Juan William Chavez calls himself an artist. The credentials are there. He has advanced fine arts degrees, won the prestigious Great Rivers Biennial competition and founded the now-shuttered but highly influential gallery Boots.
But Chavez defines art differently than most of us. Yes, he has created a lot of stuff you can hang on a wall. But what Chavez does best is make social experiences — running a snow cone stand with neighborhood kids, publishing a cookbook of forgotten recipes, grilling “Bay of Pigs” barbecue for his New Year’s Eve Communist Party. Chavez’s artistic practice may look like party planning or social work, but it’s his artistic vision that make these experiences feel both engaging and urgent.
His current project is the Pruitt-Igoe Bee Sanctuary, which is not, in fact, a sanctuary for bees but a launching pad for fresh ideas for the former Pruitt-Igoe housing complex. The project has earned him Graham Foundation grant and Guggenheim fellowship and is the subject of a new exhibit at Laumeier Sculpture Park.
“Artists traditionally were part of society and part of the conversation. They were architects and builders and planners,” said Chavez, 35. “Now the dominant view is that you’re a suffering Jackson Pollack type or about the art market like Andy Warhol. I’m not saying that’s good or bad; I’m just interested in something else.”
The fancy term for this school of thought is “relational aesthetics.” Broadly defined, relational art is created in public, not alone in a studio. And audience members are participants, not merely observers.
“Art is how I think about things,” Chavez said. “When you’re working in the studio, it’s a conversation with yourself and when you are with people it’s a conversation with a lot of ideas.”
Dominic Molon, Contemporary Art Museum chief curator, says audiences respond as much to Chavez’s community spirit as his creative energy.
“He welcomes all people,” said Molon. “You will have a hard time finding anyone who is more of a staunch champion of St. Louis as a place where you can experience sophisticated culture. He has a very sincere belief that St. Louis deserves attention. He wants to do right by the city with the art he makes.”
A new life for Pruitt-Igoe
The Laumeier show, “Living Proposal: Pruitt-Igoe Bee Sanctuary 2010-2012,” includes an outdoor sculpture of 14 posts positioned to form the outline of a Pruitt-Igoe Tower as well as photographs and videos of the now abandoned site. It also features a single jar of honey harvested at Chavez’s Northside Workshop in Old North.
Chavez started investigating the Pruitt-Igoe site a few years ago and was awed that so many trees and animals had reclaimed the site.
The land also had drawn the attention of friend and preservationist Michael Allen, who organized the Pruitt-Igoe Now competition, and the filmmakers of the critically acclaimed 2011 documentary, “The Pruitt-Igoe Myth.”
“I started to wonder, ‘What else could go here?’” said Chavez. “Land is potential. It’s not up to me to come up with the perfect idea, but right now Pruitt-Igoe stands as this total failure. You could switch the current and instead of it being known as the worst example of community building, it could be a leading example of renewal.”
One idea is bees. Chavez says the parallels between bees and north St. Louis are many.
“The bees symbolize community,” said Chavez. “I see them as architects, builders, alchemists. And bees need a sanctuary from colony collapse disorder. In 2011, when the census came out and St. Louis lost population, that’s when the connection between humans and bees really started clicking for me. We are in the same boat as bees.”
Chavez’s study of bees lead him to Spain, home to the oldest cave drawing of a beehive. Chavez had seen the image before in books but never the entire drawing.
“What was fascinating to me about that drawing was that there were also drawings of the hunt, tools, domesticated animals,” said Chavez. “You see that those images are about survival and beekeeping was just as important as the hunt, as the tools.”
Further research led him to him to the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris, a high-traffic tourist destination and home to the oldest beekeeping school in the world. There, bees and tourists co-exist. Here, bees are feared. Chavez recalled a Vinita Park controversy where city leaders demanded a resident move her hive from a community garden.
Chavez decided to learn beekeeping and joined the Eastern Missouri Beekeeping Association. This sumer, he organized beekeeping, gardening and printmaking classes at his Northside Workshop.
“Afterwards, I got a lot of, ‘I don’t want to squash them anymore,’ from the kids, so that was good,” said Chavez.
For his part, Chavez has been stung only twice.
“And it’s always been my fault,” he said. “That’s the thing about beekeeping — if you go into a hive and you are in a bad mood, you’re going to make more mistakes. We have to go in there calm, focused, your mind cleared out. There is this sort of tai chi movement that happens.”
A home-grown artist
Chavez was born in Peru but moved to St. Louis as an infant. Eventually his family bought a house in a run-down section of Skinker-DeBaliviere. His family rehabbed their home and Chavez understood at an early age how a single property could influence an entire block. That experience was on the forefront of his mind when he opened Boots on Cherokee Street years before the neighborhood became a hot destination for galleries and artists.
Chavez attended CBC high school and then took “the grand tour” of St. Louis’ community colleges. Chavez would tell friends he wanted to be an artist or a cabdriver. The latter was starting to look like the more likely option.
“I did Meramec, Flo Valley. I was laying carpet for my grandfather’s business,” said Chavez. “I had to get serious.”
Chavez eventually went to the Kansas City Art Institute, where he studied painting and drawing. He later received his master’s from the Chicago Art Institute. He never considered moving to New York or Los Angeles and instead came home to open his own gallery. When Chavez was young, St. Louis had little to offer home-grown artists. But by the time he returned, St. Louis had experienced an explosion in visual arts venues from the Contemporary and the Pulitzer to small apartment galleries around town.
Chavez had considered opening Boots in Old North but chose Cherokee Street, which had more momentum. The space hosted major artists from across the globe as well as emerging St. Louis artists. But the real action happened on the back patio, which soon became St. Louis’ de facto art headquarters.
“So many deals went down in that backyard,” said Chavez. “There is this comparison to the band the Pixies. People say that in the beginning, not that many people went to Pixies shows but the people who did started bands. That’s how I think of Boots — a lot of things started there, a lot of collaborations, advice, exhibitions.”
Boots closed for all of usual reasons — the money ran out, partners wanted to move on. Chavez also was ready for a new challenge and found himself revisiting the Old North neighborhood. Uber-philanthropists Ken and Nancy Kranzberg, fans of Chavez’s work and supporters of the neighborhood’s restoration efforts, recommended Chavez open a workshop there. So Chavez transformed a crumbling 1870s brick building, one block east of Crown Candy, into his Northside Workshop. The building has a beehive, a garden and classroom and has hosted community classes and events.
Old North Restoration Group executive director Sean Thomas says Chavez has fit right into Old North, a neighborhood with its share of problems, but also a strong sense of pride.
“What I like best about his programming is that it is not just focused in children’s activities or high art,” said Thomas. “He crosses a lot of boundaries.”
‘Living Proposal: Pruitt-Igoe Bee Sanctuary 2010-2012’
When • Through Jan. 20
Where • Laumeier Sculpture Park, 12580 Rott Road
How much • Free