Placemaking plays: Pianos inspire community and connection in 2020 with Art Plays

Activating public spaces with art has a ripple effect within a community including social, cultural, economic, health and aesthetic impacts. Infuse Great Lakes Bay recently hosted a speaker series on the benefits of programming art into our public spaces with examples from cities where art has made a big impact, like the Bright Walls Festival put on in Jackson, Michigan.

While public spaces in Midland, like many other communities, have seen a few less people in recent months on top of our share of challenges, we’ve still managed to create some amazing examples of public art.

Artist: Selina Ashley Design | Location: Serendipity Road

From murals, to golf balls to small touches in unexpected places and even making art out of public safety, Midland’s longstanding efforts to support public art have grown each year through the help and backing of organizations, artists and onlookers alike, an effort formally harnessed by Public Arts Midland and the Midland Area Community Foundation.

For this year’s public art installation from Public Arts Midland, the group stuck with the interactive theme of Art Plays and had artists decorate pianos which were recently delivered at different locations around Midland for all to enjoy.

Artist: Jordan Deckrow | Location: Ashman Plaza

“When we started this process in early 2020, things were a bit different and we had to adjust to accommodate for several new requirements this spring,” says Alysia Christy, Director of Community Impact at the Midland Area Community Foundation, who is a sponsor of the program. “We really give credit to the artists for all the work they’ve done being able to adapt to a new schedule and we are thankful to have had 24-hour access to our space in the Midland Mall for them to be able to work safely, and whenever they needed.”

While the initial program involved a kickoff event and programming prior to coronavirus, the event has still been able to maintain its original intent Christy says.

Artist: Heather DeoGracia | Location: Creative 360

“Even with all the changes this year, the project has brought a true sense of community and inclusion, that this art is accessible for all,” says Christy. “While our timeline, plans and logistics all shifted, the purpose of the project never swayed and I think that gives a lot of credence to kind of community that public art can generate.”

Public Arts Midland leaned on local artists Jazzmyn Benitez and Dacia Parker of Parker Lane Design Studio for project oversight, and the duo helped coordinate the work of 14 local artists and teams to provide this year’s artistic inspiration.

We sat down with three of them to discuss their inspiration.

Katy Kildee by her piano at Smith's Flowers.

Katy Kildee at Smith’s Flowers
For Katy Kildee, a photographer for the Midland Daily News by day, the opportunity was one to get back to her artistic roots. Kildee’s piano resides at Smith’s Flowers on Ashman, which was her first ever public art piece.

“I've been drawing, painting and doodling for a really long time. In high school, I took all of the art classes and even in my other classes I was always doodling quite a bit, so the creativity aspect was always there,” says Kildee.

“Professionally, I got into photography and that really clicked for me and became my primary creative outlet,” says Kildee. “But I've still have kept up with drawing or painting from time to time, just never really anything of this scale or specifically on furniture, so that was a bit of a challenge.”

Artist: Katy Kildee | Location: Smith's Flowers

For inspiration, Kildee says she took some inspiration from the piano itself.

“I always loved the piano as an instrument, and I initially taught myself to play around 12 years old, and formally took lessons later on. I still play and have a keyboard currently,” says Kildee. “It’s such a beautiful instrument, both musically and visually and I wanted to celebrate that. So that is where the idea came from to cover as many surfaces as I could with the black and white keys.”

Kildee says she feels this effort has helped to bridge community in entirely new ways.

Artist: Katy Kildee | Location: Smith's Flowers

“Art has the power to both bring us together and allow us to connect with one another in a different realm,” says Kildee. “And with projects like this, it starts conversations within a community in a way that is exciting and fun. It creates participation organically and it’s nice to see that happen, especially this year. I think it’s helped create some normalcy.”

“I'm really glad I was able to participate in this project because it definitely revived some of my creative passions throughout this process,” says Kildee.

Artist Jordan Switala by her piano at Dahlia Hill.

Jordan Switala at Dahlia Hill

For Jordan Switala, the artist who created the piece you’ll find at Dahlia Hill, being a part of the public art in Midland each summer was a goal of hers early on.

“I was probably in middle school around the time when the painted trolls came about and were in different locations downtown, but I never really knew how to go about getting involved,” says Switala. “And this year, I had one of the lead artists reach out to me because they saw some of my art on my Instagram page and thought I would be a good fit.”

Artist: Jordan Switala | Location: Dahlia Hill

Switala is a tattoo artist at Black Ball Tattoo in Midland and thus, working in the artistic realm is a full-time passion of hers. Her professional experience translated over into what was also her first public art piece.

“Many of the shapes and silhouettes I used in my design I took from Neo Traditional tattooing, which takes inspiration from Art Nouveau style and plays off of bright colors with high saturation and cheerful, expressive images,” says Switala. “We didn’t know exactly where each of our pianos was going to end up being located, so I merely just drew the kind of style I’m drawn to. I think it fits really well at Dahlia Hill.

Artist: Jordan Switala | Location: Dahlia Hill

The creation took Switala a full 50 hours to complete. The canvas was a nice change of pace as well for the Bullock Creek native.

“Getting to work with a different medium was fun for this project. I’ve painted before, I’ve refurbished furniture before, but getting to use the piano as the whole canvas was pretty interesting,” says Switala. “It was such a change from tattooing, and I grew up here, so just being a part of this community project was a fun way to get my name out there as an artist and show people what I can do.”

Gina Kearly by her piano at The H Hotel.

Gina Kearly at The H Hotel
Artist and performer Gina Kearly completed the piece you’ll find at The H Hotel, and you’ve seen her work before at last year’s golf themed Tee’d Up event. Kearly has been active in the arts for years, doing hair, makeup, costume design and other behind the scenes work for productions at Midland Center for the Arts and Dow High School.

Kearly also performs and can often be seen on stage in Midland or in the Great Lakes Bay Region for Bay City Players and Saginaw’s Pit and Balcony Theatre along with smaller local groups that don’t have a home base.

“This was one of the first truly interactive pieces, because while I’ve painted before for set work or scene painting for the stage, those are really meant to be seen and not necessarily interacted with,” says Kearly.

You will also have seen Kearly’s work previously at the Bay City Chalk Walk Festival, where she won the category for “Most Interactive” for her set of wings in 2019.

Artist: Gina Kearly | Location: The H Hotel

For her piano, the inspiration a storytelling theme and Kearly says the idea for the piece came about when she thought about some of her favorite local outdoor places.

“I was born and raised in Midland, and when I thought about what I was going to be missing most this summer, it was the chance to visit all the state parks,” says Kearly. “And it just kind of evolved as an inspiration from there, drawing from some of my favorite places now and growing up, like Chippewa Nature Center, Bay City State Park, and the Great Lakes. So, it’s a blend of a nautical and nature theme.”

Her creative process was something that had a few challenges as well.

Artist: Gina Kearly | Location: The H Hotel

“My work in theatre is usually in somewhat of a teaching capacity, but artistically, I typically work in private, so getting to work in a shared, public space was a little bit of an adjustment. But we were lucky enough to be given a key, and I worked outside of normal public hours for the most part.”

“We also knew all the pianos would be different, but working with the intricacies of the one I painted was different too, as it had a bit more molding, but I was able to work it into the design.”

Are you inspired? You can check out the map of all 14 pianos here.

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Read more articles by Courtney Soule.

Courtney is a longtime Midland resident and enjoys telling the story of the community's evolution. She ran Catalyst Midland as the publication's managing editor from October 2017 through September 2020. Her favorite topics are interesting people, change makers, outdoor recreation and design. Aside from Catalyst, her published work can be found various places including Elephant Journal, Thought Catalog and a number of other websites, papers, menus and the occasional one-liner.