It’s hard to miss the visual sights and sounds of the South Orange streets nowadays. After all, five of the village’s newest neighbors are 88 keys of painted beauty.
Playin’ Around South Orange, a public art project presented by South Orange Performing Art Center, features five pianos transformed by local artists into painted jewels.
The Sloan Street Gazebo is the temporary home of “Eye-Full Piano,” a beautiful upright designed by Irene Pomianowski and Gwendolyn ‘Arri’ Jackson. But underneath the paint and vibrant color lives a musical instrument that boasts over a century of history.
And it also launched the career of a talented pianist who grew up in Maplewood.
Maplewood residents Janet and Joe Walentiny purchased the Hazelton piano for their son Theo when he was just four years old.
“He really got his start on this piano,” said Joe. “And we all got really attached to the instrument.”
Now at age 21, Theo is studying Jazz and Composition at the New School in New York City. He’s well on his way to a sparkling music career and has already performed internationally.
Joe, who researched the piano extensively, estimates it was built around 1900. “The Hazelton brand goes back to the golden era of pianos, between the late 1880s and mid-1930s,” he explained. “The tuners left pencil marks. We’ve been told it’s a remarkable piano for its age.”
The piano held court in the Walentiny’s Maplewood room until Theo’s music teacher said he should be practicing on a better instrument. “We bought a baby grand for Theo when he was in middle school,” said Joe.
Theo Walentiny’s talents have been featured at both the International Jazzfestival Bern and Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. Locally, he’s performed at the South Orange Performing Arts Center (SOPAC) and is currently touring with his own group, The Aurelia Trio.
Joe and Janet are excited they were able to contribute the instrument to the public art project.
“We’re both abstract painters,” said Joe. “It would be fun to paint our own piano.”
The family is particularly proud that their Hazelton is featured at the Sloan Street Gazebo. “It’s a place of honor,” Joe said. “We love the idea that the piano was repurposed.”
#SOPianos community time will happen every Wednesday between 5 and 6 p.m. for the month of September. Community members are invited to sidle up to a piano for impromptu play anytime during their display, which runs through October 1.