photo by Tara Lynne Groth
If you drive around the courthouse circle in downtown Pittsboro, you’ll see the usual carousel of office buildings, vintage shops, a bank, and … a colorful upright piano? It might seem out of place, but if you stop and play a few notes—as everyone is welcome to do—you’ll see why it’s where it should be. It wasn’t left curbside for trash pick-up. The designs are not random graffiti. A nearby resident donated the piano for the community and a local artist decorated it with amusing designs and quotes about creativity.
When one thinks of retirement, clichés about leisure, family, and doing nothing might come to mind. The latter is not the case for artist Barbara Hengstenberg. In early 2015, Hengstenberg and her husband retired early. They gave away their pet llamas and chickens, left behind a centuries-old farmhouse in Connecticut, and settled in Fearrington, where they could enjoy the pastoral views of farmlands and animals without the work.
Ending a teaching career, Hengstenberg decided to devote her retirement time to selling folk art and donating 100 percent of the proceeds to charities. She founded WildesArt
, a website featuring interviews with artists, guest food bloggers, and a space where Hengstenberg sells prints and stationery with her designs on them. They swirl with whimsy, poetry, and lyrics from musicians with whom she collaborates, including Jim Avett, David Childers, and many others.
When asking musicians for permission to use their lyrics in her art, Hengstenberg also asks them to pick the receiving charity. Beneficiaries have included Elma C. Lomax Incubator Farm, Foundation Fighting Blindness, Greater Charlotte SPCA, and others. Hengstenberg has also been working with Scott Page (notably known for his time as saxophonist with Pink Floyd) to develop a program linking business tools for musicians and artists; she even spent a short stint as the booking manager for indie rock duo Paleface.
Another opportunity to link art, music, and public service arose when Paul Horne of the Pittsboro Parks Department received a piano from local residents Angela and Jesse Crisp-Sears with a request to have it painted and displayed for the town’s enjoyment. The piano went back a few generations in Jesse’s family, serving as a learning instrument for his grandfather, father, aunts, himself, and his young son. But then the family was told that even with regular maintenance, the piano wouldn’t stay in tune much longer. They had seen street pianos in other states, and Angela thought their town would be suitable for one.
Horne asked Samantha Birchard, owner of Pittsboro Toys
, to find an artist to paint the donated piano. According to Hengstenberg, Birchard found her art on social media and invited her to take on the project. The Parks Department delivered the piano to Hengstenberg’s garage, where her husband painted it white. It was important to Hengstenberg to create a design that everyone would enjoy and recognize as representative of Pittsboro.
“I knew I had to have the courthouse on there,” she says, “I didn’t want to feature one or two businesses and leave others out.” She picked natural and artistic elements of the county instead. The Haw River dam at Bynum stretches above the piano keys, a canoe rests on the shore of Jordan Lake, and the music and poetry quotes nod to the creative community in Pittsboro.
Hengstenberg had free rein to paint the piano as she liked, though one comment from a neighbor did influence her vision. “He thought [the piano legs] looked like trees!” she says, and she painted them accordingly. “When I have an idea, I go with it.” Painting the piano took about six months. Hengstenberg says that when the Parks Department came to haul the piano away to its new home, it felt like sending a kid off to college.
As with all street pianos, there is an ephemeral element. Although Hengstenberg’s husband sealed the paint, that won’t protect it indefinitely. The piano currently rests under the awning of Pittsboro Toys, and Horne says it will remain there, “under the elements, until it succumbs to weather.” But for now, the piano is enjoying a surprising new life in retirement, just like the artist who created it.