Gunn grad finds piano in dumpster, turns it into public art project

STORY AND PHOTOS BY TOMOKI CHIEN

For months, Arunim Agarwal and a small band of friends went through the painstaking process of transporting, refurbishing and repainting a piano they found in a dumpster, installed last week as a public art project at Mitchell Park.

But get this: None of them — especially Agarwal — have any idea how to play the piano. (Just watch the attached video clip. Agarwal himself admits he’s got no business being around pianos, but also says the video should come with the disclaimer that a mix of “poor” microphone quality and an out-of-tune piano aren’t doing his musicianship any favors.)

Agarwal flaunts his musicianship.

Clearly, though, the Gunn ‘21 grad and his friends aren’t short of any talent: They were able to turn the dilapidated piano into a Palo Alto Public Art Commission–funded installation that can now be seen — and heard (the piano has a sign inviting passersby to play it) — at Mitchell Park.

Agarwal first stumbled upon the piano on a dumpster diving expedition in January with two fellow mentors at MakeX Palo Alto, a teen-founded and -run makerspace. Dumpster diving is apparently a fairly common practice for the teen makers.

The piano then had to be carted from the MakeX space down the road at 2 a.m. (to avoid traffic) to Agarwal’s house (because the city didn’t want it sitting outside of MakeX), on a dolly that broke down halfway through (which they had to fix in the middle of the night). 

“It was fun,” Agarwal said.

But once hauled to his house, the real work of the refurbishment began.

“A lot of it was just stripping down the old parts that we could, and kind of taking it apart at a basic level,” Agarwal said. “We didn’t mess around with any of the strings or anything, because we’re not professionals.”

He and a handful of friends sanded down the big pieces, cleaned up the gunk inside, then after applying base coats, handed the panels to different teenage artists they knew for painting; the piano now features a range of colorful artwork, a 180 degree flip from the faded black they found it in.

The $1,000 grant from the art commission covered all the materials needed for refurbishment, including the bench Agarwal got for $20 off Craigslist, presumably the hand sanitizer he thoughtfully left on top of the piano and it even allowed him to pay the artists.

The grant’s built-in deadline gave Agarwal a kick in the pants to finish the project after a “pretty chunky hiatus” he took from late January to March, to deal with academics and college applications.

“Originally, the date I proposed was spring break — I did not make the spring break date,” Agarwal said. “[But] they were pretty relaxed about it.”

Agarwal was in part inspired to take on the project because of similar ones like the Berkeley Public Piano and the Play Me, I’m Yours street pianos.

“A couple summers ago I was in Berkeley, and in their [main plaza] they have a public piano that’s just kind out for anyone to play,” Agarwal said. “I think they’ve gotten through a couple iterations of it because it’s gotten stolen or something. But it’s there, and I quite liked hearing it when I was walking by.”

He reached out to the person who started the Berkeley project, who encouraged him to forge on with his own project. 

Beyond being inspired by similar projects, Agarwal saw the restoration as a way to keep the piano from going to waste and to spend time with his friends.

“Part of it was just that it’s a reasonably good piano; it’s a Steinway, which is pretty fancy,” Agarwal said. “Granted, it had been outside for years just sitting at Cubberley, so it wasn’t in the best shape. But still, not to let it go to waste … Also just because it was something that was feasible and in front of me that I could do.”

In all, he estimated that some 15 to 20 people were involved in the project in some way, many of them friends that he invited over to help paint in any of the gaps on the panels.

And despite the size and time commitment of the project — not to mention the pressure of having the grant — Agarwal said it never became stressful for him.

“This was just a project I took up for fun, so I didn’t let it get anything beyond that,” he said.

As for next steps, the public art commission put an early September expiration on the project, which leaves Agarwal with the task of figuring out what the heck to do with the piano after that (his website says that anybody interested in purchasing the piano after its installation can reach out via email).

“I’ll be emailing the SFMOMA and seeing if they want it — I’m not entirely sure what the chances are of that,” Agarwal said.

But for now, Agarwal can sit back and admire his hard work.

“On the surface level, I hope people continue to play it,” Agarwal said. “I hope people will enjoy it, and possibly even maintain it to some extent. Maybe on a [deeper] level … I think it would be very nice if people were … I guess inspired to give back to the community in a similar way, or do something else just random for fun that the public can enjoy.”

At that point in the interview, two elementary schoolers were jamming on the piano: the perfect validation of Agarwal’s work.

“I like it, I like it quite a bit,” he said. “Because they’re probably playing better than I can — so it’s gotten into the right hands already.”

Visit Agarwal’s website here, or visit the piano at 600 E Meadow Dr., Palo Alto, CA 94303. You can also find the piano’s Instagram page here, where Agarwal said he’ll repost clips of you playing the public piano if you tag the account.

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