Sunday, October 26, 2014

North End Arts Rising, Inc./The Buttonwood Tree honors John Basinger

Last evening, NEAR, Inc./The Buttonwood Tree held a benefit event (well, actually more like three events spread out within a one block perimeter in the North End) that featured a salute to long-time Board President John Basinger. There were tributes to him by many of his associates and friends over the years, in a ceremony held at the Community Health Center. What follows is tribute given to John from NEAR, Inc./The Buttonwood Tree founder Susan Allison. It is insightful both into the man and the organization he's served.

"I am a very lucky person to have been able to be friends with John Basinger the past 25 years

John Basinger. What a proposition. What a concept. An orange leap into the air. Silver laughter springing forth from God knows where. A joke, or, was that a joke? Or was that a confession, or was it a quote from Eugene O’Neill. A friend swears she heard him barking at a fancy restaurant.

I’ve often referred to John as one of the Local Heroes. I remember getting to know him when he visited Ibis Books with recitations, quips, stories told with professional flair, and by professional I mean as the maddest old man in the oldest part of the hills. I soon learned he lived here in the North End. I saw him speak up in town hall about issues in the North End. He was one of a cadre of elders who became regulars at The Buttonwood Tree; one of the good guys and great women who seemed to watch over us.

He’d often bring a dozen Portuguese rolls still warm, baked fresh by Santo Vinci from Mrs. Vinci’s. He patronized the local shops and brought food to starving artists, a very simple act with many ramifications.

John Basinger, brain to skull, to hair, to sky, to firmament, through synaptic sparks in the star trails of muses, through the songs of shooting dendrites, a moment’s pause, Aha! Why yes, that’s it! he’ll say, then just walk off or howl with laughter.

With the Voice of angel, a singer complete, the voice of ancient bear, the voice of  an expert who has been there before, fo do dio, fo do dio…, the voice of academic wit, the voice of an elder sometimes forgetting and then in an instant, voices, everything that has never been said.

Born in 1934

Iron John, Big John, Anglo John, Patriarchal patriot, Poet pioneer, with a complicated past.  “Go fetch the coal, boy!”  A hard life as a child in poor Chicago. Yet ever loved, forever loved red-haired, freckled boy full of promise and promiscuity. An athlete who played three sports in high school, awards, a scholar, awards, a scientist, a storyteller…

Go here young man, go there young man. He was pre-med once. Drafted and served in the Pentagon. Then, wanting to serve differently, he taught children in Kenya, in a one-room school for three years. Next Wesleyan. And a chance role that led him to understand himself as an actor. Self-knowledge. Then Jeanine… So smitten and fallen, and ever after the number one fan (and there are many) of the number one fan club of Jeanine. Then beautiful Savannah, a family. Then the National Theater of the Deaf, Then Mohegan Community College where he would eventually perform a marathon recitation from memory of Paradise Lost, in the Basinger Auditorium. While continuing to write, direct, perform on film and stage, poetry and plays including A Brave Revenge…And of course maintaining the number one Jeanine fan club, at which I have been voted luckiest member. John will tell the stories that led up to what Jeanine said. And it’s never just what Jeanine said, it has a story to it, the surrounding big picture, to highlight the significance, humor, perfection of what Jeanine said. In the club we marvel at each dazzling word of what Jeanine said.

In a hidden room in an old brick building on Main Street are mounds of paper bags, boxes, shoulder bags filled with phone bills that were never opened but with poems written on them, broken pairs of eye-glasses, playbills, books, books, and books, and watch tower pamphlets, and cards, postcards, letters that say ‘thank you John…’ from hundreds of people, ‘John it was great to see you, John I had to write you, John I saw your performance’, and photographs, friends, colleagues, ‘thank you for…, we miss you and, where are you?’ There are cocktail napkins full of thoughts, receipts full of observations, manila envelopes covered with essays, responses, emotions, scenes, dialogues…notes and ideas, phone numbers, addresses, …church bulletins filled with poetry.

There he goes over the Arrigoni Bridge rapping his fingers against his chest in metered verse as he memorizes Milton walking over the river, looking like a crazy man.

“How does he do all he does?” a Director recently asked me, confounded, blurting “I assumed he’d been rehearsing but found out he just got back from Africa where he has been teaching sign language to deaf children!—Of course he has!”

John recently told me a story into which figured a situation in which he was to attend two board meetings at the same time. He would listen and weigh in at one and then go out in the hall and on the phone, listen and weigh in at the other. That was only incidental to the story, but that is John, the kind of thing he does. He takes things seriously; he does not brush things off. He might brush off worry, in a healthy way, but mostly he gives his time, he listens, he thinks! He reminded me about the time I first asked him to be on the board. He asked me why and I said, “Because you can think!” Something I believed we needed desperately at the time. It was a chaotic, passionate, an overwhelming onslaught of creative minds, Wesleyan kids, street people, creative types, neighbors; we were getting to know each other, getting to know the neighborhood, it was navigating our way through a barrage of self proclaimed advisors.  John not only joined the board but ended up shepherding The Buttonwood Tree through various waves and tides, directors, crisis’ and miracles.

North End Arts Rising, Inc./The Buttonwood Tree exists due to the contributions and talents of thousands of people, most recently to the untiring and beautifully positive work of Anne- Marie Cannatta. But I don’t think it would have lasted this long without the care and dedication of John Basinger, who took it upon himself to guide this little art center forward. To tend it, tend to it. Attend. I don’t know if I can impress upon people how frustrating such a task can be. It requires an ability to intervene in the drama of artists, keep an even keel with poets in the boat, and in rough political waters, balance needs and ideas with an almost inexistent budget, be realistic, be optimistic, be diligent, be open, give time, give heart, soul, brain, elbows, hands, and footwork.

There are people in this world who join boards and become board presidents because it looks good on their curriculum vitae.  I don’t think this is the case for many, if anyone, who has joined the Button Board. Certainly it was not the case for John. John believes in things and then gives what he can to help them grow or simply be.

From the beginning we, the entire Buttonwood Family which includes artists, musicians, board members, volunteers, patrons, neighbors, friends, businesses, everyone who has come though and those of us here tonight, we, have been and are fortunate, some would say blessed, others would say damned lucky, that people come forward and give what they have, what they know, what they can, to keep the doors open, to keep this place here. This place has been an important, safe, refuge for creativity for many people. It is a synergy that is hard to define, an experience that combines the arts with the more humble work of a kind of mom and pop shop on Main Street. I am personally grateful because I feel as though I had the easy job of just opening the door. It seems easy now because it was fun. But there was still much work, I was lucky because there were others who wanted the same thing, had wanted that same door open. John exemplifies, among all who have contributed, that willingness to help, he embodies the weight taken on like a humble duty. He does so in a kind of a self-less churchy way, but he also finds his rewards, because the entire world expands though such gestures, and as he is somehow privy as witness to such mysteries, it brings him great joy. Thank God, thank goodness, thank the muses, and the cherubim and the seraphim for John Basinger. Thank you John for doing, and pointing out, important things, often the small or the subtle, as well as the impossible.

John, the North End still rises and The Buttonwood Tree still thrives having been in your epic care."


Karen Swartz said...

Only a poet extraordinaire could give such a beautiful tribute to an extraordinary raconteur. Cheers to Susan and CHEERS to John Basinger. Thank you for transcribing and posting this for those who couldn't be there!

Tree Fanatic said...

Sorry you missed it, Karen. It was an extremely moving tribute, one of many very special moments. Usually, tributes are unsatisfying because the honoree could have said it better, but we saw some real stars up there that night, all of whom were equal to the task. Buttonwood trees aren't especially known for their flowers, but this one has really flowered forth.