Richard Glaser was scrolling through a Facebook group for his neighborhood in Rochester, N.Y., when he came across a photo of a crosswalk in California made to look like a piano keyboard. Under it was a note: “Why don’t we have this?”
Glaser’s wheels began to turn.
As a community activist and entrepreneur with a background in tech start-up, Glaser said he’s “fundamentally opposed to relying on government.” While most crosswalk art across the country is a public works project, he thought he could make Rochester’s piano keys happen in a grass roots way.
So he recruited local artist Shawn Dunwoody, and they were able to get some fast-dry street paint donated by Sherwin Williams. Then the two men went to the Rochester community and asked: Want to paint with us on Sunday? No experience required.
That is why about 75 people, most of them strangers, showed up at the corner of Main and Gibbs streets — right in front of the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music — to paint four enormous keyboards on the morning of June 23. Before the paint was dry, the community and social media were celebrating the work.
When volunteer painter Barbara Hoffman, 80, showed up, Dunwoody put her to work right away with a can of white spray paint.
“It was beyond amazing,” Hoffman said of the experience. “It was very unique. It was very, very much about the people and the participation.”
In the two days before the big paint, Dunwoody made several cardboard templates 12 feet long by 10 feet wide in the shape of piano keys. The morning everyone showed up, Dunwoody and two helpers cleaned and prepped the street, then Dunwoody handed the templates and paint brushes to volunteers, assigning them either black keys or white keys. He called himself an “artistic conductor.”
“I gave a quick tutorial to one team and another quick tutorial to another team,” Dunwoody said. “When they needed to trade out materials, they gave it to another team and said, ‘This is how you do it.’”
The people who showed up were all ages and from all backgrounds, he said.
This was familiar for Dunwoody, a Rochester native who has done several large-scale community art projects in which he conceives and directs, but the people do most of the painting. This way, he said, people are completely engaged and have ownership and pride.
“I’ll take people ages 3 to 103,” Dunwoody said, adding he doesn’t worry about anyone messing up or not following instructions. “The best thing about paint is you can paint over it.”
Before the painting started, Glaser got city hall’s blessing and arranged for the street to be closed down for a few hours for the project, which they call Composers Crossing. He raised $10,000 from the community to pay Dunwoody, buy supplies and pay the city to close down the streets. He also held some neighborhood meetings to get community input. The painting happened just as the city’s jazz festival got underway.
Miguel Cardona, 36, heard about the group paint thorough his partner, Kate Mariner, 32. The pair, both professors, showed up Sunday morning ready to work. Dunwoody asked them if they knew where the black keys on a piano were situated. They said yes, and then immediately Googled black piano keys.
“We figured out the pattern and we used a cardboard stencil to space out the black keys,” Cardona said. “We chalked it out.”
When other people showed up who had been assigned black keys, Cardona showed them what to do. Everyone was chatty, he said, and focused on a common goal. A coffee shop brought coffee and tea. A local band came outside to play. Cardona said at first he was skeptical about how the keyboard would turn out.
“At first I was like, ‘Is this going to work?’ It seemed a bit chaotic,” he said. “When you’re working on the little pieces, it’s hard to capture the whole. But then I was like, ‘Wow, this is really coming together.’”
He said he and Mariner thought it was one of the coolest dates they’d ever had.
About three hours after it started, the piano keys were done. At first pedestrians were afraid to walk on it, but once they figured out it was safe, the dancing and selfies began.
Dunwoody said, when he does large-scale projects like this, he has an extra sense of satisfaction because he knows that so many people who worked on it have newfound feelings of pride.
“I tell people, when you come back with your children or grandchildren, you can say, ‘I painted that,’” he said.
And as for Glaser, he said he still can’t believe they pulled it off.
“I’m still pinching myself,” he said.