Take a seat

Clara Wainwright designA public art project throughout Boston and Cambridge offers audiences and artists the opportunity to make art and discover community.

By Cherie Hu '17 

Pianos wield unlikely powers in public spaces. They can turn a bustling urban intersection into a meditation that stops time, a quiet sanctuary into a lively hub of improvisatory performance, a solitary moment into a communal celebration.

These are the powers underlying Play Me, I’m Yours, a public art project that has installed thousands of decorated pianos on streets all over the world, from Munich to Singapore and New York. As part of that, Street Pianos Boston is underway in the greater Boston area where 60 pianos, decorated by local artists, are waiting to be played by anyone in the community through Oct. 10. Three of these pianos can be found in Harvard Square: one at Brattle Square, another at the Harvard University Science Center Plaza and a third in front of the Longy School of Music.

A bacon-adorned design by Joe Kitsch.
The Play Me, I'm Yours piano in Brattle Square has a bacon-themed design by Joe Kitsch.
Founded in 2008 by British artist Luke Jerram, Play Me, I’m Yours last stopped in Boston in 2013, in conjunction with the 75th anniversary of Celebrity Series of Boston, which is presenting the project again this year. An estimated 500,000 people participated in the inaugural installment, whether through painting the pianos or through performing spontaneously on them.

The 2016 painters were selected through a competitive application process and include a variety of approaches from professional artists, charities, community groups and even a chemistry research lab. Each had up to two months to work on the pianos in a shared common space at the Boston Innovation and Design Center.

The diversity of the participants is evident in the Harvard Square pianos. Joe Kitsch, a Dorchester-based conceptual pop artist who recently had a show at Galatea Art Gallery, designed the Brattle Square piano to resemble a strip of bacon. Clara Wainwright, who adorned the Longy piano with patterned cloth, is an 80-year-old collage artist who worked at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design in the ‘60s. Catherine Maldonado, the artist behind the animal parade-inspired piano at the Harvard Science Center, works full-time as a developer at local radio station WGBH and has several other art projects including a line of recycled necklaces and a community art-making initiative.

That far-reaching diversity is part of how Play Me, I’m Yours amplifies and advocates for the cohesion in Boston’s

Piano design by Catherine Maldonado
Local musician Sam Taber plays a ballad on a piano painted by web developer and artist Catherine Maldonado.
arts scene, whether in the design stages or in public interactions with the finished product. “Artists are always looking out for each other in the Boston arts community,” says Kitsch, who learned about Play Me, I’m Yours from fellow artists in the city.

The playfulness inherent in the project’s title also points to how art can bring positivity and lightness to a sometimes serious and somber world. “Now is a good time for a resurgence in ironic pop art, not necessarily satirical, but just fun and silly,” says Maldonado. “It’s one thing to have a technical skill and ability, and another thing to have an element of fun and quirkiness that doesn’t take itself too seriously.”

Perhaps the most important message, however, lies within us, the people responsible for bringing these pianos to life. When I visited the pianos at Brattle Square and the Science Center Plaza, I met pianists and musicians from all walks of life: a member of the local band Milk, a group of tourists from Belgium, a working professional killing time after her latest job interview and, of course, many of my Harvard peers who were looking for a study break. Compared to the nonstop hustle and bustle of the surrounding environment, our shameless jam sessions felt unhurried, reflective and refreshingly non-hierarchical.

That absence of formality is notable since Celebrity Series is perhaps better known for organizing concerts with superstars such as Yo-Yo Ma, Thomas Adès and the Berlin Philharmonic. But the piano project debunks any pigeonholing about venues. “We try to avoid the ‘high art vs. public art’ dichotomy as much as we can,” says Gary Dunning, executive director of the Celebrity Series. “Our vision of Boston is as an innovative, curious place where the performing arts are a shared, valued experience that thrives everywhere. Play Me, I’m Yours is an integral part of fulfilling that vision, where everyone can engage with art in the city.” 

Moreover, the specific distribution of pianos in Cambridge this year – there are seven in all – speaks to the growing role that academic institutions such as Harvard, Longy and Lesley University (hosting a piano decorated by Julia Roth) play in spearheading participatory art projects. Public art and intellectual inquiry can inspire and evoke each other in a way that is inherently inclusive and blurs the line between artist and audience.

It all begins with a simple invitation to play.

Play Me, I’m Yours/Street Piano Boston continues in Boston and Cambridge locations through October 10. To find a piano near you, click here. Thumbnail photo: Courtesy Celebrity Series Boston. Additional photos: Cherie Hu '17