Perry Ayers, founder Colorado Black Arts Festival, dies at 71

Perry Ayers, founder and artistic director of the Colorado Black Arts Festival, died Thursday from cancer in a Wheat Ridge hospice. He was 71.

Ayers co-founded the festival in 1986 with his brother and fellow artist, Oyedele Oginga. The weekend festival, held last year in City Park, migrated over the years, from City Park to Sonny Lawson Park to Caldwell Plaza in Five Points to the lawn at East High School and back to City Park. At times, the popular festival has drawn more than 100,000 people through the course of a weekend. The festival features hundreds of visual artists, vendors, dancers, musicians, films, food offerings and children’s activities.

A metal art and jewelry artist, Ayers performed with Cleo Parker Robinson Dance in the 1970s, said his sister, Florence Ayers.

Born on Dec. 14, 1951, in Burkburnett, Texas, Ayers demonstrated in his youth a natural flair for the arts, as well as leadership abilities. As children, Florence recalled her brother rallying “kids in the street doing a parade” in 100-plus degree heat to promote a carnival. The Ayers family moved to Denver in 1966.

As an adult, Ayers “brought art to life with his annual sculpture garden pieces,” Florence said. “He was a true visionary.”

As part of the 2000 festival, an artistic and participatory feature included three doors visitors passed through to enter a village.

“We call them the doors of hope, peace and love,” Ayers told the Denver Post at the time. “The three doors are symbolic of change. You write little things on the front of the doors and then work through the doors into the village. That experience is to get them thinking how they can make change, how they can improve their lives and their communities, and how we treat each other.”

In 1994, Muhammad Ali made a surprise visit to the festival, taking the stage to say a few words and signing autographs for festivalgoers. A diplomatic and artistic contingent from Kenya in 1996 brought some full-circle cultural perspective to the event.

Over the years the festival, a nonprofit event that counts on 300 volunteers annually, thrived under Ayers’ leadership.

“What an outstanding and awesome man that lived a great inspirational life,” said Michael A. Williams, director and minister of music at Emmanuel Missionary Baptist Church, in a statement.

A celebration of life service will be at 11 a.m. Thursday, April 6, at Park Hill United Methodist Church, 5209 Montview Blvd., Denver. Memorial contributions may be made to the Colorado Black Arts Festival.

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