Painting public art pianos
April 20, 2012
Ogden-based artist Sonny Luca read a newspaper ad that asked artists to submit samples of their works for Park City’s new project, Art Pianos for All, a few weeks ago.
The mission of Art Pianos for All, founded by Mark Maziarz and Alison Butz, is to "bring back the piano as a centerpiece of music, community, art and fun in Park City and Summit County," Maziarz said.
"Artists will decorate pianos that are placed in public areas to be played and enjoyed by the general public," he said.
The idea intrigued Luca and he submitted some colored sketches to the project’s judging committee Maziarz, Butz, Bob Peek and Lola Beatlebrox.
"They liked what I had proposed for the back panel and wanted to see more," Luca said during an interview at the Park City Transit Center where he works on the piano. "So, I made some changes to the other drawings I had done and added some more things to it, and they gave me the job."
Luca’s piano is named Blue Note, and features paintings of jazz musicians highlighted by music stanzas.
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Some of the artists depicted on the piano are Nina Simone, Thelonious Monk, Etta James, Dinah Washington, Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, Billie Holiday and Charlie Parker.
The paintings were inspired by a dream, Luca said.
"In that dream, two lovers, who are separated by a tragedy, arrive at separate times into a town and feel a sense of urgency because they lost something, but they don’t know what it is," he said. "They hear music off in the distance and are pulled towards it."
The music leads the individuals to a nightclub, where the musicians, who also include Lena Horne, Anna Wooldridge and Art Blakey, begin playing an up-tempo number that gets the nightclub crowd on their feet.
"The two people get prodded and pushed from opposite ends of the room and finally meet in the middle," Luca said. "The band then begins to play a soft, silky number and the two kiss and begin to dance.
"As my dream faded, the notes the band played turned into ribbons of sheet music that subtly hinted to halos and wings," he said. "As people walk around this piece, I would like to have them think that they are that couple."
Luca, whose artistic influences include Leonardo da Vinci, Bob Ross, Salvador Dali and Edgar Degas, began preparing the piano earlier this month.
"I’m a handyman by trade and a welding student, so when I approached the piano, I knew I was going to strip it, but didn’t know how old the wood was," he said. "I hand sanded it for the most part and then used an electric palm sander,
Luca sanded through two coats of stain, one coat of lacquer and once coat of varnish to before the wood emerged.
"When I got down to the original wood, I found it was still in pristine condition," he said.
Initially, Luca planned on using heavy detergents to get the wood ready for painting, but that changed when he saw the chestnut grain.
"Originally I though the grain was veneer, but it wasn’t," he said with a smile. "I knew then that I couldn’t use those harsh cleaners. She had to have pure water and gentle soaps to clean her up."
When Luca told the committee members about the discovery, they suggested that he switch from the idea of using heavy oils for the painting to acrylic, which uses gentler pigments.
Since acrylic paints have always been challenging for Luca to use, he decided to creatively push himself in other directions as well.
"Each of the pigments I used on the piano contain a shade of blue or purple," he said. "If I couldn’t make or get the colors I wanted from a very basic root mixture, I didn’t use them, and if I had to intentionally add the blue, I did."
Luca left portions of the original black and midnight blue colors intact to maintain the instrument’s essence.
"Everything from the strings to the individual cotton-fibered hammers is original," Luca said. "It was built by the Straube Piano Company that went out of business in the late 1940s, early 1950s.
"The piano still has rag-pad paper stamps that read ‘For the advancement of music, the national piano manufacturing association’ pasted inside the piano near the keys," he said. "No one makes that type of paper any more. So, to approach the project was just intense."
Another challenge for Luca included painting the piano in the bus depot throughout the night.
"There were a lot of late nights," he said. "The longest session I did was from the day before until 7 a.m. the day after. I went home and got three hours of sleep and came back."
Painting at the depot was something Maziarz and Butz asked Luca to do.
"They wanted to give me an opportunity to get a feel for the town and allow the town to come in and see this latest project and meet me," Luca said. "It has been an amazing opportunity for me, because the intense cast of characters that I have met over the weeks has not only influenced the piece, but also made me fall in love with the county and this town."
Art Pianos for All still needs upright pianos that are 48 inches or taller for other public installments. Contact Mark Maziarz at (435) 649-0002 or Mark@maziarz.com .