Juan William Chavez Looks to Bees to Bring Communities Together

One day Juan William Chávez was contemplating the failures of the Pruitt-Igoe complex to house a community, when he realized it could still welcome one community: bees. His Creative Capital project, Pruitt-Igoe Bee Sanctuary was born. Over the years, Juan has developed the project into a multilayered community outreach program offering public studio space, food demos and gardening classes for local children, and paid positions for young adults in the neighborhood. Currently, Juan is using a residency at Artpace in San Antonio to develop the project so it can become mobile.

Before he premieres the project at an exhibition there, opening July 14, we spoke to him to find out more about it.

Alex Teplitzky: You were first inspired to begin this project after taking photos of what remains of the Pruitt-Igoe lot, a notable failure in urban planning history. I’m interested in how you’re beginning almost literally from the ashes of this failure and propelling toward a new project of community building.  Are you inspired by the old failures that took place on the site that your own project is named after? Or perhaps by the intentions of the Pruitt-Igoe developers?

Juan William Chávez: There has been a lot of art and research base on the failures of Pruitt-Igoe. My project aims to continue the conversation about Pruitt-Igoe and how its history still affects the city of Saint Louis. It addresses urban planning strategies that enforce a racial and economic divide in the city.

It also aims to confront these strategies through community building by activating vacant lots with programming that embraces the urban ecosystem, education, the arts, job training and providing a space for dialogue among community members.

The urban forest of Pruitt-Igoe is what inspired me to go beyond a traditional community garden and view green vacant lots as part of the urban ecosystem of people, animals and plants that can foster space and opportunity for conversation, a sense of belonging, a space for self-realization and transformation. It aims to be a public studio space that offers creative strategies for developing and activating vacant lots that can slowly grow into new possibilities. Planting seeds and ideas, letting them grow with a goal not to fix but to evolve with people and time.

Alex: Can you talk about some of the people you are working with? You mentioned in your retreat presentation, for instance, how one of your pupils is now a board member.
Juan: The Pruitt-Igoe Bee Sanctuary developed around the legendary housing projects in Saint Louis that were built in the 50’s and imploded in the 70’s, which left this massive 33 acre vacant lot that has over time slowly transformed into an urban forest. The urban forest serves as inspiration to develop creative strategies for activating vacancies through beekeeping and urban agriculture. That’s where it all started.

We created an off-site pilot program that started with a summer program that included beekeeping, gardening, cooking and art for children in the neighborhood. Over the past 3 years we have added paid summer jobs for young adults and a senior women’s support group. Our paid summer jobs are made possible through a partnership with MERS/Goodwill.

Each year we employ 3 to 5 young adults ranging from 16 to 23 years of age. The youth workers help us run and prepare all of the our programs and in return we offer mentorship and professional development workshops, on topics like how to prepare a resume, preparing for an interview, or how to set personal goals.

Last year we started a program called Incubate Workshop where we help someone from the community initiate a workshop that they want to create. Our first participant has been our neighbor Paulette Sankofa. She needed a space for a women’s support group called the Wise Women. The group consists of mostly women from the neighborhood that meet weekly. Our program has now become multi-generational through this collaboration.

Alex: A number of art projects, and specifically Creative Capital artists (Miriam Simun, Guillermo Brown, Kelly Heaton), have been inspired by bees—and I have been thinking about why artists are drawn toward them. What is your interest in bees, and how it relates to human development?

Juan: I’m inspired by Joseph Beuys’ works with bees. He viewed bees as a symbol of society due to the nature of how they live and work together. He was also fascinated by the alchemy of honey production and used honey in many of his works. The collectivity of the hive is a powerful and natural way of living and working. Working together to transform ideas and space play a major role in my work.

I’m inspired by the collective and developing space in the built and natural environment. Bees teach me how to work within a group, how to build space as a group, how to transform ideas to make honey, and the alchemy of the studio within an ecosystem. For me bees and humans are the same.  We enjoy a lot of the same plants and smells. We need them and they need us. A better environment for the bees is a better environment for humans, and as humans we forget that we are part of an ecosystem. Bees remind me of that which keeps me grounded and connected.

Alex: The project has recently moved from St. Louis to Artpace San Antonio, Texas. What’s changed in this move? Anything new?

Juan: My residency and exhibition at Artpace focuses around developing a social enterprise for our pilot program in Saint Louis, MO. Over the past two years we have been researching and trying to develop some type of social enterprise to address food deserts and food justice. We have worked on some big ideas, like a grocery store and food incubators. All have been valuable research and still have potential. But instead of initiating a major fundraising campaign, we decided to develop a pilot program that can slowly grow. Our conclusion was to transform a vintage trailer into a Mobile Honey Market that can be used to raise funds by selling honey and other produce from our garden, while serving as a vehicle for bee and health education and job training programs.

Creative Capital helped us acquire the trailer and Artpace helped us transform it into a mobile market. The trailer has been outfitted with a solar panel, custom shelving to display honey, and a small grow room so we can sell plants. It has a small kitchen, sitting areas and flat screen so visitors can watch videos about our programs, cooking demos, information about bees, etc. We plan on taking the mobile market to schools, parks, festivals and farmers markets.

Artpace is an amazing organization with an incredible staff who are passionate for art and ideas. This has been the perfect place for me to work on the trailer. It will be on display for two months in San Antonio, and then it will come back to Saint Louis.


Honey Trailer, Interior Detail; Originally commissioned and produced by Artpace San Antonio.

Alex: With mobility, you have the power to scale this project upwards. Where do you envision it heading in the next 5 to 10 years?

Juan: I’m definitely an artist that wears many hats, as my projects consist of various elements. I have a philosophy of life changes and evolves, the environment changes and evolves so ideas must change and evolve. Right now the trailer will be a Mobile Honey Market, but in a year it could be something more permanent like a honey and/or canned good business, or a food incubator. It was designed with this flexibility.

My partner, Kiersten Torrez, and I discussed how it would be great to travel with the trailer in order to learn more about urban ecosystems by talking with beekeepers in different cities. My residency at Artpace is the first time we’ve actually interviewed a local beekeeper: Cameron Perez from Perez Beekeeping told us about Africanized bees and the ecosystem in San Antonio. He talked about how he thinks Africanized bees are the future of honey production and that he gets more calls now asking to save bees rather than complaining about their defensive nature. It was an amazing conversation.

We hope this project will inspire invitations from other cities where the trailer can travel so we can interview and film more beekeepers. In three years we will potentially have a collection of studio research about beekeeping that could provide us with more information and awareness about bees and the urban ecosystem that can be used to publish an urban almanac.

Read more about Juan’s exhibition and residency at Artpace San Antonio, open from July 14 to September 11.