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Phenix Apartments to curate artistic growth


Valley Junction’s new apartments are move-in ready and cater to artists.

Kelly Kunzler works with his family at Kunzler Studios, where his mother, father and sister all contribute to a large, purchasable gallery of work that includes paintings, sculptures and furniture.

Sometimes something that was once thought dead can find a second life.

When Phenix Elementary was founded in 1939, it was named the “West Des Moines Elementary School.” A risky move, as Phenix Elementary was founded before West Des Moines was given its current name.

After the building’s closure in 2014, Community Housing Initiatives (CHI) — an affordable housing nonprofit — renovated the structure into an apartment complex, tailoring the units to suit the needs of artists. If you didn’t create art in some form, your application wasn’t accepted.

Kelly Kunzler, an artist based in Valley Junction, first heard of Phenix School Apartments when Matt Hauge, communications and marketing director of CHI, requested to hang fliers in Kunzler Studios, his family’s store.

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“It wasn’t really an option for me at that point,” Kunzler said. “But (Matt) was sitting there explaining it, and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’d love to do that.’ ”

After being accepted, Kunzler began considering all the benefits an apartment like this would yield, including being right across the street from his family’s store.

“I’d seen the pictures of them, and I didn’t want to get too excited about them,” Kunzler says. “Those are the concept photos; that’s not what they are … but then I went in, and I was like ‘Yeah, that’s it.’ ”

Phenix School Apartments is offering one-, two- and three-bedroom units that have been repurposed from classrooms, offices and other rooms. Each unit comes with a studio space that is detached from the unit for each resident to use as work space.

“What (the studio space) does provide is a bunch of other artists to work with, and that’s really, really helpful actually,” Kunzler says.

Other residents include painters, sculptors, jewelers, photographers and musicians.

“Having people to kind of push you and bounce ideas off of is a really unique thing that I hope I kind of get because you kind of get that camaraderie with other artists and you become more productive because of it,” Kunzler says. “If you see everybody else doing things, it gives you ideas.”

Kunzler, a native of Glidden, graduated from Graceland University with a double major in sculpting and 2-D art. His extensive art experience means he understands the value of a separate creative space.

“It helps to have a dedicated workspace,” Kunzler says. “If you make where you work where you live, it’s really easy for those to blend together and not be productive or to feel like you can never get away from your artwork … As much as artists love art, it’s still a job.”

Kunzler does “a little bit of everything,” but says he specializes in drawing. His work can be found downtown at the cocktail bar Hello, Marjorie, as well as in the skywalk, where he created a mural.

“I don’t do murals usually … but I had this giant platform that I could say something with,” Kunzler says. “And so they said, ‘Do you do murals?’ and I was like, “ ‘Yeah, I do murals.’ ”

Phenix School Apartments converted the previously closed Phenix Elementary into an apartment complex that caters exclusively to active artists.

It’s almost fitting that this kind of apartment, catering to the artistically-minded, would be located in Valley Junction. What once was a trading and shipping post is now one of the main spots for artists to flourish in the Des Moines area. One trip down Fifth Street and you’ll find jewelry, vintage clothing, crafts and plenty of art, which the area has become somewhat known for.

“The more people that are here doing this kind of thing, the better it is for everyone,” Kunzler says. “If everyone in Des Moines thinks Valley Junction is where you go to get art, then everybody wins.”

As for Kunzler, he’s just ready to move in.

“I’m here ready to go,” he says. ♦

One Comment

  1. D. W. says:

    This is an amazing concept! How does an artist get in?

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