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Juan William Chávez

North Side Gallery director is force behind socially engaged art

Artist Juan William Chávez led a performance for the grand opening of the Crown Square in Old North St. Louis. The performance was a snow cone stand in which Chavez encouraged drawings in exchange for a snow cone. (click for larger version)
August 29, 2012
St. Louis artist Juan William Chávez defies a typical art review. His work involves socially engaged art, and it invites us to consider not only art's decorative effects, but also the formative effects art and creativity have on our communities.

Even for those whose walls are barren and notebooks are clear of any half-dazed doodles, art still plays an important role. People encounter art as a street-side embellishment, like so many statues situated at city corners or intersections. We have all sat in art and have gathered in arts' shadows — the fountains at Citygarden and the apple chairs in Webster Groves serve these purposes.

A veteran of Cherokee Street, Juan William Chávez is very much aware of art's ability to help individuate established social spaces, but he pushes the civic potentiality of his art a bit further than simply décor. In his work, art is the mechanism that drives community growth, not just a display ordered in its wake. His projects fall into a paradigm called Socially Engaged Art, and the payoffs of such ventures are already visible in the North Side of St. Louis.

Juan William Chávez (click for larger version)
Chávez is the founder and artistic director of the new North Side Gallery. The gallery opened in spring 2012 and is situated a block and a half northeast of Crown Candy Kitchen. It is a space developed to serve as a community art and education center. Chávez and collaborative partner, Kiersten Torrez, will develop programming that consists of socially engaged art projects to instill civic pride and promote collaboration among residents.

Although the gallery has just officially opened, the pair has already held a handful of public projects that compose their colorful introduction to north side residents. In past events, groups learned about snow cones from around the world and then were asked to propose new flavors. This resulted in some quirky, creative output such as the never-before-seen flavor, "fire truck."

In exchange for their flavor idea, immortalized in an original drawing, participants walked away with a tasty snow cone to enjoy — in only the traditional flavors.

In another memorable outing, Chávez led a group of school children through North St. Louis to sketch decrepit buildings around their neighborhood in an exploration of abandonment to which the children could easily relate.

The North Side Gallery has been supported in part by the Old North Restoration Group and the Kranzberg Foundation. Beyond his local partnerships, Chávez received national attention when he was named to the 2012 Fellows of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. This honor was bestowed in response to his work in North St. Louis.

To learn more about these projects, visit juanwilliamchavez.com/home.html or facebook.com/northsideworkshop.

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