Best known for giant art cars featured at Burning Man, Walter Productions recently opened a massive arts venue in Phoenix. The Where?House is located just west of the Arizona State Fairgrounds at 702 North 21st Avenue, inside a warehouse that once housed a paper factory.
Walter Productions is a Phoenix-based company headed by Kirk Strawn, a former physician turned creative entrepreneur, who calls himself the captain and visionary rather than CEO. The Walter team includes 18 people, who bring diverse skill sets to an array of creative projects.
“We’re an artist collective of sorts,” Strawn says. They’re focused on creating platforms for both Arizona artists and artists from around the globe.
Opening the Where?House is part of making that happen, he says. With 24,000 square feet of space, it’s the largest art gallery in Arizona. That’s half the space in the building, which is also home to a construction truck manufacturer.
“We looked for five years for this warehouse,” Strawn says. “We were looking for a space that could house our art cars and help us continue our creative projects.”
About 200 people attended a soft opening on Friday, October 26. More than 700 showed up for the official launch the following night, where they were surrounded by a mix of visual and performance art on a grand scale.
The Where?House is home to several large-scale "art cars" shown during the famed Burning Man festival in the Black Rock Desert in northwest Nevada. But it’s also filled with large-scale illuminated versions of classic board games created for last year’s Lost Lake Festival in Phoenix, several built-in corridors for hanging artworks, light-based installations, and more.
“The Walter style is immersive and interactive,” Strawn says. “The art world is moving in that direction, and we’re seeing it pop up around Phoenix in places like the Paper Heart and The Lavatory.”
For now, the Where?House will open for special events, rather than having a more regular presence. They’re still working on finishing touches like bathrooms. But they’ve got big plans for the space, including bringing in a wide range of visual and performance art.
It’s just the latest project for the production company, which was founded in 2008, after Strawn and his wife, Mary, attended a Volkswagen festival in Jerome, Arizona. While there, they met the founder of Burning Man, and they found the vintage fire truck they'd eventually transform into their first art car. It's named Walter the Bus, after the fire truck manufacturer, which also inspired their company name. "Some days in your life really change your life forever," Strawn says.
Today, Walter Productions' massive creations also include a VW Baja Bug called Big Red, portable DJ sound stage called Kalliope, and the four-piece Peace Train that serves as a mobile art installation. They've also got two pieces that shoot flames — a horned art car called Heathen, and a spaceship-shaped installation dubbed Mona Lisa.
Turns out, there's a lot more to Walter Productions than its art cars. They've also got a maker space in Scottsdale, near the Walter Art Gallery that shows works in diverse media by emerging and established artists based in Arizona. They've also got Walter Studios at Seventh Avenue and Roosevelt Street, where they're working to create another art venue that'll take the form of a massive house. That's scheduled to open in 2020.
There's a common thread running throughout the world of Walter Productions. "It's all about spreading love, peace, and joy," says Strawn. "We have three simple principles: Show up, be kind, and clean up after yourself." They've also established a nonprofit called Walter Hive, which engages youth in art experiences, and raises money for the Arizona Burn Foundation.
“We’re 10 years into a 100-year plan,” Strawn says. “We spent a lot of the first 10 years on the road, but now we’re putting down more roots in Phoenix."
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In coming weeks, you'll be able to see two of their creations in community settings. The Walter team is reprising its floating lotus flowers called Flotus, created for the Lost Lake Festival in 2017, for Scottsdale Public Art's Canal Convergence in November. And they're giving it a new twist: It will shoot colored flames for the first time. They're also building the Christmas tree for CityScape in downtown Phoenix.
It's all part of a larger vision, centered on creating diverse platforms for artists while engaging the community in a culture of dreams, creativity, and community connections.
Strawn hopes the Where?House can help create and anchor a thriving arts scene west of Roosevelt Row. “We love being in the new industrial area, on the other side of the railroad tracks,” he says. “The Phoenix arts scene is really expanding and we’re excited to be part of it.”