Megan McGeorge is flanked by half a dozen upright pianos, each adorned with colorful, sometimes wild, decorations. Today, she’s decided to play one with a massive, snarling tiger painted on the front.
“The bench [has] tiger stripes,” says McGeorge as she shows off the instrument. “And on the back there are also tiger stripes. And if we open up the top, which we will in a second, there’s a little brain — a little tiger brain. The artists truly go above and beyond.”
These beautiful works are all part of piano. push. Play. It’s an annual interactive art installation founded and directed by McGeorge.
“And they are on the streets of Portland,” she says. “They are in your public parks. They are in courtyards amongst the city. And they are for anybody to play and enjoy.”
Every organization has humble roots. A little over a decade ago, McGeorge was walking down NW Burnside Street in Portland when she and a group of friends encountered a cello player busking on the sidewalk.
“We all stopped in our tracks and we stood there and had this moment that really seemed transcendent,” recalls McGeorge. “It was so beautiful. And I remember saying to my friends at the time, “I wish I could do that.”
McGeorge is a trained musician, but her instrument of choice is the piano. Its size and weight make an impromptu sidewalk performance seemingly impossible. But undeterred, she pursued the idea and reached out to the nearby Portland Piano Company to see if they would loan her a piano to play on the sidewalk in downtown Portland. To her surprise, they agreed.
The company even threw in a rickety dolly to help move the instrument around.
“Me and a couple of friends, every Thursday for that summer, we would go to Portland Piano Co. at 3 o’clock and would grab this piano and push it up the street,” says McGeorge. “Then we’d just park it and we’d take turns playing for people.”
McGeorge’s friend, the musician and artist known as Jane, worked at the nearby Ace Hotel and was part of that early crew of volunteers.
“We literally pushed the piano from that store to the corner where American Apparel used to be,” he says. “That’s how it started. She just needed some help moving furniture, and I helped to push the piano, hence the name.”
piano. push. Play.
The following year, McGeorge settled on the project’s current form where painted pianos are installed at various locations around the city for public use. Artists like Jane are given almost unfettered creative license in their design. He completed his first piano in 2020.
“I ended up getting stuck on this phrase: ‘Black Is Love.’ I wanted to put it on a pristine background instead of something black, so we went with a fully white piano,” he recalls. “To kind of represent the growth and beauty that comes out [of the piano and phrase], we traced dahlias and gorgeous flowers on the side in metallic paints. It was kind of a whirlwind to get it done in time, but a hell of a lot of fun for sure.”
But there is one rule. Each piano must be emblazoned with the phrase: “Please play me.”
It might seem like a minor detail but for Kyle O’Quin, who plays keyboards for the Grammy-Award-winning band Portugal. The Man., those three words are what make Piano. push. Play. unique.
“Most of the pianos you see—and I can tell you from personal experience—in hotels and things all have signs that say: ‘Please do not play this piano. Under any circumstances do not play this piano.’ It’s not for you. We don’t want you to play it. They’re very uninviting,” says O’Quin.
O’Quin and his bandmates, who are all longtime supporters of the project, admire its goal of lowering barriers to art.
“A lot of people don’t have access to a piano, unfortunately. It makes it more accessible and less pretentious,” he says.
And that’s important because O’Quin makes a strong argument that the piano is the most democratic of instruments.
“It’s timeless. You can play anything on it,” he says before rattling off a list of songs ranging from Wu-Tang Clan’s “CREAM” to compositions by Chopin and Scott Joplin.
“You’ve got 88 notes, a couple of pedals, and your imagination,” says O’Quin. “That’s one of the things I love about the piano. It really spans all of time.”
O’Quin’s enthusiasm for Piano. push. Play. isn’t isolated. In the past decade, the project has grown in scope and size. It forged partnerships with organizations like Portland Art Museum and Portland Parks and Recreation. The group has also received funding from prominent musicians like jazz artist Esperanza Spalding.
While Piano. push. Play founder Megan McGeorge is no longer shoving a piano up Burnside Street each Thursday afternoon, each mission remains the same.
“This is a community-making machine,” says McGeorge.
“People need to remember that the things inside of them — their music, their art — these are special things that you should share.”
piano. push. Play. hosts a kick-off concert on July 1 at Pioneer Courthouse Square in downtown Portland. The locations of this year’s batch of pianos will be announced at the event.