When artist Laura Luke Olsen painted an orange life ring on the coral reef-themed Piano in the Park installment, she didn’t realize how symbolic it would end up being.
“Now I look at it and it’s like, here’s this program that needs a life ring,” she said.
After only two weeks of display, the city removed the Federal Way Arts Commission’s annual installation last week after it was vandalized.
The purpose of the Piano in the Park program is to allow visitors of all ages to enjoy a musical experience in a casual setting. Pianos are donated by the public and an artist is contracted to create a cheerful design for the public to enjoy at Town Square Park in Federal Way’s downtown core.
Designed and painted by Olsen, a Federal Way artist and musician, the vivid piano featured cartoon-like fish as band musicians of “The Stray Catch,” she said.
Using her own unique medium of powdered thermochromic pigments mixed with a clear acrylic binder, Olsen created paints that change color depending on different temperatures.
“If you go to the park on two different days, then you’d see two different looks on the piano,” she said.
The piano’s key cover says “dive in,” and various characters on the piano include a mermaid, an octopus drummer, and there is even a bass playing — you guessed it — the bass. Three back-up singer crabs along the bottom represent her kids and the “flirting” eels are for her and her husband, she said.
“I just had a lot of fun doing it and thought that it was going to be a very fun, joyful thing to bring out there.”
Although this is the third year of the program’s installation, it is the first year of this type of incident occurring, according to the arts commission.
“I’m not happy about vandalism, but that can happen to anything, anywhere,” said Olsen, who earned her bachelor’s in graphic design from Central Washington University and has spent more than 30 years in freelancing graphic design and art direction. “It was a letdown because this would’ve been my first public art piece.”
Olsen believes the Federal Way Arts Commission’s alleged lack of support and recognition was a factor that led to the disappointing removal of the piece, she said.
The commission did not hold an event to honor the piece or program, and Olsen said she was only alerted the piece went public via a text a few days after it was placed at Town Square Park.
On the final day Olsen was painting, she was behind schedule on the piano bench. The final design she painted ended up being an orange life support ring, enscripted with “Piano in the Park 2019.” Olsen said it was meant to be a lighthearted joke: If you were sitting on the bench, it was as if you were floating on the life ring in the sea.
Other than that, there was no sign to explain what the project was or why the piano was there, she said.
“The art still looked OK, but you couldn’t play it,” she said. “Then the only thing people see is a broken piano with my name on it.”
“I was prepared for things to happen to [the piano], but it seems like had there been promotion behind it and then something happened to it, the public would be up in arms over that,” she said. “‘Hey, that’s our piano’ or ‘someone broke our piano and now we can’t play music in the park because somebody broke it.’”
Without the arts commission claiming the piece, the installation appears more as an anonymous guerilla art movement, she said, rather than an organized program.
Her contract stated the piano would be displayed until the end of summer and Olsen said she was OK with the vague timeline, but “I know the summer lasts more than two weeks, too.”
Community members expressed their disappointment on social media about the loss of the summertime installation.
“So sad,” wrote Melissa Borland. “My kiddos loved seeing the new designs on the piano and sitting down to plunk a made-up tune.”
“I think it is a fabulous program and I’m sad to hear someone has ruined it this year for all of us,” commented Tamaras LaFavor.
A few residents questioned the cost of the damage and offered suggestions to protect the piano.
Elaine Lee suggested a clear plastic cover to encase the whole piano except for the keys.
“I think it is beautiful and it saddens me that people don’t respect others property,” she wrote.
Arts commission chair Dan Hershman said the piano was somewhat damaged, but still usable, just days after the July 2 installation.
“But the problem of course, is that once something is even slightly damage its a beacon for further damage,” he said.
He also said the commission did plan on publicizing the piano.
Around July 8, Hershman went to snap photos of the piano for publicity and found the instrument had been heavily damaged “and beyond any reasonable repair,” so Hershman asked Federal Way’s Parks and Recreation staff to remove it.
Hershman said there is a lock and a cover for the instrument, and questioned Parks and Recreation why the cover was not being used. He found out that the position of the employee who used to open the piano up each day and replace the cover in the morning has gone unfilled.
“… There simply isn’t someone on site to monitor the piano at this time,” Hershman said. “In contrast to two years ago when there was a paid staff person who put a cover on it each night and took it off each morning.”
The city has had difficulty finding candidates to fill the position responsible for this task, according to Tyler Hemstreet, the city’s communications coordinator.
“We are struggling to get enough qualified candidates to fill our seasonal maintenance positions,” said Hemstreet, noting the city has not had a “night person” at Town Square Park since July 2018.
The position of seasonal parks maintenance worker includes spray park management, landscaping responsibilities, restroom cleaning/sanitation, security monitoring, litter and trash collection and more. The position is currently open.
It is possible this position could be filled by a volunteer, although volunteers still need to be trained, managed and held accountable, Hemstreet said.
For now, the future of the Piano in the Park program is in question.
The commission will consider whether this is a program that can be continued, either at a new location or with a different protocol at the current location, Hershman said. He noted the program has been very successful in the past and has garnered great support from the community as a whole.
“Town Square Park is an ideal spot for this in my opinion, I’ve enjoyed seeing and hearing many ‘performances’ there in summers past,” he said.
Whatever happens, Olsen hopes the commission will strongly promote the program to the community to create awareness.
“Creative people will always create, it’s what we do … but it doesn’t mean the arts will always be available to everybody,” Olsen said. “It depends on the promotion and the patronage that the arts can be part of our lives …”
While vandalism is a shame, the public must know before they can care.
“There will always be people who are bent on breaking things — but the more people are aware, the more eyes that are on it. Isn’t that how a ‘neighborhood watch’ works?”