Pruitt-Igoe Bee Sanctuary
by Juan William Chávez
As an artist, I use the studio as a space to contemplate, explore, develop and discover new ideas. I create an environment where I can approach projects with a beginner’s mind by opening myself up to the possibilities with eagerness and a lack of preconceived notions. Beginner’s mind has many possibilities, is free of influences, and is open to unknown potential that can lead to transformation. Transforming ideas, objects, and the environment is the foundation of the art experience which often leads to innovation and problem solving issues that are complexed or abstract. I developed a collective practice when I began focusing on socially engaged art projects in North Saint Louis in 2010 through a non-profit organization named Northside Workshop (NSW). NSW is a nonprofit art space dedicated to addressing cultural and community issues in North Saint Louis through experiential workshops that promote engagement among residents. These projects allowed me to begin expanding my own notion of the studio and brought me to ask myself challenging questions about what can be deemed a studio.
In 2010, Northside Workshop began to develop the Pruitt-Igoe Bee Sanctuary, a public proposal aiming to transform the urban forest where the Pruitt-Igoe housing development once stood into a public space that preserves the remaining 33 acres of green space to cultivate community through beekeeping and urban agriculture. The 33 acres of green space began to appear to me as a studio and tool for community building. Without having direct access to the site itself, we developed a pilot program to present the Pruitt-Igoe Bee Sanctuary proposal on a smaller scale at the Northside Workshop’s home location.
NSW is located in a neighborhood adjacent to the Pruitt-Igoe site and consists of a two-story building, as well as green spaces that surround three sides of the building. In 2012, we built an apiary and raised garden beds, filled the workshop with art supplies, and began to host pilot programming called the Young Hony Crew. A studio practice began to take shape in the form of beekeeping and gardening. NSW was not only becoming a space for me to contemplate ideas for community-based projects, but also a platform for educational and social programming.
The Young Honey Crew was especially meaningful following the death of Mike Brown this summer and the protests happening in Ferguson and around the city. There was an overall feeling of distress during this time. Some students in the program particularly sought space to think and create, while others needed a place for dialogue. NSW was able to function as a sanctuary for contemplation. The workshops began to slowly evolve to become more about community and collective thinking. I replaced the concept of teaching as an expert with encouraging students to explore ideas together with me during workshop time.
Over the past few months, the world has witnessed a huge collective spirit arise from a diverse group of people in Ferguson from all walks of life, artists, activists, educators, students and citizens, coming together in innovative ways to demand change. This local response to injustice here in Saint Louis sparked other neighborhoods to take action, which spread to other US cities and countries around the world calling for transformative change simultaneously. While the pursuit for justice continues, this movement has brought a new community together and been a living example of local action and the power of the human collective.
“These are the times to grow our souls. Each of us is called upon to embrace the conviction that despite the powers and principalities bent on commodifying all our human relationships, we have the power within us to create the world anew. We can begin by doing small things at the local level, like planting community gardens or looking out for our neighbors. That is how change takes place in living systems, not from above but from within, from many local actions occurring simultaneously “ – Grace Lee Boggs
Juan William Chávez is an artist and cultural activist who explores the potential of space through creative initiatives that address community and cultural issues. His studio practice incorporates unconventional forms of beekeeping, agriculture, and architectural interventions that utilize art as a way of researching, developing and implementing socially-engaged and creative placemaking projects. He founded the Northside Workhsop in 2010, a nonprofit art space dedicated to addressing cultural and community issues in North Saint Louis. He has received awards and grants from Creative Capital, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts, Art Matters and the Gateway Foundation. Chávez holds a BFA from the Kansas City Art Institute and a MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.