New York News

Catholic Artist’s Work Is Inspired By Faith, Church

In the shadow of the Parachute Jump on the Coney Island boardwalk, Brooklyn artist Christopher Spinelli sits at the carousel-themed piano he painted as part of Sing for Hope’s public arts project. (Photos: Marie Elena Giossi)

Artist Christopher Spinelli has had his work exhibited from Bay Ridge to Berlin. Now his latest creation – a colorfully painted piano – can be seen and played for the next few days on the Coney Island boardwalk.

Located down the block from Nathan’s, just before toes hit sand at the end of Stillwell Avenue, the oddly placed instrument appeals to passersby who stop to run their fingers along the keys, give their own personal concert, or simply admire the artwork.

“People inevitably gravitate toward the piano,” Spinelli said, watching students and their teacher huddle around the keys on a recent morning. “It becomes a hub of activity – people who play, people who’ve never played – they all want to go and tickle the ivories, which is great.

“It’s a nice combination of the visual arts and performance arts.”

Sing for Hope

The temporary boardwalk installation is one of 51 Sing for Hope Pianos that can be found – and played by anyone and everyone – in public spaces across the city through June 24. Made possible by the nonprofit, Sing for Hope, this annual public arts project seeks to bring the transformative power of creativity to communities.

Every Sing for Hope piano is unique – designed and hand-painted by artist-volunteers, like Spinelli, who has been creating art in Brooklyn for over three decades and works in a variety of media.

Much of his art is figurative and pays tribute to New York, particularly iconic sights. For his piano, he chose the theme “Grabbing the Brass Ring,” and gave life to carousel horses and golden poles in acrylic paint as an homage to the B&B Carousell, a Coney Island original. Built in 1906, it was recently restored and is now one of Luna Park’s signature attractions.

Spinelli’s piano stands a short walk from the real thing.

“It’s beautiful the way they painted it. It reminds me of the carousel with the horses, and you’d go around and catch the ring,” said Sam Levinson of Astoria, who stopped to admire the upright on a recent morning, and spent a few moments unknowingly sharing some memories with the artist.

From childhood trips to Nathan’s when the area was rough, to rediscovering the seaside as a young adult and enjoying its revitalization today, the “magic world of Coney Island” holds a special place in Spinelli’s heart.

And he draws inspiration, along with the desire to share his talents, from another source close to his heart – his Catholic faith. He is a parishioner and trustee at St. Thomas Aquinas in Flatlands, where he oversaw a redesign of the parish sanctuary last year.

“We’re encouraged as Catholics to volunteer and to serve other people,” Spinelli said. “This is maybe not the first way that you’d think of as service, but it is – you’re sharing your talents and you’re doing it for the benefit of others.”

Sites Across the City

In addition to Coney Island, pianos can be found in Flushing Meadows Park, Brooklyn Bridge Park, Astoria Park, Flushing Town Hall and Prospect Park.

Sing for Hope also partnered with Mini USA this year to produce a mobile piano inside a modified Mini Countryman that is bringing art and music all over the city with pop-up performances.

When organizers were looking for someone to create an eye-catching look for this mobile music machine, Spinelli got the call. And what he came up with was a fun, abstract print that some might say is reminiscent of church artwork.

“People have asked about the design on the car, ‘Where does that come from?’ When I look at it, I can see things like mosaic tiles and stained-glass patterns,” Spinelli said.

Elements of Youth, Faith

It harkens back to elements of his youth, like the interlocking designs in leaded stained glass that he admired while attending Mass at Regina Pacis in Bensonhurst.

Paula Paternini and her grandson Nate enjoy the Sing for Hope Piano along the Coney Island boardwalk.

“As a Catholic, it’s a very visual faith. … It’s color and light, texture and glass, marble and mosaics,” he said. “Being at Regina Pacis was – it’s kind of like going to Mass at the Vatican – all these textures and colors. …

“You can find God certainly in art, and that’s part of the beauty of it too,” he said.

And he is grateful that so many individuals and communities are being touched by the beauty of the Sing for Hope Pianos project.

“I think it’s the greatest thing,” said Paula Paterniti. “I just love the whole idea of it.”

Paterniti grew up in Coney Island, attending Our Lady of Solace School, and remembers visiting the amusement park with her father on Sundays after Mass.

On Brooklyn Day, she brought her grandson Nate Kunhardt to enjoy the boardwalk’s offerings, including the piano, where he played “Heart and Soul” and “Chopsticks.”

When the program ends, children like Nate will continue to enjoy the music and the art for years to come. Sing for Hope secures permanent homes for the pianos in city schools. Spinelli’s creation is slated for P.S. 811 Connie Lekas School in Coney Island.

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