Man About Town
By Meda Kessler
From Fort Worth to Paris, Dwight Owsley has left his stamp on the cultural and social scene
It’s hard not to be a bit awestruck by Dwight Owsley.
He has what they call “presence,” which is enhanced by his ensemble — he favors caftan-style shirts in beautiful fabrics and statement necklaces. At age 71, he relies on a cane to get around, but his demeanor is strong and steady.
We’re walking through the first floor of a converted warehouse, and Owsley breaks out into song. It is Gershwin. The acoustics are perfect in the building’s hallway. I make a mental note to talk about his vocal talents in addition to his collages as we make our way into Cufflink Art, a contemporary gallery where we first saw Owsley’s work last February. Anyone who can include an image of a cow with the remnants of a Louis Vuitton shopping bag has our attention.
Gallery owners Joey Luong and Doug Gault join us. Luong and Gault are enthusiastic supporters of art in general and local artists in particular. They were introduced to Owsley by mutual friends Pam and Bill Campbell, former owners of the William Campbell Gallery.
“We were sucked in by all his energy,” says Luong. “As for his art, we love that he is able to add a modern twist to classical fine art elements to keep things fresh.”
Pam met Owsley when she was managing the chic youth boutique called Nonesuch inside Neiman Marcus; he worked in the store’s cafeteria while he was attending night school.
“She had a head of platinum curls and her dresses were all perfectly fingertip length. We became friends immediately,” he says with a broad smile. And they’ve remained close ever since. Random fact: They all live within a couple miles of each other in Fort Worth.
But Owsley’s story actually begins in Dallas. “I was born at Parkland Hospital and weighed 2 pounds, 2 ounces. But we soon moved to Fort Worth, and I grew up in Cowtown.”
Owsley attended a kindergarten run by Our Mother of Mercy Catholic Church on the city’s south side. “It was the only kindergarten open to Black children. And, yes, I learned the Latin Mass.”
He went on to attend I.M. Terrell, which was the city’s first Black school. “Honestly, Fort Worth’s segregated school system wasn’t bad, at least for me,” says Owsley. “I had access to a speech pathologist to help me with my stutter, we got free polio shots, free rodeo tickets and there was a good music program there. Plus, teachers made us learn about Black history and our heritage.”
Owsley ended up going to night school to get his high school degree (he worked during the day to support himself and his mother) and was able to attend Texas Wesleyan, where he studied art. “But I had to leave Fort Worth because I wanted a different life. Back then, New York was the jumping-off point for Europe,” says Owsley. “A friend had just moved to New York City and needed a roommate. I packed my bags and went.”
He immediately immersed himself in the city’s culture, including opera. “I listened to the Saturday broadcast of ‘Live from the Met’ on the radio as a child. I also found a book at Goodwill that had all the plots of the great operas in English, so I could learn what they were about.”
Living in the melting pot of New York City, his fascination with Europe only grew. “I knew there was a big world out there that I wanted to see. Thankfully, airfare was cheap.”
While Owsley adjusted to his New York life, he says he always remained a Texan. “I talked to everyone and smiled at strangers. People were very helpful, but everyone was always busy.”
He took a job at Saks Fifth Avenue in the alterations department and applied for a job at The Carlyle, the storied hotel located a block from Central Park on the Upper East Side. He started out in room service, worked his way into the hotel’s famous Bemelmans Bar and eventually became a concierge. After a while, he also got a standing singing gig at the bar and, yes, he knew singer-musician Bobby Short, who was a regular there for 35 years.
Owsley stayed at The Carlyle for 36 years, retiring in 2016. “Beloved” is the most common adjective used to describe him during his tenure, and he was included in a popular 2018 documentary called Always at The Carlyle. Privacy was among the unwritten services offered at the hotel, and Owsley talks about the clientele without a hint of braggadocio. While Hollywood luminaries were frequent guests, locals also were among the famous faces.
Through them, Owsley continued his arts education. Many of the hotel’s patrons were supporters of the Metropolitan Opera and passed on tickets to Owsley, who eventually became artistic director for Opera Exposures, a nonprofit founded in 2004. “It was started by a woman of color with the goal of making opera accessible to everyone,” says Owsley. “We’d put on shows by young talent at small venues.” Owsley continues to follow the careers of a few singers, some of whom have performed with Fort Worth Opera.
While working at The Carlyle, Owsley started making his statement necklaces during downtime; the beaded number he wears in his portrait is one of his own designs. He typically adds a scarf as part of his signature style.
He also rekindled his love of collage art, especially after he retired. “I love mixing old and new, plus I had access to a lot of source material including art auction catalogs. I also ran an art bookstore,” says Owsley. Today, he still has a trove of ’70s magazines and unusual travel souvenirs, such as a poster for a clothing drive in Berlin, to source for his collages. “Since I’m almost 72, I realize that these things need to be used.”
His pieces, ornately bound thanks to his long friendship with the owners of Henson-McAlister, the noted Fort Worth frame shop, are small but pack in a lot of detail. Owsley has done commissions for a San Francisco museum director and a Fort Worth collector. Themes include religion, race and even fashion and, yes, Owsley says he wants to make a statement with each piece. A longtime tie wearer when he worked as a concierge, Owsley has used some of the fabric in his collages. This summer, he had an 80-piece show in New York.
“But mainly I work when I want to and when I see something that inspires me.”
Owsley has only been back in Fort Worth for about 18 months, although he used to visit once or twice a year when he was living in New York. “There was a moment when I split time among Texas, New York and Paris. Those were the days. But I’m happy to be home,” he says. “The only thing I really miss is street interactions with shopkeepers. The workers at my local Starbucks in New York loved me; I’d always try and introduce them to a little culture with free tickets to shows.”
Here, Owsley relies on car services to get around and doesn’t do as much walking. But he’s thrilled to live so close to Fort Worth’s museums and to be among friendly people. Unlike those in New York City, the folks he meets here are busy, but they always have time to stop and talk.
“Right now, I feel like I’m visiting a place I never really knew. And it feels good.”