In the basement of the Creole Gallery, where owner Robert Busby, 60, was found dead Feb. 27, a few of Busby's own creations gathered dust for years. In one haunting tableau, Busby re-created his boyhood in the sleepy town of Martin, Tenn., by nailing a miniature wooden railing to a board-mounted photo of a vacant yard. He dusted the construction with his own hair, inserted a plunging plastic airplane between the symbolic porch rails and glued a tiny photograph of himself, as a child, in the corner.
Among the last pieces Busby made, in 2006, was a stark wooden crate with two plastic warplanes poised for a dogfight, each painted with the word "God." Busby affixed his Air Force service photo below the toy planes, behind a 2-inch-high fence of razor wire.
A passionate fusion of politics, aesthetics and personal biography in Busby's work goes a long way toward explaining his astounding success as the guiding spirit of the Lansing arts scene and visionary of Old Town.
Busby connected with artists as an insider, not an exploiter.
By virtue of his gentle and firm character, he became perhaps the most beloved man in the city. He stood his ground like an oak, expanding his influence ring by ring for more than 30 years, and the neighborhood later known as Old Town took its present form under his shade.
More than 10 years ago, Busby was asked - for the umpteenth time, surely about his "dream" for Old Town.
"Actually, I came here to get away from everybody," he explained with a smile. "Then I just got caught up in the spirit of renovation."
Even then, Busby was trying to cut through a yellowish buildup of legend as the George Washington of Old Town. But the public memorial service held Tuesday afternoon at LCC's Dart Auditorium proved that Busby, the master rehabber, never got far with that strip job.
As for "getting away from everybody" - forget it.
LCC officials estimated 1,100 people filled the auditorium, a cafeteria and six overflow rooms. The Professors of Jazz, almost a house band at the Creole Gallery, played some of Busby's favorite music. Family members reminisced about him. [Mayor Virg] Bernero spoke on behalf of the city.
Bernero looked sick to his guts, as he had all week.
"We were at a loss, not just for words, but for hope itself," he said, describing the city's deep shock at Busby's murder, which police believe was committed by Elio Ramon Garcia, a handyman Busby had befriended. Garcia killed himself the next day as police closed in on him in Clinton County.
As Bernero spoke, rose petals from decaying floral tributes swirled against brittle ice on the sidewalk in front of the Creole Gallery a few blocks away. March was in, but winter showed no sign of letting go.
Bernero pushed on, like a schoolboy reciting a poem in a blizzard. "In time, we will feel the glimmer of hope return, like the first flowers of spring pushing up to the sun," he said.
In an echo of Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass," the mayor urged the mourners to find Robert Busby where they could: in the embrace of young lovers walking down Turner Street, in the cacophony of horns and drums during Jazz Fest or Blues Fest.
Busby's oldest brother, Vercie, conjured up the delicious image of God asking Robert to build a second Creole Gallery in Heaven. Such a place would feature departed legends like Miles Davis, Elvis Presley, Peggy Lee and the newly arrived James Brown.
"I'll get right on it," Vercie said, perfectly pitching his voice to Robert's gentle lilt.
Jamie Schriner-Hooper, executive director of the Old Town Commercial Association, asked the crowd to look at itself.
In the seats were city officials, factory workers, musicians, artists, gays, straights, men, women, young, old, black and white. The auditorium was a big, sloping tapestry of human hair - lush, curly, slicked-down, nappy, platinum, white and absent. Babies cried and sick people coughed.
It wasn't a still life in oils or a box of dolls and broken glass, but Busby was a multimedia artist. This diverse crowd, full of grief and swelling with a will to keep him alive any way they could, was his final creation.
It was perhaps his most lasting.