October 6, 2017
Home design; A world of weird; Austin-inspired home tour opens doors to outlandish habitats
By: Alyson Ward
When Kelly Gale Amen relaxes in his high-backed armchair, a chrome-covered mannequin hovers behind him like a devoted robot assistant. Cold and shiny, stiff and faceless, it could pass for C-3PO’s cousin – but its arms reach out gently, as if to massage Amen’s shoulders.
Light and open with a view of Minute Maid Park, Amen’s apartment is full of such offbeat artwork and uncommon detail – from floor to ceiling and on every inch of the walls.
Faces peer from paintings; soft, suggestive sculpture hangs overhead. And a woman’s body, bright red and smooth as a department-store dummy, peeks in from the bedroom, leaning through a cutout in the wall.
“I wanted to have mannequins at random,” Amen explains with a sly smile, “just so if I’m here alone, I don’t feel like I’m alone.”
Amen’s apartment – an old loft on the northern outskirts of downtown – is a stop on Saturday’s Weird Homes Tour, which offers a peek at some of the most creative, outlandish décor in Houston. The self-paced tour opens the doors to 10 houses, lofts and studios – most inside the Loop, with a couple of homes out west near the Beltway.
When the Weird Homes Tour started in Austin in 2014, it was a way to celebrate the “Keep Austin Weird” aesthetic – the kind of taste that, in free-spirited neighborhoods, inspires homeowners to paint murals on their garage doors or turn shipping containers into tiny houses. It branched out to Houston last year, and next month it’ll expand to offer a tour in New Orleans.
The Weird Homes Tour got started “because reality TV would have you believe that every house needs a farm sink and boring shiplap on the walls,” said David J. Neff, the tour’s founder and CEO. “We want to fight that trend. People come to our houses to be inspired – to go home and paint a wall yellow, instead of Eggshell No. 09864.”
A ticket to this year’s Houston tour will offer a peek at Selia Qynn’s “secret garden” in Spring Branch, a certified wildlife habitat full of hidden nooks and arty treasures. It’ll open up Anne Reese Hernandez’s door in the Heights, a home filled to the brim with folk art and her vintage clothing collection. And in her Memorial-area townhome, Sue Shefman will show off her “Hippolotofus” collection – more than 2,000 pieces of hippopotamus decor, including statues, stuffed animals and a bright red hippo-shaped art car.
For $20 extra, a VIP ticket offers an afterparty and a tour of the Lester Marks home in West University Place. The Marks home holds a spectacular collection of serious art – Warhol, Basquiat, Anselm Kiefer – and its share of idiosyncrasies, too, with entire rooms devoted to art installations.
Amen’s own art collection is a combination of the important and irreverent. An artist and interior designer, he has combined his work – fabrics, furniture and sculpture – with pieces he has collected over decades of work and travel.
Near the chrome mannequin hangs a Donald Roller Wilson painting of Jesus Christ and a rabbit. On a table near the window sits a Frank Fleming sculpture of three frogs and a snake. And on a mirrored wall near the bedroom hangs a portrait by the Salvador Dalí-trained artist Nall; it’s of Amen himself.
“I went to Monaco for the unveiling of it,” Amen recalls.
Every piece of artwork carries a story. A number of framed Jay Branson photographs, for instance, offer turbulent images of a fire. “That’s my furniture on fire,” Amen says. He and Branson set some of his custom pieces ablaze in the name of art, and those images became a Fotofest exhibit in 2002.
The open living room can be sectioned off with fabric curtains from Amen’s own KGA Collection, and a woven rug softens the gleaming wood floor. “My mother did that in the ’50s,” he says, assembling it from garments she collected at home in western Oklahoma.
Amen had to edit his collection when he moved into this 2,000-square-foot loft six years ago. Before that, he owned 12,000 square feet in Montrose, a collection of buildings known as “the Compound.” Amen had pools and fountains, four kitchens and six bedrooms – and he’d regularly host parties for 400 people.
“Pretty much everybody in Houston” knew about the Compound, Amen says, and the parties were legendary. But after 28 years of living there, Amen had entered his 60s, and “one day I just said ‘I don’t want to do it anymore.'”
That’s when he started eyeing the Dakota Lofts, an old paint factory that developer Randall Davis converted into lofts in the early ’90s.
“I said, ‘I want the largest corner loft on the upper floor with the best sun,'” Amen says. “I waited a year for it. But it’s fabulous.”
Amen had to downsize his décor, sending some pieces to storage and others to showrooms. He rotates it out so that his home always holds what he truly loves, right now.
He looks around: “This is more interesting than the other one was, actually.”
In the bedroom, Amen’s Shel Hershorn-designed bed sprawls in the center of the room, allowing more wall space for art and framed photographs. A portrait of his beloved old dalmatian, Fire Hydrant, hangs on one wall. On another, there’s a portrait of Amen surrounded by naked, clay-covered models.
Amen runs an awareness campaign he calls “Cancer Below the Belt.” A prostate cancer survivor, he wants to remove the stigma from the types of cancer people don’t like to talk about. So it’s fitting that two of Amen’s signature vagina pillows – which look exactly the way you’d imagine – hang from the ceiling in a prominent spot near the window. That’s part of his story and a piece of his art. He doesn’t entertain here the way he used to at the Compound, but Amen’s loft is a showpiece. Every bit of art and furniture is arranged thoughtfully; the warmth of framed mementoes is balanced by the mannequins’ chilly, sleek shine.
“Weird is the new normal,” Amen declares, and his loft – every inch of it – is “really a collection of who I am and what my spirit has been.”