CEDAR FALLS — John Baskerville died almost three years ago, but the associate professor of history is not forgotten at the University of Northern Iowa.
A portrait of the Waterloo native, who also had been a well-known bassist in local bands, was unveiled this week and will hang in Seerley Hall’s Howard Room.
It was painted by Rhonda Gray, a student of Baskerville’s who graduated from UNI in 2002 with a history education degree. She is now a history instructor at Triton College in River Grove, Ill., and an emerging African-American artist in the Chicago area.
CEDAR FALLS | Checker and the Bluetones bassist and University of Northern Iowa history prof…
“We really needed to memorialize John, and this seemed like a good way to do it,” said Tom Connors, associate professor of history.
Baskerville was 52 when he died in March 2015. Along with other subjects, he taught a number of African-American studies classes and seminars as well as black music history.
Gray caught the attention of history department faculty as they sought an artist to commission the work.
“Rhonda is one of our alumna,” said Connors. “Everybody loved her stuff and thought this would be a really nice tribute.”
The painting was officially unveiled Wednesday evening, when Gray gave a talk on “Black Mojo and the Art of Cultural Resistance.”
“It’s one of the greatest honors,” said Gray, a self-taught artist who hadn’t been back to the university since leaving after graduation. “It feels amazing, a little overwhelming. So many thoughts, reflections are coming back.”
In the talk, she discussed “the power of art to exact change through building moral empathy and opening consciousness.” She shared some her work and influences with the audience.
Gray painted with acrylics and also used art paper collage to create the background in Baskerville’s portrait. “I’ve come to be known for my mixed media paintings,” she said.
The background colors “represent different sounds,” emblems of the music he played, explained Gray. Baskerville performed jazz and rock as a member of Checker and the Bluetones, the final band he was part of.
“But he also has a professional posturing” in the portrait, she said, “representing that duality of how I saw him.” Gray based his pose in the painting on a photograph.
“I went through about 50 different photographs — over 50 different photographs — to decide which one to use,” she said. “And something just drew me to this one. He kind of has a peaceful, happy countenance on his face.”
Gray, a first-generation college graduate, came to UNI from the Chicago area after visiting the campus in high school through the Talent Search program. She remembers Baskerville as an approachable professor who helped provoke much critical thought in her.
“I learned a lot from Dr. Baskerville, things that were not being taught in the public schools,” she said. “He made it interesting and fun, too.”
She fondly remembers being on an episode of the KBBG-FM radio program “Community Rhythms” with Baskerville and co-host Scharron Clayton, another UNI professor who has since died. Gray was Clayton’s research assistant at that time. “We all three had a great conversation on that program,” she said.
She started painting soon after finishing her UNI degree. While in a period of prayer, fasting and taking a break from TV, she recounted hearing a voice. Gray describes what she heard as “divine direction to paint” and got right to work. Within months, she held her first show at a Waterloo church.
She started to apply at juried shows and appeared in Chicago festivals. Her paintings were eventually being sold at galleries.
Most recently, Gray has been doing mural mosaic projects in low-income neighborhoods on the city’s south side through the nonprofit Changing Worlds and a Chicago museum. She also teaches art after school to children. In addition, she performs as a jazz vocalist and is part of an all-woman African drum and dance company.
The melding of academic and artistic interests in her life is a little reminiscent of her old professor.
“I like that Dr. Baskerville and me, we share that Renaissance vibe,” said Gray.