Benicia’s vibrant ‘play-art’ pianos combine art, music and culture to bring our community together
By Nathalie Christian, July 18, 2023
Join Benicia Arts & Culture Commission, public officials, musicians and performers this Saturday, July 22 at 11am at the courtyard in front of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church (120 East J St., Benicia) for a celebration of art, culture and music at the upcoming dedication of a new public piano.
Now in its second year, the Arts & Culture Commission’s ‘Play-Art’ project invites local artists to transform a classic piano into a lasting piece of public art, available for the whole community to enjoy. After a blind vote, this year commissioners selected Benicia artist Josie Grant to bring her creative vision to life on a baby piano generously donated by Robert Gordon of Gordon’s Piano Shop.
“The ‘Jungle’ piano is great – that’s what I call it,” said Grant, who is a graduate of the San Francisco Art Institute and newer Benicia resident.
Grant didn’t have to look far for inspiration. “I used a portion of my classic visionary oil painting that was created during my MFA, which became an early poster success, called Phantom Lovers, [revising its] design to include the vista of the beautiful Benicia State Park, which I see daily from our new home after relocating from San Francisco and a Sausalito art studio.”
Vice-Mayor Terry Scott was chair of the Arts & Culture Commission during the inaugural installation of Benicia’s first public piano, designed by Phyllis Hartzell and named ‘Hippo.’ His pride in seeing this program survive to entertain the community another year, despite threatened budget cuts, is palpable.
“The Benicia Piano Art Program aims to blend the worlds of music and visual art, fostering moments of joy and connection, and provides a unique background of music to our First Street,” Vice-Mayor Scott said. “By providing these two decorated pianos, the program encourages people of all skill levels to sit down and play, promoting a sense of public ownership and inviting participation.”
The public pianos indeed attract visitors of all stripes, their playful, accessible designs signaling an open welcome to amateurs and professionals alike, appealing to musicians both young and old. It is not uncommon to walk by St. Paul’s on the way to one of First Street’s many bakeries and catch a bit of Chopin, then find a new player plinking out an homage to Dr. Dre on the way back.
“I think it’s fantastic that local musicians, neighbors, and visitors feel encouraged to publicly share their musical talents on these one-of-a-kind decorated pianos,” Vice-Mayor Scott added. “Such community-driven programs can truly bring people together through the power of art and music.”
“For me, it’s a community builder,” Arts & Culture Commission Chair Bizzy Lewis agreed. “There’s something about seeing children, families, even tourists stopping in their tracks to check the pianos out. Rather than keeping their heads down, eyes on their phones, walking briskly, people instead stop to listen to the music, then appreciate the beautiful decorated pianos. They stop, and they take in the moment.”
“Even when it’s not being played, it’s a beautiful piece of art,” Lewis continued. “It’s great seeing everyone stand together, to listen to music and to appreciate art in community. It’s what we need, and it’s what these pianos do.”
Adding to this year’s fun, the Benicia Performing Arts Foundation is sponsoring a contest where entrants can use a QR code that will be posted on the piano to upload videos of themselves playing. Through the summer, until the pianos are rehoused for the winter, video entrants will have a chance to be randomly selected to win Downtown Dollars, redeemable at participating Benicia businesses.
Even without the added draw of a contest and the promise of Downtown Dollars, Benicia kids appear to have given the public pianos their collective seal of approval. Outside of a few instances of petty vandalism, Benicia youth have embraced the piano, playing alone, in pairs or in larger groups. The low-key, high-creativity setting offers a little something for everyone, but kids especially seem to love the accessibility and promise of the whimsical, open-air instrument.
“I think the piano inspires young musicians and people that want to be piano players. I like it because my friends and I can mess around with music and play some notes,” said Elle Allure, 9.
“The pianos are artsy and colorful,” said Cadence Cronon, 9. “I enjoy playing and I like playing the notes painted on the ‘Hippo’ piano.” The piano painted by Hartzell was moved to and will remain on display at the Benicia State Capitol building until the pianos ‘hibernate’ during winter.
“I like hearing people play the pianos when I am downtown,’ Pennyroyal Stockton, 6, agreed. “It makes my heart feel good.”
The dedication will begin in the courtyard of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church at 11am with a special welcome from Arts & Culture Commission Chair Bizzy Lewis and public officials, including Vice-Mayor Terry Scott. After introducing artist Josie Grant and honoring her beautiful design, local pianists and musicians will dedicate the piano with a magical lineup featuring performers both young and old, accompanied by Benicia Ballet dancers.
Admission is free and everyone is welcome.