Large metallic letters spelling “JOY” caught my eye the first time I visited The Buttonwood Tree Performing Arts & Cultural Center (TBT). Executive Director Anne-Marie Cannata McEwen noticed my interest in the decoration.
“Everything we do here is to create and spread joy,” she said.
Founded in 1989 by Wesleyan alumna and Middletown’s first poet laureate, Susan Allison ’85, The Buttonwood Tree is located at 605 Main Street, right next to It’s Only Natural Market. Though best known as a music venue, The Buttonwood Tree operates under the non-profit North End Arts Rising, Inc. (NEAR, Inc.) and seeks to elevate Middletown’s North End through arts and community.
“The mission of NEAR, Inc. is to support the creative activities and endeavors of artists and potential artists,” the website reads. “[We seek] to create a forum, context, and space for artistic, cultural, creative, and educational experience in Middletown. [We] serve as a center for community activity in Middletown’s North End.”
A fluorescent neon tree and the sounds of jazz, folk, and bluegrass will guide you to “Middletown’s Living Room.” Walk inside The Buttonwood Tree and you’ll see volunteer Claude Masse’s chalkboard artwork advertising the evening’s event. Step to your right and enter an intimate performance space decorated with that month’s art exhibit. The space seats about 40 people and has recently hosted famous musicians such as pianist Eric Mintel, saxophonist Charles Neville, legendary drummer Bernard “Pretty” Purdie, and bluesy-pop Internet sensation Noah Guthrie.
Folk-rock musician Pete Kennedy, who performed at The Buttonwood Tree in September, enjoyed the experience so much that he will return in March.
“The Buttonwood Tree is a perfect performance space,” Kennedy said. “The most important part of any show is the connection between performer and audience, and that is best achieved in an intimate setting.”
Local performers, including University students, also have the opportunity to take center stage at The Buttonwood Tree. During Monday’s “Anything Goes Open Mic,” artists of diverse backgrounds present poetry, songs, and jokes; play the beautiful Steinway piano; and jam on colorful bongo drums.
“I’ve been surprised by the variety of talented people who have played here, both professionally and at open mics,” said Middlesex Community College student worker Mary Lou Cooke.
Strings of colorful lights illuminate the fully loaded bookshelves in the bookstore and concession area of The Buttonwood Tree. Numerous CDs line the walls and framed photos commemorate the venue’s past. Head to the concession table and grab some candy, delicious macaroons, or rich Slambovian coffee. Take a seat in one of the unique and comfy chairs, log on to the free WiFi, and relax. Strike up conversation with one of the volunteers as they fold calendars, organize binders, and tidy the space.
When she’s not busy running The Buttonwood Tree singlehandedly, McEwen is happy to chat. She’ll tell you about The Buttonwood Tree’s history and mission. If you give her your birthdate, she’ll tell you your life purpose based on Dan Millman’s numerology.
“I’m a 20/2. The double two drives me to help other people,” McEwen said.
Anyone who’s worked with her has witnessed McEwen’s friendly nature. Zack Johnson, a volunteer at The Buttonwood Tree, commented on her warm personality and hard work.
“Anne-Marie is one of the sunniest people I know, and she’s dedicated to keeping The Buttonwood Tree alive and fun,” he said.
This semester, McEwen wants to see more University students at The Buttonwood Tree. She says many of the events would be highly beneficial to stressed students and anyone seeking a break from “the bubble.” Tuesday night’s Laughter Yoga teaches attendees to laugh in the face of adversity and Thursday’s Drum Circle can release negative energy. Hump Night with The Grays, an evening of electric gypsy tribal jazz, will get students over a midweek slump.
Guitarist and composer Sinan Bakir began performing at Buttonwood in 2009 and has returned several times.
“Over the years, those performances naturally became the documentation of my growth as a musician,” he said. “What makes The Buttonwood Tree unique is the listening experience; the audience is engaging and welcoming, yet serious about the music. The room is intimate and inspiring with a naturally beautiful sound, and the wonderful people at The Buttonwood Tree always made me feel at home…truly a special place.”
McEwen recognizes the abundance of talent at the University and hopes that students will share their musical and artistic endeavors with The Buttonwood Tree community.
Musicians who would like to play at The Buttonwood Tree can request a performance by sending links of their work to firstname.lastname@example.org. Most genres are welcome, so long as your songs agree with The Buttonwood Tree’s musical mission.
“We are striving to create uplifting experiences, where the overall message is positive and encouraging,” McEwen said.
There are also opportunities available for artists and photographers.
“The Buttonwood Tree offers its gallery wall space to visual artists on a monthly basis, to create an uplifting, inspiring, and joyful atmosphere for our events that happen throughout the month,” McEwen said.
The artist’s work will be seen by hundreds of Buttonwood patrons throughout the month-long exhibit. Artists can also hold an opening reception, where they may sell their work.
Cooke then reflected on her time at Buttonwood.
“The Buttonwood Tree is a funky little friendly place where all are welcome,” she said. “It feels like a family in some ways. It’s a great place to connect and you never know what might happen here.”
The Buttonwood Tree regularly updates its website, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts to keep culture lovers in-the-know. Check its listings and head down for an afternoon or evening of enjoyment.
The February schedule features a variety of bands, including Cold Duck Time (jazz,) Switch Factory (bluegrass/folk,) and Jolly Beggars (Celtic). Concert tickets are range from $10 to $15 and can be purchased online or at the door. Many shows are listed as “suggested donation” and can be attended at a price you can afford. To see all of The Buttonwood Tree’s upcoming events, visit their website and Facebook page.
“We served over 8,200 people last year, presented 378 professional artists, and gave at least 656 amateurs an opportunity to perform in public,” McEwen said. “The Buttonwood stage has been where many people who perform professionally got their start. Ours is a space unique and valuable to a growing community.”