An Interview

To interview Mary Baskett, known for individualistic dress as well as for expertise in Western and Japanese prints, I wear the single spectacular piece of clothing in my own closet, a winter coat of many colors. “Jane! Your coat!” says Baskett, on opening the door of the Mt. Adams house where she and her husband live and where she has her gallery.

What she is wearing, however, is much more interesting than my coat: a simple white shirt, impeccably detailed, and a black jumper that defies all rules. Fluted with pleats, hanging loose around her slender shape, dipping slightly in the back—”It makes me feel as though I’m wearing a train!” she says. The outfit is new, bought in Paris, the work of Japanese designer Yohji Yamamoto.

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“It was shown on the runway with ankle socks. I didn’t know where to get ankle socks now…” T.J. Maxx obliged.

Baskett has the flair to wear such clothes well, with her deftly cut short white hair—darker roots suggest white is a choice, not a given—direct blue eyes, and easy posture. She has an engaging manner suggesting you are exactly the person she would choose to be talking with at this moment.

Baskett’s interest in clothing is of a piece with her interest in more formal art. She has a discerning eye, a quick grasp of intellectual background, and a contagious enthusiasm. Finding the balance between career demands and personal life has been a challenge, more or less, since she entered Wellesley and met her eventual husband, William Baskett III, on her first blind date. The challenge has been successfully met; the couple has been married nearly fifty years, their son is grown, and Mary was honored last year at the Japanese embassy in Washington by the Minister of Foreign Affairs Tokyo Commendation Award for 2010 for her “contributions to cultural exchange in the field of art.”

How we get to where we are is not necessarily the way we expected to go. Growing up in Binghamton, New York, Mary learned from her parents that “art was not for smart people” and entered Wellesley in the late 1950s expecting to become an endocrinologist. “Those glands, thymus, prostate, all that was up for grabs in those years.” However, her new friend William Baskett, from New York City, a sophomore at Harvard, convinced her that tracking fruit flies “which was what I was doing. It was like a Canterbury tale, tracking those fruit flies,” was wasting time and she should be studying art. So she did.

Contemporary works immediately caught her in. “I always liked things that are different.” No courses in Asian art were offered. “Can you imagine, there were almost no Asian students in the school at that time.” Further study, on her mind but not on her parents’, became possible with a full scholarship to the University of Hawaii for graduate work. “My parents weren’t happy, they thought it was a joke of a school, but it wasn’t. I lapped it up. Very different looking people. Obama’s stepfather was a classmate. We didn’t actually meet, but there is a picture of the class and there I am…there he is.” Meanwhile, she and Bill were in love, Bill was in Boston, and her first stay at the University lasted for about a semester. She went home to become engaged, and only after they had been married for a year or so did she return.

“I went [from the University] to India immediately on a travel fellowship, with stops in Japan, Cambodia, Burma, Thailand, Hong Kong.” Indian art, the ideas of karma, “the sacred sense of life” quickly caught her interest. But Bill, in Boston, in law school, thought she should be in Boston as well. She returned, found a job at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts—”looks very good on the resume, but all I was doing was getting books for people. I hated it.” On the plus side, she was “lucky to qualify for classes at Harvard in Chinese literature, Japanese literature with Howard Hibbett [noted Japanese literature scholar] and Chinese history.”

Admitted to the bar, Bill was hired by a Cincinnati firm and found the couple an apartment on Colerain Avenue, not a venue Mary wanted to call home. They settled on another apartment, this one in Mount Adams, and before long Mary had a job at the nearby Cincinnati Art Museum, in the print department. Two important things happened, shaping Mary’s career and, in fact, the Museum’s print collection. She began work on a long term project that resulted in the catalogue raisonné for prints by the painter John Henry Twachtman and she met Mrs. Howard Porter.

Porter, a woman of lively enthusiasms, embraced her husband’s knowledgeable interest in Japan, where he had been a United States official following World War II. She belonged to the Museum’s quaintly named Print and Drawing Circle and soon her formidable focus was on modern Japanese prints.” She had a vision of prints helping to heal the breach caused by the war,” Baskett explains. Originally more deeply versed in Chinese art and speaking that language a little, the young print curator turned to Japanese culture “which of course grew out of Chinese culture. I saw the light of how special Japan is.” Baskett would work with Porter down the years, until the collector’s death, assembling the large (2750 prints by 255 printmkers) Howard and Caroline Porter Collection that now resides at the Museum. CAM Curator Kristin Spangenberg has said the collection is “one of the finest of such material in the world.”

Baskett’s years at the Museum (1965-71) were marked by two important personal events. She became ill with multiple sclerosis and she had a baby. “You will be paralyzed, you will be in a wheelchair” she was told at the onset of the illness, in winter, 1966, but she continued working through much of its course despite a compelling need for rest. “[Director] Phil Adams had a bed set up for me in the playing cards area,” she says, referring to the print department’s storage for its playing card collection. “It was a nice private place for a single cot.” At home, a neighbor, Madeline Whiting Wagner, who “had those qualities of knowing how to help, took me over” says Baskett, and in the end the terrible scenario was avoided. By the time the Basketts’ son, Burch, was born in December, 1968, she was well again.

In 1971 “I had a seven-year itch and left the museum to work toward a doctorate in Japanese art history,” she says. Commuting to Ohio State University in Columbus two days a week—”I-71 wasn’t even in then”—she also established connections with the Columbus Gallery of Fine Arts and enlarged her academic and professional experience although the doctorate was never fully completed. In 1975 the family moved to New York City where Baskett went to work for the auction house Sothby Parke Bernet Inc. “A killing job. We needed to put prices on things instantly. It was a natural progression to owning one’s own business.”

Baskett’s own business came about on their return to Cincinnati, in 1977, and continues today.

In Mt. Adams they bought a place that could also accommodate a gallery. The 1830s house has stood on its hillside longer than Immaculata church has towered above it and has a river view sweeping to left and right. In 1862 watch was kept from that front porch against threat of rebels setting off from the Kentucky side. At some later point the structure had been a school. “A children’s game was painted on the floor of this room,” says Baskett, this room being the gallery itself.

Dark red walls set off the art displayed there, which includes a sculpture by Shinji Turner-Yamamoto whose Contemporary Arts Center show recently closed. Baskett had been “the facilitator,” she says, for a stunning temporary installation the artist made in Mt. Adams’ deconsecrated Holy Cross Church last fall, in which a live tree seemingly grew from a dead one. Titled “Hanging Garden,” the piece was part of the artist’s Global Tree Project, linking audiences with the natural world.

Entering the house, a comfortable-looking sitting room is at right and the gallery at left. There a long, glass-topped table makes a convenient place for looking at prints, the Turner-Yamamoto is above the fireplace, a harpsichord stands against the front wall, a fantastic dress by designer Rei Kawakubo appears on a green-wigged mannequin, and at the rear a doorway opens into the small room that is Baskett’s office.

In the office, she shows me a photograph from the fashion show in which her jumper and blouse appeared. “I try to only buy the three—now legendary—[contemporary] Japanese designers, Yohji, Rei and Issey Mijake,” she says. Her discriminating, museum-honed approach to this field resulted in the exhibition “Where In The World Would You Wear That?” at the Cincinnati Art Museum in 2007. The show appeared later in a six month run at the Textile Museum in Washington, D.C., with the more formal title “Contemporary Japanese Designers: The Mary Baskett Collection.”

CAM costume curator Cynthia Amneus notes that Basket began collecting Japanese designer clothing in the 1980s, so “her wardrobe includes some rare and very important pieces. She follows the work of these three designers closely, with a perceptive eye, that helps her make excellent choices.”

As we finish the interview, I ask Baskett what, in her varied career—she’s often written on graphic arts, taught at the University of Cincinnati, and curated exhibitions as well as heading her gallery for over thirty years—what gives her the most satisfaction? She promptly snatches up the large, pale-bound catalogue raisonné of Twachtman prints. Published in the late 1990s, work on it had begun not long after she joined the Art Museum staff. “Mr. Adams came into my office and told me I was going to do the exhibition with [painting curator] Dick Boyle.” That exhibition, a retrospective of the artist’s paintings and prints, appeared in 1966. Preparing for it, she had an experience now fondly remembered of staying “in the spare bedroom of the old family house on Round Hill Road, Greenwich, Connecticut, with Twachtman’s oldest son, an architect and artist of wall murals for elegant houses.” Some sixty years separated their ages. A catalogue was published in connection with the exhibition, but Baskett’s work on the prints continued from time to time for decades and the definitive volume appeared in 1999.

We have, I think, covered a broad range of a full life, but just as I am leaving a man appears to tune the harpsichord. Who in this household. plays the harpsichord? “I do,” says Baskett. “I had it moved in here from another room so that I’d play it more. We both play the piano. . .and then the clarinet—oh, the clarinet! I could be happy with the clarinet!”

My assignment is Mary Baskett’s visual arts career and those portions of her personal life that bear upon it, so I leave without following this new, possibly very interesting, line of inquiry.

– Jane Durrell


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