This Organization Brings Rescued Pianos to the Streets of Portland
Photography by Shannon Henderson
With Shannon Henderson
“It's kind of like if Dr. Dre and Elton John had a love piano,” says Jen Fuller, a Portland installation artist, as she studies her glimmering, oh-so-fabulous work-in-progress: an old upright piano meticulously enshrined in more than 700 cuts of mirrored glass. The piano nearly disappears as it reflects its surroundings, each new angle changing what the viewer sees. “I don’t typically disco-ball mirror things as a glass artist, but it seemed very playful, and I’ve really wanted to be a part of this project for a while.”
This project is Piano Push Play, an initiative that brings wildly painted or embellished pianos—all tuned and fully functional—to spots around the city every summer. (Flip through the slide show above for a peek at pianos from previous years.) The project returned for its eighth go-around this year before the pianos are sent off to a variety of summer locations.
Piano Push Play started with just one old piano. Well, an attic full of orphaned pianos, plus one Portland State music student, Megan McGeorge, determined to set an instrument free. It was 2012, and McGeorge wanted to host a pop-up concert. She and some musical friends pushed a borrowed piano from Portland Piano Company down Southwest 13th Avenue to West Burnside and started to plink out some tunes.
After pushing and playing with her friends every Thursday that summer, McGeorge approached the company with a grander plan: “If I figure out every detail, could I have five of those pianos in your attic next year?” she asked. The proposal was a go, and Piano Push Play was born.
The next summer, McGeorge and her roommates accented the pianos with spray paint and minimal decor, and she began working on further expansion. One cold call to the Portland Art Museum later and she had a regular space to haul in a piano and host mini-concerts. Many of the program’s biggest donors, McGeorge says, are the people in the surrounding neighborhood who watched the program in awe during its early years. Today, artists gussy up 10 pianos each year, which find temporary summer homes atop Mount Tabor, at Powell Butte, or beneath the St. Johns Bridge.
Donations through PAM fuel the costs of moving and tuning these refurbished beauties. The cost to make them into masterworks, however, is not covered. The artists who work on the pianos act out of their own interest, often seeing it as a project for their community or an expression of their own love of music.
“Piano is very deep for me,” says Beatriz Lugtu (a.k.a. Buhn Bee), a Portland-based fashion designer and graphic artist. When Lugtu, a first-generation Filipino-American, was about four years old, her uncle sat her down with a bright red book of easy sheet music and taught her to play. She remembers her grandparents watching and listening from their green velvet chairs as she played their favorite song, a Filipino number called “I Will Always Remember You.”
When her grandfather died nearly 15 years ago, Lugtu turned to the piano as a way to cope: “I played that song every single day for a whole month straight.” The vibrantly colored piano she’s designed for this year’s Piano Push Play season will be an homage to her grandfather, her childhood, and her proud Filipino heritage.
McGeorge expects nearly 700 attendees for the June 28 kickoff event, which will feature all 10 of this year’s pianos, including Fuller’s disco-ball wonder and Lugtu’s tropical number. One lucky piano—the decidedly best-tuned one—will be played by professional musicians, including McGeorge herself, who now works as a songwriter. Eager amateur pianists can enter their name to be drawn from a hat to get a turn on the mainstage piano.
The pianos ship out the next morning to their summer locations, where they’ll be switched around every two weeks for the rest of the summer. (Come summer’s end, they’ll land in private homes, nonprofits such as the Rebuilding Center, and public spaces such as Harper’s Playground, a disability-inclusive playground in Arbor Lodge Park.)
And in August, five of this year’s pianos will head to a music festival in Lincoln City before finding homes in community organizations along the coast—part of McGeorge’s goal to spread the magic of playful public pianos beyond Portland. She says musicians across the country have contacted her, hoping to start similar programs in their own cities. She always tells them the same thing: “You know, I started with just one piano…”
Piano Push Play Kickoff Concert
7 p.m. Fri, June 28, Portland Art Museum Courtyard, FREE