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Susan Reys

Art, storytelling and a 117-year-old piano make sweet orchestral music in Brisbane

22 Aug 2023

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Planets aligned on the weekend when a more than century-old piano, hand painted by Cairns First Nations artist Susan Reys, formed the centrepiece of an orchestral performance by 21 musicians from the Queensland Symphony Orchestra (QSO) Connect ensemble.

The performance was held in South Bank, Brisbane on Saturday 19 August 2023.

With the idea formed before finding the 117-year-old semi-grand ballroom piano at auction in Cairns in 2021, Susan Reys took 18 months to transform the well-maintained instrument, an Australian-made Beale, into a showpiece canvas featuring more than 11 cultural stories titled, It’s Time To Listen, Let Me Tell You Another Story.

For Ms Reys, the exhibition of her artwork at this year’s Cairns Indigenous Art Fair (CIAF), held last month, was a special moment, particularly when visiting QSO Compose participant Jonathan Platz, took his seat to play as a special treat for fairgoers. It was a further boost for the artist to secure a sale to QPAC where the piano will now call home.

It was a serendipitous meeting in Cairns in August 2022 when QSO musician and composer and QSO Compose Project program leader, Craig Allister Young happened across Ms Reys’ gallery, K’gari 3 Sisters, during which he met the artist and admired her artwork in progress on the piano. 

Following this meeting, Mr Allister Young and fellow program leader Timothy Tate, conductor Katie Betts and QSO Connect ensemble musicians led a series of workshops and face-to-face activities with 23 students from Toowoomba Anglican School, Holland Park State High School, Cairns School of Distance Education, Narangba Valley State High School, Brisbane State High School, St. John's Anglican College. 

The students were then given the opportunity to write compositions, based on Ms Reys’ stories and artwork, for the 21-piece QSO Connect ensemble.  The final compositions were featured in Saturday’s performance which was attended by Ms Reys. 

In giving this musical instrument a new lease on life, Ms Reys said she could not be happier or have envisioned a more pleasing outcome.

“Right from the beginning, my vision and purpose for this project was about sharing our stories and culture with the public.  This was about creating something interactive and showing how amazing and intricate we are as a First Nations people. And now, being able to translate our stories and culture into the universal language of music is beyond what I could have envisioned,” Ms Reys said.

Ms Reys piano and other artworks formed part of CIAF’s 2023 Weaving our Future: Claiming our Sovereignty  Art Fair exhibition.  Across the 12 art centres and five independent galleries, two commercial galleries and 12 independent artists in the Art Fair plus 40 market stalls, notable sales reported across the event included the QPAC acquisition of Susan Reys’ hand-painted piano, the Sydney Powerhouse Museum’s acquisition of Townsville artist Gail Mabo’s mixed media wall installations, the National Gallery of Victoria’s purchase of Kuranda artist, Andy Duffin’s Emerged dilly bag and procurement of Toby Cedar’s Nar (canoe) by Cairns Airport for display at the international terminal.

CIAF’s Artistic Director Francoise Lane said this artwork by Susan Reys, musical compositions of cultural stories by QSO and acquisition by QPAC embodies the success of CIAF. 

“Empirically, there is nothing more convincing than this artist's experience for an event like CIAF which is a platform for storytelling, knowledge sharing and influencing change.   It gives artists a voice, a place to show and sell their work while focussing the spotlight on Queensland and its incredibly rich and distinct Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people,” Ms Lane said.