Just find a decorated piano, then sit and play

The piano decorated by Bill Hoover photographed at the Mastercraft Building on Aug. 8.

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"Chopsticks," anyone?

How about playing Beethoven's “Fur Elise” with flair?

Or is a one-finger rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” more your style?

Visitors to some of the Omaha area's most popular locations soon will find a piano, with an invitation to stop and play it.

Beginning Aug. 24, people strolling such locations as Memorial Park, Lewis & Clark Landing, Aksarben Village's Stinson Park or Bayliss Park in Council Bluffs will find decorated pianos that make up the Omaha Creative Institute's “Play Me I'm Yours” interactive exhibit.

“Play Me I'm Yours” comes to Omaha because ragtime pianist Jim Boston was Web-surfing and saw a story about street pianos in England. “Play Me I'm Yours” started with just one piano, “The Street Piano,” in Sheffield, England. A family bought a piano that turned out to be too large for their new house. So they put it out on the sidewalk and invited passers-by to play it. In 2006 the town council wanted to declare it an eyesore, Boston said. People fought the council and the piano stayed on the sidewalk until 2008, when “weather killed it.”

Artist Luke Jerram turned it into art with the first actual “Play Me I'm Yours” exhibit with multiple pianos in Birmingham, England, the same year. Jerram wanted to create art that would get people interacting with each other, a combination of visual and performance art.

From there, the idea has spread throughout Europe and across the pond to North and South America. The art — which is actually an idea — has been touring internationally, reaching more than 3 million people worldwide. An estimated 800 pianos have been installed in 34 cities across the globe. Each has a simple instruction: “Play Me, I'm Yours.”

It has hit New York, Denver, Des Moines and even Kearney, Neb. “I thought, 'If Kearney can do this, why can't Omaha?' ” Boston said.

He approached Susan Thomas, executive director of the Omaha Creative Institute, more than a year ago about having her organization bring the exhibit here.

The reason it took so long, Thomas said, was all the prep work such an exhibit entails. Her organization had to locate pianos, find artists who would re-imagine them for a small stipend, find a company that would move them, a tuner that would work on them and places that would exhibit them. OCI also found local nonprofits to partner with the artists. And money had to be raised to make all of that happen.

Boston said that while the initial idea was his, “the Omaha Creative Institute did all the heavy lifting.”

“Logistically it was a big deal,” Thomas agreed.

But it was something OCI really wanted to do, she said. The project fit perfectly with the institute's goal of making art more accessible to the public, to show people art isn't boring or something to be feared.

And plenty of people were willing to donate time or money to the project. OCI raised $36,948 for it.

The 10 pianos will be outdoors only until Sept. 8, but some “may not survive the exhibit,” she said.

Bad weather and humidity, people who may mistreat the instruments and other elements will take their toll. However, some steps will be taken to preserve them, Thomas said. Piano buddies will be on call when there is bad weather (a plastic covering will be pulled over the piano) or other problems.

The pianos that do come through the exhibit fairly unscathed will be stored until next year, when another — perhaps bigger — “Play Me I'm Yours” exhibit could run. This year's was first designed to be 36 pianos but that proved too difficult to pull together.

All the pianos were donated. One, a piano that will sit in the Florence Park gazebo, was donated by the family of John McIntyre, a Bank of the West branch manager. The 1920s Richardson upright has been in his family since the 1940s. His grandmother sold eggs and milk to earn enough money to purchase it, he said. She eventually gave the piano to McIntyre's mother, Barb McIntyre.

Thomas happened to mention the exhibit and needing pianos to McIntyre. He immediately called his mother to see what she thought about donating their piano.

“Thankfully, she said yes,” McIntyre said. “She said it was time for the piano's next journey.”

The artist working on the McIntyre piano is Bill Hoover, an artist, musician and writer. He was eager to sign on for the commission because he sees it as “a great community art project.”

Hoover had written and illustrated a children's alphabet book when he worked as a first-grade paraprofessional at Liberty School. He created alliterative haiku poems for each letter and designed Picasso-esque drawings for each. “I very much have a kid's mind,” he said laughing.

He is re-creating his letters in black-and-white paint on the piano. “It was a nice project and was fun to do,” he said.

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Where can you play?

"Play Me I'm Yours" will be open Aug. 24 to Sept. 8 and kicks off with a community event in Memorial Park at 10 a.m. Friday, Aug. 23.

At each location, anyone can sit down and play the piano. To make the art exhibit even more interactive, people are invited to make videos or shoot photos of people playing. They can post them or share stories on the exhibit website: www.omahapianos.com.

Participating partners for the artists are planning some events at their piano sites. To keep track of what is planned, visit omahacreativeinstitute.org and click on the workshops and events tab.

Here is a list of the 10 sites where the pianos will be exhibited, the artists who worked on them and partner organizations:

• Village Pointe shopping center, 168th Street and West Dodge Road

- Artist: Lisa Schlotfeld; partner: Metropolitan Community College art department

• Rockbrook Village gazebo, 108th Street and West Center Road

- Paula Wallace and team; Opera Omaha

• Stinson Park in Aksarben Village, 2285 S. 67th St

- Robert Cook; University of Nebraska at Omaha's art department

• Memorial Park south steps, 6005 Underwood Ave.

- Lori Elliott-Bartle; Hot Shops Art Center

• Florence Park gazebo, 30th and State Streets

- Alicia Reyes McNamara; Union for Contemporary Art

• Tree of Life sculpture, 24 and L Streets

- Bill Hoover; Nebraska Writers Collective

• ConAgra Foods Plaza, 10th and Farnam Streets

- Bob Bosco; Creighton University's art department

• Lewis & Clark Landing (Base of Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge), 515 N. Riverfront Drive

- Teen Alternative Art Camp; Joslyn Art Museum

• Fontenelle Forest, 1111 Bellevue Blvd. North

- Eric Luchian; Bellevue University's art department

• Bayliss Park gazebo, 100 Pearl St., Council Bluffs

- Marica Joffe-Bouska; Council Bluffs Public Art Commission

Correction: A previous version of this story contained incorrect artist information provided by the Omaha Creative Institute.

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