Juan William Chávez: Honey Trailer (interior), 2016, grow room, beekeeper suit and honey display. Commissioned by Artpace, San Antonio. Courtesy the artist.

From the moment I received the email invitation for a preliminary site visit to Artpace, a residency-and-exhibition program in San Antonio, it was game time! I lived and worked there for two months, and it was a day-in, day-out grind to bring all the moving parts of my project together before my exhibition at the end of the residency. It was truly a test of my endurance. 

I spent most days working in the studio or woodshop and exploring San Antonio. I’d start my mornings with coffee and some breakfast tacos (we don’t have them in St. Louis!). At night, I roamed around the Artpace building, drawing, or edited videos in my studio. The momentum of the residency drove me to produce a wide variety of new work: drawings and sculptures based on beekeeping, a multimedia installation inspired by shamanism and Africanized bees, and two prints. One features the architect Minoru Yamasaki, and the other the other is an image of a cassette tape of Philip Glass’s soundtrack for the documentary film Koyaanisqatsi that includes the piece “Pruitt-Igoe.” Both were printed at Hare & Hound Press, a legendary print shop in San Antonio.

The biggest challenge by far during my residency was transforming a 1963 Shasta Trailer into a solar-powered mobile honey market. Building this was also my biggest breakthrough, allowing me to complete a final component of Pruitt-Igoe Bee Sanctuary, a project I have been working on since 2010. The sanctuary proposes an alternative to how the city of St. Louis currently uses the thirty-three-acre urban forest where the Pruitt-Igoe housing projects once stood. Over the years, my project has developed into a multilayered community outreach program offering workshops to local children teaching beekeeping, food cultivation, cooking, and art, and creating paid positions for young adults living in North St. Louis. It also involves programming to raise bee awareness, health education, and job training courses.

Before the residency started, I purchased a vintage trailer with funds from a Creative Capital grant. The trailer was towed to Artpace before I arrived, so the first day of my residency was the first time I saw it in person. The exterior is painted with colorful yellow stripes, and it has two small silver wings on the back. You couldn’t ask for a better-looking beemobile! The inside, on the other hand, was in need of some love. For the next two weeks, I took photos, sketched out ideas, had conversations, and created a design that could serve as a starting point for renovating the trailer.

With the help of Artpace studio technicians, interns, and a master carpenter, we gutted the inside of the trailer by ripping out all the carpet, the bathroom (that was fun!), the copper piping, and the water heater. Then the whole interior was sanded down. It was a lot of hard work, but we had fun, and there was lots of great conversation. During the off days we drove around San Antonio collecting materials (wood, electrical hardware, floor tiles), taking breaks at neighborhood taquerias to fuel up on breakfast tacos.

Once the gutting process was complete, the customizing began. We installed a solar panel, shelving to display the jars of honey, hand-cut hexagon floor tiles, and framed out a small grow room to start pollinator-approved plants from seed. We added butcher block countertops to the kitchen, installed an air conditioner, and reupholstered two benches in the seating area. We mounted a flat screen TV to present interviews, cooking demos, and bee education videos. We were extra-aware of the potential environment impact of this project, so we opted to use all eco-friendly materials, including a homemade beeswax sealant that was rubbed on all the wood paneling and trim. When we were finished, the trailer looked and smelled fantastic. The transformation was a total group effort, and I asked everyone who worked on the trailer renovation to sign the inside of a cabinet door. 

Artpace has helped create incredible artworks by providing studio space to an all-star cast of artists and curators since 1995. The professionalism, expertise, and knowledge base of the Artpace team allowed me to challenge myself to create work that I could not have realized on my own. Add delicious San Antonio breakfast tacos to the equation and you have an incredible creative ecosystem where art-making thrives.