Allen Christian makes people out of pianos

Allen Christian is known for creating art out of the unexpected. His Minneapolis studio/gallery, “House of Balls,” is home to all sorts of sculpture made from bowling balls (hence the name), frying pans, garden tools and more.

For the past year, Christian has taken inspiration from the innards of old pianos.

For years I’ve been intrigued by the beauty of pianos and the precision it takes to manifest a note. The art of this kind of manufacturing is almost lost to us, and I’ve always like when form and function are equal. Today’s objects seem so cold that way… very functional, but I feel emotionally disconnected.

Christian is working on a trio of sculptures – man, woman and child – for an exhibition at the American Visionary Arts Museum in Baltimore titled “Human, Soul and the Machine: The Coming Singularity.”


Piano Lady and Piano Man, by Allen Christian

Christian first tackled “Piano Man” and just finished “Piano Lady.” Both are manikins that he’s covered with balance rails, mortises, felt cushions and other parts of a piano’s action. He says in each case the hardest part was the face.

How does one give something life through inanimate objects? That’s where my angst was before covering the face began, but both of them revealed what went where.

The Piano Man is much more rugged in appearance, while the Piano Lady boasts elegant curves. Christian says that has to do with both the manikins he used, the piano parts, and his own learning process.

I didn’t have the amount of piano pieces available with the Man, so there’s a lot less color, and much more wood, at least in front. When I got to his back, I discovered the hammers and the felt and the softness.

The parts on her neck worked surprisingly well to give life, and to separate the colorful hammers on the torso from her face. I’d used those pieces as the Man’s hair, with striking effect.

Christian says part of his inspiration come from string theory, creativity’s role in understanding it, and, as he puts it, “the piano being a symbol for that vibrational energy that we’re all a part of.”


Piano Lady under construction, and seen from the back upon completion

Photos courtesy Allen Christian

Christian says he plans to make another Piano Lady, but this time she won’t be fully covered.

One of the things I found fascinating was the play between the flesh color of the manikin and the organic/mechanical textures the piano brings in. So I’d like to try a more balanced approach between the two elements.

For Christian, working with the old piano parts has re-affirmed his belief in animism – that all things have energy, and that energy stays with an object even as its purpose changes.

The AVAM show opens next fall, so Christian has a year still to complete the third piece in his piano family. In the meantime, he says people are welcome to come to the House of Balls in the warehouse district of Minneapolis to see the couple and watch the birth of the child. Piano Man is also scheduled to appear at the Minnesota State Fair Fine Arts Show.