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Toronto gets in 2015 Pan Am mood with public piano art project

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TORONTO - Canadian artist Lee Claremont doesn't mind that people will be putting their hands all over her latest painting, or tickling and pounding away at parts of it, this month.

In fact, she'd prefer it.

Claremont is one of 41 visual artists who recently painted 41 pianos representing 41 Pan American countries for 41 locations around the Toronto area.

It's all part of the Toronto 2015 Pan Am/Parapan Am Games' first cultural installation, "Play Me, I’m Yours," which launched Tuesday and encourages passersby to sit at the pianos and noodle.

"I paint on canvases, mostly, so you're not supposed to touch a painting," said Claremont, who created the piano that represents Canada. "I love the fact that people can touch this piano and feel it and put their hands across it."

"Play Me, I'm Yours" is an international artwork series that's already been in 26 cities, all of which have had different themes to their pianos. In total, about 600 pianos have been used in the series.

British artist and musician Luke Jerram came up with the concept in 2008 after noticing that people at his local laundromat would see one another every weekend but never speak.

"I realized then that within a city there must be all these invisible communities of people, people waiting for the train every day or waiting for the bus, and not talking to one another," he said.

"And I thought by putting a piano into that location it would act as a catalyst for conversation and get people engaging, and to sort of break down the social barriers."

The pianos also bring art to the masses, turn ordinary musicians into street performers, let people claim ownership over their urban domain, and "act as a giant blank canvas for everyone else's expression," added Jerram.

And each city has a different reaction to the pieces.

"In Paris there were people shyly filming each other and they do it quite discretely or they might sit down with a bit of classical music," said Jerram.

"In New York, people were gazing into the camera longingly like it was some sort of 'X-Factor' talent show competition."

All the pianos in the Toronto project are second-hand and were bought by the city. Most of them are upright and will be distributed in separate locations, including the airport, the CN Tower and the island ferry.

Claremont's piece is the only grand piano in the bunch and will be displayed at Nathan Phillips Square.

Using her Six Nations heritage as inspiration, she painted the sides in Woodland-style beading to represent Canada's land. The front of the piano has Canadian flags, under the lid is a wintry scene, and the rest is colourful abstract art.

The painting process took her about 90 hours over a period of seven days.

"It's a tremendous honour just representing Canada and the one thing that really captured me too was the Pan Am Games are the people's games ... and I really like that concept," said Claremont.

"And so the concept also of 'Play Me, I'm Yours' just fits in with it so beautifully."

The pianos will be displayed in Toronto through the end of the month. Jerram said he hopes they'll eventually go on a cross-Canada tour.

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