Jay Hollyfield lives on through the Bayou City Art Festival and the community he loved
by Nancy Ford
Photos by Dalton DeHart
Emo’s. Club Some. The Locker. The Drum. Hollyfield Cleaners. Houston Glass. Sheridan Apartments. Officers Club. These are just a few examples of Montrose properties and interests that were at one time owned and/or operated by Jay Hollyfield. Hollyfield, a flamboyant gay man who lived life to the fullest in Houston’s pre-AIDS gay heyday, died of complications from the disease that decimated Houston’s gay community. But before passing in 1994, Hollyfield left a considerable legacy to the city he loved in the form of two of Houston’s most respected institutions: Hollyfield Foundation, and the biannual Bayou City Art Festival.
In the Beginning
A native Houstonian, Hollyfield came from a “silver spoon, silk stocking” background, attorney Donald Skipwith says. “There was a group of people who really did call themselves ‘The A Group.’ That kind of went away too, but they were a serious group, and they knew who they were, and Jay was part of that ‘A’ group.
“To be perfectly honest, when I think about some of these times—they’re not times I think about too much—it conjures up Houston and my life before AIDS,” he says quietly.
Skipwith recalls his relationship with Hollyfield as “friendship at first sight.”
The two met on the dance floor of “The Bushes Party.” The Bushes, Skipwith says, referred to an area similar to Cherry Grove and The Pines on Fire Island.
“It was a big old extravaganza party near MacGregor and 288 in this old mansion that somebody tore down,” Skipwith says. “It was 1980 or ’81, when HIV was there, but we didn’t know it,” he says, adding that friends believe that the Bushes Party may have introduced HIV to Houston. “It was kind of an infamous event. I’m sure that the majority of the people who were there are no longer on this planet. It was a different time.”
Hollyfield liked to dance, Skipwith says, and during that period when gay people were beginning to peek out of the closet, there was no reason not to dance. “It was outside, under the stars, and we were feeling good,” he says, his voice picking up. “We said goodbye to each other that next morning.”
Eventually, Hollyfield asked Skipwith to join the boards of the Hollyfield Foundation and the Westheimer Art Festival, which would become the Art Colony Alliance, better known as Bayou City Art Festival. Though they never went on to become partners, or even “an item,” as Skipwith says, the two remained friends until Hollyfield’s death, and beyond.
From Tearoom to Black Tie
Skipwith recalls his friend Jay as having been a very mischievous person. That mischievous spirit was responsible for an early precursor of Houston’s tony Black Tie Dinner.
“The Auditorium Hotel was an old, fleabag place before the Lancaster went in there and did their magic to it. Apparently, there was this infamous tearoom in this fleabag hotel. So Jay sends out invitations to his A-Gay friends, engraved, inviting them to a champagne reception in this tearoom in the Auditorium Hotel.”
By this time, Skipwith is laughing as he relates the memory. “He and his couple of friends show up around 7 o’clock that evening, start icing down the urinals and putting champagne in them. And it was all black tie! So all these people descend upon the lower level of what is now the Lancaster Hotel, and proceed to have a party. People were so confused by what was going on, but nobody questioned it and nobody called the police!
“It was another day, and another reason to put on a tuxedo. It was just another excuse to get loaded and meet somebody new and have a new adventure.”
In the early ’90s, healthcare executive Janine Brunjes wanted to become more involved in Houston’s LGBT community. One of Hollyfield’s pet projects, Houston’s Black Tie Dinner, a philanthropic formal gala that raised formidable cash for the Human Rights Campaign and other LGBT charities, caught her eye.
“There weren’t any women on the board, and so my first time to meet Jay was when I walked into Frank Campisi’s home.” Brunjes found herself to be the only lesbian in a sea of gay men. “They all looked at me like, ‘What in the hell does she want?’—‘she’ being the word. It was really interesting because Jay was sitting there very quietly and he was very polite and very welcoming—unlike some of the other guests that I became fast friends with down the road.”
Ultimately, Brunjes remembers Hollyfield as “a real gentleman.”
“The first real Black Tie Dinner that benefitted the Human Rights Campaign would have been late ’80s, in Tony’s Wine Cellar on Post Oak,” Skipwith says. “I think there were probably 50 people there, at the most.”
There is an accompanying, more “respectable” precursor to Houston’s Black Tie Dinner: the highly successful Black Tie Dinner held annually in Dallas. Hollyfield was determined that if Dallas had one, then Houston would have one too?
After more than a decade of raising funds for—and champagne glasses to—worthy LGBT causes, Houston’s famed Black Tie Dinner dissipated over the years. A New Year Eve’s party was hosted by the committee in 2008, but the gala itself is no more.
“I was one of those that was so disappointed when it disappeared a couple of years ago,” Brunjes, who now resides in Albuquerque, New Mexico, adds. “I think it’s missed. It raised a lot of money for our 501(c)(3)s.”
Unsubstantiated rumor has it that there’s a push to reinstitute the gala. “There’s talk about it. They need seed money. And people are reluctant to do it because it’s such a challenge,” Wendy Harshbarger, executive director at the Hollyfield Foundation, says. “Poor Jay would be rolling over in his grave if he knew we’d dropped the ball on the Black Tie Dinner. He loved that thing.”
Funding a Community
Brunjes has maintained her relationship with Hollyfield as a long-term board member of the Hollyfield Foundation. “He was very much focused on the mission of the foundation,” she says. “He really wanted to ensure the future and the prosperity of the LGBT community. Hollyfield Foundation distributed $100,000 to local LGBT and supportive charities in 2010. Harshberger, executive director for the foundation, estimates the group has distributed more than $1 million since its inception.
“When Jay died in 1994, we created the Hollyfield Foundation,” Harshbarger explains. “All his property was turned over to the foundation and we became property owners. But we sold every bit of it, because they found it would be easier just to put it in the stock market.” The foundation’s purpose, Harshbarger says, is to fund the community in two different areas that Hollyfield was most concerned with: equal rights for lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgenders.
“We said ‘gays’ back then,” Harshbarger recalls of the less-inclusive period. “It was the gays on one end, and lesbians did their thing. Somewhere in the ’80s it all came together, thank God.” When HIV hit Houston’s gay community in the early ’80s, “the girls stepped in and showed us that wonderful side of them,” Harshbarger says. “We’ve never forgotten that.”
Last year, Hollyfield Foundation put that appreciation into action by gifting Lesbian Health Initiative with a $10,000 grant. “We really believe in their health fairs,” Harshbarger says.
“Jay wanted us to be focused on AIDS education and advocacy and GLBT civil rights, and we’ve stayed steady to that, but it’s expanded to include some women’s organizations,” Brunjes continues proudly. “And now we’ve got a board that’s getting to be half-and-half [male and female members], so that’s a good thing.”
PFLAG/HATCH Youth Scholarship Foundation and Texas Civil Rights Project also received $10,000 each from the Hollyfield Foundation in its most recent disbursement, with several other local charities receiving smaller grants.
“Jay came from another world,” Skipwith laughs, “a world that was about the finer things in life. But he really was very interested in his bigger community. He certainly, not by accident, left his legacy to this foundation with his name.”
The Main Event
Houston’s Black Tie Dinner has gone dark. Hollyfield Foundation continues to bestow local charities with integral funds, though somewhat quietly.
However, Jay Hollyfield’s other legacy is alive, kicking, and expanding by leaps and bounds.
“Our art festival is celebrating its 40th year,” Harshbarger says. “It’s unbelievable to think it’s lasted this long.”
That other legacy Harshbarger speaks of is the Bayou City Art Festival, the famed biannual gathering that sprang from the bohemian Westheimer Art Festival of the 1970s and ’80s.
“Jay was the total glue in the Westheimer Art Festival,” Skipwith says. Logistics forced the festival out of Montrose and into more spacious pastures in 1994, as many locals fear is the likely fate of Houston’s Pride festivities.
“Basically, it was no longer a doable deal to make any money and keep it on Westheimer. All these little vendors would open up and never contribute to it. So it ended up on a couple of downtown blocks on Main Street for a while. But that didn’t work out,” Harshbarger says. “Then they made a deal with the parks division to have it in Memorial Park and in front of City Hall.”
Now called Bayou City Art Festival, the events developed into “more of a fine-arts, more civilized crowd,” Harshbarger says.
“I’m trying to be nice here,” he adds. “It’s a real healthy crowd, if you ask me, from all kinds of cross-sections across town. Everybody loves art. And everybody that does love art is going to be there.”
The festival changed radically with the move, Skipwith recalls. “This was after AIDS hit, so I wanted to bring in some charities. I wanted them to be our volunteer corps, because none of that was happening.”
Forty years later, Bayou City Art Festival distributes between $300,000 and $400,000 annually to its beneficiaries.
“It always amazed me: you milk this cow twice a year?” Skipwith says, laughing. “You learn that it’s quite an economic machine, an art festival. Jay was there as we were taking it to the next level.”
Aside from the obvious geographical differences, Harshbarger says there is a definite difference between the spring and fall festivals.
“A lot of people only go to the one in the spring because of the ambiance of the park. But the Montrose crowd, downtown, Midtown—they love the downtown festival. It’s livelier,” Harshbarger says. “And even though we have a bigger attendance at Memorial, we make more money downtown. We peaked out at Memorial—we can’t get any bigger unless we have it out in the woods. Downtown, we just keep adding extra blocks. We’re three-and-a-half blocks now. When I first started in 1999 we were, like, one and a half blocks.”
Early on, Hollyfield invited Bart Truxillo to join the board of the Westheimer Art Festival, which led to Art Colony Association, which in turn produces the art festivals.
Truxillo says works created by 300 participating artists aren’t the only draw to the festival. “We always have different sorts of entertainment. The Core Dance Company comes back every year, and they do something completely different. This year they’re doing a very intriguing, somewhat musical performance art thing with wires. It’s so complicated, I can’t really explain it. It’s just one of those things you’ve just got to see.
“Every year we try to do something that people have not seen before,” Truxillo continues. “We’ve had puppetry, our music stages, all kinds of things like that. The Walking Tree has been very popular.”
Beyond the food, drink, and entertainment, the festival’s main focus is the actual art and artists, Truxillo believes. Patrons come with a purpose, not just for diversion. “People really come with the idea that they’re looking for gifts and something for their house. And they put money in their pockets, and they’re shopping for art. They are loyal to us and, you know, it’s amazing.
“Jay and I were friends,” Truxillo concludes, “and without question, I know that he would be extraordinarily proud of what has happened to the Bayou City Art Festival, and the fact that it is not just a Westheimer thing. It is internationally known, and has an extraordinary rating, and it’s twice a year.
“He was a wonderful man, and he put this thing together and it was all for the right reasons. He would be tickled pink to know that it’s gone on to be such a success.
“I think he would be extraordinarily proud.”
Bayou City Art Festival Downtown
• October 8–9, 10 a.m.–6 p.m.
• Houston City Hall, 901 Bagby Street, and surrounding blocks
• Tickets $12, free for children under 12
NO JEST, IT’S THE BEST FEST!
As many as 1,500 artists apply to exhibit works at the Bayou City Art Festival, says longtime Art Colony Association board member Bart Truxillo. “It’s a very difficult, complicated task of eliminating down to the 300 artists—one that we take very seriously.”
One of the United States’ most prominent outdoor fine art gatherings, Jay Hollyfield’s downtown Bayou City Art Festival has been ranked in AmericanStyle Magazine’s “TOP 10 Festivals” for the past two years and was listed among Sunshine Artist’s “200 Best List” for the past two years, in addition to receiving a slew of local recognitions. In October, the festival displays the work of featured artist Kreg Yingst, a printmaker and painter whose work reflects “the science of perspective, with geometry and optical illusion.”
Since its inception 40 years ago, Bayou City Art Festival has donated more than $2.6 million to Houston-area charities. This season’s festival helps fund Art League Houston, Bering Omega Community Services, Buffalo Bayou Partnership, City ArtWorks, Downtown YMCA, FotoFest, Heritage Society, Houston Center for Photography, Houston Center for Contemporary Craft, Lawndale Art Center, Multicultural Education & Counseling through the Arts, Museum of Fine Arts Houston, Museum of Cultural Arts Houston, Opera in the Heights, Orange Show Center for Visionary Art, Several Dancers Core, Spay & Neuter Assistance Program, and SPARK.