John Ashley Bellamy, a Dallas artist and arts patron, died Tuesday, Dec. 8, at age 77. For many Dallasites, Bellamy’s death also means an end to a long-standing holiday tradition: the annual Christmas Eve party where eclectic crowds gathered each year to celebrate at Bellamy’s home, an old church known as the Moon Mansion.
The mansion served as a refuge for those seeking warmth on a night that can feel awfully cold for loners, and Bellamy was, for many, a big part of Christmas.
“He was a father that anyone would have dreamed for,” Bellamy’s son, Gaelan Bellamy says. “He provided all of the tools for what it would take to become a loving, caring, empathetic individual with integrity, and he really had all of those in spades … he did his best to pass that over to his children and all of those he would mentor. [His] reach was far and wide.”
Bellamy was born in Dallas on June 28, 1943, to Jane and Lloyd Bellamy, and grew up in Highland Park.
“He was always a bit of an eccentric child,” Gaelan says. “He always liked to put on plays in the neighborhood.”
After attending Jesuit High School, Bellamy pursued his penchant for the arts at Notre Dame University, then completed a master’s of fine arts at Carnegie Mellon Institute.
The artist’s subject of choice was the human figure, but his claim to fame as a student was an intricate, large-scale mural of a notable football coach at his university, composed entirely of balloons.
“He was always trying to do larger-than-life type things … to push the envelope a little bit,” Gaelan says.
After receiving his degrees, Bellamy studied in Paris, Berlin and Rome under a number of fellowships and grants, such as the Louis Comfort Tiffany Fellowship, the Kante Neal Kinley Scholarship and the Elizabeth Greenshields Fellowship. His years in Europe served as a time of classical art training and exposure, through which he found himself in many artistic circles. He sculpted, painted and even played in Italian films, like a true renaissance man.
It was in Europe that Bellamy grew his beard long and his hair longer. He was an embodiment of 1960s “emerging hippie” ideals which, combined with a warm, Southern charm, gained him notice amongst the European culturati.
Bellamy returned to Dallas in 1969 and moved to the old Methodist Episcopal Church at 2200 N. Haskell Ave., today known as The Moon Mansion. The big church was built in 1905; it was Bellamy’s sanctuary and became, under his ownership, a residency to artists of every creed. It was also a family home; Gaelan recalls memories of growing up surrounded by paintings of clouds, rainbows and Earth — as his father had painted rooms throughout the church.
“It was just a neat, creative environment,” he says.
Bellamy’s work is an indication of the many people and places he encountered throughout his nomadic life. The subjects of his paintings revolve around figures and faces, with a spiritual element, such as Taoism, which Bellamy observed.
“It was kind of his large-scale art studio; his art is hanging everywhere, and it all, over the years, has been decked out in his style,” Gaelan says.
The elements within his art also informed Bellamy’s parties. As noted by D Magazine in 1981, the parties held at the Moon Mansion were “never intended to be hedonistic things. They were very spiritual.” Bellamy’s presence, an intersection of socialite and spiritual artist, gave his guests the sense they were a part of something special. Bellamy was accepting of all, and every guest was a friend.
Dallasites will most likely remember Bellamy by the Moon Mansion parties, as the structure was as illustrious as the man himself — Fezziwig’s Christmas Eve party being the most notable of all. Those who walked through that old, Swiss Avenue gate on Christmas Eve to attend the extravagant bash will remember seeing Bellamy, surrounded by happy guests, singing carols by the piano.
Musician Poppy Xander was a fixture at the Moon Mansion, wearing wigs and costumes while leading sing-alongs.
“So many incredible people, musicians, artists, writers, actors, from all over the world, passed through the Moon Mansion on Christmas Eve and at the center of it all was Mr. Ashley and his wonderful family,” Xander says. “There were drum circles and dancing, and a giant gingerbread house. The table would fill up with food from friends, of course the 20-foot tree, and Santa was there, stuck in the ceiling, but the most important thing to them was singing carols around the piano.”
“There was so much joy in that connection; that was the real magic of Christmas, bringing everyone together,” Xander adds. “It was like nothing I have ever heard or seen. Being at the center of it, playing with all my might on the piano while hundreds of us sang together, that’s something I will never forget.”
For the family, the Christmas Eve party was a whimsical affair, “a labor of love” spent decorating and building elaborate candy structures built in preparation for the event. Bellamy “relished in the opportunity to create the magical Christmas moments,” Gaelan remembers.
Why Bellamy loved Christmas so much is a mystery, but Fezziwig will remain for many as one the most significant local holiday traditions, a place where there were “always a flow of different personalities,” as Gaelan says: young and old, artists, friends, regulars and fortunate strangers who, on happenstance, followed the sound of drums pouring out from the mansion and onto the East Dallas streets.
Bellamy’s family encourages all who were touched by Bellamy to him to sing a carol in his honor this Christmas Eve, as he will be listening.
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