A picturesque piano — hand painted by a computer science alum who hadn’t touched a paint brush in years — is available for anyone to play in one of the busiest areas at U of T Scarborough.
The piano, situated outside the campus’ Tim Hortons and there to stay, is part of a project from a new research centre that creates opportunities to make music on and off campus, called Soundlife Scarborough (SLS).
It’s not a debut for the instrument but a renaissance; after spending years in the Department of Arts, Culture and Media it was decommissioned to make space for newer technologies. Now, it’s been tuned up, refurbished and decked out in elaborate murals of Scarborough’s natural beauty, all painted by Connie Lin (BSc 2023 UTSC).
“We have a lot of students who might be following other career paths, but music is important to them,” says Lynn Tucker, SLS co-lead and associate professor, teaching stream, in the Department of Arts, Culture and Media. “Music may be something that keeps them grounded or provides that life-work balance, and so having access to a piano is really important.”
The piano was unveiled on Jan. 18, and students immediately began gathering, listening and playing everything from Coldplay to Yiruma to Studio Ghibli soundtracks. Hours later, crowds were still gathered and music echoed through the halls. Some said they hadn't played in months, others in years. Danish Siddiqui, a fourth-year student double majoring in math and statistics, was among the first to test the instrument out.
"Once university started it became harder for me to continue playing," he says. "I'll come here pretty much every day now. Even just being near a piano, it's nice to have."
A tricky canvas
Last summer, as Lin found herself in the lull between finishing courses and officially graduating, she resolved to dive back into painting, a love from her childhood she’d lost touch with over the years. Though she’d continued drawing on her iPad, much of her pursuit of art was in its intersections with computer science, such as how visual elements from icons to colours can better communicate ways to use technology.
Her hiatus from analog art didn’t deter her when she found a contest SLS launched asking students to pitch what they would paint on their recently acquiredpiano. Entrants’ designs needed only “reflect Scarborough” and as a lifelong east end resident, Lin immediately knew her muse: the Scarborough Bluffs, one of her favourite local haunts. She won, and spent three and a half weeks first sanding down the piano with tools she’d never used, then crouching and craning to reach each piece of the tricky canvas.
“I’d be painting for a few hours every day,” Lin says. “I looked up some YouTube videos about hand-painted signs and the way they do it, so I used some tips from that and it helped keep my wrist from getting sore.”
The Bluffs’ iconic cliffside rises above the piano’s keys in a Group-of-Seven-esque scene that wraps around its front and sides. In the shadow cast by the keyboard are a family of ducks in a lush pond, and the back is filled with lineups of local plants and animals, drawn in the style of vintage science illustrations and alongside their species names.
“I decided to go for something more concrete, which was the Bluffs. I think it’s a good show of the biodiversity that’s in Scarborough. From there I went with nature as a broader category,” Lin says.
Public pianos are a decades-old and growing global trend, so much so that they’ve inspired their own community. Also called street pianos, they’ve been the backbone of many a viral video and several are both ear- and eye-catching thanks to their vibrant paint jobs. Faculty at SLS had a feeling the idea would be similarly energizing at U of T Scarborough, particularly after they left a digital keyboard out for public use during the campus’ annual art festival, ARTSIDEOUT; when the event ended and they had to return the instrument, there was still a line of people waiting to play.
SLS’ piano project has been in the works for years, beginning by partnering with the Department of Arts, Culture and Media to get three decommissioned pianos (another of which is also planned to be painted and public), then with Facilities Management to find the right places for them to live. Through another partnership, the centre also had funding and substantial support from UTSC Healthy Campus, an initiative to place health at the centre of everything the university does, including through arts and culture.
Lin is now working with friends on another nexus of art and computer science — her own video game, inspired by one of the courses she took for her sociology minor. Called PR Sim, the game will have players try to salvage their reputation during historical scandals and public relations disasters.
“I think this is a case in point that just because we're following one particular vocational path doesn't mean that we don't have experiences and interests and skillsets in other areas,” Tucker says. “We as humans bring multiple interests to our work.”