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Play Me project puts painted pianos on Uptown Greenville streets

Play Me, a new public art project installed in Uptown Greenville, combines the visual and performing arts in an interactive way that allows everyone to participate.

Three upright pianos hand-painted by local visual artists Trevor Van Meter, Vincent Li and Matt Amante have been placed on the streets of Greenville's central business district, just waiting to be admired -- and played.

There's currently a piano in front of Emerge Gallery & Art Center, 404 S. Evans St.; one on the patio at Starlight Cafe, 104 W. Fifth St.; and one at The Wright School of Music, 509 Evans St.

The pianos were donated; Pitt County Arts Council at Emerge and the nonprofit Uptown Greenville organization helped fund the artists; and Whirligig Stage provided labor and technical assistance.

"It's truly a collaborative effort with many involved," said Jason Coale of Whirligig Stage.

"The project began based on an idea that was shared during planning meetings and research trips as part of the study on the development of an arts district in Greenville being done at Emerge," Jason said.

Emerge Executive Director Holly Garriott said the local arts research group saw painted pianos on the streets of Norfolk, Va., and thought the idea was a good fit for Greenville.

Many cities have adopted similar painted pianos public art projects.

In New York City, the nonprofit organization Sing for Hope has installed 400 unique, artist-designed pianos in the city's streets and parks since 2008, making it one of the largest public arts projects in the world.

Pianos for Peace placed 50 painted pianos in outdoor gathering spots in Metro Atlanta for two weeks in September.

As in other cities, the Greenville artists painted original art or decorative treatments to make the musical instruments visually appealing.

"Using the piano as a canvas was a challenge, but it served as a nice surface for some interesting shapes, edges and contours," Trevor said.

"There wasn't too much of a difference between the surfaces of a canvas vs. the piano's surface," Vincent said. "I tend to work on gessoed hardboard anyway, so it was quite familiar. What did baffle me was working slightly larger than usual and limiting myself on the actual amount of detail I could provide with the time I had to work. In the end, I did what I could and am happy enough with the results."

There was another challenge for the artists, as well -- deciding what to paint on the piano.

"I knew I had to make it appropriate enough for the general public," Victor said. "This isn't usually an issue, but when I'm making work for myself I don't worry too much about the kind of subject matter, though, within reason. For all my work though, I'd like for things to carry a light-hearted tone with a touch of whimsy."

And, of course, the painted pianos aren't just pretty to look at -- they add music to the streets when anyone steps up to tickle the ivories.

"I hear people playing the piano outside Emerge all the time when I'm at work," said Emerge Programs Director Paula Rountree.

The three painted pianos will be brought together under the awning at Five Points Plaza, Fifth and Evans streets, for an open jam session during Uptown Greenville's First Friday ArtWalk, from 5-8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 2.

After ArtWalk, the pianos will be relocated.

"They will move around -- that's the goal," Holly said.

The pianos are on wheels so they can easily be moved from location to location. They've already taken up temporary residence at Trollingwood Brewing Company and at Five Points Plaza for Freeboot Friday.

"The Starlight piano is the only stationary piano at this point," Jason said. "The second and third pianos have been outfitted with larger wheels to allow them to more frequently move about and to further delay the sacrifice to the elements ... They'll both continue moving throughout the neighborhood. They might go to the GMA next. A Time for Science is likely on the list. I think someone at the Sojourner said they'd love to house it for a bit. At some point they might land somewhere until the weather takes them or it's decided that they need to be preserved inside.

"For now, we love the idea that something like this can be shared by so many."

Holly said she hopes the project will expand.

"We're taking piano donations. If anyone is interested in donating a piano, let one of the organizations know and we will come and get it and find another artist to paint it. We'd love for it to grow."

Trevor said that, as an artist, he's excited about the project's potential.

"As Greenville grows, I think it is critical to have the arts grow with the city," he said.

"These pianos are a great way to make art a part of that growth. They will be a great addition to the uptown scene. They give people an opportunity to interact with music, art, and each other in an unexpected and yet totally fun and approachable way."

Photo of Play Me pianos on the patio at Starlight Cafe in Greenville, NC courtesy of Whirligig Stage

Jane Welborn Hudson, a native of Greenville, is a former staff writer for The Daily Reflector, where she was editor of Her... magazine and Greenville: Life in the East and several other niche publications. Email her at jane@beetheremedia.com.

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