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The Interview: Christina Basham

Mixologist / Entrepreneur Even at a young age, Christina Basham carried with her the ingredients for success in the service industry—a gregarious nature, formidable attention to detail, an amiable personality, and the mouth of a goddamn sailor. Basham gives me the grand tour of the winding Middle West Spirits distillery, detailing the various applications of [...]
Danny Hamen

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Mixologist / Entrepreneur

Even at a young age, Christina Basham carried with her the ingredients for success in the service industry—a gregarious nature, formidable attention to detail, an amiable personality, and the mouth of a goddamn sailor.

Basham gives me the grand tour of the winding Middle West Spirits distillery, detailing the various applications of the towering bronze stills that inhabit the prodigious space. Her golden locks flow feverishly down her ‘90s-style, cocktail-peppered shirt as she explains the real difference between regular gin and dry gin while pouring me a 100-proof taster straight from the elephantine still. As the Sales Manager, former Brand Ambassador, and master Mixologist (and I don’t use that term lightly) at Middle West, it’s Basham’s job to know her shit.

Basham has racked up over 15 years of experience in the service industry, from shaking drinks at local dives, managing the beloved but departed Wall Street Bar and Buckeye Bourbon House, and hosting her uniquely inspired craft cocktail pop-ups, to judging prestigious cocktail competitions. A Goliath of her trade who has put in her time and moved up the ranks, Basham’s eyes are now fixed on the position of president of the Columbus chapter of the United States Bartenders Guild.

The relationship between the ingredients in your glass and the person shaking them isn’t always important, but it’s almost always interesting. The folks who expertly distill, produce, blend, pour, and/or create your delicious intoxication juice are more than just faces behind a bar—they are influential figures representing the best our city has to offer.

“I felt like, to the world, I never made a lot of sense. This is a place where I can live in all of my weird, and I was supported. People are into it.”

What experiences helped sharpen your teeth in the industry?

Christina Basham: The answer is twofold—I was 21 when I started working at Applebee’s. I wanted to go back to school, so I started serving, eventually moving behind the bar. I still remember that they made us wear these horrible pink and purple t-shirts that said “Half-and-Half Happy Hour” where half of the letters were garnishes. I just remember thinking, “What did I do…. This is not who I am.” I was a young, queer-identified woman working alongside a lot of people who were, well… not that. And it was very challenging.

What really cut my teeth in the industry was years of working corporate turn and burn and managing a nightclub [Wall Street] that served as the last stop on the train for many people—the people you see at their absolute darkest moments, their most booze-induced moments.
Then I moved to Denver in 2011 for a relationship that didn’t work out. I interviewed for a job for the Edible Beats group. I didn’t have the chops just then. It took four to five months, but I got there. The leveled of curated hospitality in that space and attention to detail was something I had never seen before and I was in love. This is what I was waiting for.

But when I moved back home, I didn’t have the network. Sure, I had the gay kids, the turn-and-burn kids, and the club kids, but I didn’t have the fine dining and craft cocktail kids. I needed to create a secondary network that let me be that part of who I really was.

How did that relationship building begin?

CB: I was working at Barrel 44. At that time, we were voted best cocktail list, and I was so curious because at that time they were still putting club soda in their Old Fashioneds. I remember them looking at me like I’m a crazy person for shaming them because I had come from Wall Street nightclub where I only poured three styles of flavored vodka into a glass.

The turning point was working at the Kitchen at German Village. Anne [Boninsegna] and Jen [Lindsey] very quickly became family to me, two older sisters I never knew I needed. I had access to all of these ingredients I’d never had before, and they just let me do what I wanted.

Over the course of two years, I split my time between selling and organizing events, organizing the bar, and bartending two or three events a week. That’s when I decided to join the US Bartenders Guild.

You decided to throw in the bar towel and start in sales for Middle West Spirits. How do you think they stand out from other distilleries?

CB: We are the first post-prohibition distillery in Ohio. It’s even cooler when you consider prohibition started in Westerville. I think we are honest about what we do. Every drop we make is made here. We source our wheat from Ohio, the same place that Ritz, Pillsbury, and Donatos get their wheat from. It’s funny, nobody who originally invested in the company is from here; they just fell in love with the state and decided to move. There is something great about drinking local— putting money back into the city and the local economy. I don’t think any brand loves the agriculture in this state as much as Middle West.

Columbus has seen a renaissance recently in the way of spirits and cocktails. Why do you think cocktails are an important part of Columbus culture?

CB: Cocktails allows creatives to live in a space where they can really shine. You’re giving them a stage to be expressive. That is what is so amazing about food and beverage and hospitality is that people can be who they really are. I love feeling a part of the underdogs, that secret society. Even though there is a bit of a chip on your shoulder, there is something sexy about that, ya know? I felt like, to the world, I never made a lot of sense. This is a place where I can live in all of my weird, and I was supported. People are into it.
Craft cocktails have made us relevant on a national level. People like Annie Williams Pierce and Alex Chin, these people who have competed and done really well. When you compete, you are just a name and a city. It’s not just you.

What is the difference between a good drink and a great drink?

CB: I think the service is the catalyst for the drink. That and intentionality. You can serve a highball cocktail, but if it’s served with intentionality, it’s just different. You can feel it and sense it. There’s just a level of exceptional…. Something that makes it different. Of course when it comes to cocktails, fresh juice over frozen, quality ingredients—you can’t take a great recipe and put a shitty vodka in it, it’s just not going to be the same. People are simplifying nowadays. You don’t get a high five for adding 17 styles of bitters in a cocktail. Nobody cares. It’s booze, it’s not rocket science.

Tell me about Bubbles and Agave.

CB: I’d always hoped for more time to do private cocktail events and at-home cocktail classes. I really love all of that stuff, and I’ve been doing it as a side hustle for years. Once I was able to balance my work life and home life with my job at Middle West, in October I got a surge of energy and said, “I’m gonna do this.” So I filed my LLC and I’m working on getting the website up. Basically I come and do craft cocktail classes—I bring the tools, everything you need. I love empowering people to make the most of their home bar. Going out and dining is amazing, but it’s not the most friendly to your budget. If you can figure out how to make a simple syrup at your house and get really creative, or if you can feel comfortable mixing drinks, it’s an amazing feeling—like knowing that you have secrets in your pocket. If I can send people home with that feeling, well, that is what really really excites me.

Look for Basham’s website, bubblesandagave.com, coming soon!

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Arts & Culture

The Interview Issue: Artist Ann Hamilton

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Each January, we feature the movers and shakers of the city in in-depth, in-person interviews that dig into their backgrounds, their plans, and what ties them to the capital city. While our interview issue subjects are all Columbus-based, their stories are universal. So settle in, cozy up, and give yourself some you-time. You’ll want to read every word.

Artist Ann Hamilton ensures her viewers are not passive bystanders.

Sometime this week, this month, you might receive an envelope in the mail, nestled among the barrage of holiday gifts and well-wishing cards from family and friends.

You open it to find not a family picture or holiday greeting, but a dated photographic scan of a single fallen leaf. It appears stark on the page: quietly elegant, strangely canonized, its veins and creases made beautiful after being blasted with light.

This scan would represent a small part of Columbus-based artist Ann Hamilton’s project when an object reaches for your hand, an interactive installation currently on display at OSU’s Thompson Library. The work encourages viewers to take pieces from the exhibit that Hamilton has created and share them with one another.

Hamilton, a professor in the OSU Department of Art, is also undeniably one of the most prominent and lauded names in the world of contemporary art. With a portfolio that includes decades-worth of large scale multimedia installations and other work, the Ohio-born artist has earned herself coveted Guggenheim and MacArthur Fellowships, among countless other honors.

Photos: Brian Kaiser

Because of this, Hamilton could likely call any place in the world home. Yet she chooses to do so in Columbus, where she now both teaches and operates out of her locally-based studio.

“You know, you don’t really know the consequences of those decisions at the time, but I can really see how being here, having that family support, the economy of Columbus, being able to have this space, and my affiliation with the university; all those things have led to my being able to develop practice that responds to a lot of different forms of work, and I’ve really been tremendously supported. The way that I’ve been able to pursue projects has been a consequence of all that support,” she said.

“When I moved here, Columbus wasn’t one of the “move-to” cities; people were asking me what I was doing. Sometimes what’s good for you is also good for the work and I have to trust that will be the case.”

Hamilton’s when an object reaches for your hand, displayed as part of Here, a recent exhibit at the Wexner Center for the Arts that also featured pieces from artists Jenny Holzer and Maya Lin, shows the benefits of this support in more ways than one.

“We have a fabulous public and university library system. When I was invited to do the new project at the Wexner, I was also already thinking about doing a project in the library,” she said. “You know, partly, ever since the library opened, I’ve always thought about that vertical glass spine where you can see the stacks, and the two sides of that is this amphitheater space, inviting sociability, inviting potential performance.”

Using outdated scanners, some likely nearing 30 years old, Hamilton and her studio team scanned hundreds of different items over the course of nine months from personal and university collections, which were then printed on details paper and stacked on irregularly-arranged platforms throughout the library’s second floor.

Due to the scanners’ age and shallow depth of field, the images created by them (which often featured unique or rarely-seen items), became ghostly, and quietly beautiful in their own right.

But Hamilton’s work is about more than just the acts of crafting and display. Visitors to when an object reaches for your hand are more than static viewers; they play an integral role in the work itself.

Each person who sees the show is invited to take one of the scans displayed in stacks throughout Thompson Library, either to keep for themselves, or to mail to a friend or family member via a mailing station at the installation.

In this way, the work becomes a platform for connectivity, for people to share the things that move or matter to them. In the same way that Ohio State and the private collectors Hamilton worked with shared their prized items with her, viewers are able to do the same with whomever they choose.

“Everyone I talked to was so helpful; people want to share what they love and what they take care of. What an incredible gift that is. We were able to wander in and out of so many different parts of the university. I would say the piece isn’t so much site-specific; it’s just responsive to what is here, to that spirit of wanting to share,” Hamilton said. “This is why the mailing is so important, wanting to share what comes forward in the collection. When you mail something, it’s still carried by hand; the address is written out by hand. And that’s also about touch, and touch is what’s made visible through light in the images.”

This sense of community and shared details is also apparent in how Hamilton manages her Columbus studio. Located in an unassuming but spacious building just south of downtown, Hamilton both works out of the building and uses it to host collective dinners, where visiting artists and speakers are able to interact with invited OSU arts faculty members and students.

“The events get set up and everybody sits together and it’s a beautiful meal. We have candles, wonderful food, and I think it’s part of what we do through positions at the university,” she said. “It’s a chance for people to actually be in conversation. Like, for example, with the architecture of our art program, there really isn’t social space, and so I hope in some part this addresses that.”

And even though Hamilton is now one of the figures firmly entrenched in the canon of contemporary American Art, it wasn’t a vocation that she necessarily saw coming.

In fact, she couldn’t recall a moment that she said to herself that she wanted to be an artist; she simply made art. “There’s some large gap between recognizing you love something and calling yourself something. I just grew up loving making things, and I had a ton of support from my family,” she said.

Hamilton has learned from her adventures, and as a professor, has opportunities to share her wisdom. “It was never a straight road,” she said, “but I always tell my students: do what you love.

Hamilton’s when an object reaches for your hand is on view in Ohio State’s Thompson Library through April 28. Learn more at annhamiltonstudio.com.

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Community

The Interview Issue: Community Leader Habiba Bankston

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Each January, we feature the movers and shakers of the city in in-depth, in-person interviews that dig into their backgrounds, their plans, and what ties them to the capital city. While our interview issue subjects are all Columbus-based, their stories are universal. So settle in, cozy up, and give yourself some you-time. You’ll want to read every word.

Habiba Bankston helps her colleagues at L Brands give back while building a pipeline for leadership in Columbus.

Habiba Bankston likes to say Brooklyn raised her, but Columbus groomed her. New York City taught her how to hustle, how to envision something and make it happen, how to fearlessly embrace new experiences.

But in Columbus, she learned how to slow down, master her craft and take time to develop her untapped potential. What she discovered was that her potential involved helping others.

“The people that I’ve met here, [they’ve] just kind of unlocked some things in me that I really didn’t know was there,” she said.

Bankston, now a senior community relations specialist for L Brands, brings both of those backgrounds to her work every day. Philanthropy for her isn’t just the work she does; it’s who she is. And the blend of visionary entrepreneurship she absorbed in New York along with a deep dedication to community and service have enabled her to build networks and communities designed to nurture a new generation of young professional leadership in Columbus.

An illness that sparked action

When Bankston was 17, she had a stroke.

Bankston was born with sickle cell disease, a group of inherited red blood cell disorders that affect hemoglobin in the blood, distorting cells into a crescent shape instead of a donut shape. The crescent red blood cells can stick in blood vessels and reduce oxygen to parts of the body. The resulting symptoms can be severe fatigue and pain.

Sickle cell, which is hereditary and most commonly affects African Americans, is what Bankston calls a “silent disease” because it’s often not obvious at first glance when someone has it. Growing up with the illness caused Bankston to miss school, and she was hospitalized two-to- three times a month.

She didn’t want to let that slow her down, however. As she searched for role models who had experienced similar health challenges, she came across Wilma Rudolph, an Olympic sprinter who contracted polio as a child and needed a leg brace until she was 12.

Photos: Brian Kaiser

“When I was growing up, there wasn’t a lot of people who had sickle cell that were well known, that really talked about what that experience looked like,” Bankston said. “I was constantly searching for models of people who were dealing [with disabilities but] [...] were still able to thrive and chase their dreams.”

Blood transfusions ultimately transformed Bankston’s ability to manage her sickle cell. They help increase the percent of healthy red blood cells in her body, reducing the symptoms of the disease. She’s been receiving one every month for 15 years.

“(As a) regular recipient of blood donations, I have been touched by the power of community and of philanthropy,” Bankston said. “My life has been sustained by the generous gifts and donations from people who are simply committed to being a blessing to others, so it’s no coincidence that I find myself doing this work.”

Pathways to Leadership

Bankston hasn’t always known that philanthropy was a good fit for her. When she was in college at Ohio State, she studied human nutrition and public health with the idea of going into healthcare. She was a very involved student, and one year while she was organizing the African American Heritage Festival, she met with then-Senior Vice President for Outreach and Engagement Joyce Beatty—now a U.S. Representative—who became another role model and mentor for Bankston.

“She saw a leader in me before I saw it in myself,” Bankston said. “She introduced me to the beauty of Columbus and instilled in me that it’s not enough to live and work in a community, but that we must be present, involved and engaged in the growth and progress of the places that we call home.”

That started Bankston on the career path of community engagement and philanthropy, eventually landing her at L Brands. There, she oversees the company’s foundation, community and giving campaigns that support organizations like Pelotonia and United Way, as well as volunteerism.

But Bankston’s work doesn’t stop there. She also co- founded the Columbus Urban League Young Professionals in 2015, a networking group largely for people of color, with the goal of building a strong pipeline of future leaders and connecting young professionals within Columbus and also across the nation. Further, she serves as an appointed Create Columbus Commissioner, dedicating her time to supporting young professionals in the city and making Columbus a welcoming and supportive place for them to call home.

Finally, she took her experience with sickle cell disease and founded Beyond the Cell, a national movement to create awareness about the disease. Other young people living with sickle cell seeking role models reflecting their experience, as Bankston once did, need look no futher than her Instagram campaign.

Building community ties

Bankston first saw the power of community support and networks as a child in Brooklyn. Her parents came to the U.S. with a few other families from Ghana, and like many immigrant communities, she was surrounded by entrepreneurs. Her father owned an African market in one of the busiest areas of Brooklyn, and Bankston says she and her family were always trying to find new ways to uplift their community.

“As we had more and more family members that came from Africa, we were constantly trying to find new ways to either help them find employment [or] help them get connected,” she said.

Her mom moved her and her three siblings to Columbus when Bankston was 15, where she later graduated from Independence High School.

She says today that she hopes young professionals remember their ability to make a difference in their community and stay committed to achieving the changes they want to see.

“Don’t be afraid to create the things that you wish existed,” Bankston said. “Columbus is a piece of art in the making. YPs are shaping the future of this city. [...]There’s so much opportunity and there’s so many people who are probably thinking the same thing that you’re thinking. [...] So be fearless and create it.”

For Bankston, that admiration for fearlessness is reflected in Michelle Obama. She says she adores her for her intelligence, grace and creativity, but that she most admires her honesty and authenticity.

“I always want to show up as honest and as authentic as possible. Every single day, every single room that I step in, I want people to truly be able to see me,” Bankston said. “[Obama’s] never been afraid to tell us what she’s been through as a young black girl, but also as a first lady. She’s a woman on a mission. She’s never been afraid to write her own stories.”

Through her work in Columbus and nationally, Bankston is helping others do the same.

Follow Bankston on Instagram at futureflotus, and join her sickle cell disease awareness campaign on Instagram at beyondthecell.

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Arts & Culture

The Interview Issue: Comic Artist Jeff Smith

J.R. McMillan

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Each January, we feature the movers and shakers of the city in in-depth, in-person interviews that dig into their backgrounds, their plans, and what ties them to the capital city. While our interview issue subjects are all Columbus-based, their stories are universal. So settle in, cozy up, and give yourself some you-time. You’ll want to read every word.

Starting in the pages of the Lantern, Jeff Smith’s comic series BONE will finally be coming to Netflix. It only took three decades.

Being at the right place at the right time is rare in any industry. Jeff Smith is the exception several times over.

An a able ambassador and native son of Columbus, Smith’s infatuation with illustration and storytelling emerged early and in equal measure, creating his first characters when he was five, which evolved into complete comics by the time he was 10. The Columbus College of Art & Design helped hone his craft, and the prototype for his acclaimed series BONE appeared in Ohio State’s student newspaper The Lantern at length. Just as independent comics were breaking into the mainstream, the self-published creator became both a folk hero and a rock star of the emerging scene, inspiring artists and earning industry accolades, including ten Eisners, essentially the comic world’s equivalent of the Academy Awards.

But there were also some setbacks just now being set right. A failed Nickelodeon effort to adapt BONE for television in the ‘90s, followed by a similarly stalled big-screen project by Warner Brothers, ironically paralleled the saga of Smith’s cartoon characters navigating a foreign landscape in an unforgiving world. But Smith took all of it in stride, and bided his time. This past October, Netflix announced the long- awaited animated series fans new and old had been long-denied, a project that just as easily may not have happened. Much like Smith’s history of impeccable timing, he seems to have arrived again at just the right moment in popular culture.

“I made a deal with Warner Brothers a decade ago, and they hadn’t done anything with it. They optioned it for two years, but I wasn’t particularly happy with the direction it was taking and didn’t want to renew. Then they purchased it outright and told me to sit on the sidelines,” Smith recalled. “But it was in the contract that if they didn’t make a movie within ten years, then the rights reverted back to me. So I had to wait. It was such an unpleasant experience, I decided I didn’t want to sell it again. But word got out and I started getting calls from streaming services and Netflix was the best match. That’s how it happened.”

Motion picture and television rights are esoteric legal devices that often give studios and networks the “option” to turn a story into a lm or series within a given span of time. They come with lots of conditions and fine print typically serving those purchasing them, but occasionally those selling them. It’s a way to buy time, but also ensure projects don’t stay idle indefinitely.

Photos: Brian Kaiser

BONE was really an early mashup, before that term existed, of comedy and swords and sorcery. It was Bugs Bunny meets Lord of the Rings. I think it’s got to be the comedy and the combination of characters that made it popular,” Smith said, speculating on the mystery behind the series’ somewhat unexpected success, even internationally. “BONE is published all over the world. It’s still weird to pick up one of my stories and see the characters speaking French. If I knew the secret, I’d do it again.” A decade ago, Netflix was mostly dropping DVDs in the mail and was producing zero original content. A year later marked the premiere of AMC’s The Walking Dead, a television adaptation that was so dicey at the time, they only gave the first season six episodes. Now Net ix accounts for more than half of all internet traffic in the U.S. on Sunday night, and The Walking Dead draws more viewers than all Sunday NFL games combined.

“The real problem we had with Warner Brothers was making a 1,500-page book into an hour and a half movie. It couldn’t be done, so it didn’t get done,” he said. “But a streaming animated show was perfect; it’s just like the comic book. It’s serialized and can progress chapter by chapter. It was the right time, and the right company.”

Netflix isn’t the only streaming service clamoring for content, and it’s easy to forget House of Cards, their first original series, only premiered in 2013. With Amazon Prime and Hulu well- established, and Disney and Apple both investing heavily in production for their own freshly-minted subscription services, Smith again seemed to capture the right moment to reach the right audience, all while maintaining the artistic integrity of BONE.

“We’re still looking for showrunners. If everything goes well, we’re hoping to have shows in the fall of 2022. I’ll be a creator on the show and an executive producer, but it’s really just one more project,” Smith noted. “I still want to draw comics. I don’t need to be out there the whole time. Once the show is up and running, I can work here.”

As if BONE alone weren’t a sufficient source of inspiration for veteran and aspiring comic artists, Smith is also a founder and the artistic director of Cartoon Crossroads Columbus (CXC), an annual, and increasingly international, celebration of the city’s commitment to illustrated storytellers across every genre and format. But even before CXC, Columbus was arguably already a comic town. From esteemed exhibitions at the Columbus Museum of Art and the Wexner Center to nationally renowned institutions like the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum and Thurber House, our city has always recognized comics as art worth appreciating as much as any medium of creative expression.

“The idea behind CXC was that it would be more like a European show and not be all in one room at a convention center or hotel. It would be at different venues throughout the city. But it would also be a show that was more collegial, that would nurture comic creators and encourage connections,” he explained. “When I grew up here, there were neighborhoods in Columbus where you wouldn’t go at night. Now we’re a chef-driven town with galleries everywhere. We’re a cultural crossroads. It’s why we wanted to have events all over town, to showcase the city. And it’s working. People will go to an exhibit at the Columbus Museum of Art, then go to an event at OSU and stop in the Short North along the way, grab a bite to eat and talk about comics.”

Even as he prepares for the production of BONE the streaming series and the sixth year of CXC, Smith sees the similarities in both projects and the role he plays—getting the right balance of characters working toward the same goal and creating a story that compels audiences to return.

“You have to start each with a recap, so everyone knows the story so far. Tell your new episode, then end it with a cliff hanger,” Smith explained. “That’s the secret to any serial, whether it’s a comic, a television show, or a convention. You have to give people a reason to come back for more.”

To learn more about BONE and Smith’s other work, visit boneville.com.

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