An SAIC alumnus hopes to transform a fading Midwest metropolis one community at a time
by Brandi Kulakowski (Dual MA 2012)
Like so many once-thriving Midwest industrial centers, St. Louis, Missouri is a shell of its former self. Over the past four decades the city’s major businesses found new homes, its downtown population left, and its cultural core stagnated. Some people see a blighted metropolis that will never be relevant again—while others see hope, opportunity, and a chance for urban renewal. Juan William Chávez (MFA 2004) is squarely in the latter category. Through his blossoming socially engaged art practice, the SAIC alumnus is interested in reshaping North St. Louis with a number of projects, including his public proposal for the Pruitt-Igoe Bee Sanctuary and Northside Workshop, a community space in Old North St. Louis.
The Pruitt-Igoe Bee Sanctuary proposes to transform 33 of the 57 acres where the failed Pruitt-Igoe Housing Projects once stood into an urban farm. The Bee Sanctuary would house a greenhouse, two beehives, and a memorial sculpture created from a remaining street lamp; educational and mentorship programs complete the proposal. The Pruitt-Igoe Housing Projects, once described as slum surgery by an April 1951 issue of Architectural Forum magazine, quickly fell into vandalism and violence due to unstable funds from the city of St. Louis to keep up the project. The Projects were fully demolished in the late 1970s. Chávez visited the site and found an urban forest had grown, inhabited by a new community—a colony of bees.
Chávez finds bees and humans a natural connection. Chávez says, “Pruitt-Igoe was supposed to house nature—human beings. Now, the community is nature. The nature of bees, their social structure, and how they work as a community—and also because of colony collapse disorder—seemed to be a nice pairing. This pairing is especially poignant considering the change in St. Louis’s overall population.” Colony collapse disorder, a rapid decline in honeybee colonies with no clear cause, in many ways reflects the 8.3% decline of the St. Louis population since just 2000, making the city’s current population its lowest in 141 years. “If anything,” Chávez adds, “the proposal itself is a way to address urban abandonment.” He stresses the importance of bees to human survival as well—they pollinate more than 90% of our food.
In addition to revitalizing the Pruitt-Igoe site where buildings once stood, Chávez has successfully intervened to save an historic North Saint Louis brick building that was in danger of being destroyed in collaboration with the Old North Saint Louis Restoration Group and the Kranzberg Arts Foundation. This building will become the working space for the Northside Workshop, another project organized by Chávez and the Old North Restoration Group. The group, a community-based nonprofit organization established to revitalize the physical and social dimensions of the community, approached Chávez in 2010. A two-year long conversation led to the Northside Workshop, a space in North St. Louis that addresses community and cultural issues. If proper funding is secured, Chávez will work as an artist-in-residence and collaborate with an educator or social worker to develop projects and offer outreach. This fall kicks off the Year of Listening that aims to garner an understanding of the interests, concerns, and issues of the community to then develop programming and workshops. This summer, the Northside Workshop is hosting workshops that combine art and the game of chess as well as gardening workshops for middle school students to teach them creative strategies to think about urban abandonment and vacancy.
Chávez has recently led workshops hosted by the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts for various communities of St. Louis. In 2010 he led an experimental drawing workshop, Experience the Neighborhood through Drawing, in which students explored issues of their neighborhood and created drawings accompanied by their powerful stories. In early 2012 Chávez and light sculptor Bob Hartzell led participants from the Pulitzer’s Restaging Reflections of the Buddha, an innovative program in which former prisoners and homeless veterans explored Buddhist art to develop skills for attaining future employment and life goals. The Lantern Project led by Chávez and Hartzell led participants in a workshop to create lanterns that were later installed in the Pulitzer Foundation for the Art’s reflection pool.
During his tenure as a graduate student in the Painting and Drawing department and after graduating from SAIC, Chávez focused on drawing and video. In fact, one of Chávez’s first projects on the Pruitt-Igoe site was an 8mm film documenting the site where the 33 buildings once stood. Over the past three years, Chávez’s artwork has slowly evolved into a social art practice. This transformation was most evident as he cofounded the Boots Contemporary Art Space, a nonprofit art laboratory to support emerging and midcareer artists and curators. His evolution into a socially engaged artist has earned him support with prestigious awards. Just in the past two years Chávez has received the Missouri Arts Award, an Art Matters grant, the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts Grant, and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship. Of the Guggenheim Fellowship Chávez notes, “The most important thing that the Guggenheim is going to allow me to do is allow me the time to slowly develop the projects.” Because, whether working with bees or people, it takes time to grow a community.