Brief encounters: Ann Bassett

By CK Wolfson - December 27, 2007

Ann Bassett sits at the table in a kitchen filled with collections of blue glass and Willow ware in a cozy West Tisbury house filled with books. As the irrepressible, 65-year-old - eldest of seven children with an Island lineage that goes back centuries - offers bits and pieces of her experiences, it becomes clear that this is a lesson in positive thinking.

"First of all, this is a very nurturing community," Ms. Bassett says, smiling as she speaks. "When my mother shooed us out of the house in the morning, she knew we could go anywhere and be perfectly safe. I think that kind of protective environment gives you confidence.

"I remember walking home in the dark from the Waller Farm in Katama, hearing noises through the woods, and thinking that the first person who came down the road would know who I was and where to go to take me home."

While appearing as carefully mannered and coiffed as a proper New England clubwoman, Ann's vita has a distinctively bohemian edge. As a single parent living in Cambridge, she did housekeeping for professors, worked for a graphics company, an architect, and a public library. She moved to Toronto for a year, and worked in the library of one of Canada's largest engineering consultant firms.

Ann Bassett
Ann Bassett. Photo by CK Wolfson. Click photo for larger version.

Listening to her recount her history is like hearing stones skip across the water: Three marriages (her husband is former West Tisbury postmaster Jim Alley), three children (Lisa Rogers, Dorothy Whiting, Grayson Pelletier), an Island filled with grandchildren and relatives, and somehow in the middle of it all, her changing, shifting pursuits.

"Oh, I've done all the things I've ever wanted to do," Anne says happily. "I've always taught riding, managed a horse farm ..." and with barely a pause she lists her other careers: working for Project, a branch of Community Services, Alley's Real Estate, and a Vineyard Haven antique store.

"I've always been like this," Anne says with a smile. "I look at something and say, 'I want to do that.'" Like the time she was shingling a house with a friend, who asked her what she would do if she could do anything. "And the words came out of my mouth, 'I'd go work with Arabian horses in Vermont,' and within a year I was doing it. I was with a friend driving down the road in Vermont, and there was a little sign that said, 'Arab horses,' and I said, 'Turn in here.'" She packed up the whole family and moved to Vermont for a year.

In explaining her adaptability, Ann says, "The older I get, the more I understand that it's all about process - and I've learned to trust the process. If you keep on with the little steps, you're going to get there.

"I think that when you're young and you're intimidated by things and people, you aren't able to leap off edges in the same way that you can when you have gained some knowledge and experience in the world. New things aren't a threat; they are an opportunity. My mother Rosalie Crimmins Bassett, has I think a lot to do with that. My mother - she's going to be 90 on her next birthday - is a very independent thinker and always has been. Talk about role modeling. She was able to reinvent herself whenever she wanted to."

A longtime friend of the owner of Bunch of Grapes, Ann Nelson, Ms. Bassett spent the past ten years until recently, employed by the bookstore where she created and successfully implemented author events.

"I've always wanted to do more with photography and suddenly it was the beginning of September and I had time," she says of her latest interest. She's a vocal and enthusiastic supporter of MVTV, the Vineyard's local access station: "They loan you thousands of dollars worth of equipment and you go out and shoot whatever it is that you want, then you get one-on-one editing classes." She enlisted the support of filmmaker/producer Jonathan Revere, of whom she is a great fan, and began making film shorts of scenes around the Island.

"Serendipity," she exclaims, going on to describe her latest endeavor, "The Vineyard View," a series of interviews aired on MVTV. "I mean you could just walk down the street and see ten people you'd like to know more about," she says. "And I ask the obvious. I have a talent for the obvious. I go to the post office and I meet three people - 'Oh God, yes, I want to do a program with you.' For instance, talking to Cynthia Riggs about her life, her work, and her family house, a literary B&B. So I was able to interview Cynthia, and then go and spend an afternoon at her house shooting what I wanted. Oh God, that was fun."

According to Ann, one only needs intellectual curiosity, the willingness to take risks and "step off the edge." She explains, "I mean the first couple of shows that I did I remember looking at and thinking, 'Oh my God, I've got to lose 15 pounds. I've got to have some work done on my face. But then you lose all personal vanity. It just is what it is, because the project itself takes over. So personal vanity is right out the door."

The afternoon is beginning to ebb, and Ms. Bassett, with the same level of animation and zest she has been exhibiting, reflects: "On Martha's Vineyard, success is a lifestyle, and there are many people whose lifestyle is an art form and they do it really well. I became aware of this when I was a kid. I can remember taking a message into a shucking shack where the guys were opening scallops and talking. I realized after awhile that there were three masters degrees and a PhD in there, and I thought, 'Hmm, people have been making interesting choices.' That was the first time that I realized that people coming to the Island might look around and say, 'I don't want cars and position and you know, a big salary. I want to live in a place where I can have friendships, where I can have time to go fishing when I want to, and walk the beach. It's a lifestyle as art form."