Before the Covid-19 pandemic swept into the North Bay in March of 2020, one of the most trustworthy sights in Sonoma County was Petaluma Pete, a.k.a. John Maher, playing on one of the town’s many street pianos.
Over the last year, the pianos came off the streets amid the social-distancing orders, though Maher wasn’t ready to say goodbye to the vintage instruments. Instead, he spearheaded a new art exhibit, “Pianos of Petaluma,” featuring more than 40 of the artistically decorated and painted pianos. The exhibit concludes on Saturday, May 15, at the Petaluma Arts Center.
“For 13 years, I’ve been out there playing on the street,” Maher says. “About 10 years ago I started asking artists if they would like to paint a piano, and the enthusiasm was really cool.”
Sourcing the pianos from Craigslist and social media, Maher delivered the instruments to local artists and then found storefronts or covered outside areas in downtown Petaluma to display and play them.
“It became a thing; we had pianos all over the damn place,” Maher says with a laugh.
Last year, Maher stored the pianos in a warehouse once they came off the streets, and he realized the collection would make an impressive exhibition.
Thus, “Pianos of Petaluma” opened last month at the Petaluma Arts Center, with 45 pianos on display. Local events and icons like Petaluma’s Butter & Egg Days parade and festival and the film American Graffiti artistically inspire many of the pianos.
Artists who painted the pianos were also invited to bring their more of their own art, and the walls of the Petaluma Arts Center are peppered with artwork next to and around the pianos.
In addition to being open for in-person viewing, the pianos are also for sale, and proceeds from the exhibition will go towards the “Save the Trestle” project.
With the help of the Petaluma Trolley Living History Railway Museum, the “Save The Trestle” Committee has developed a strategy for rehabilitating Petaluma’s historically important landmark: the Water Street Trestle.
Located along the Petaluma River, the Water Street Trestle was part-railroad track, part-promenade up until 1994. Today, Maher and others aim to rehabilitate that stretch of the trestle and add it to Petaluma’s downtown attractions.
“The whole objective is to revitalize downtown Petaluma, because we are lucky to have a river running right through town,” Maher says. “It could be our strongest asset, and very slowly and surely it’s coming around.”
Maher—who is 70 years old and now fully vaccinated—says he’ll be back out on the streets playing piano as soon as Sonoma County moves into the yellow tier of the pandemic. For now, “Pianos of Petaluma” offers the public a safe and distanced way to enjoy the many artistic instruments in Petaluma Arts Center’s large exhibit space.
“The place is absolutely packed,” Maher says. “You’ve got to see this room.”