Arts / Galleries

Houston’s Wonder Ball Brings Alice In Wonderland (and Wonder Bread) to Life — Inside Fresh Arts’ Latest Creative Party Night

A Warehouse Transforms Into a Garden Scene With a Themed Feast

BY // 03.12.24
photography Charlie Horse Photography

When it comes to Fresh Arts’ annual gala, the Houston arts community knows to expect the unexpected. Even with this in mind, the 2024 Wonder Ball exceeded those unconventional expectations, turning into a true delight for the imagination. 

Upon entry to the Warehouse at Silver Street Studios, Wonder Ball attendees found themselves surrounded by leafy plants, colorful flowers, oversized mushrooms and butterflies. In the middle of this garden wonderland stood a the display of silent auction pieces, curated by Art Is Bond Gallery director Janice Bond. The 15 works in the auction all came from Houston artists including Colby Deal, Donkeeboy and Donkeemom, Matt Manalo and Grace Zuñiga.

Each Fresh Arts gala has a unique theme, and this year was no different. Art lovers got creative with the idea of Wonder, dressing as everything from Mad Hatters and circus clowns to otherworldly fantasy creatures. Even Wonder Bread. 

Co-chairs Palmer & Merry Schooley at Fresh Arts Wonder Ball (Photo by Charlie Horse Photography)
Co-chairs Palmer & Merry Schooley at Fresh Arts Wonder Ball (Photo by Charlie Horse Photography)

This year, Fresh Arts also introduced an exciting new experience to the gala: The Wonder Ball Dinner Party, a themed feast with live entertainment.

An extravagantly-decorated dining area awaited VIP Dinner Party guests. Paying homage to the Queen of Hearts’ realm in Alice in Wonderland, Art Attack decked out the warehouse in red, black and white, with playing cards, candelabra and red rose centerpieces. A royal throne and a giant chessboard with glowing pieces added to the scene.

Jazzy live music from The Charlie Trio Band drifted through the air as attendees grabbed food from a buffet provided by Hungry’s: beef tenderloin, grilled chicken, veggie kabobs, herb basmati rice, seasonal vegetables, Greek salad and pita bread.

Outdoor Dining with Bering's

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Co-chair Matt Manalo, Sarah Darro at Fresh Arts Wonder Ball (Photo by Charlie Horse Photography)
Co-chair Matt Manalo, Sarah Darro at Fresh Arts Wonder Ball (Photo by Charlie Horse Photography)

As everyone feasted, emcee Sarah Pepper, the popular Mix 96.5 DJ, kicked off the evening. Pepper welcomed everyone to the dinner party and introducing the Fresh Arts team and chairs Eva Sagisaka, Morgan Holleman, Matt Manalo, and Merry and Palmer Schooley.

Fresh Arts executive director Angela Carranza then thanked Houstonians for supporting the nonprofit.

“Our small department has been at the forefront of empowering countless local artists with the tools to learn, encouragement to create and the environment to flourish,” Carranza notes.

Carranza directed attention towards a video dedication for honoree Theresa W. Chang of the Texas Commission on the Arts, who was unable to make it that evening. Fresh Arts then invited honoree Ruby Rivera, founder of the performance organization Texas Salsa Congress, to the stage.

Honoree Ruby Rivera addresses the crowd at Fresh Arts Wonder Ball. (Photo by Charlie Horse Photography)
Honoree Ruby Rivera addresses the crowd at Fresh Arts Wonder Ball. (Photo by Charlie Horse Photography)

Moved to tears, Rivera thanked Fresh Arts and the crowd for their continuous support of Houston’s art community.

“Growing up under the poverty line. . . I don’t know how my mom did it, but she always made sure that I had access to the arts, whether it was after-school programs or community centers,” Rivera says. “So I just want to say thank you to everybody in this room. Because you guys make that happen for so many people in Houston.” 

Rivera ended her dedication by showing off a custom-made jacket created by a student, illustrated with the words “We’re All Mad Here.” 

Then began the VIP live auction, led by Pepper. The featured item: a one-week stay at the Morey in Paris, donated by Cindy and Paul Canatella, which went to Fresh Arts founder Marita Fairbanks and husband JB Fairbanks.

JB + Marita Fairbanks, founders of Fresh Arts, and former board member James Phelan (Photo by Charlie Horse Photography)
JB + Marita Fairbanks, founders of Fresh Arts, and former board member James Phelan (Photo by Charlie Horse Photography)

At the end of dinner, a pair of surprise guests appeared: a 10-foot tall Red Queen on stilts and the White Rabbit. These kooky characters invited everyone to follow them to the dance party, where DJ Hiram began playing bumping live music. A large disco ball, glowing light orbs and dry ice bubbles made the party truly unforgettable. 

The Wonder Ball not only provides critical funds for Fresh Arts, but also supports the organization’s return to Winter Street Studios after the devastating arson fire of 2022. Fresh Arts empowers local artists through educational programs, mentorship, career building and fiscal support. Fifty percent of the silent auction funds are split with the featured artists. 

“I think everybody needs to have their Alice in Wonderland moment,” Rivera says. The 2024 Wonder Ball certainly provided just that.

PC Seen: Fresh Arts team Daral Moore-Washington, Jade Boldenow, Micah Salinas, Julia Barbosa Landois, Nicole Peralta, and Charles Scott;Rouzi Sagisaka; Tamara and Tim Bonar; Lenny Matuszewski; Michael Bickham; Linda and Ronnie Nguyen; Annabeth Turcios; Christopher Manriquez; Cynthia Rojas; Jared LeBlanc; Laura Elmore; Jackie Staple; Alene Coggin; Austin Thomas; Lorena and Derrick Hibbard; Conner Estes; Sarah Darro; Sha Samiuddin; Chris Cuella; Michelle and Sean Collins; Crystal Walter-JN Baptiste and Mathieu JN Baptiste; Gabriel Luna; and Andrew Carlin. 

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