the two men sit at a piano together singing in the sunshine
Dean Mermell at the keys and partner Steffanos X on the mic at a Flower Piano event. (Photo/Scott Hess)

Q&A: An artist who brings pianos into the garden

Name: Dean Mermell
Age: 63
City: San Francisco
Position: Filmmaker, musician, producer of Flower Piano

J.: You have 20 fedoras hanging on the wall of your home and studio in Bernal Heights and are rarely seen without one on your head. But you also wear a lot of hats in the figurative sense. Can you name some of them?

Dean Mermell: I have a filmmaking company called Storyfarm and play keyboards in a rock duo left over from my former band, Tom Jonesing. I’m the co-founder of the performance art series called Sunset Piano, producer of the Flower Piano event at the San Francisco Botanical Garden and now director of the documentary film “Twelve Pianos.”

What is the short story behind Sunset Piano?

So, Mauro ffortissimo is an artist living in Half Moon Bay who makes crazy sculptures out of old pianos. On Feb. 1, 2013, he took this donated piano out to the bluffs overlooking the ocean. He wanted to play it each night at sunset until the fog and sea air claimed it — pianos don’t last long in that environment. It was a performance piece to express the temporariness of all things. What he didn’t count on was all the attention it got, especially when he finally set the piano on fire. So we formed Sunset Piano to bring other pianos to unexpected locations, rural and urban, and it’s become a bigger project. We’ve grown a community around it, with musicians, fans and dedicated “piano ninjas” who haul the pianos to impossible places. It’s about making music accessible to all people and focusing on the beauty of the world we have.

And this is the subject of your movie “Twelve Pianos”?

Yes. When Mauro told me he was going to place 12 more pianos all up and down the coast, I began hearing this little voice in my head that said, “Uh-oh … you’re going to make a film about this. It’s going to take over your life and there isn’t a damn thing you can do about it.” The film will premiere at the San Francisco Green Film Festival on April 26.

Another project coming up July 13-24 is Flower Piano. What is it?

It’s the crown jewel of what we do all year. It’s 12 pianos for 12 days in different settings throughout the San Francisco Botanical Garden. Anybody can play them, with free performances by professional musicians on weekends. It’s incredible who shows up and the quality of the music played.

You’re seen around the Bay Area so much you’re practically an institution. Are you a native San Franciscan?

No, I was born in Toronto. My parents are Old Country people who migrated to Canada in 1950 and then moved to Los Angeles when I was 10. During the war my dad was in a camp; my mom spent the war running from the Fascists in Yugoslavia.

Did Los Angeles make you a filmmaker?

Not at all. I became a glass artist in L.A., which is what I was when I first moved up here to San Francisco. Then in the mid-1990s, I let a friend set up a computer at my place because he was learning film editing, and I got really intrigued.

Mermell wearing a fedora in the desert
Dean Mermell

Are you the kind of filmmaker who does the whole thing, from writing to editing?

Being an editor for other people’s films has been my stock-in-trade for about 20 years, but I also make my own stuff. I have an editor’s approach to filmmaking. I make short, silent films that I do the music for. But making a documentary on your own, when you don’t have a lot of funds — that’s like years of your life that just go away. “Twelve Pianos” was three or four years where I didn’t do much else except keep myself alive and manage the Sunset Piano Project, which was also the subject of the film. Project manager: that was a hat I never expected to wear.

What is it about bringing music into nature that’s so appealing?

I think of Flower Piano in particular as civilization at its best. Because what I see happen to people who show up there, especially kids, is that they get really turned on to both music and nature. It’s important to have urban spaces that are nature accessible and music accessible. Flower Piano is that rare convergence.

What values have you inherited from your parents?

Their Old World values and respect. My parents had a really hard time in the war; they are the only survivors of each of their families. And I think they instilled in me a sense that there are very few things that are truly worth taking when the house is burning down. Family is precious. It is very important to them that I be happy and that they leave this world knowing that I am satisfied with my life. And I really am. This project is a huge part of it: the ability to give to the community something that is really precious and positive. In these times, it is more important than ever.

“Talking With” focuses on local Jews who are doing things we find interesting. Send suggestions to [email protected].

Laura Pall
Laura Paull

Laura Paull is J.'s former culture editor.