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Dan Scheuerman: If you’ve left the house in Omaha this week, you’ve probably heard it: the sound of pianos being banged on by little kids. Or adults. But mostly little kids.
It’s part of an international art project by Luke Jerram: Play Me I’m Yours, the street piano project that places pianos in unusual, outdoor places.
There are about 10,000 of them worldwide, and 10 of them are up in Omaha from now until September 8. Pianos, painted by local artists, available for anyone to play.
Despite its massive success, Jerram says it wasn’t his first choice of public art project. It was kind of an accident.
Luke Jerram: Yeah, well, actually, there’s two reasons why the artwork came into being. Firstly the artwork came out of a failure of another art project called The Sky Orchestra. And The Sky Orchestra is an artwork where we play music from hot air balloons. So we turn up at about 7 in the morning in a field, and strap audio speakers onto seven hot air balloons, and fly over cities to affect people’s dreams.
We were trying to fly this time with the Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in the balloons, and unfortunately the CAA (Civil Aviation Authority) got their weather predictions wrong, and we couldn’t fly. And it was annoying because we all turned up to fly, and we had to pay all the musicians on music union rates, and we had to pay all the pilots. And unfortunately, that meant we blew half the budget, and we had no artwork to show for it.
So I had to quickly come up with another idea for an artwork. We had a little bit of money left, and I had to quickly come up with another idea for another artwork. We promised the city council of Birmingham that we’d reach 100,000 people with a large-scale artwork. So I came up with some ideas, and the curator of the theater festival selected Play Me, I’m Yours as a sort of solution to the problem we found.
Dan Scheuerman: Jerram’s local partner in the project is Omaha Creative Institute. Their Natalie Shaw tells a different version.
Natalie Shaw: The original idea came from, Luke had heard this story about a man. He and his family were trying to move their piano to their new home, and they didn’t use real movers. They were just trying to do it themselves, and it was too heavy, and then it didn’t fit, so they just put it out on the street, and they put a sign on it that said, ‘Play me, I’m yours.’ And he herd that story, and thought it would be a great idea for a bigger art installation. And he just kind of sat on it for a while, and then he was in the laundromat one day, in Bristol or London, and he just noticed that there were so many people there, but nobody was talking with each other. Nobody was interacting with each other. And he was trying to think of a way that he could make these moments when you’re surrounded by people, but nobody’s talking to anybody, into more of a community moment. So that’s where he really decided to make Play Me, I’m Yours into a big installation. And he was only gonna do it once, but it was so well loved that now it’s been done in 37 cities around the world. They’re about to install their 1000th piano in Boston.
Luke Jerram: The artwork functions in all sorts of different ways, but really it’s a possibility for the public to be creative. When I studied live art and performance art maybe 15 years ago, I often found that it was the performer on stage that as usually having the most amount of fun. So I wanted to sort of reverse that, and Play Me, I’m Yours does that. It’s the public who has the most amount of fun. They can be the performer. And you know, with the street pianos project, you can take center stage and dress up and make a big show and dance about it, or you can find little quiet piano in a corner of a city and play to yourself on a Sunday morning when you know no one’s watching.”
Dan Scheuerman: This is Sarah Voss playing. She and some friends spent Saturday visiting all the pianos in town. She carried her mother’s songbook, and played songs out of it in her memory. Incidentally, the water sound you hear is the fountain. We’re at the piano underneath the pedestrian bridge at Lewis & Clark Landing.
Sarah Voss: This is my mom’s book, when she was here. She had some dementia, and I put this together, and she was able… it was stuff she knew and she was able to play. Not very well, but she was ninety and she was able to do it. So I thought, when I play it, it makes me think of her. This is my birthday so it’s a special treat to have this. It’s been great. We’ve been going all over to 'em and just having a great time.
Dan Scheuerman: I asked Luke why he chose Omaha.
Luke Jerram: Oh, Omaha chose us. That’s the thing. We’re in dialogue with about 50 cities at any one time. We send off huge packs of information that show to arts organizations exactly how to deliver it and what they need to do. And then they go about fundraising and getting support from their city council to make it happen. So, uh, yeah. We haven’t really had much to do with it. We’ll go where we’re invited to go, and we’re quite happy to present the artwork in Sydney, or Omaha, or Santiago de Cuba.
Dan Scheuerman: All the heavy lifting is done by the local team. Natalie Shaw.
Natalie Shaw: We found all the pianos on Craigslist, with the exception of the one on 24th and L. It was donated by John McIntyre and Laura Vranes, who are a couple here in Omaha who have a crazy street art collection in their house. And they donated it. It’s their old family piano. It’s beautiful, and they donated it with the intention that they’ll get it back at the end of the project as a piece of street art in their home. The other ones were all, I just went on Craigslist and looked for ones that were under $150, and they all, even the ones that had a price tag, once I explained the project, they all said, "We will just give to this project because we love it so much."
Instead of choosing the artists ourselves, because we’re not really an art organization of that caliber, we decided to go to ten different art organizations in Omaha and ask them to recommend an artist. We thought that would be the best way instead of having a panel, because we didn’t know who would judge the panel, we didn’t know how long that would take. So we went to all these different organizations: Metro Community College, Opera Omaha, UNO Art Department, Hot Shops Art Center, The Union for Contemporary Crt, Nebraska Writers Collective, Creighton University, Bellevue University, Joslyn, The Council Bluffs Public Art Commission.
We put so much work and effort into these pianos, we really wanted the community to support it, and to want them to be there, and to not want to vandalize them, so we thought the best way to do that would be for the community to be involved in every step of the process.
Dan Scheuerman: The next voice you’re gonna hear is Becky Haworth. She worked with Natalie on the project.
Becky Haworth: Alicia, who designed the Union for Contemporary Arts piano, actually used the hands of kids who were playing at the playground across the street from the union. She took photos of all the kids hands, and then transferred those photos somehow onto the pianos, and drew arms for the hands, and then painted it. So the kids who helped her paint it and design it and everything are actually physically incorporated to that one.
There’s been just a little bit of vandalism at the Bayliss Park piano, but it seems more, not like… that vandalism doesn’t seem like they want to destroy the piano. It seems more like it’s kids who don’t really understand how to interact with a piece of art. That one has two things that open up on the sides, and one had watercolors in it, and it said ”Paint me, I’m yours”. The other one had chalk in it and it said, “Draw me I’m yours.” And they, when they ran out of space inside the little thing, decided to continue onto the piano and draw ther names and things on the piano. And then there were some little things that were broken off, but I can’t imagine that it was vindictive in any way. I think it was just kids playing with it.
Dan Scheuerman: If you ask Jerram, a little vandalism’s a good thing.
Luke Jerram: When I first started presenting the art project,” Jerram said, “we didn’t decorate them in any way. And then I thought it would be quite nice to get the public to decorate these pianos, so I put some kind of spots and stripes and clouds. I wanted to kind of kick start the process. But it didn’t really work. And then we started inviting artists to decorate them directly, and it seems to have been quite successful. But I suppose I really wanted to initially just decorate them and sort of almost roughen the edges of a piano, so the public would feel that the piano would be more approachable, so they would ‘t feel that it’s sort of this intense classical instrument that they shouldn’t touch. But if you’ve got a piano that’s been graffitied, then you feel, well, you know, you can do what you like with it. You know, it’s sort of rough and ready and there for people to enjoy. And I suppose that’s one of the aims of decorating the pianos in that way.
Dan Scheuerman: A little later under the pedestrian bridge:
Boy: Hey, hey, do you wanna hear "Humpty Dumpty," mom?
Dan Scheuerman: How long have you been playing?
Mom: That was his first time?
Dan Scheuerman: “Oh really?
Boy: No that was my second time.
Mom: Well, it sounds like I need to get him in some lessons.
Dan Scheuerman: Is "Humpty Dumpty" a song you made up?
Boy: No, I learned it at school.
Dan Scheuerman: What do you think of the piano?
Boy: “That it’s magical.”
Dan Scheuerman: Why do you think they put it here?
Boy: Because kids can play it.
Boy (to mom): Come on. Play football with me in the water!
Luke Jerram: Well, I suppose I’m interested in delivering art work directly to people’s houses and homes I suppose. So instead of requesting that the public go into a museum or a gallery, we can deliver an artwork to people’s houses and to their communities. iI seems like a much more democratic way to go. So just yesterday I delivered an artwork called Lullaby where we strapped speakers onto bikes and we cycled around the city of Bristol delivering a kind of lullaby to children on the edge of sleep, with these bikes all covered in lights that were flickering and flashing and sparkling. It was a lot of fun. So yeah, I suppose I’m interested in making artwork in unusual locations.
I suppose the success of Play Me, I’m Yours comes from the fact that the pianos act as a blank canvas for everyone’s creativity. So it’s almost like YouTube or Facebook. The pianos are there for anyone to play as a kind of democratic resource. There’s lots of people who have had training in playing piano at some point in their lives, but they don’t have actually have access to a piano to play, so a lot of people sort of come out of the woodwork and they say, “Oh God, this is an amazing opportunity. I haven’t played piano since I was six.” And they’ll go out and play piano. There’s also lots of people like me, you know. I’ve got a piano here in my house, and I play a little bit, but I’d never possibly go on… You know, there’s no way anyone would drag me up onto a stage to perform in front of thousands of people. So it turns ordinary pianists like me into street performers.
[Additional audio was taken from the Omaha page at Streetpianos.com.]