In Fort Collins, a program keeps the music alive by placing pianos around and asking people to play (and paint) them

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By Eden Lane, CPR News

Zany admits they are probably not going to be a professional artist. Sure, they’ve created murals and chalk art, but never before did the Fossil Ridge High School graduate find themselves painting a piano. Now, a program in Fort Collins makes it possible to both give the community a place to showcase their art, and to keep the music playing.

Zany, a Fossil Ridge High School graduate, paints a piano as part of Fort Collins’ Pianos About Town program.
Colorado Public Radio

The popular Pianos About Town project is a year-round program that pairs pianos with artists who paint them outside during the summer. This “art and action” gives the community a chance to meet the artists. Liz Good, visual arts coordinator with the city of Fort Collins, says the coalition behind the project was determined to not let the pandemic stop the painting, or the music.

“We worked really hard to keep the artists painting, because it was important for us to keep employing artists and, I mean we had some added safety health procedures,” Good said. “But, we found out that the pianos were actually a lot more important to people during the pandemic.

Pianos About Town was inspired by a touring exhibit by British artist Luke Jerram called “Play Me, I’m Yours.” It’s a joint effort among the city, the Downtown Development Authority, Art and Public Places and the Bohemian Foundation. This year has seen the largest number of applications for the project. Of the 13 artists selected, 12 are new to the program and have never painted a piano. Zany grew up following the program, but one recent day was their first time painting for Pianos About Town.

“I was actually inspired by my art teachers. Two of my art teachers in high school are pretty heavily involved with the public arts in Fort Collins and they’ve painted pianos and electric boxes around town. So I got to spend a couple years watching them do it,” Zany said. “And I finally applied because it’s my last summer that I’m gonna be able to be in Fort Collins. And I was really happy to get to have the opportunity and kind of give back to this program that I’ve been seeing since like 2014.”

Zany, a Fossil Ridge High School graduate, paints a piano as part of Fort Collins’ Pianos About Town program.
Colorado Public Radio

All of the pianos that have been painted remain in the program’s permanent collection. Zany feels that respects the importance of public art.

“They actually have never had to repaint any of the pianos, which is really cool. And I think that … there’s something so special about public art and creating art,” Zany said. “That’s way more accessible than art can be in museums and stuff. And this is two types of art where it’s visual art along with the musical art.”

Both of Zany’s art teachers stopped by to surprise their former student.

“I’m a first generation college student and I had to pay for college all on my own. And the only reason I was able to do that is because I learned to like make art and sell my art and have confidence,” Zany said. “So yeah, these two women really shaped me and they were the last art teachers I had, because I didn’t go to school for art. I’m not like planning on like trying to be a full time artist necessarily. I’m moving to DC to become a diplomat actually, which is really cool.”

Chelsea Ermer, one of Zany’s Fossil Ridge High School teachers said seeing students use art to forge their own paths is one of the most rewarding things they do.

“It’s what we do our job for — to watch how art shapes the kids that we teach, and they all take such different paths. Public art-wise too. It’s so great,” Ermer said. “Again, to see a student that’s seen me do it and seen us do it and go out and create art for this community that she loves, that we love.”

Becca Black, also a teacher at Fossil Ridge gushed when she saw what Zany was creating.

“And I think also just seeing you apply it in a new way that we weren’t necessarily expecting, which is really cool, because I never expected you to go off and … use it in a new way and [that’s] something that’ll encourage you as you move forward in that career.”

Liz Good, with the city of Fort Collins, said residents, tourists, and other city officials appreciate having a program like Pianos About Town.

“We have people that go back to their cities and want to start similar projects,” Good said. “So they’ll contact us and get advice. And so it’s really nice that we feel like our program has kind of been a seed to other programs around the country, and [we] even got a call from the UK. So around the world almost.”

Before she finished her painted piano and begins her career, Zany said she’s grateful for this program in her hometown.

“I’ve been really fortunate to have a program like this, where I got to watch it as a kid and all through high school. So I’ve been lucky enough to see people make magic on these pianos before.”