Downtown Phoenix art space Alwun House celebrates its 50th anniversary

Few people can say they run an art gallery. Fewer can say they live in the one they run.

Kim Moody and Dana Johnson can.

It was fifty years ago that Moody noticed the white, shabby house at Roosevelt and 12 streets in Phoenix’s Garfield neighborhood and decided to transform it from the dull, artless place it used to be. That house became known as Alwun House and it was one of the first art galleries in the downtown area.

Johnson came on board 14 years later and for the past 37 years, the partners have run the Alwun House Foundation. Running the gallery and foundation have helped Moody and Johnson through good times and bad.

Moody has spent a lifetime in the arts

Moody grew up in a world of arts. His Mormon upbringing and music walked hand in hand, he said. His mom started the Arizona Mormon Choir. On top of traveling with his eight siblings for operetta roadshows, Moody performed in high school theater shows and played the piano.

His mom has since passed, but her brown, out of tune, flower engraved upright piano lives in the Alwun house. Moody still plays. 

In college he studied theater arts with an emphasis in secondary education. But after teaching for two years, Moody had a new vision: He would create a permanent space where he could curate art, music and theater for the downtown community.

He covered the walls of his home with ideas scribbled on sheets of paper. It was there he decided what the collaborative arts space he wanted to create would be called.

“Alwun. All-one, Art all in one place,” Moody said, smiling. “Once I had the vision, I stayed true to that.”

It was an ordinary day in 1971 when Moody first drove by the house. There were no trees, no driveway, hardly any life in the neighborhood. But he knew the 1912 historic house was the perfect spot.

‘I had to live here to make it work’

Nearly a decade of renovations followed once Moody moved into Alwun House. Moody, with help from co-founder Laurence Vanderbeek and friends, transformed the home from the ground up.

They created ponds in the backyard, made a bar from telephone poles and constructed a grape arbor with wood trellises. They built wooden fences out of old materials from his grandpa’s barn in Thatcher.

In 1978 Moody invited his friends for the official groundbreaking for the house. Clad in bell bottoms, a t-shirt and sandals, Moody began a bucket brigade as 40 friends pounded sledgehammers into the basement floor to expand the basement.

It was a literal ground breaking, Moody said, laughing

“Don’t worry, we served a little bit of wine before,” Moody added. 

That marked the beginning of theater performances called “Alwun Basement Theatre.” Art showings were taking place on the main floor while Moody lived on the top floor.

“I had to live here to make it work,” Moody said. 

How Johnson came to Phoenix and found Alwun House

As the Alwun House grew, a steak-flipping, tuba-playing architect arrived in Phoenix fresh out of college. Anything was better than the little town of 5,000 people in Kansas where he was from, Johnson said. 

“An uncle called and said, ‘Come out to Phoenix, and I got a job in one week,” Johnson said.

Johnson hardly knew anyone in town. But after hearing a radio ad for a reggae night hosted by Alwun House, Johnson went to Riverside Ballroom where he met Moody.

Movies, late nights at Red Devil Pizza and many conversations followed. They became inseparable. 

“We just immediately started seeing each other, and we fell in love and moved in,” Johnson said.

They compliment each other, Johnson said. Each has their own strengths.

Moody, the artistic director of the house, greets the guests. Johnson, now the president of the Alwun House Foundation, runs the logistics of the shows. During a recent conversation with the Republic when asked how they worked together, Moody answered, “passionately,” as he stood up from the table to give Johnson the more comfortable seat. 

“It’s better for his back,” Moody said.

After 10 years of working at an architectural firm in the Valley, Johnson got seriously ill and was forced into retirement. He almost died, Johnson said. But amidst the treatments and healing, Moody invited him to run Alwun House alongside him. 

“It became my reason to be, really,” Johnson said. 

Alwun House has grown in 50 years 

Things changed since Alwun’s start in 1971.

More theatrical performances filled the basement. Lecturers would speak on metaphysics — the hot topic of the time. Some of the first poetry readings in Phoenix happened there.

Visual art shows became regular. The weird, out-of-the-the-box, truly artistic was welcome.

“Artists came here because there was no other place and it grew and grew,” Moody said. 

As Alwun developed, the two began building community within the Garfield neighborhood which was, at the time, one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the area, Moody said. So they — along with a few friends from the neighborhood — started the Garfield Neighborhood Association in 1989.

“We say art transforms community, so we thought, ‘let’s transform this community,” Moody said.  

A village of volunteers and passionate artists have carried the house as a labor of love. Volunteers put together the outdoor stage in the backyard. A neighbor who works in construction donated concrete for the outdoor patio, another patron funded the bright orange paint job the house wear today.

A variety of grants were used to fund things like a dressing room for performers or the ArtPark built in 2019.The $390,000 project meant months of grant writing and approvals, Johnson said. He didn’t know about accounting until he came to Alwun House. He oversees all grant writing and finances now.

How Alwun House has served the community

Neighborhood people built up Alwun House but it has served the community, too.

In 1996, in partnership with the neighborhood association and APS, Johnson and Moody planted 1,100 trees in the community.

When 12-year-old Viridiana Solorio Sosa was killed when a van plowed through her front yard, Moody and Johnson rallied her peers to paint a mural dedicated to their Garfield Elementary classmate.

With the help of the Weed and Seed Grant, Alwun House developed a prevention against violence arts youth group: Garfield Youth & Leadership.

When Lupe Sisneros — a beloved friend and Garfield Neighborhood Association Founder —  died, Johnson baked a cake for the memorial service held at Alwun House. Sisneros once told Moody before starting the neighborhood association, “I don’t know much about building a neighborhood but I can bake a cake.” 

So they did that for her, in addition to commissioning and producing a play, 

Barrio Nana,” to honor Sisneros and her inspirational, neighborly love. 

“An art gallery isn’t necessary something that’s pretentious as it is in most places,” John Avedesian, a retired teacher and artist, said. “An art gallery can be a part of the community. It can be a neighborhood community center. That’s what Kim and Dana did.” 

Alwun House has inspired lots of young artists 

Local artist Jared McGonigle will never forget Moody and Johnson.

He was in fourth grade when his artwork hung at the Alwun House. In partnership with Avedesian, Moody and Johnson were hosting their annual “Salon des Enfants” exhibition where kids from across the community could display and sell their art. at Alwun House.

“That was the first experience that I heard someone talking about my art that wasn’t my mother or my brothers,” McGonigle said. “And then someone bought it and it wasn’t a friend or family member buying it. It was just someone who really appreciated it. That moment was my inspiration.” 

McGonigle still creates art for Alwun House today, 20 years later.

Artist and curator Kristin Wesley found Alwun House as a young artist in high school. Then she got married in the house. Johnson made the cake. She also celebrated her 10th wedding anniversary there. And in 2019, they launched Wesley’s annual “IGNiGHT: the Art of Burning Man” gallery, an exhibition complete with flaming sculpted flowers and LED costumes. 

 It’s okay to be weird,” Wesley said, laughing. “Uniqueness is something that can and should be celebrated. Dana and Kim taught me that.” 

‘It’s Satisfaction’

Johnson and Moody are already preparing for their next “Exotic” show in February. Their slow mornings with tea and coffee will continue. So will the morning’s brainstorming on how to let everyone know about the crazy, new show at Alwun House.

It all happens at their outdated, brown table on the back porch – the spot for everything, really. A spot to write grants, to sit down and rest after a gallery show. It’s the spot where artists sit down and talk to them for hours about their art.

 It’s often covered with the usual junk, but all have a place at the table, just like everyone who stops by Alwun House for a show.

“You know, my dad had a stupid little sign on the wall that said, ‘The greatest work is play, the greatest play is work,’ Johnson said, tearing up.

“It’s exhausting but it’s not work because I thoroughly enjoy it. And the footprint I would have left here. It’s satisfaction. And it’s joy.” 

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