In Tuscany, Villa Lena Brings Creatives of All Kinds Together

  • Photo by Coke Bartrina. Courtesy of Villa Lena.

    Photo by Coke Bartrina. Courtesy of Villa Lena.

On a warm summer night this past July, an illustrator, a textile designer, a painter, a filmmaker, and a singer gathered around an al fresco dinner table in a remote corner of Tuscany. The menu had been hand-drawn by the illustrator, the tablecloth dyed by the designer, and the soundtrack provided by the singer who crooned over the rattle of forks and conversation. As plates of roasted peaches and ice cream were cleaned and the urge to dance set in, the painter began to DJ. A week before, the group hadn’t known each other.

It’s a typical night at Villa Lena, a multidisciplinary residency set on a mostly untamed swathe of Italian countryside between Pisa and Florence. Every year, between April and November, 40 artists descend on the Tuscan property in four waves; each group of eight-to-10 stays for two months. Across the estate, easels are tucked into barns, notebooks are strewn on outdoor tables, and synth machines are perched on desks overlooking a horizon line accented with cypress trees. Listening to tales from residents, it’s hard not to draw comparisons between Villa Lena and dreamy cult films (like Bertolucci’s Stealing Beauty (1996) and Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)) that mingle drool-inducing panoramas and eccentric creatives.

Villa Lena was founded four years ago by young couple Lena Evstafieva, who previously worked at Garage Institute for Contemporary Art and Pace Gallery, and Jérôme Hadey, a musician and producer. While many artist residencies are focused on a single discipline or medium, “Lena and Jérôme wanted to create an environment where artists from different disciplines, places, and stages in their career could come together,” explains Katy Wesley, director of the Villa Lena Foundation that hosts the residency, as the third installment of this year’s artists unpack their bags and stretch their canvases. “It’s not just about getting the most well-known artists that we possibly can and allowing them to shut up in their studios. There’s a desire to have an exchange of ideas.”

  • Left: Sarah Illenberger. Photo by Wilf Speller. Right: Photo by Coke Bartrina. Courtesy of Villa Lena.

    Left: Sarah Illenberger. Photo by Wilf Speller. Right: Photo by Coke Bartrina. Courtesy of Villa Lena.

The residency co-exists, and is funded in part by, a hotel run out of the same villa where residents sleep. For artists, room and board is gratis, and a breakfast and dinner combo, prepared by a chef-in-residence from ingredients grown in large part on the Villa Lena property, costs €15 a day. The only other requirement is interaction—with other artists and hotel guests in the form of dinner conversation, and by organizing a talk or workshop related to their respective practices.

Last summer, American writer McKay McFadden had planned to deliver a straightforward reading of the manuscript she was reworking while at Villa Lena, “but that seemed too formal and forced for the setting,” she explains, a year later. Instead, she concocted a different approach, one that felt more native to her new surroundings. “The narrator [of my novel] has a Carl Sagan-inspired fascination with outer space, so I decided to give stargazing readings to the guests. I set up the pool chairs on the bocce court, the darkest area I could find. After dinner, they brought wine and lay down to look at the stars while I read (by headlamp) one of my favorite scenes about the impending collision of galaxies Andromeda and the Milky Way.” As she continues, vividly describing the moment, one cannot help but feel a strong desire to have been amongst the guests, experiencing art and nature in mind-bending concert.

Residents don’t necessarily come to Villa Lena with the intention of being inspired by their surroundings, but often, they can’t help it. During her stay, McFadden shared a studio (formerly a barn) with South African fashion, jewelry, and furniture designer Katherine-Mary Pichulik. The designer named her spring-summer 2016 collection, sketched during her residency, after the villa. “When the sound of crickets and birds replace the hustle of the city, when long walks with vistas and collecting wild poppies become your daily outing, something in oneself starts to unbutton,” she explains. “Your thoughts begin by being in overdrive, trying to fill the languid time—they too, ease up and make way to finer observations.” The necklaces and earrings Pichulik produced after her stay were inspired by Tuscan marble sculptures, the embellishments that decorate nearby age-old Catholic churches, and the striped umbrellas that fringe the Villa Lena pool.

  • Photos by Coke Bartrina. Courtesy of Villa Lena.

    Photos by Coke Bartrina. Courtesy of Villa Lena.

  • Left: Photo by Frederik Vercruysse. Right: Kon Trubkovich. Photo by Wilf Speller. Courtesy of Villa Lena.

    Left: Photo by Frederik Vercruysse. Right: Kon Trubkovich. Photo by Wilf Speller. Courtesy of Villa Lena.

But the biggest takeaway, for most residents, is the conversation they share with fellow artists. “Writing is solitary work that includes long spells without professional camaraderie or support,” says McFadden. “At Villa Lena, I was able to watch other artists live and work. Moataz drank cinnamon tea in the morning and spoke about transcendentalism. Sarah went on long walks and then experimented animating her cut-out drawings of women in the woods. Kat sang along to music while she designed jewelry from rope. Gosha’s baby slept in his stroller just outside the wood shop. I saw how these other artists, further established in their careers, had created rhythms in their lives that encouraged joy in creativity. They gave me new visions for what an artist’s life can look like—nomadic, spontaneous, pleasure-seeking, and rigorous at the same time.”

Los Angeles-based filmmaker Malik Vitthal, recently returned to the U.S. from his June/July 2016 residency, echoed the sentiment (he was the filmmaker seated at the al fresco dinner table). “It just opened me up again, which I really needed. I’ve mostly been at residencies where it’s all filmmakers, or it’s performance- and theater-specific, but nothing like this,” he explains. Vitthal spent his two-month sejour alongside fine artists Oliver Clegg, Natasha Chambers, Shurooq Amin, Hannah Parr, and Daniele Genadry; illustrators Joana Avillez and James Davison; designers Hazel Stark, Nathalie Dewez, and Irene Neuwirth; and musician Ora Cogan. “Observing other artists approaching their work in a different way helps you see all sides of your craft,” he continues. While there, Vitthal observed his fellow residents and simultaneously reshaped the script of his second feature film. The upcoming project follows his 2014 Sundance breakout Imperial Dreams, which was screened during his stay at Villa Lena.

  • Alexis Georgopoulos. Photo by Wilf Speller. Courtesy of Villa Lena.

    Alexis Georgopoulos. Photo by Wilf Speller. Courtesy of Villa Lena.

Today, the third wave of residents is embarking on their second week at the residency. New York-based composer, producer, and artist Alexis Georgopoulos is amongst this round’s 11 artists—part of the summer’s grand total of 40 selected from 260 applications (up from last summer’s 160). From his top-floor perch in the Villa, which he’s affectionately named the “Monk’s Quarters,” he plans to work on a bevy of projects: Erratics, an album-length collaboration with artist Tauba Auerbach; a new record; even a piece exploring a medium he’s never used before. “I’ve also started writing a play—something I never knew I wanted to do,” he explains, excitedly.

Filled with creatives experimenting with all manner of materials, Villa Lena seems like the right place to explore an idea that lands outside of an artist’s comfort zone. “There’s been an introspective streak on my past few records, and that felt right at the time, but recently it’s felt right to make something more...social,” says Georgopoulos, as he readies to DJ the next big Villa Lena dinner. A ceramicist, a journalist, a graphic designer, a painter, and more will join him at the table, where the structure is already in place for a meeting of minds—one that could prove fruitful for creators of different stripes for years to come.



—Alexxa Gotthardt