Yuwei Pan

I am an organizer, creative technologist and communications strategist. 

I make the unimaginable and invisible into the tangible and believable, and to invigorate radical re-imagination of our future.

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“An artist's duty is to reflect the times.” — Nina Simone.

“Artists are the gatekeepers of truth. We are civilization’s radical voice.” — Paul Robeson

The unbearable lightness of a piano

A photo essay of the people’s pianist: Colin Huggins

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This zine was made during NYU Gallatin’s Photojournalism Lab: Fire and Ice. Special thanks to Dr. Lauren Walsh and Ron Haviv.

Follow Colin’s journey on Instagram @howdidyougetthepianohere and www.colinhuggins.nyc.
It has been fourteen years since Colin begun to play the piano in Washington Square Park. In 2018, his crowdfunding campaign gifted him a beautiful Steinway grand piano, which he still pushes to the park. He scraped away the iconic “Steinway and Son’s” from the piano, and engraved “This Machine Kills Fascists” on the sides.

Many people with particularly difficult lives in the area know Colin. Blinky shows up on this particularly Saturday morning to help him push the piano across eleven blocks from the East Village. Blinky stays to assemble the piano in the park with Colin. Colin gives him thirty dollars for the help.

“Piano is Colin’s medium of connecting with humanity, and his way of working through things he is dealing with in life.”

Aron, listening to Colin playing the piano on the park bench, has been coming to see Colin play for five years. Aron says it was the highest point of his day, before having to work at a restaurant in midtown.

Playing the piano is both physical and psychological labor, so Colin takes short breaks between performing.

During one of the breaks he lets Sea play the piano. She lost almost everything due to an accident and now sleeps in the park. Sea is over the moon with joy, and begins improvising a piece on the piano. She also loves writing and leaves a poem in Colin’s notebook.

“You guys should come closer. There’s nothing physically stopping you.”

Colin explains each piece of music standing on the piano bench: who the composer is, what it means and how to listen.

He also invites people to lie under the piano to feel the vibrations of the piano. He calls it “one of the best musical experiences you will ever have.”

Recently, Colin is going through a difficult transition. He found a new home for his two grand pianos in a semi-abandoned house called the Gusto in the East Village.

There is a significant ledge that piano has to climb over, and Colin has to learn to move it alone. The piano weighs close to a small elephant.

In order to build a ramp for the piano, Colin visits the local Ace hardware store many times. He has a very limited budget, so he comes up with solutions that involve using found materials in inventive ways. He purchases two metal sheets, two door handles, three anti-slip sheets, and one dust mask.

The piano is a massive beast with three legs, 230 strings and a very volatile character.

Colin works like a car mechanic more than a pianist sometimes.

His finger bleeds, though it takes him a while to notice. He is too busy hammering away at the piano wheels.

The tattoo on the back of his left hand “FTW” can be interpreted as “fuck the world”, “for the win”, or “fear the worst”. It is a visual reminder both for him and for his audience that there are still many injustices in the world.

“What are you talking about, I don’t have a life outside of the piano.”

At the end of a tiring day of moving the piano and building the ramp, Colin finally gets to relax and practices the piano in its new home.

He leaves the doors open.

Colin likes to make a dish of blueberries and beets, and he drinks the juice too. He picks out vegetables at East Village Organic, close to his one- bedroom apartment in St. Marks.

“You know that Tuesday is sprout day? They have fresh sprouted veggies.”

Colin makes the blueberry beets, and eats the pulp with the juice, accompanied by vegan chicken and dried mangos. He drinks electrolyte water, which helps keep him hydrated throughout the day, especially when he is playing in the park.

He checks the messages people sent him on his phone, most of which are people telling him how extraordinary listening to his music was. Sometimes people ask to borrow his piano, to which he always refuses.

Colin puts on a special hair gel that keeps his hair dry.

An old lady in the park said that he looks much better now with his new haircut.

On the shelf, Colin keeps a stack of notes that people have written to him over the years. He carefully pulls one out that is kept neatly in a binder.

Dupuytren’s disease thickens and tightens the tissue under the skin of his hands. Before and after playing the piano, Colin does an intense breathing exercise to help him relax his muscles and focus on the piano playing:

       One min of fast breathing
       One deep breath in and one deep breath out Hold breath for 2-3 minutes

       Relax and repeat

Besides playing well-known pieces in the park that people will recognize, Colin also practices and incorporates more obscure pieces into his public performances.

He plays Edvard Grieg’s Elegie Op. 47, No. 7, a piece about struggling with change.

Colin: “Sometimes, things just don’t work.”

People write messages to Colin under the piano.

Colin says, “Be honest with me, but also don’t be too honest. Just tell me I am perfect.”