (think Fiesta Ware) stretch onto the sides of the piano, overlapping vintage maps from when Fredonia and Dunkirk were first established to reaffirm the towns’ connection by streets and Canadaway Creek,” Ruffino explained.

Since it’s so essential to the community, the creek is highlighted in white on the back of the piano as it runs through downtown Fredonia. The white lines of the map were blotted with a paper towel covered in the base blue paint to make it look weathered and better match the appearance of the original maps.

Ruffino drew upon her notes from SUNY Distinguished Professor Alberto Rey’s book, “Survey of Canadaway Creek,” collecting images of vintage regional maps, reading about the early settlements of Fredonia and learning that the region’s pioneers used the creek for fishing, traveling, powering saw and grist mills and supplying natural gas from shale deposits for electricity.

“It is my hope for this mural to encourage area residents to appreciate just how much the land has supported life here, both beneath us and between us,” Ruffino said.

Ruffino can trace her attraction to the Street Piano Project to the murals she’s completed for area businesses that have allowed her to witness how art can dramatically impact people's daily lives. “Art, and especially public art, can function not only as a tool to decorate a space but also as a way to bring a bit of joy to someone and connect them to their surroundings, even if just for a moment,” Ruffino said.

Since she’s used to painting on a flat, two-dimensional surface, the project presented a unique challenge of creating a visually impactful design across all of the piano’s anatomy: fallboard, music rack, keybed, moldings, legs, sides, front and back.

“Luckily, the design elements could be easily ‘wrapped’ around the form of the piano, meaning the shapes continued across the changing surface,” Ruffino explained.

While Ruffino’s own paintings are hung in galleries where people must intentionally seek out the exhibition, public art removes physical barriers, allowing the casual passerby to become the audience, she said.

“I was also excited that the Street Piano Project invites the audience to actively participate in the experience by sitting down at the bench to play the piano. It brings both music and visual art into unexpected public places,” Ruffino said.

Ms. White’s artistic experience is limited to what she learned in grammar, middle and high school, but music is a central part of her life, having earned a Mus.B. in Music Education in 2017 and a M.M. in Music Performance in 2019.

The opportunity to create a piece of art that is interactive in more ways than one appealed to White. With her project, “Polka Dot Piano,” members of the public will be able to create music on the piano and also be able to play a game. “There is, in fact, one dot that is painted a different color than all the others. This is by far its most distinguishing element, but you will have to look closely to find it,” White explained.

White says she has gained patience, as painting inside the stencil lines of the polka dots was a challenge, as the rest of the piano is painted white, and notes that the finished design varies greatly from the original.

Assisting White in the project were her boyfriend, Steven McChesney, and her mother, Jeanne Suski, who pitched in on numerous occasions to help her stencil and paint the various dots. Mr. McChesney earned a Mus.B. in Music Education in 2020.

“Whenever someone views or plays this piano, my hope is that they feel joy in seeing a colorful piece of art, a little frustration in finding the different dot,” White said, and peace hearing some beautiful music in its soon-to-be-home.

Fredonia has become a second home for White, who’s lived here for over 10 years, so having a chance to leave a piece of her in the community was the major reason she applied to the street piano project. White is also a candidate for a Mus.B. in Music Performance: Piano.

Piano technician Howes likes how the pianos turned out, describing the artists’ finished pieces as “very well done.” The artists sincerely developed their thoughts and vision for the pianos and executed them very well, he said. “They’re cool.”

Completion of the project, which began in 2019, was delayed due to the Coronavirus pandemic.

[Roger Coda]

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