Oregon Cultural Trust

‘Burned Piano,’ rising out of the ashes

From the destruction of a fire sparked by hatred, musician Jennifer Wright and fabric artist Bonnie Meltzer weave a new beginning of collaboration and hope.

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Pianist, composer and creator of new musical instruments Jennifer Wright, leaning against her Glass Piano at the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education. Oregon ArtsWatch photo.
Pianist, composer and creator of new musical instruments Jennifer Wright, leaning against her Glass Piano at the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education. Oregon ArtsWatch photo.

On a recent Sunday afternoon at the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education, a healthy-sized crowd squeezed into a small gallery where a gorgeous, predominantly red woven tapestry hung on one wall and an oddly futuristic-looking musical instrument that looked rather like a stripped-down grand piano with wings dominated the gallery’s east end, microphones and other electronic paraphernalia gathered around it like hangers-on at a piano bar.

As it turned out, The Glass Piano, as the strangely familiar/unfamiliar instrument is named, is a physical, emotional, you might even say spiritual reclamation project. Created — or reinvented — by the Portland pianist and composer Jennifer Wright and her husband, Matias Brecher, it’s built from the char and ashes of a Steinway grand piano that was burned during an arson fire that destroyed a Portland Jewish family’s home one night in 2022. And the tapestry on the nearby wall, by fabric artist Bonnie Meltzer, is made in response to that act of violence — its dominant red color echoing the flames; torched piano strings and other items from the burnt Steinway woven into its texture or hanging like fringe on a rug.

Textile artist Bonnie Meltzer and a young museum visitor by Meltzer's wall hanging "Because They Were Jewish ..." Oregon ArtsWatch photo.
Textile artist Bonnie Meltzer and a young museum visitor by Meltzer’s wall hanging “Because They Were Jewish …” Oregon ArtsWatch photo.

The Glass Piano and Meltzer’s tapestry form the backbone and sinew of the exhibition The Burned Piano Project: Creating Music Amidst the Noise of Hate, which opened at the museum April 7 and continues through June 30. The exhibit is very much about creating something good out of something bad — not turning back the clock to before the act of destruction, which can’t be undone, but finding new forms of beauty and collaboration that can evolve from what remains.

As it was across much of the nation, 2022 was a particularly torturous time in Portland: a period of pandemic restiveness, cultural and political divide, homelessness, property destruction, spiraling drug crisis, still-echoing anger and frustration over the police killing two years earlier in Minneapolis of George Floyd, and an unleashed streak of pent-up violence. The discord has only magnified since with sharply divided reactions to the Hamas attack on Israel and Israel’s military response in Gaza, and in some quarters a sharp rise in open anti-Jewish sentiment.

Over several weeks in the spring of 2022, a mosque, two synagogues, and a Black-owned restaurant were vandalized in Portland — and in an act of anti-Semitic carnage, the Jewish family’s home was destroyed. Although the family’s story is central to the Burned Piano exhibition, the museum is not naming them, for their protection.

Jennifer Wright at work on the reclaimed body of the torched Steinway. Photo courtesy of the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education.
Jennifer Wright at work on the reclaimed body of the torched Steinway. Photo courtesy of the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education.

“In their home stood a cherished grand piano, passed down through three generations,” the museum notes. “The family could not bear to see the piano tossed into a dumpster along with most of their belongings. Instead, bolstered by community, they resolved to face destruction, waste, and hate with creativity, art, and love.”

The Burned Piano Project is the result of that resolve.

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Oregon Cultural Trust

And Wright was the person to whom the family turned to create something positive and new. A concert pianist, composer and teacher, in many ways Wright fits comfortably into the traditional music world — but with a twist: She’s also fascinated by the sounds that can be created from hybrid instruments that have their own unique properties. From the “skeleton piano” she introduced in 2015 to toy pianos, repurposed oil drums, rhythmic shakers filled with detritus, and even the glass flute she played briefly during her warm and illuminating combination concert and gallery talk on this Sunday afternoon, Wright breaks out of the mold. “I’ve learned to enjoy sounds that are just a little left of ordinary,” she told the museum crowd.

She brought her husband, who knows his way around a woodshop, and her friend and previous collaborator Meltzer into the project, and they all started thinking, planning, and working. They resolved to use as much of the burnt piano as they could reclaim. But the piano, they discovered, was a mess. Its strings were torched beyond use, much of its wood was scorched beyond recognition, some of the remains inevitably had to be simply given a burial. Every time Wright or Brecher worked on the hull of the instrument they came away covered in soot. But, Wright was pleased to discover, “the piano was closed when it burned, so the action still worked.”

That provided a starting point.

Stitched into Bonnie Meltzer's wall hanging are the words "Because they are Jewish." Oregon ArtsWatch photo.
Stitched into Meltzer’s wall hanging are the words “Because they are Jewish.” Oregon ArtsWatch photo.

Meltzer, meanwhile, began working on her two projects for the exhibition: the hanging tapestry and a smaller piece encompassing yarn and stitching and reclaimed wood from the torched piano. For an hour before the Sunday concert, and afterward, Meltzer was on hand in the gallery, taking and answering questions, showing visitors details of the work, explaining her process and thinking — and underscoring the essential collaborative nature of what she does; pulling other people into her projects, creating a community.

Meltzer’s previous show at the Jewish museum, 2021’s Tikkun Olam (the title is Hebraic for “repair the world”), involved a host of stitching partners helping Meltzer transform a giant parachute into a symbol of hope in “a sewing bee that can help mend our society,” as ArtsWatch’s Beth Sorensen wrote at the time. About 40 people, Meltzer said on Sunday, contributed in one way or another to her part of The Burned Piano Project, and openness was the driving idea. “The point I want to make is that there is no ‘Other’,” she commented. “We are all connected. … We are all woven together with threads of connection.”

In Bonnie Meltzer's second piece in "The Burned Piano Project," yarn and a message in stitching curl across the Steinway logo on a surviving piece of the piano. Photo: Andie Petkus
In Meltzer’s second piece in “The Burned Piano Project,” yarn and a message in stitching curl across the Steinway logo on a surviving piece of the piano. Photo: Andie Petkus

Under Wright’s and Brecher’s hands the reconstituted piano gradually took on a transformed life of its own. As Wright explains in a gallery wall plaque: “The Glass Piano was designed to appear as delicate as a glittering butterfly, a creature more of spirit than of the earth, yet it possesses subtle strength and a range of glass rods and hammers and pitched sounds that can be orchestrally combined in unusual ways.”

Indeed, with so much of the original piano’s interior gutted, glass became perhaps the project’s best friend. “Laboratory stir sticks,” Wright announced, would do the work of creating the sound, along with chandelier crystals on the strings. In her talk she made a brief rewarding detour into the history of glass musical instruments, from the simple use of water filled in varying degrees in an array of glasses to be rubbed around their rims to that glass flute. And there would be no Rachmaninoffian pounding on the keyboard: “Glass rods must be played softly, so they don’t break.”

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Oregon Cultural Trust

Jennifer Wright's Glass Piano with its glass wings, and Bonnie Meltzer's wall hanging behind. Photo: Andie Petkus
Jennifer Wright’s Glass Piano with its glass wings, and Bonnie Meltzer’s wall hanging behind. Photo: Andie Petkus

During her hour-plus talk and demonstration, during which she spoke fondly of “Grandma Bess” and her beloved Steinway, Wright performed half a dozen of her own pieces composed specifically to be played on The Glass Piano. Perhaps with a nod to her enjoyment of “sounds that are just a little left of ordinary,” they carried titles such as Perfecting the World, A Meditation on Things Broken and Lost, The Difficulty with Saturdays, and I Wish I’d Had Glamorous Ancestors.

The sounds that rose from The Glass Piano were both familiar and unexpected: clacks and pongs, rhythmic and abrupt and soft all at once; rough but rolling, like a log tumbling over rocky terrain. This was piano music but not piano music; something different and quietly compelling. At times it resembled the struck melodious tone of a marimba, and yet not quite: a sound of its own.

Jennifer Wright's assemblage "As Many As There Are Seeds in a Pomegranate (Harp Altar)." Oregon ArtsWatch photo.
Jennifer Wright’s assemblage “As Many As There Are Seeds in a Pomegranate (Harp Altar).” Oregon ArtsWatch photo.

Tucked into one corner of the gallery is a small verdant assemblage created by Wright, a rolling invention of a landscape carrying the title As Many As There Are Seeds in a Pomegranate (Harp Altar), and indeed the iron piano harp, lying at rest, creates the structure for a piece whose many elements range from moss to soil to jewel beetlewings to lotus pods and pine cones and handmade paper flowers.

“Peacefully resting on a mossy bed,” Wright explains in an accompanying wall panel, “the elegant skeleton of the piano harp creates a ritual space that invites reflection. It is reminiscent of the feeling when a loved one who has passed visits in a dream, appearing not as perhaps last seen in life, but radiant with health and joy, in the prime.”

The paper flowers, it turns out, are of the wildflower fireweed — “the first things that spring up after a forest fire in the Northwest,” Wright declares.

An ending, then; or perhaps the end of an ending. A start; a fresh beginning. A strange emerging beauty, all its own.

***

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The Burned Piano Project

  • Where: Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education, 724 N.W. Davis St., Portland
  • Dates: April 7-June 30, 2024
  • Museum hours: 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Wednesdays-Sundays
  • Drop-in artist hours: Bonnie Meltzer will be in the gallery to talk with visitors 1-2 p.m. Sundays, May 5 (free First Sunday museum admission), 19, 29, and June 16 and 30.
  • The Burned Piano Project concerts: Jennifer Wright will be in the gallery to talk and give a performance on The Glass Piano, 2-3 p.m. Sundays, May 5 (free First Sunday museum admission), 19, 29, and June 16 and 30.
  • Combating Hate Crimes in Oregon: A Conversation with Randall Blazak and Fay Stetz-Waters: A Zoom conversation with Stetz-Waters, director of Civil Rights and Social Justice for the Oregon Department of Justice, and Blazak, chair of the Oregon Coalition Against Hate Crimes. 6 p.m. Thursday, May 2. Free; RSVP here.
  • Common Thread: A collaborative crochet workshop with artist Bonnie Meltzer; participants will crochet around a common thread that travels from person to person connecting the art and the artists. Participants need to know how to crochet a second row in any stitch. Noon-3 p.m. June 2. Free; RSVP here by May 31.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Bob Hicks has been covering arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest since 1978, including 25 years at The Oregonian. Among his art books are Kazuyuki Ohtsu; James B. Thompson: Fragments in Time; and Beth Van Hoesen: Fauna and Flora. His work has appeared in American Theatre, Biblio, Professional Artist, Northwest Passage, Art Scatter, and elsewhere. He also writes the daily art-history series "Today I Am."

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