We Spent Two Months With 12 Artists in a Tuscan Paradise
PHOTOS BY SARAH ILLENBERGER
When you tell people that you just got back from a two-month stay in a 19th-century Tuscan villa with three swimming pools where you had your own artist’s studio and a gourmet chef cooking you dinner every night, the first thing they tend to do is giggle: It sounds like you’re making it up. But if you happen to follow the Instagram feeds of folks like Chiaozza, Confettisystem, Calico Wallpaper, or Sophie Buhai — whose experiences there inspired me to apply — you’ll know that the Villa Lena is no fairy tale, it’s a very real place with a very real residency program that just happens to be the stuff that dreams are made of.
During my time there this past August and September, I shared a studio with my best friend, designer and sculptor Kristin Victoria Barron, where I had the opportunity to make things with my hands for the first time since elementary school, and I shared the villa with 10 other amazing creatives, ranging from musicians (Alexis Georgopoulos of ARP) to painters (Kon Trubkovich) to art directors (Sarah Illenberger). We ate dinner together, we watched movies together, and we occasionally left the middle-of-nowhere countryside landscape together to travel to inspiring places like Bologna and Venice. At the end of our residency, I enlisted the help of Illenberger on a Giorgio Morandi-inspired photo shoot documenting the work of all the visual artists in our group, which is what you see below.
Sadly the application deadline for next summer’s program has already passed, so anyone interested will have to apply for a 2018 residency. But if you can’t wait that long, here’s the good news: The Villa Lena also encompasses a gorgeous hotel, designed by Clarisse Demory, where you can get a taste of the villa life — not to mention the amazing food from its chef-in-residency program — anytime you like.
Inventive Berlin-based art director Sarah Illenberger is known for repurposing everyday materials and objects into surprising representations of other things, a process she abstracted a bit during her time at the villa, creating beautiful compositions out of stray plants, rocks, and pottery shards she’d decorated. Her “Ikebanas” photo series (above bottom) was “inspired by the Japanese flower binding technique, which intends to bring man in contact with nature and help him find balance in his relationship to his surroundings,” she says. “The collected materials were modified using paint, glitter, tape, and plastilline.” For “Beginnings” (above top), she rearranged those objects onto white shelves she constructed in her studio.
The villa has a whole studio dedicated to throwing and firing pottery, which is where Slovakian-born, Paris-based ceramicist Zuzana Hlivarova spent most of her time, making organically glazed plates and vessels like the ones above. “Many of my objects are hand-built works where I use a very basic technique of coiling,” she says. “For these I used local clay from the area Vinci, in between Pontedera and Florence. When I’m glazing, I work very spontaneously as I would with paint. Sometimes the final composition can remind of a landscape, but while I’m in the process of making, it’s not intentional — it’s more about my emotional range and my current state of mind.”
Kristin Victoria Barron
I applied to the villa’s residency program intending to collaborate on large-scale mobiles with my friend, the California designer and sculptor Kristin Victoria Barron. But once we arrived, her creative energy was so strong I had to stand back and let her do her thing — she spent two months hand-forming ceramic shapes inspired by a dream she’d had about the aftermath of an apocalyptic flood. “I began to sculpt the objects that were left behind along the shoreline after the waters receded,” she says. “They started as bone-like fragments, but I repeated the forms many times until they slowly became more and more abstracted.” Eventually she assembled them into models for a future lighting project, but along the way she made the mobile above, plus a skeletal composition she had hand-carved in various types of marble by an artisan outside Carrara.
New York–based musician Lewis Lazar came to the villa to write and record songs, but turns out he’s a man of many talents — he also paints, and having started experimenting with ceramics a few months before the residency, he took an opportunity to get his hands dirty in the pottery studio. “It was just a case of proving to Zuzana that I could throw on the wheel,” he says. “She lent me some clay and I formed a little vase that I intended to fill with dry flowers. I gave it to Sarah (Illenberger) as a thank-you gift for a chestnut she gave me.”
For New York artist/photographer — and erstwhile riot grrl (!) — Becca Albee, the residency was a chance to spend some focused time working on her upcoming 2017 solo show at Et Al. gallery in San Francisco, which will comprise “photographs relating to color theories, therapies, gender associations, and commodification,” she says. She ended up creating a series of research images, depicted above, that she shot of Italian books and newspapers and of stains and cracks around the villa. “I photographed, printed, and rephotographed the photographs, exploring numerous formal and conceptual threads including: interruptions in architecture, colors of light, and the historical and contemporary treatment or erasure of violence against women in the media.”
The New York painter Kon Trubkovich has spent the past few years on a body of work that saw him isolating, enlarging, and recreating fragments of images taken from home movies of his childhood in the USSR. He came to the villa, however, intending to explore a looser, more intuitive process. Among the paintings he produced there were these small watercolors that, while the artist himself didn’t disclose any particular subject matter or inspiration, definitely evoked for me the way that small moments recalled from childhood or films can appear so specific yet so fuzzy at the same time.
Sort of like how our summer at the Villa Lena is already starting to feel for us as we get sucked back into the grind of our real lives. Maybe we’ll see you there in 2017.