Sunday, August 26, 2018

On Painting a Piano (based on my quilt!)

This summer has been a bit of a whirlwind for me. All in all, I didn't actually do much quilting past the middle of June. But I did have the artist opportunity of a lifetime.

Sometimes I apply for art opportunities and exhibits, and I happened to see one that was somewhat close to my area. The South Orange (NJ) Performing Arts Center, or SOPAC, was hosting their 6th annual piano project and asking for artist applications. After chosen artists paint pianos, they are set out for the public to play for several weeks and then auctioned off to benefit SOPAC's educational efforts.

I thought, why not? I love murals. I've never painted one (and this is obviously very different from painting a wall, which I'd still love to do one of these days) but it was worth a submission. Never did I think I'd have the chance to paint a piano. I have fun memories of playing pianos with my sister in Atlanta, and I taught myself how to play a bit when I was a kid. So the project was even more meaningful.

Design sketch

Instead of creating something totally new, I decided to based the design off of my quilt, Soar. This quilt has a special place in my heart because it was built on my apartment floor (before I had a design wall! Those were the days!), contains orange peels/petals (one of my favorite things!), and signaled a lot of growth in my sewing. Everyone loves rainbow, too, right? I know if I walked by a rainbow piano, I wouldn't be able to resist playing it!

Side-by-side comparison: original quilt made in 2015 and piano painted in 2018.

After waiting a couple weeks, I was contacted as one of the selected artists. The turnaround was REALLY fast (about 2.5 weeks), which magically worked out for me. A last project for the end of summer.

First, I had to get totally out of my comfort zone, go to Home Depot, and shop for painting supplies. Send me to a quilt shop with a beginner quilter and I could help you out, no problem. Painting, though? Sure, I've painted some interior walls with my mom and some canvases, but nothing like this. The staff at Home Depot of Phillipsburg were extremely friendly and helped me at every turn. They were also encouraging/excited about the prospect of a painted wooden piano!

After visiting the piano and getting a tour, it took me four days of 6-7 hour days to paint it by myself - about 25 hours total. I reached out to people to ask for help, but everyone seems to be working (understandably) or on vacation mid-August. With no one else there to give direction to, though, it ended up being a really contemplative time for me. I got completely lost in working on this, so much so that I barely took breaks (and I'm a big break believer!). I left every day feeling a bit out of my element (where's the sewing machine, anyway?) but also quite useful for putting in a hard day's work.

I listened to more than half of my epic 11 hour Broadway playlist one day, which was absolutely amazing. Since I was covered head to toe in paint (I mean this literally), I couldn't switch songs on my phone, so I really got to enjoy every song. No more skipping the 13 minute Phantom of the Opera finale.

On the last day, I finished up the piano with a little time to spare, and even got to (carefully) play for a minute (sealant was drying)!

4 things I learned about painting a wooden piano:
1. Get more paint than you think you'll need, if you can swing it. I ended up needing a coat of white primer and then AT LEAST 2 coats of every color. This little baby grand was quite large, too.

2. Make a plan and stick with it. This piano presented two areas that needed to dry fully before attempting other painting: the cover that folds over the keys and the very top, which folds over to play. Since I had limited time to work on this project, I had to be really intentional and calculating about when I was going to paint certain parts (with at least three coats for each section, organization was key). It worked out - before you open the piano, it invites you to "play something" and then, while it's open, you can "create something!"

3. Painter's tape, paper towels, and gloves are your friends. Much like a seam ripper and thread scissors, I made sure these were with me at every turn.

4. Details are important, but they can also wait until the very end. I didn't know what to do about the space above the keys; it bothered me for days. And then it hit me - sponge painting in all the colors! Then, I added that below the orange peels/petals all around the piano, too. It took nearly no time at all and was exactly the right whimsical finishing touch. Finally, I had to touch up white between the keys, too - THAT took a very small brush and lots of attention!

A week and a half later on Saturday, Aug. 25, SOPAC held a grand revealof all the pianos. I got so excited when we walked out from the parking lot and could see the piano from several blocks away! It looked exactly how I hoped it would in the natural light. 

There she is!

The #orangepeelpiano is out on the main road through the middle of downtown South Orange (South Orange Avenue) near the Village Service Center until mid-October. Hear a beautiful performance by @theo.music_ and @elora_nicole by clicking here, and you can hear me playing some piano here. :) So many people walked by and smiled, kids were dancing, and cars were slowing down to listen and look! It was a beautiful, music-filled morning. I only wish I lived in town so I could walk by/play every day.

Thanks to Carol E., one of my quilt guild friends, and Home Depot for their generous monetary donations to this project! Thanks to friends who openly gave advice about painting (especially Ruth and Teddi). And thank you to SOPAC for hosting this event and for all of your help and encouragement. See the above picture/sign for information on bidding. And check out the hashtag #sopianos2018 to see all five painted pianos from this year (location map right here)!

Well, there's a check off the crafty bucket list. Not sure if I'll ever have that opportunity again, so it was totally worth it.


  1. Oh I love it Jess! So eclectic and creative. 'Wish I could see the piano in real life.

  2. It was a blast to follow along with your journey as you created it. Congratulations!!

  3. How exciting and exhilarating! Your piano is vibrant and so fun. It will get lots of attention in open air, and hopefully much playing time. Here's to good money for SOPAC too.

  4. Well how cool is that? Good for you! It turned out wonderfully!

  5. What an exciting end to your summer. The piano is beautiful and it sounds like you embraced the whole process instead of being discouraged. Congratulations!!!

  6. Awesome- great job stepping out of your comfort zone! The end result is fabulous; I'd love to sit down and play around on that piano!

  7. Beautiful job, Jess! Thanks for sharing all the pics!

  8. This is so totally awesome Jess!! I loved seeing how it came together and it is so bright, fun, and colorful!

  9. I love this SO much. What an amazing experience- and even though it isn't a quilt, the design is so YOU! I would immediately know who painted that piano from just seeing a photo. Love it!

    :) Kelly

  10. What an opportunity and accomplishment. You did a great job with your designs on the piano. Out of the five, I would give you first place! Congratulations!

  11. I loved watching your progress on the piano on IG. Who would have thought of a piano version of a quilt?? What a great project! It must be a treat for people in the area who can see/play/hear the pianos while they're on display.

  12. Congratulations Jessica on such an amazing artistic endeavor. Your piano turned out amazing!

  13. OMG, Jess!! That is AWESOME!!! Even if there was no fabric or sewing machine involved. :P


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