Phoenix New Times | The Leading Independent News Source in Phoenix, Arizona, Phoenix New Times
2021 10 21
A pair of funky sculptural spiders sits atop the front lawn at Alwun House, where they’re getting ready to celebrate not only Halloween, but also the 50th anniversary of the offbeat arts institution that helped to launch the burgeoning cultural scene in downtown Phoenix.
The bright orange, two-story house on the corner of 12th and Roosevelt streets is situated just a few blocks east of Roosevelt Row, in a section of the city where founder Kim Moody and his partner, Dana Johnson, have watched the city grow and evolve over the years.
Moody recalls driving past the dilapidated bungalow that became Alwun House in 1971. At the time, gangs were prevalent in the historic Garfield neighborhood that’s since undergone significant revitalization, anchored in part by this art space has brought together entertainers, artists, community members, and volunteers.
“Their impact is multifaceted and second to none,” says U.S. Representative Greg Stanton, who served as Phoenix’s mayor from 2012 to 2018. “There’s a direct line between Alwun House and all that has happened downtown, and it’s a mainstay of the Phoenix arts community.”
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DJ at a recent Monster’s Ball.
Turns out, Alwun House is downtown’s oldest gallery. This time of year, they show delightfully twisted artworks in an exhibition called “Monsters Menagerie.” One year, Maggie Keane showed an illuminated pumpkin carved with the image of Donald Trump. This year, Holly Shoemaker is showing a ghastly human face where the only feature is a mouth.
It’s one of several annual events that bring people to Alwun House, where art lovers have come to expect the unexpected.
In February, Alwun House presents an Exotic Art Show, where they show suggestively themed works by local artists and continue the theme with an evening of risqué yet tasteful performances.
Zarco Guerrero recalls participating in one of the venue’s early Exotic Art Shows, where you were just as likely to see creative takes on the erotic. “It really challenged me as an artist to explore that theme, and being in that alternative venue as an artist gave me more freedom,” says Guerrero.
“I’ve ventured out there a few times when they definitely made me blush,” Stanton recalls of time spent at Alwun House. “But that’s okay, because good art should challenge you.”
A mailer for Alwun House’s 1987 Exotic Art Show.
Courtesy of Alwun House
Odds are, the former homeowners never imagined the two-story bungalow would become one of the city’s best-loved art hubs, or the site of every kind of performance from burlesque to fire art.
A German immigrant named John Sedler built the house on a five-acre lot in 1912, and Earl Brown bought it in 1948, according to snippets of Alwun House history that a small cadre of volunteers have been gathering and posting on social media to help mark the 50-year milestone.
“I’d been looking for a site where I could do staged performances,” recalls Moody, a fourth-generation Arizonan who was living on 11th Avenue just off Grand Avenue at the time, in a part of town that later became another hub of the downtown arts scene.
“There was a wall where I would put up big sheets of paper and draw things out, picturing a space where you could do all kinds of art and other activities,” he explains. “I saw the house and realized it was empty; then I realized that I could afford to buy it.”
Moody in 1974.
Courtesy of Alwun House
Moody remembers paying $11,000 for the house, with help from Laurence Vanderbeek, who was his partner at the time. Moody decided to call it Alwun House, as in “all one,” a decision that reflected his eclectic, inclusive approach to arts and culture.
Some of Phoenix’s best-loved artists were early Alwun House regulars. Rose Johnson, who painted the iconic St. Francis of Assisi mural once located on a mortuary at 16th Street and Thomas Road, was an early contributor. So were Zarco and Carmen Guerrero, who went on to found the Cultural Coalition focused on Indigenous artists.
At the time, the Guerreros had a small band. But they hired extra musicians when Moody and Johnson invited them to play an event called Caribbean Carnival on the rooftop of a local parking garage.
“It was a huge deal for Phoenix, and everybody just danced their butts off,” Guerrero says. “That really helped us develop a big following for our band.”
But something else impressed him too. “From the beginning, it was all about this idea of collaborating between artists and organizations; that really kept us going and helped us develop a commitment to each other.”
Moody knew early on that they’d need to make changes to the house if they wanted more space for performing, showing art, and holding community events.
A driveway that once wrapped around the building got nixed, and a fence went up around part of the property. Then they installed lawns, created concrete ponds, and built a big stage in the backyard. Friends helped dig a pit in the basement, where people would gather for theatrical performances.
“They’ve improved the property so much, and really up-tipped the neighborhood itself by creating such a beautiful corner,” according to Steve Weiss, a downtown advocate and local creative who screens independent films in nontraditional settings.
Kim Moody and Dana Johnson.
Still, the history of Alwun House isn’t all sweetness and light.
They lost the house for a few years during the 1980s due to financial issues, but ended up buying it back. More recently, they purchased land adjacent to Alwun House and transformed it into a new space they call the Art Park.
The move earned high praise from Mitch Menchaca, director for the city’s office of arts and culture, who says the pair’s “visionary leadership” was instrumental in bringing the park to their community, and giving people another way to experience the arts in Phoenix.
Johnson expects the Art Park to play a central role in expanding Alwun House offerings, and increasing the number of people they can reach. “We’re starting the next 50 years with a new facility that doubled our space so we can do bigger and better productions,” he says.
Already, the space is having a big impact.
In 2019, artist Kristin Wesley worked with the local Burning Man community to create an outdoor event called IgNight at the park. More recently, community members have joined in roller derby skating nights at the park, an indicator that Alwun House hasn’t lost its eclectic touch.
Wesley first learned about Alwun House from a high school art teacher, by the way. “The idea that there was a place downtown pushing the envelope with interesting, offbeat, atypical art was really comforting,” she recalls.
Years later, Wesley took the man she’s since married to an Exotic Art Show, and she’s shown her work at various Alwun House exhibits. Today, she serves on its board of directors. “I’m really proud of the work we’ve done in the community,” she says.
Alwun House recently transformed this adjacent lot on 12th Street into Art Park.
Through the years, Moody and Johnson have gone beyond merely nurturing their own space. They’ve also been active with the neighborhood association, and supported local schools by presenting an annual exhibit of children’s artwork called “Salon Des Enfants.”
“They were pioneers, if you look at the revitalization of downtown Phoenix,” says Stanton. “There will be many chapters written on Kim and Dana and Garfield and Alwun House.”
Amid all their investments of money and time, the pair is quick to praise others for helping to make it all possible. “We could never do this without all our volunteers and supporters,” Johnson says.
Soon, they’ll be celebrating with a trio of anniversary events.
For First Friday on November 5, they’ll open a “50th Anniversary Invitational Art Exhibit” organized with curator Ted Decker, where the lineup will include artists who’ve had a significant impact on Alwun House and the Phoenix arts community.
A week later, Phoenix Poet Laureate Rosemarie Dombrowski and Ernesto Moncado are hosting a 50th Anniversary Heartsong Poetry Night with a lineup of intergenerational poets and spoken word artists reflecting the Alwun House poetry scene from the ‘70s through today.
On Saturday, November 20, Alwun House is getting fancy with a 50th anniversary dinner gala where special guests will include Mayor Kate Gallego and local jazz icon Francine Reed.
There’s even a new book in the works, although it’s not due for release until at least spring of next year. Moody and Johnson plan to fill it with stories and photos of five decades of Alwun House history.
The bungalow as it was in 1971 when Moody purchased it for $11,000.
Courtesy of Alwun House
Like many Phoenix creatives, Steve Weiss has seen both Alwun House and the Garfield neighborhood change over time.
“The group that came to exhibits early on was pretty insular, and it wasn’t a well-known venue,” says Weiss. “I’ve seen it grow as they’ve done more outreach, and it really fills a niche missing in our city now.”
Looking at the big picture, Weiss says he sees important differences between Roosevelt Row and the Garfield neighborhood that’s home to Alwun House.
“Roosevelt Row has become a method of ‘eatertainment’ that’s not necessarily art-centric,” he explains. “Alwun House continues the tradition of legitimate art spaces versus quasi-art spaces that occasionally show artwork.”
In December, they’ll do the annual “Lighthouse” exhibit that fills their gallery and outdoor gardens with light-infused artworks. Typically, it’s an intriguing mix of neon, fire art, video, lightboxes, and various mixed-media artworks.
“It’s all cutting edge and cool and hip,” says Stanton.
But there’s more to it.
“They used art as the leading edge of the spear to make the neighborhood stronger and safer,” Stanton adds. “It’s really about changing people’s lives for the better.”