NORTH BERWICK — At the time, Martin England never understood why his father made him mow the lawns of the old ladies who lived in downtown Rollinsford, New Hampshire, where England grew up. But whenever the lawns needed mowing, England’s dad dropped him off with a lawnmower and paid him for his time.

Years later, after his father, Albert, died, England learned over drinks at the American Legion that his father, who had been a local cop, quietly took care of people in town who needed help, without attention or fanfare. Even his own son didn’t know.

“My dad wasn’t just a cop,” England said. “He served his community really well.”

England, a musician and songwriter, is trying to do the same in North Berwick, where he and his wife, Jennifer, have been doing community work – albeit less quietly than Albert England did – for several years. They recently formalized their community service with a new arts collective that helps aspiring kids from rural Maine pursue music and art by providing instruments, mentoring and incentives. Since the end of the school year in June, the Continuum Arts Collective has provided three dozen high school kids with lessons, practice space and gifts of instruments.

“We’re just trying to remove the obstacles,” England said, invoking a lesson he learned from both of his parents. “They instilled a sense of caring for others.”

The center of the Continuum universe is the North Buick Lounge, the name that England has given to the barn attached to the farmhouse that he and Jennifer own on Lower Main Street. Though they didn’t need the barn, they fell in love with it when they were looking for a house to buy in 2003. With a full loft, the truss barn was packed with junk when they bought it, and showing the effects of a fire from the 1960s. With the help of friends, England fixed up the barn, removing a section of the second floor to create a mezzanine and adding a staircase to make it safely accessible.

They created a tiny, quirky mini-theater that exists in the same ethos of the old rural Grange system, which encouraged families to come together for the overall good of the community. In its heyday, the Grange hosted dinners and dances, and it served as a gathering spot for important events.

A centaur made by students at Noble High School stands watch beside sports memorabilia on display at Martin England's makeshift club.

A centaur made by students at Noble High School stands watch beside sports memorabilia on display at Martin England’s makeshift club.

The North Buick Lounge is trying to do much the same. After they got the barn in shape, the Englands began hosting invitation-only house concerts with acoustic bands, which grew into monthly jam sessions that raised money for local causes. This past November, they hosted a Thanksgiving dinner for 75 friends. The Englands cooked turkeys and asked people to bring a side dish and a gift card to a grocery store. They raised $3,000 for local families, and distributed the cards through the guidance department at Noble High School, where Jennifer England teaches.

They formed Continuum early in 2016 and incorporated as a nonprofit, allowing them to turn their monthly house concerts into fundraising events for the arts collective. A recently installed propane heater means England can move forward with a monthly coffeehouse he wants to host for local songwriters, beginning in February.

The barn’s walls are adorned with album covers, concert posters and Boston sports team memorabilia. A few weeks ago, a friend dropped off an illuminated sign with the letters “LU,” an abbreviation of the club’s nickname, the NoBuLu. It hangs inside, up in the loft. There’s a poster of Elvis and a mini disco ball, and it’s not unusual for England to host his buddies to watch Patriots football games on Sunday afternoons.

The barn also gives England a place to play with his current band, Martin England & the Reconstructed, an earthy rock band that plays its own music and occasional 18-minute covers of “Down By the River” by Neil Young. The band released its first CD, “Dawn Chorus,” in 2015 and tours regionally. It uses the North Buick Lounge as its home base, where it is working on its next CD.

Noble High School student Sophia Lapierre performs at a Continuum Arts open house in August. Martin England is planning to host a monthly coffeehouse starting in February.

Noble High School student Sophia Lapierre performs at a Continuum Arts open house in August. Martin England is planning to host a monthly coffeehouse starting in February.

The Englands started the North Buick Lounge on a whim. They had no intention of creating a performance space when they bought the barn and no long-term plans. The incarnation into a performance space evolved naturally, combining the couple’s love of music with their desire to do good in their community. Continuum gives them specific focus.

The arts collective grew out of an annual spring fundraiser the Englands host call BaconFest. It’s one day in May with 15 bands and 100 pounds of bacon. For years, the festival provided money so England could hire bands to play at North Berwick’s farmers market. The momentum of that idea carried only so far, and by 2015 the festival was without a beneficiary.

Jennifer England, who teaches English at Noble High School in North Berwick and runs an experiential learning program called Multiple Pathways, had an idea. One of her students had learned to play the guitar on a borrowed instrument and was becoming quite good. But he was losing access to his guitar, because the friend he borrowed it from was going to college and taking his guitar with him. He couldn’t afford to buy one. Jennifer England suggested that BaconFest could help pay for a guitar for her student.

The student, Buddy Hutchins, ended up with a used Taylor acoustic and in April will release his first CD. He will celebrate the occasion with a party at the North Buick Lounge.

He called England his “go-to guy” for advice on all things musical.

“Marty has answered questions and relayed personal trial-and-error and success along the way. That’s helped a ton. I’ll go to him with questions an about everything – how to work a crowd on stage, how to list the songs on the album, what the best equipment to use is, and how to be different,” Hutchins said. “Continuum is more of an energy shared by the people who want to help artists like me than the organization itself. Certain people are great helpers and certain people like me are great at being helped.”

Jennifer England began Multiple Pathways four years ago at the urging of her principal, Joe Findlay. The school wanted a self-directed learning program for students who were capable of doing well but didn’t thrive in the traditional academic environment. England helped design a program with an admission process that involves an application and interview, as well as a commitment to attend summer school.

The North Buick Lounge operates out of Martin England's barn.

The North Buick Lounge operates out of Martin England’s barn.

Many of the applicants are artistic kids who lack the opportunity to pursue their interests because their parents can’t afford special classes or they don’t have role models to emulate. For them, art is an unattainable luxury. Continuum provides money and resources so students can get the materials and support they need to pursue what they love.

“When struggling students are given time, materials and support to pursue their artistic interests and impulses, the other life pieces often fall into place,” Jennifer England said. “The young artists we work with are extraordinary people. Our community needs their vision and their voice.”

Especially in rural areas, young people who grow up isolated and in poverty are often overlooked and disenfranchised. Art helps connect them with their community and the larger world, she said.

So far, most of the students who have benefited from Continuum have been from Noble, but the vision is to serve all of southern Maine as the organization and its board establish themselves and their presence.

For Martin England, Continuum provides focus in his own life. He works in the communications department at the University of New Hampshire and loves his job. He has no intention of leaving it anytime soon. But after attending a recent conference for Maine nonprofit organizations, he realized how much he appreciated the work of Continuum and how committed he is to it. He imagines that, down the road, maybe this could be his full-time gig.

He’s also got his band, the Reconstructed. Andrew Russell, who plays bass in the group, likes playing with England because of the authenticity of the music, which seems to connect with people. In other bands he’s played in, Russell said, it’s always a struggle to get people to come to the shows. That’s never been an issue with the Reconstructed. “People respond to Marty, the Reconstructed and the music, because it’s authentic,” Russell said. “It’s created and played from the heart.”

In mid-November, the band played at the Press Room in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. To close the show, England called out a cover of Neil Young’s “Down By the River,” which the band had played only a couple of times before. It was on the set list as an extra, but the set list is merely a suggestion. “It was barely two weeks after the election, and Marty sensed a mood in the room, that people wanted to cut loose,” Russell said.

England started the intro chords, the band kicked in and the crowd began cheering. It went for a long time. Russell says 10 minutes, England remembers it as 18 minutes. No matter. The point is, it was an experience that brought the band and audience together, and left both feeling exhausted and exhilarated.

That’s what art and music are supposed to do, when done well. England wants to pass on what he experienced that night at the Press Room to younger musicians, so they can strive for a similar kind of thrill. “We’re not looking to make these kids like the next Stevie Ray Vaughn,” he said. “If that happens, fantastic. We’re just trying to give them much-needed relief in their lives.”

England turns 50 later this month and is throwing himself a three-day, 50-hour party. “We’re not going to party for 50 hours, because we would all be dead,” he said. “We are going to party over the span of three days.” The party begins on Friday, Jan. 27, at the American Legion in Rollinsford, with three bands, including the Reconstructed, and continues Saturday at the North Buick Lounge with 11 bands. It winds up on Sunday with a brunch and bowling in Portsmouth that also may involve bands, but the Sunday details are still being worked out. The Saturday portion of the party at the North Buick Lounge is a fundraiser for Continuum. Admission is $25, and it’s open to the public.

Turning 50 is a milestone, England said. It’s a chance to take stock, to look back and look ahead. Looking back, he sees the lessons of his youth playing out like an old movie. Everything his father embodied about doing your job and doing your work are things he relates to now, in theory and in practice. Looking ahead, he sees himself as the one doing the teaching and leading by example.

“What’s kind of cool about this whole thing is that it’s almost like the future me is helping the past me, back when I was a teenager. I kind of like that.”

 


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