'Play Me I'm Yours' Comes to Cincinnati

British Artist Luke Jerram is in town right now painting pianos in outrageous colors and crazy designs. Jerram is planning to put the instruments on the sidewalks and in the parks of Cincinnati, as well as Hamilton and Oxford, for anyone to play. Chopsticks to Chopin, it will be the player's call. And you may have to stand in line for your turn.

Cincinnati, Hamilton and Oxford comprise the listening area of Cincinnati Public Radio, whose three stations this year celebrate a total of 150 years on the air. (Fifty years for 90.9 WGUC, forty for 91.7 WVXU, and a resounding sixty for Oxford's 88.5 WMUB.) This significant number gave the station reason for a significant celebration, and Play Me, I'm Yours is the result.

"Last summer, a member of our staff saw a segment about the London installation on CBS Sunday Morning and came in the next day saying 'Why can't we do that here?' We all saw the videos from London and loved it. We were thinking about the station anniversaries and Play Me, I'm Yours fit our desire to involve the community in the celebration. So, we tracked Luke down through his website and began the conversation," says Chris Phelps, Cincinnati Public Radio vice president of marketing.

That conversation resulted in Cincinnati's being the first United States city to contract with the British artist. New York City actually hosted the first U.S. installation in June, but Cincinnati thought of it first. Phelps says it wasn't hard to convince Jerram that Cincinnati would be a good location.

"It was more a matter of helping him to understand what public radio was and why we wanted to present the installation. He had worked with arts festivals in the past and we didn't really fit into that model. Our conversations served to help us fully understand what was involved in undertaking the project and to build his trust in Cincinnati Public Radio and our ability to deliver."

Play Me, I'm Yours so far has been seen in a number of U.K. locations as well as Säo Paulo, Brazil; Sydney, Australia; and Barcelona, Spain. The first installation apparently was in 2007 in Birmingham, England, a city more known for industry and commerce than spontaneous art - perhaps the very reason it was the initial site. Jerram is a multi-faceted artist whose sculptures, installations, and performances reflect "an interest in process, sound and light," he says on his web site. When asked where the next installation, following Cincinnati, would be and Jerram replied "San José" without specifying California or Costa Rica. Either is possible. He was specific, however, in replying to where he'd like to install Play Me but hasn't yet. "Mumbai and Gaza" he said.

Phelps reports Jerram's description of the impetus for Play Me as coming from visits to his local laundromat.

"I saw the same people there each weekend and yet no one talked to one another. I suddenly realized that within a city, there must be hundreds of these invisible communities, regularly spending time with one another in silence. Placing a piano into the space was my solution to this problem, acting as a catalyst for conversation and changing the dynamics of a space."

The pianos changing the dynamics of Cincinnati Public Radio's listening area are all donated, says Kevin Reynolds, community relations manager for the stations.

"We mentioned the need for pianos at our December announcement of Play Me I'm Yours and they started coming in. We never had to make a real push; the community was very generous. Afterwards, the community arts centers will keep their pianos. Any that are still in playing condition we will try to get into the hands of kids who want to play. Some may become pieces of art and we'll work with sponsors and possibly an on-line auction. We'll just have to wait and see how they survive the time on the streets in a Cincinnati summer!"

Cincinnati summers can also mean rain. We asked Jerram what happens then? "They all have a plastic tarp cover, rolls down over the top," he says. Reynolds adds "We have a cadre of Piano Buddies who will be keeping an eye on the pianos and pulling down the tarps if it rains, plus letting us know if there's any damage to the piano, and so forth."

Jerram is in Cincinnati for five days to supervise installation and personally paint nineteen of the thirty-five pianos. Community arts centers painted ten, and "Artworks' teens painted six pianos with six different themes," says Tamara Harkavy, ArtWorks director. The ArtWorks organization, originators of the Big Pig Gig and other sidewalk-centered projects, has a feel for such goings-on. "We are thrilled to be part of the biggest public art project of the year," Harkavy says. "What could be more fun than seeing painted pianos all over our city's sidewalks for the month of August? Well, maybe hearing the music played on them!"

The ubiquitous internet has a role in Play Me as well. Local musicians can schedule a time to perform "and we will use that calendar to promote events on-air and through e-mail, Facebook and Twitter," says Reynolds. Once the project is underway he says "the web site will have a dedicated page for each piano and players are encouraged to upload photos, videos or blog entries about their experience."  Meanwhile information on sponsorships for the event and individual pianos can be found here.

The official kick-off, 11:30 a.m. - 1 p.m., Monday August 9, features the Fountain Square pianos (two of them located there) where pianists and other musicians will start things off. Play Me pianos will also be ready for anyone who wants to tickle the ivories at Blue Ash Square, Cincinnati Museum Center, Delhi Biggs, Oxford Community Arts Center, and a host of other locations (see list below)."We want to make this celebration as inclusive as possible," says Richard Eiswerth, president/GM/CEO of Cincinnati Public Radio. A black tie dinner, they decided early on, was no gift to the community, but Play Me would be.

This is Jerram's first visit to Cincinnati. Asked before his coming if Play Me participation varies from city to city, if some places are more outgoing and quicker to sit down and play, he told us "Public reaction does vary. For Cincinnati - let's wait and see!" 

As the home of the College Conservatory of Music, as the city with a School for the Creative and Performing Arts, as a place with a venerable symphony orchestra and an opera season that began in the Zoo, surely Cincinnati will be filled with surprising music when pianos appear on our streets. Let the playing begin!

Oficial dates for Play Me, I'm Yours are August 9 through August 27, with an encore after when seven of the pianos move to new locations through September 17. A list of piano locations is here. You can also keep up with Play Me, I'm Yours on Facebook.

Photography by Scott Beseler
Artworks piano design
Luke Jerram
Emily Lane, intern at Cincinnati Public Radio
Pianos in waiting
Player piano by Artworks

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