Behind the Keys: The Story Behind the Street Pianos

Patterson/Votilla Dentistry Piano: Interview with George Mummert

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Since 2007, Patterson/Votilla Dentistry has provided thorough, comprehensive, personalized, state-of-the art care in a relaxed, comfortable setting. Dawn Burkholder, practice administrator, comments that the practice strives for high quality, life-changing care with a friendly face: “We love the relationships we have built with our patients, and we love seeing how dentistry can change people’s self-confidence. We have an extremely high standard of care here, and it shows in all aspects of practice.” They have sponsored Keys for the City pianos in the past, but with a different designer each year. This year’s designer of the Patterson/Votilla piano is George Mummert. Here, we sit down and talk to George about the piano and his career as a whole.

Music for Everyone: What inspired the piano’s design?

George Mummert: The design of the piano was the result of a collective design process with the kids. While I had the piano in the studio, I had some ideas of my own, but I started the process was when we first got the group of kids together, which was my idea to have kids working on it, we opened up with a premise that we were going to design and decorate a piano, and that they had free reign. However, we needed to come up with something that worked from both a design standpoint, and something that was also pretty cool [from a visual standpoint]. First, we went to Tellus360 (where the piano is located) to talk about where it would be placed, and the environment of the space. After that, we went back to the studio, and the kids shared ideas of what they as an individual would do, and then we talked about those things in a group. In the end, or rather, in the middle, I told them that I had ideas too, and that I won’t tell them to you until you come up with your own design. Ironically, they picked several things that I thought of, like the lips and the mouth. Really, the people to really thank are the sponsors, Patterson/Votilla Dentistry, because they gave up pictures of past pianos, but other than saying they wanted their logo on the piano, they left it completely open, and I think an important part of the process was that the kids were free to design and create, and basically play, without structure. It was important for them to have that total freedom. I was very thankful that the sponsor was open to that, and frankly I didn’t really tell them that until the end, and I kinda sprung it on them to some extent, but from talking to them via email and on the phone, I got the impression that they were open to a lot of ideas.

MFE: How did you get the idea to have elementary school kids help with the piano?

GM: Well, over the years that I’ve worked on the pianos, I have always worked with youth, and I’ve worked with high school kids, I’ve worked with middle school kids, and now this is the youngest group I’ve worked on a piano with. Over the years, through different art projects, I’ve worked with a lot of young people, and it’s an extremely important part of our community is to engage and educate the youth, but also giving them those fun experiences where they’re learning, but they’re really playing and having fun, and building teamwork. I wanted this project to be one of those projects that really wasn’t my design at all, I was just the facilitator. I brought all the tools to the table, and some knowledge, which I shared with them, and they basically took over the project at that point.

MFE: What materials were used when building the piano? Were they materials you had used before, or was this a new experience for you?

GM: It’s made of reclaimed and recycled parts of the piano, plaster for the lips and the mouth, and metal at the top for the banner-board that shows the name of the dentistry and the portraits made of each of the kids… The materials we used are materials that I use frequently, and that was part of my sharing with them was showing them the basics of working with plaster. They did all the plaster work themselves, all I did was fix the plaster and show them how to apply it, and then they built a little assembly line. Someone would come to the front of the line, put some plaster on, and then go to the back. The aspect of letting young people be completely free like that is so valuable for their education. It was very interesting to see the reactions of the teacher and the parents who came. They were there during the process, but they did not help, they just came to bring their kids or just to observe. It was really all the kids doing the work, but it was interesting to see the reaction of the parents when the kids are literally throwing the paint around, and it’s getting all over the floor, and the plaster is getting all over everything, and I was completely okay with that, because it’s an art project. I wanted them to have the freedom of working with the material in any way that they wanted to. Initially, I could see the teacher cringing, because I think she felt they were stepping out of line by getting the paint on the floor and everything else, including themselves, and she realized that I wasn’t going to stop it, I was going to let them do what they wanted to do, within reason. I wasn’t going to let them dump gallons of paint on each other’s head, but if they were a little bit sloppy, or ‘going outside of the lines’, I was completely fine with that. I wanted them express themselves with whatever materials in whichever way they saw fit. The parents and the teacher were initially very uncomfortable with that, because, as adults, we’re usually not that free-thinking and are unable to let ourselves go. To be honest with you, that’s what changed my work as an artist. Going into Warehouse Wandering, I had a completely different body of work planned for the event, and I changed everything after I worked with [the kids], because… I was just in awe really of how they let themselves play and be so free with the materials, that they were unhindered, unfettered. I thought to myself, “That’s really where I should be”. It was kind of like it was as much for them as it was for me. I think some of the teachers and parents would say the same thing after watching not only the process, but seeing the final result.

MFE: Were the children from a specific school, or were they gathered from the community?

GM: They were from Buchanan Elementary, Wharton Elementary, and the New School of Lancaster.

MFE: How long did it take to create the piano?

GM: We only worked with the kids about five hours. We only had two, 2.5 hour sessions, including the field trip to Tellus360. At the end of the session, I would continue to work and do the things that I needed to do, like putting 4-5 layers of clear coat on the piano, but I wasn’t dictating the design, or any other element in that regards. When we ended our session, I told [the kids] “This is it, our piano needs to be finished and it has to be picked up, so if you want to make any more changes from what you see right now you need to tell me what that is and I’ll do it for you.”

MFE: How many years have you designed a Keys for the City piano

GM: I’m not sure, but I think this was the 4th time

MFE: How did you begin designing pianos for Music for Everyone?

GM: I think John contacted me initially several years ago [to design a piano], and I said “Yeah, that sounds like a great idea.”

MFE: You graduated Millersville University with a Geography degree, so what inspired you to become an artist?

GM: I’ve always been a creative person, [I’ve] always wanted to be doing something where I would be working with my hands, whether it be art, or building go-carts or whatever, and I just went back to that. When I graduated college, I was working for the Lancaster County Planning Commission, and during that time I made the decision that I was at a point of time in my life that I could be a bit more spontaneous with the work that I was doing. I took the time to break away from the normal 9-5 routine and start making art full-time, and that’s what I did starting in 1998.

MFE: Have your inspirations of changed over the years, or have they remained the same?

GM: They continue to be influenced by the things around me. Like I said, I had a completely different direction for Warehouse Wandering, and this most recent session working with the kids changed all that. I was inspired to approach my own work and some of the things I do in a different way.

MFE: Do you feel you have “returned to your roots” by taking on more local projects?

GM: That’s an interesting question. I think my roots are more so about the work and how I approach it than about the place where the work is going.

MFE: How has your art changed from when you started to where you are today?

GM: Good question. There has been continuing series of works, and so those continuing series of work have not really changed. The pace at which I’m working on the series ebbs and flows. So I’ll spend some time working very abstractly using more geometric forms, and then I’ll break from that and work on something that’s a lot more light-hearted, more free and not so confined to hard geometry. My most recent work is a lot more like gigantic sketches, not on paper, but on metal. Very large black and white forms that I approached much like the kids approached the piano. I had a concept in mind, but I didn’t feel like I had to necessarily follow the lines. When you look at the new work, I wasn’t careful about having drips, or blobs of paint, or missing spots. The process itself became fully immersed in what the final piece ended up being. It’s just engrained all throughout.

 

For more information at Patterson/ Votilla Dentistry, visit their website at www.dentistryforlife.com or call them at 717-569-3911. For more information about George Mummert, visit his website at www.georgemummert.com or look at his Pennsylvania Arts Experience profile at www.paartsexperience.com . Music for Everyone would like to thank Patterson/Votilla Dentistry and George Mummert for their continued support and contribution to the organization.

 

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