Arts / Community

Mr. Frassinelli brings pianos to life through his art

Michael Frassinelli, artist, teacher, and banjolele player, commonly known by his students as Mr. Fraz, is immersed in an ongoing creative project to “document” a fictional civilization called the Pianistas. The Pianistas of Mr. Frassinelli’s imagination were a tribe that created all elements of their world from piano parts.

He explained, “The entire series, in addition to paintings and objects, is what is called a conceptual series. I have made [the art objects] as if they could be interpreted to be made by a lost civilization. So these would be artifacts from that lost civilization that only had piano parts to make everything they needed,” he said. 

Many Dana Hall community members saw Mr. Frassinelli’s work when it was on display in October at the Bromfield Gallery in Boston. His gallery show, Pianista Cabinets of Curiosities, was an art show disguised as a museum display.

The objects displayed ranged from weapons, ceremonial objects, jewelry, and anything one might have seen in history museums, even though these objects are from a civilization that never actually existed. Mr. Frassinelli explained that, with the exception of glass and boxes, he only used piano parts for the Pianistas. 

In addition to the “cultural” objects on display, the show also featured several of Mr. Frassinelli’s large-scale still life paintings, inspired by Renaissance art and Dutch paintings in addition to an American style of hyper-realistic paintings of objects meant to “fool the eye.” 

His work is a mix of many different techniques, styles, inspirations, and objects meant to trick the visitor into thinking that they are in a museum rather than in a gallery. The recent show included museum-style written descriptions meant to confuse visitors into thinking that the objects weren’t made by Mr. Frassinelli but rather found and put on display.

Ms. Heather Panahi, an Upper School Social Studies teacher who took a bus of students to see the show in Bromfield Gallery, commented, “I was an anthropology major in college so it’s kind of set up like you’re walking into a museum and you’re looking at this culture that once existed that is sort of the experience you’re supposed to have.” 

In the world-building of this series, Mr. Frasinelli explain that “an alternative theory is that the Pianistas never existed but was a mistake made by museum curators 100 years ago when they found these objects. They were actually made by one person, a fictional character who was a handyman, who worked at the museum, and was a piano tuner and a folk artist.” The character’s name was Alfonzo Veneto, and the paintings were made by his sister, Ana Maria Veneto. 

He began creating for the show about twelve years ago with his first show of the series in February 2004. The largest painting in the recent show was a painting that he started about three years ago. His latest gallery show incorporated new and old paintings.

His recent sabbatical, from January to June 2022, was when he did a large amount of preparation for the show. Although he spent most of his sabbatical at home working, he also traveled to California, Ireland, and Italy in January and February. 

In California, he stayed at an artist residency where he mainly took apart old pianos. Afterwards, he stayed in southeast Ireland on a rural farm where he spent most of his time making paintings and sculptures. In Italy, he stayed next to a vineyard in Tuscany. 

Although he explains that most of his inspiration for the show came from pictures, other artists, and his love for strange objects, where he was in his journey has an effect on the art itself. In each of the places he traveled, he did many landscape paintings, yet he also used and studied different styles of paintings and artwork. 

For example, while he was in Ireland he did some work with felting, taking the wool of fleece from an animal, specifically an alpaca, and used a spinning wheel to make the thread. He then incorporated the string into different sculptures and experimented with different techniques.

While he stayed in California, he was surrounded by a vineyard, so he included the natural materials of the vineyard in his art. He used vines and bits of plants like oak and seed pods. 

In Italy, his studio was in an old church next to a castle, which influenced his art and the art he studied. Also in Florence, he looked at Renaissance paintings and styles and researched the idea of the cabinets of curiosity, which began in the Italian renaissance.

Mr. Frassinelli has been teaching art at Dana for 20 years. He started teaching right after graduating college in 1986, beginning in Nantucket at the Nantucket school of design. He also had a career in theater design and teaching technical theater and design. At Dana Hall, he teaches Exploring Design, Architecture, Art Lab, Studio Art, and AP Studio Art. He said that he doesn’t have a favorite class, yet he tells each of his classes that they are his favorite. 

Mr. Frassinelli also said that he loves being back in the classroom and that sabbatical was a great time to get reenergized about teaching and art. Also he enjoys being in the temporary Beveridge Art Studio. 

Ms. Panahi commented, “I think any time you have the opportunity to see the passions of your teachers outside of the classroom it’s important because it reminds us that our teachers are human beings with interests and hobbies and we start to see our teachers as more people.” 

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