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

By Eden Lane, CPR News

Zany admits they probably won’t be professional artists. Sure, they created murals and chalk art, but never before has the Fossil Ridge High School grad found himself painting a piano. Today, a program in Fort Collins both gives the community a place to showcase their art and keeps the music playing.

Zany, a graduate of Fossil Ridge High School, 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 matches pianos with artists who paint them outdoors during the summer. This “art and action” allows the community to meet the artists. Liz Good, visual arts coordinator for the city of Fort Collins, says the coalition behind the project was determined not to let the pandemic stop painting or music.

“We worked really hard to keep artists painting because it was important to us to keep employing artists and, I mean, we had additional health and safety procedures,” Good said. “But, we discovered that pianos were actually much more important to people during the pandemic.

Pianos About Town was inspired by a traveling exhibition by British artist Luke Jerram called “Play Me, I’m Yours”. It’s a joint effort between the city, the Downtown Development Authority, Art and Public Places and the Bohemian Foundation. This year saw the highest 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 a recent day was their first time painting for Pianos About Town.

“Actually, I was inspired by my art teachers. Two of my high school art teachers are very involved in public art in Fort Collins and they painted pianos and electrical boxes all over town. So I had to spend a few years watching them,” Zany said. “And I finally applied because this is my last summer that I’m going to be able to be in Fort Collins. And I was really happy to have the opportunity and to give back to this program that I’ve seen since 2014.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s what we do our job for: to observe how art shapes the children we teach, and they all take such different paths. On the public art side too. It’s so awesome,” Ermer said. “Again, to see a student who has 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 also think you’re applying it in a new way that we didn’t necessarily expect, which is really cool, because I didn’t expect you to go away and…use it from a new way and [that’s] something that will encourage you to move forward in this career.

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

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

Before finishing her painted piano and starting her career, Zany said she was grateful for this program in her hometown.

“I was very lucky to have a show 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 do magic on these pianos before.

Ryan H. Bowman