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Welcome to Music City

Pound out a tune on a painted piano

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Coming soon to a public space near you: basic chopsticks, the bouncy theme from Peanuts and a loose rendition of a Burton Cummings classic.

Or maybe all three -- it depends on who's taking requests.

The Downtown Winnipeg BIZ, with a huge assist from the Graffiti Gallery, is rolling out a number of decorated pianos around the downtown area Thursday. Dubbed Play Your Part, seven pianos were painted in various designs by local artists and will be positioned in high-traffic areas so the public can bang out a song should the mood strike them.

Unlike the polar bears that invaded Broadway or the colourful marbles that currently dot the downtown, the pianos contain an interactive element for the public. One can actually be a part of the art. Tapping into Winnipeg's creative musical community was an important consideration, said Downtown BIZ executive director Stefano Grande.

"This is by no means a new idea; other cities have done this, and we were looking for something beyond just an art piece," he said, referencing public-piano partnerships in Montreal, Vancouver and other markets around the globe.

By total coincidence (not really), the painted pianos also strike a chord with what's happening in Manitoba this year.

The province is well into its set list on the Year of Music and We Speak Music campaigns, and the city is also hosting the 2014 Juno Awards at the end of the month.

Though the piano-as-public-art process started last August, it didn't generate real momentum until a finish line was created. The Junos served as that natural end point, meaning the folks at the Downtown BIZ and the Graffiti Gallery only had a few months to get artists (Graffiti Art Programming youth leaders, funded through the Change for the Better charity initiative) on board and ready to create.

One other thing: They needed to find a few unwanted pianos. It turns out that wasn't a problem.

"We could have done another seven this year," Grande said. "It's amazing how many pianos are out there on Kijiji and how many people are looking for a new home for a piano they have in the basement."

Chloe Chafe, resident visual artist at Studio 393, the youth outreach branch of the Graffiti Gallery, served as a mentoring artist for the project. She's been consumed with pianos -- sketching them, visualizing them -- since January and was intrigued by the creative possibilities of the project.

"It's more than just a canvas for the artists," she said. "There are different elements to it, different shapes that you need to consider when coming up with a design. You also had to think about where the piano was being placed, too, and how the design would interact with existing surroundings. It's not just going up on a white wall."

All the pianos were donated and in relatively good shape.

Six come from Winnipeg homes and the Baldwin Piano Co. donated the seventh.

Part of the fun in creating art with pianos is working past the notion of a piano as a pristine instrument or room showpiece. The delicate craftsmanship required demands an unspoken level of respect. It's rare to find a rundown baby grand or upright piano, as people care for them as they would a new vehicle or an expensive watch.

"It took the Baldwin two months to get here, sailing over the (Pacific Ocean)," said Patrick Skene, Studio 393 manager. "This is a brand-new piano, just in perfect condition. We took it out of the box and immediately started rubbing sandpaper on it like it was just a piece of wood.

"You felt like you were going to get yelled at by somebody."

Three of the seven pianos will be located outdoors: Old Market Square, under the canopy at The Forks, and in front of Portage Place. Skene figures the pianos, as public art pieces, should avoid random acts of violence. Nevertheless, gallery artists will help maintain the instruments should the need arise throughout the summer, he said.

The other pianos will be at the Metropolitan Entertainment Centre, the MTS Centre concourse, and the Manitoba Hydro Place Gallery. The seventh piano, the Juno Piano, is scheduled to be at Richardson International Airport before being moved to the Fairmont hotel.

Organizers hope to get arriving Juno artists to sign the piano during their time in Winnipeg. It will later be auctioned to raise funds for MusiCounts, which helps keep music programs alive in schools across the country.

The downtown pianos will be present throughout the summer.

Will you play on a piano downtown? Join the conversation in the comments below.

Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press

Chloe Chafe and Patrick Skene, visual artists at Studio 393, which is located in the overhead walkway between The Bay and Portage Place.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 19, 2014 B1

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