The Piano, It Looks Like a Carnival

Perry Olds creates symphonic sculpture.
Photo by Rachel Pressley

Piano man Perry Olds isn’t a professional entertainer, but his zeal for making assemblage is rollicking enough. Olds jokes about a keyboard-player friend “who laments that a person can pay a quarter of a million dollars for a violin which has [only] four strings.” Compare that to an 88-key piano — which is not only “vastly more complex,” Olds points out, “but you have to pay someone to haul it off.”

For several years, Olds has been creating assemblage installations using a variety of found and salvaged items. Pianos are notoriously hard to move whole, and one day, his daughter told him her neighbor wanted to give away just some parts, with the requirement that they be used in an art project. “That was me for sure!” exclaims Olds — and that was the beginning of the Piano Bones series.

Walk Like an Egyptian

“I acquired pieces from two more pianos just by talking to people about my work. I recently got an entire player piano, which I am very excited about.” (It’s stored in his studio awaiting deconstruction.) Olds is especially drawn to the moving pieces of a piano, the interior levers and hammers: “These intricate, precision wooden pieces are so cool.” Occasionally, though, he’ll incorporate bits that did not enjoy a previous life as part of a piano, such as wooden furniture parts or sand-casting patterns.

First, he must deconstruct the piano “action” — the moving parts that connect the keys to the hammers (which hit the strings). In accumulating these small mechanisms, “sometimes ideas begin to jell at that point — I love sorting.” That’s a trait that can probably be traced to his training as an engineer, testing engines for Rolls Royce in Indianapolis. 

Rosette #3
Photo by Rachel Pressley

Even before retirement, Olds dabbled in art, doing acrylic paintings, photography, rubbings, assemblage, and hand-made paper casting, but now that he and his wife are settled in North Carolina, near their daughter in Asheville, he can devote more hours to his innovative craft.

The Sharps and Flats Generator

“I believe I can make art out of just about anything if I have enough of it,” says Olds. First, though, he might study an arrangement of parts for weeks, tweaking it occasionally to arrive at a satisfying design. He admits he sometimes hits a dead end where an interesting composition refuses to present itself. “I then either give it more time, or give up and start over with different parts.” Those parts are sometimes painted or varnished, and then the artist prepares a mounting board, where he draws a layout and eventually glues down the material. His finished pieces range in size from one that is 36” x 72” (titled “Eighty-Eight Notes”) to 9 ½ ” x 72” (“The Choir”). 

Walk Like an Egyptian II

Olds is a house artist at Mars Landing Galleries, a new venue in Mars Hill. Gallery owner Miryam Rojas mentions “Perry’s transition from a long engineering career to a free-spirited artist — I love that.”

88 keys and a million possibilities — this old piano is ripe for a transformation.
Photo by Rachel Pressley

He says his assemblages aren’t meant to convey any particular message. “I’m just thrilled to present art that others find fascinating to look at. It’s rewarding when others find joy in my work.”

Perry Olds, Mars Hill, home-studio visits by appointment (contact the artist at oldwillow22@gmail.com). Olds is represented by Mars Landing Galleries (37 Library St., Mars Hill, marslandinggalleries.com).

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