The Villa Lena artist residency, where collaboration and exchange are at its heart, offers a warm welcome away from a world that increasingly leaves young artists in the cold
In 2007, art world professional Lena Evstafieva, musician and producer Jérôme Hadey, and Parisian restaurateur and nightclub owner Lionel Bensemoun purchased a 19th-century villa at the end of a road that snakes into the Tuscan mountains between Pisa and Florence. Surrounded by vineyards, gardens, and olive groves, they christened it Villa Lena Agriturismo and Art Foundation, baking a shared ethos of collaboration, exchange, and creativity into its foundations.
Over the past decade and a half, Villa Lena has hosted countless guests and around 400 artists, with each artist marking the villa with a piece of artwork as a parting gift that has built an expansive art collection across the grounds. Evstafieva, who previously helmed PACE Gallery in London as its Director, is the proud visionary behind Villa Lena’s art programming, with Hadey running its musical sibling, Villa Recordings.
Speaking on Villa Lena’s founding intention, Evstafieva describes a desire to stand out amongst the many stunning hotels and agriturismos in the region, and with their backgrounds in art and music, respectively, the residency was the most natural way to fuel their creative drives. “Experiencing artworks in a white cube setting is not the same as seeing them being created in an art studio, having a conversation with an artist and delving into their creative process through a workshop,” she explains. “We wanted to create this connection between the artists and the hotel's guests, to create a context where a more intimate, personal and immediate interaction can be possible.”
With the opening of Villa Lena just shy of a global recession and witness to its aftershock on the arts – from shrinking studio spaces and arts funding to rising rents and tuition fees – the desire to carve out a creative escape was crucial. “The residency is there to give the space and time for (artists) to pursue the projects that they may not be able to pursue in their daily lives,” explains Evstafieva. “The art or music world, or any creative field, can be self-isolating. We wanted to create a multi-disciplinary space where like-minded people from different fields can exchange and share to endorse a cross-collaborative dialogue, as we firmly believe that in this context, the best works are born.”
For 150 euros per week, artists benefit from studio space, accommodation, half-board meals five days a week, swimming pools, luscious gardens, and the chance to experience it with other artists. “The hope is that these resources take artists' minds off such burdens in daily life,” says Foundation Curator Molly Scheu Boarati. ”Almost all artists that have come through the program this year have told me how important this time away is for them to be able to focus and produce, whether it's finishing a project, developing a current one, or leaving room for new ideas to bubble to the surface, perhaps inspired by their surroundings and frequently by the other artists around them.”
“Just having space to work is valuable and not to be underestimated, especially when property prices and rental crises are making it near impossible for a whole generation to have the most basic needs met” – Cosmo Sheldrake, Artist in Residence
Past artists-in-residents have included Francis and the Lights, Caroline Vreeland, Benjamin Clementine, and Magnus Chapple. Rather than focus on a textbook idea of success, Evstafieva highlights “the profound emotional connections that the residents make”. She explains: “That’s probably more important than any measurable success, especially in our hyper-connected, mobile world where everyone knows each other but rarely develops strong friendships or creative partnerships.”
Villa Lena’s recent collaborations with She CURAtes and MQBMBQ, and the recent announcement of a Contemporary Curating programme, which will unfold into conversations, exchanges, and a new curatorial residency on offer, signal an unstoppable vision for expansion. Having had the pleasure of spending a few days exploring the grounds and offerings of Villa Lena, I headed to the artist studios to meet five of the-then artists in residence to understand better their reasons for applying to an artist residency, what it brought to their creative practice, and what they discovered while there.
Weronika Marianna is a Polish visual artist based in Amsterdam whose work in animation, painting, and drawing distils her wonderings about the human body, its belonging to nature, its natural wisdom, and the disconnection we experience. She explores ideas of cycle, movement, and transformation through traditional analogue and digital animation techniques.
“I came across an interview with multi-disciplinary artist Ana Kras who mentioned Villa Lena as an important point on her path, an opening that allowed her to shift her career. I was intrigued and waited for a good moment to apply. I am in the moment in my career where some bigger changes need to be made. I hoped to get more clarity about my path – to allow myself to dream.
“(Villa Lena) was a magical time. Sharing day-to-day life with seven other wonderful humans and inspiring artists was a wonderful experience. We ate all the meals together, which created a bit of a frame for the day, with the rest of the time dedicated to work and walks. I decided to devote my studio time to a daily practice of intuitive painting. Instinctively I chose to paint with watercolours, even though it’s not my usual technique; maybe they best reflect the Tuscan hazy, beautiful light. I sat daily in my studio, painting whatever came to mind and pinning it on the wall – no exceptions. I created around 40 paintings, some light, some dark and some bizarre. This daily dedication opened something, allowing for a flow and connection between mind and hand. Art residency allowed me to try and experiment without thinking if the work would be sellable or productive.
“What’s interesting is that studios are open to hotel guests to visit, so people would pop in and see my work in progress. It’s very vulnerable and slightly uncomfortable, and that’s great; discomfort can be a great mirror. I was moved by visitors’ reactions to my work and their interpretations of it.”
Hafsa Riaz is a Pakistani artist whose practice has been focused on etched prints. Recently, after teaching kids, she started to incorporate crayon drawings. She describes her work as a “subtle confusion of visuals of contrasting themes”, focusing on celebrations of happiness and mourning and the visual similarities between these polemic emotional states.
“I applied for the residency in the hope that it would provide me with a wider opportunity to connect with other artists along with time and space away from my job, country, and everything I was familiar with, and the freedom to create. I learned to listen to my body and trust the process, reminding myself daily to take my time and let the premises do its magic.
“I found the time and courage to become comfortable with a different printmaking technique than I'm used to. Inspiration struck when I witnessed an elopement by the secret garden. I noticed the same chairs we use for dinners in the villa, and my mind went on comparing the types of chairs and their roles around the Villa Lena grounds. I had already carved one chair during a linocut workshop in the studio. It was a deep and thorough dive that allowed me to be open to my surroundings, absorb, and simply create.
“Moreover, I learned to trust and allow the creative process to take its time rather than letting the pressure of not being productive enough take over the process. It will be difficult to continue the practice when I'm back in my day-to-day life, but I'm hopeful I can achieve it again.”
Flora Wallace is a British ceramic artist making ink and glazes from foraged and found ingredients such as plants, fungi, metals, and minerals. Her practices are intertwined with and inspired by the natural world, and she creates work that engages with time, seasonality, place, and ecology.
“I wanted to work alongside artists from different disciplines and was keen to explore the plants, minerals, and natural materials in a beautiful place. I mostly work with foraged and found materials, so I spent lots of time walking and gathering things to experiment with. I found a source of clay from a nearby cliff which turned out to be a beautiful reddish earthenware clay. I used this to make glaze experiments and various objects. I visited the marble mountains of Carrara, an extraordinary place I have wanted to go to for a while. I collected marble dust from underneath the blades of the diamond saws to make a series of inks and glazes and had some interesting outcomes. I felt very inspired being in Carrara and plan to go back and spend more time there.
“I was there with my husband, Cosmo, a musician, and we have a band called Don’t. We went field recording and gathered the sounds of bamboo in the wind, an ant’s nest in the flower garden, and the sounds of a pond, recorded with a hydrophone. We then made a piece of music incorporating these sounds.
“Each artist in the residency had a different practice which was inspiring to witness and be around. We all became close and discussed our processes, materials, creative challenges, and ideas. It's always good to have a break away from your normal daily routine and environment. I feel the space and time can help to think in new ways and see other possibilities and directions with your work. I felt nourished by being in that environment and loved all the artists we were there with.”
“(Artist residencies are) incredibly important. Being outside your normal routines can create a greater sense of focus, intention, and space to think. For me, creativity thrives on having time and space and being in nature. The bonus of meeting artists from different disciplines can be very inspiring. I think it's made me realise how beneficial it can be to go on residencies, and I intend to apply to a lot more.”
Cosmo Sheldrake is a British composer, producer, and field recordist whose practice centres mostly on soundscape ecology, a discipline that uses sound to study the health of ecosystems. His music often incorporates sounds of the natural world, and his most recent project, an EP titled Wild Wet World, was composed entirely of recordings of the ocean and the many fascinating creatures and ecosystems that live amongst it.
“My wife Flora Wallace and I applied to do the residency together. It felt like a great opportunity to work in an unfamiliar environment in the company of other artists. I wanted to approach it with an open mind. I spent much time playing and exploring a slightly different way of making music, using several processes and learning new technologies, chopping sounds, and reorganising them into sound collages. As well as learning how to use a sampler called a sp404mk2. I made field recordings and listened to the sounds of the Villa and its surrounding environment.
“The residency allowed me to explore working with a different set-up to my home studio environment. This was half of the fun. Limitations often provide fertile foundations, and I come up with unexpected solutions to problems in unfamiliar environments. It forced me to be resourceful.
“To be able to work in a new place helps break old patterns and habits. Also, to be part of a creative community that creates a supportive and generative environment in which to work was a nice change, given I am used to working in a more solitary fashion. But mainly also to support artists and help nurture their work at a time when the arts are critically underfunded and undervalued. Just having space to work is valuable and not to be underestimated, especially when property prices and rental crises are making it near impossible for a whole generation to have the most basic needs met.”
David Hanes is a self-taught painter from Toronto, Canada, who has, since 2014, been based in Berlin, Germany. His practice is influenced by his lived experiences, alongside a background in antiquities and contemporary art, which has informed his commitment to traditional painting methodologies. His current practice is inspired by his travels and field studies that he reenvisions into studio paintings.
“My practice is rather focused on landscape painting and a reimagining of traditional painting practices. My art is process-oriented in both practice and philosophy, emphasising the use of colour that gets layered and laboured on as a metaphor for the acceptance of living in an ever-changing world and body. I do this in a fully committed, technology-free painting practice that combines direct and indirect painting – doing plein air studies across my travels and then later filtering those studies in the studio with my oil and watercolour paintings.
“The biggest difference (to my regular practice at home) was the constant contact with other people because I do not have a shared studio in Berlin. I was fortunate to share a studio with UK-based ceramicist Flora Wallace, who was a delight to be around. I’d also say that, while in this particular residency, I worked on smaller paintings from my more intimate body of work, compared to when in Berlin, I often work on a larger scale canvas. Another interesting experience was my collaboration with the Il Bisonte printmaking studio in Florence, where I produced my first intaglio print edition that I hope to release soon.
“Villa Lena was the last in a string of residencies I’ve done over the last two years. Some have been solo residencies, like the Farmlands Residency in Luxembourg, which is best for getting that full attention from a host and their community. While others, like LungA in Iceland, offer rich and wild exposure to nature in an international community of research-driven creatives. Residencies allow artists to transport their practices to various locations and environments. They facilitate instant access to a particular community with their accommodation while simultaneously challenging artists to work outside their comfort zones. I think that’s a very important element in the creative process.”
You can apply to the Villa Lena Artist Residency here