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Piano As Art: An Interview with Shauna Holiman

Piano As Art: An Interview with Shauna Holiman

Fascinating for anyone interested in the piano, music or art..." wrote John Rockwell, former Arts Critic of the New York Times. Brian Levine, Executive Director of the Glenn Gould Foundation, called Piano as Art "a wonderful re-imagining of the piano as sculpture, architecture, and the stuff of mythic creatures."

What are they talking about? It's a collaboration of two Connecticut painters, Shauna Holiman (Shauna is also a classically trained singer) and Penny Putnam, who were inspired to create art from used piano parts based on their visit to Faust Harrison Pianos, a family-owned piano restoration and retail business in the New York area.

I had a chance to connect with Shauna and ask her about this fascinating—and funny, inspiring, and deeply moving—project. Penny was traveling in Jordan and unavailable for the interview.

What is your own background as artists? How did you start to work together?

Penny and I met when we were both serving on the board of a local art society. We each spent many years in New York City; I was in the music field, and Penny was a graphic designer. By the time we met, we had both been painting for a decade. From our activities on the board, we knew we worked well together, and we wanted to deepen our friendship. Being highly collaborative people, it wasn't long before we decided to come up with an art project to do together. We wanted to paint, but our styles are radically different, and this posed too many artistic problems. We had enough experience to recognize the opportunity for creativity inherent in such challenges, and so we applied wine and lunch (liberally) and finally an idea popped out. 

Faust Harrison Pianos has been both a source of inspiration and materials. How did you begin your association with them?

We decided to collaborate with a lo-cal business in part to make a statement, in that time of intense business bashing, that business isn't all bad. We wanted to find a new way for art and artists to be a part of the quotidian fabric of life. I knew and was friends with Sara Faust, the President and Founder of Faust Harrison, from my music days. I had purchased a piano from her years before and had toured their factory, which I found to be a marvelously stimulating visual environment. Penny and I went to the factory determined to just leave our minds open and invite the Muse to visit.


We were excited by all the parts lying around—strange shapes and mechanisms that had visual rhythm and compelling handmade beauty—and we asked Sara if we could pick through their trash bin. She did us much better, sending us over a couple of old grand pianos to take apart as well as several carloads of parts: hammers, strings, wippens, pedals, screws, and, one fine day, an entire filing cabinet full of old ivories. You just can't do better than that for inspiring materials. We all recognized that as collaborative partners, it was a perfect fit: Faust Harrison has beautiful, well-lit showrooms with pianos all over the floor and nothing in particular on the walls. We could repurpose their trash into something quite unique, exhibit the art in their showrooms, and bring all of us no small amount of publicity.

Off to the Races

It's this "repurposing" of piano parts that I particularly enjoy in your work. Some of it looks almost like fiber art; other pieces are metal sculptures. There are a great variety of forms, abstract and figurative, and widely ranging moods. Until I saw your art, I never thought of the innards of a piano in this light. How do you imagine all this while looking at a bunch of old piano parts?

We got together every Monday morning for three years, went into the studio, and played with our newfound art materials. We are not piano technicians so we had no trouble turning parts upside down and sideways, just looking at the shapes and arranging them in ways that pleased us. We saw things in the shapes that struck us as funny--that wippens, for example, when turned upside down, look like horses. That day brought us "Off to the Races," a wippen horserace designed to sit on top of a grand piano. Other humorous things presented themselves and we just went with them. "Staccato" looked sort of like a gun shooting tuning pins. Hilarious. Myths and creatures crawled out. We were working on a piece that became "Aegis"-it was looking like a mythical shield until Penny lifted up one end of it and it was transformed into a very goofy creature that looked like a trilobite. We found we could position it in ways that made it look like it was dancing. Both "Aegis" and "Trilobites" made it into the final exhibition as entirely different works of art that are essentially the same. In "Pedal Point," we tried to arrange worn out pedals in funny ways that would forever change the way one looked at a pedal. (Have you ever noticed what strange shapes they are?) We felt that the art we made should not be any more constrained to one style or form than music composed for the piano. We just let our imaginations run wild.

The span of your work suggests the formal diversity of music itself. Many of the photos to me have a feeling of rhythmic progression. Is this deliberate?

Definitely. Pianos have literally thousands of parts designed to do something quite specific: make music. To my eye, the in-sides actually look like a physical manifestation of music. For example, many parts, such as the keys, hammers, and wippens, are arranged in a very rhythmic way that we found delightful. This inspired several pieces: "Boogie Woogie," "C Major," "Pentatonica," "Standing Ovation," and, in a different way, "Piamulets." When a piano is played, the movement of the mechanism looks like the language of music as it is written on the page. (At least to me it does.) Of course, this found its way into the work in various ways. We turned to photography to try to capture the inspiration we found in details of the many different pianos we were able to see. There is so much variation—inside and out. Whether shiny and new or old and falling apart, all struck us as beautiful and expressed an essential "piano-ness" that we were trying to explore.

Does your earlier background in classical music inform the musical associations?

Very much so. That said, to my mind, there is a fundamental artistic understanding that comes with classical training in any of the arts. That understanding is applied whenever an artist approaches another art form. Yes, one has to master the nuts and bolts of technique in the new form, but you never have to relearn that basic knowledge: the essence of it is the same for all the arts. Penny, who went to art school, and I, conservatory-trained, found common ground immediately with each other as well as with the builders, most of them probably long dead, of the pianos we were taking apart.

As a pianist, I respond strongly to "Elegy." It's touching and thought-provoking. Could you share the backstory?

As excited as we were about coming into a treasure trove of gorgeous antique ivory, we were quite intimidated by the heavy responsibility the material presented to us as artists. Those ivories, all from pianos over 100 years old, had in them the touch of thousands of pianists, their countless hours of practice, music heard through a glass darkly. Sadly, the time when every respectable parlor housed a piano is long past. We had to honor that beauty, devotion, and history, and we decided to let the key fronts tell their stories themselves. Simply lining them up, row upon row, inspired the powerful impulse to touch them that we were going for. Each one is unique and very beautiful. Although we have tried to capture this in photographs of the work, we have failed. I believe this is because the living material itself exudes something that can only be fully felt in its physical presence. We also, as always, had a dark side to contend with: in this case, hundreds of thousands of dead elephants, the people who carried the tusks out of the bush who were then enslaved and often killed, and the history of colonialism in Africa. (On our website, there is an article about the history of the ivory trade. If you don't already know that history be prepared to be horrified.) 

"Eulogy," the companion work to "Elegy," attempts to get at this history, using the key tails, drilled like buttons and sewn onto shaggy leather stretched on a frame pierced with great piano screws. Yes, although it is beautiful, there is something quite disturbing about it, and, again, it seems to come as much from the material itself as our treatment of it.

Viewing the works displayed on your own websites, I see that you each have a very individual style. Your work together has its own, different look. What is it like to work together?

One of the most important things we did from the outset was to decide that we were going to collaborate on everything, eschewing all personal ownership and any notion of individual credit. This was incredibly liberating! It got right to the issue of trust and settled it from the get-go. There was no angst because it wasn't about making art, it was about having artistic fun, admittedly on a high level, with the intent of deepening a friendship. How well it worked is embodied in a single fact: we have not had a disagreement, not even one, in six years of intense art making, sharing expenses and multiple exhibitions. There was no division of labor, and when there was a difference in skill level, we taught each other. (Film maker Linda Mevorach was taken by our working method and made a film of it. It is on our website.) It also had the effect that you noted—it is neither her work, nor mine. It is ours—quite distinctly what we did together. Neither of us could have made that particular art on our own, and it was quite the learning experience. Done this way, collaboration is truly the great multiplier of intelligence.

What are your future plans?

We had such a good time with Piano As Art that we naturally wanted to do another project together. Over the last few years, we have tried on many ideas, but it wasn't until recently that we found a right one. We are just getting started on that new project. (Stay tuned.) My painting style has been moving to-ward abstraction in recent years, and it is not lost on us that, in some ways, it is becoming more compatible with Penny's. We still have this tantalizing idea that we'd like to paint together...

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