Giving new life to old pianos
by Janis Gibson
Acorn-online.com - Arts & Leisure
The financial collapse of 2008 affected many people in many ways, but for Shauna Holiman and Penny Putnam, both of Greenwich, it also proved the inspiration for a collaborative project. Their work, Piano As Art, which made its formal debut at the Faust Harrison Piano Showroom and Factory in White Plains, N.Y., this week. The exhibition will remain on view there through March 17, then move to the Flinn Gallery at the Greenwich Library from March 22 to May 3.
Realizing that they enjoyed working together and collaborated well while serving on the board of the Greenwich Arts Society, the women decided that they wanted to work together on a art project ... but what?
Ms. Holiman began her artistic life in music, majoring in voice/opera, and began to teach herself to paint in 2001, working in oils and ink. Ms. Putnam works in mixed media and collage and had a business career as a graphic designer.
As the economy began to unravel, said Ms. Holiman, “people were into American business bashing. We both come from backgrounds that included a lot of family businesses, and didn’t like that all businesses were being lumped together in one group. So we determined that as artists we can celebrate what we want, and we wanted to celebrate family business.”
Ms. Holiman knew Sara Faust of Faust Harrison Pianos from her days in music — “Sara is a wonderful pianist,” she said — and took Ms. Putnam to see the company factory, then located in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y.
Shauna Holiman and Penny Putnam, who turn pianos into art.
For a visually oriented person, Ms. Holiman said, “The factory is a riotous cornucopia of things to look at — beautiful pianos and their parts; harps, legs, strings. We walked out knowing we were going to make things from piano parts.” When they shared their idea with Ms. Faust, she replied, “I’m in.”
In addition to selling and repairing pianos, Faust Harrison bills itself as “America’s largest piano restoration company.” But not all pianos are worth restoring, and some must be discarded. A short time after that initial conversation, Ms. Faust offered the artists a worn-out grand piano. Two more eventually followed.
With piano in hand, the artists realized “we needed to buy a bunch of new tools, and learn a lot of skills” as they took the pianos apart, including taking a chain saw to the cases. It was the first time either woman had worked in sculpture and “we had lot to learn, and learn we did,” Ms. Holiman said.
They met every Monday to work on the project and as they did, their friendship deepened and the collaboration flourished as “we played like kids in a sandbox.”
Ms. Putnam explained, “We have the same goals and the same spirit about these wonderful objects and that is what has carried the project forward without the problem of egos and competition. Shauna and I found a very special space for our combined creative juices to blend. That has been a wonderful, rich journey.”
As much as they were enjoying what they were doing, however, Ms. Holiman said, “When we’d try to explain it to people, they kind of glazed over, so about halfway through, we decided we needed to be able to show what we were doing and designed a coffee table book on blurb.com. When we took the book to Faust Harrison, who were about to move the showroom and factory to White Plains, and they loved it, and we began talking about showing the artwork in the new showroom.”
Ms. Faust also offered the artists a cabinet full of old ivory keys. Initially, said Ms. Holiman, “We were totally intimidated by the pile of ivory before us... some of this precious material was 150 years old and represented a bastion of colonialism, the slaying of elephants for their tusks. And all of the thousands of hands that spent thousands of hours practicing and playing on these keys. Sara told us that most of the ivory was imported through Ivoryton, Connecticut [a village in the town of Essex], that in that 1900s imported 90 percent of all the ivory that came into the country.
“But we loved the idea of giving the ivory a third life,” she continued, “and spent a summer scrubbing all of the stuff off the backs of the keys. We were excited to work with the material, and while every artist sees things in his or her own way, we realized we had to listen to it, get out the way and let the material speak for itself.”
One resulting piece is Elegy, a 48-by-84-inch mosaic made from 1,640 pieces of antique ivory which colors range from snow white to deep tan with a tinge of orange on white lacquered board.
In addition to creating sculpture, Ms. Putnam and Ms. Holiman have taken photos of various new and old piano components — wood carvings, strings, hammers, etc. — and grouped them into photo quads. Most of the works are postmodern in concept, many are playful, and have been well received by those who have viewed them.
Many Faust Harrison employees have commented that the artworks have changed the way they see the materials they work with every day.
Commenting on the results of the Piano As Art project, Ms. Holiman said, “Our relationship with Faust Harrison represents a new and entirely positive model for collaboration and community building between artists and business. They supplied us, gratis, with the materials, asking nothing in return. Delighted with the art, they decided to expand the concept of their business to include an art gallery. The synergy of art made out of pianos being displayed in a room full of pianos has proven to be tremendously and mutually beneficial.”
Faust Harrison Pianos showroom and factory is on the campus of the Music Conservatory of Westchester, 214 Central Avenue in White Plains, open Monday-Saturday 10 to 6. For more information, Faustharrisonpianos,com or 914-288-4000. For more information on Piano As Art, visit pianoasart.com.