Students create art from old pianos

Students at Appalachian State University played the last notes on an out-of-tune, 80-year-old piano—ragtime pieces, reminiscent of bygone era. Then, with sculptor Michael Frassinelli, they respectfully dismantled the instrument for a new life in the visual arts.

The black spinet made by Lester Piano Company is one of five pianos—all beyond repair—used in the exhibition "Artifacts and Fiction: The Strange Legend of the Pianistas," which was created during a recent 10-day campus visit by Frassinelli to the Department of Art. He teaches and chairs the visual arts department at the Dana Hall School in Wellesley, Mass.

Frassinelli collaborated with students as part of Appalachian's Visiting Artists Series. They created a fictional account of a lost North American culture known for using nothing but piano parts to create all material needs. Shown in Appalachian's Catherine Smith Gallery, the exhibition resembles a National Museum of History display with "artifacts" ranging from ceremonial jewelry to weapons of war and musical instruments.

"I'd worked with found objects before, but I've been really inspired by the piano," Frassinelli said. "I like the aspect of a piano having been a gathering place for so many people. The beauty is that these are all functional parts that become aesthetic."

The transformation of materials fascinated students. "I just thought a piano made sound," said senior Joseph Duffer, who used some of the mechanisms to create ceremonial jewelry. "We get to see the art inside the piano. I didn't realize there are all sorts of intricate colors and shapes inside. The hammers look like a stylized Asian flower."

Senior Alexandra Bradley, who plays the piano, said she was excited to touch metal tuning pins that had been encased in wood for nearly 100 years. "They're so beautiful," she said.

The Visiting Artists Series creates an opportunity for meaningful interactions among students and artists. Established by Appalachian's Office of Arts and Cultural Programs, the program provides funding and support to the Hayes School of Music, Department of Art and the Department of Theatre and Dance.

The art students said they felt invigorated by Frassinelli's visit. "The Visiting Artists Series is great. We can make all the connections," said senior Salem Lutz. "These artists are doing what we're studying to do, and we get to see their ideas and how they make a living."

Senior Erin Dobbins added, "It's fun to have someone come in and shake us up."