Kevin Benham Reflecting on his Villa Lena Residency
The Tuscan countryside is defined by the sky, but more specifically by the sun. During clear skies, the sun casts a sharp shadow that defines interior and exterior spaces and during overcast days, the melancholy is enhanced by the soft shadows and atmosphere of the surrounding hills.
Villa Lena is perfectly situated at the nexus of these varying conditions and space is modulated by the earth continuously moving around the sun. As a result, the light is continuously moving throughout space and creates a dynamic experience that enhances the phenomenological and corporeal.
While in residence I began a project, Where the Light Falls, that empirically marked and recorded the movement of light through various apertures. The resulting drawings are minimal in nature, but profoundly grounded in a larger idea of gravity, temporality, and the constant relationship between the earth and sun.
In addition to those temporal installations, Kevin Benham has also proposed a permanent installation for Villa Lena. Cielo is a proposed installation that embodies the philosophical relationship of the sky and the earth in Tuscany. The proposed work will consist of a large mirror, abstractly placed within the landscape as a minimal gesture that will reflect the sky and create a phenomenological relationship between the earth and the atmosphere above.
The collection of images below represents that series and records the phenomenology of the light through the day, taken both in the villa and his studio:
It is buried in the soil deep in the dark where the truth lies, quietly observing us. A forest of Silent Witnesses that root themselves in nature; a nature defined by the rhythm of the seasons. Somewhere, we stumble upon a web of myths and secrets, an enchanted territory divided by two poles— beauty and fear. Fairy-tales grown from the ground, and beside them, traces of quotidian life in the display of natural phenomena.
All photos by Anna Skladmann during her residency at Villa Lena in 2018.
The season for 2019 has kicked off, and our artists have been here for almost a month already! We feel very lucky and excited to announce that we have a plethora of talented musicians staying and playing with us throughout the season.
Music has just as big a part to play on the Villa Lena creative schedule as the visual arts do. This year we’ve made sure that we always have musically talented individuals residing in the villa throughout the season. Catch a DJ set in the newly renovated Fattoria, an intimate candlelit acoustic gig in the Villa, or a soulful jazz performance by the pool. There’s something for everyone here.
Veronica performing in the San Michele restaurant at Villa Lena
Veronica is a London based Armenian-British vocalist, writer, composer and musician currently studying jazz at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance. Previously racking up over 750,000 plays with her previous duo, Haiganoush, she now embarks on her solo journey. Writing, arranging and producing all her music herself, she is in the depths of conjuring her first EP. Her music promises an intoxicating sound as she fuses her soulful and jazz vocals with potent writing through sampled vocals, live electronics and intricate harmony.
Veronica has been performing a mix of pre-written music alongside new songs written here during her residency.
Andrew Green, a third-generation Jewish New Yorker banjo + guitar player raised on Gershwin, and Susannah Hornsby, an accordion player + singer hailing from the coast of Virginia and born into a family of touring musicians and tidewater mariners, met through the Americana music scene while living in New York City. After their band, Red Rooster, played at the Newport Folk Festival, the two decided to collaborate as a pair, both creatively and romantically. While Andrew has toured extensively with his own ensemble, Roosevelt Dime, the couple now writes + performs together as “Susie & The Pistols“, a Rhythm and Blues band based in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains outside of Charlottesville, VA, where they now reside. Andrew and Susannah will be joined during their residency by their daughter, Lois Rose (b. 2017), who is currently proficient in kazoo, castanet, and tiny piano—as well as possessing an uncanny and aspirational ability to translate auditory joy immediately into a full body boogie.
Vega Victoria is an Americana-desert folk singer-songwriter. Born and raised in Stockholm, Sweden, she moved to the United States to pursue a career in writing. After graduating with an MFA in fiction from Columbia University in New York, she was the recipient of several residencies and fellowships at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, the Jentel Foundation, The Santa Fe Arts Institute, and other places. In 2015, Vega Victoria turned her focus to songwriting and singing. Her debut EP The Long Embrace was recorded and produced by Ben Tanner, member of the Grammy-award winning band Alabama Shakes, in Sun Drop Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Vega Victoria divides her time between the California Bay Area and the Mojave desert. She is currently on tour in California and writing songs for a full-length album to be recorded in 2019.
2019 will also see Villa Lena partner with underground radio and music platform NTS for the first year of their Work in Progress programme in partnership with Arts Council England and Carhartt. Villa Lena will host eight upcoming musicians on site at Villa Lena to assist in the development of their musical careers.
Musicians will have the opportunity to use Villa Lena’s recording studios, space to write new material and mentorship from Villa Lena’s founder and musician Jérôme Hadey. Those participating in the programme will also give regular performances and DJ sets in Villa Lena’s newly renovated Fattoria building over the course of their stay.
THE LINE UP:
We will be lucky enough to have these artists performing for our guests during their stays here so keep an eye out for who’s playing during your visit to Villa Lena.
Continuing with Villa Lena’s commitment to sustainability, the newly renovated Fattoria will be powered significantly by the solar panels already used throughout the hotel. In addition, we have continued to advance our water collection systems increasing the hotel’s water sustainability, and as of 2019, our newly expanded 2,000m2 vegetable garden will use completely sustainable water systems.
“As an architectural practice working primarily with cultural and residential projects, it has been an amazing opportunity to work with Lena on the design for a truly contemporary and sustainable hotel design. Fattoria has served so many varied uses throughout the years, so we are excited to use our design to finally open up the site, create new spaces and allow everyone to experience this rich and characterful building.”
-Magnus Casselbrant and Jesper Henriksson of Hesselbrand
Hesselbrand’s new designs emphasise the playful meeting of traditional and contemporary, which is already a trademark of Villa Lena’s rustic aesthetic. A carefully curated palette of organic materials and forms are combined in a way that enhances and amplifies this unique juxtaposition between old and new.
Villa Lena is more than a hotel; it is a cultural and artistic project and its interiors reflect this through an on-going record of time passed.
Rates for 2019 in Fattoria start from €389. Rates at Villa Lena start from €149 on a half-board basis.
EXPERIENCE FATTORIA WITH OUR SPECIAL OFFER:
Villa Lena will be offering 25% off all Fattoria rooms Monday – Friday during May and June 2019 that can be redeemed using the code Fattoria Special. In addition, guests can book 3 nights for the price of 2 for all Fattoria rooms, including Casetta del’Amore throughout the season.
by Fabio Ranzolin
Translation by Margherita Moro
Revision by Miriam Zaggia
For the pictures, I would like to thank Anna Skladmann, the best studio colleague ever.
There was this wooden table, tiny and a little too quirky to exist in that space; one of those tables made with randomly nailed strips. The surface was of an ashy flesh tone, almost shocking – I had never seen wood with a similar nuance – the object was collocated outside, in the large garden of the Villa.
Four clumsy stools accompanied the table: little variable parallelepiped made with the same poor material. There were other four or five identical models of the same table.
At the beginning of the third week, late in the morning, someone would line them up, in the middle of the field, in the back side of the facility. There were no shifts, neither were established any role, anyone could have done something with the same spontaneity the human kind shows as a line of random people is formed at the train station. The Australian girl went into the woods to pick wildflowers, beautiful weeds and berries that then she would organize in some little and different small containers, absolutely essential as the floral patterned of her clothes were. Each one of us cooked something that we would share with all the others. The pantry was nothing special since the first grocery store was a small shop six kilometres away.
The kitchen was renovated with an old sink and an old hob. On the wall, there was a lovely Tiffany-colored credenza full of dishes, glasses and old cans in which nothing matched with incredible harmony. My favourite cup, that became a glass when necessary, had anthropomorphic shapes: an exquisite olive toned bust of a woman with red nipples. Everything was perfect in its own chaos: from the still life composed by vegetables, left-overs, stale Tuscan bread and aromatic herbs on the table; to the dirty dishes of the night before, with some used and abandoned tea bags. What was really out of place was the few decades old fridges.
A white cabinet full of food and left-overs of maybe twenty people. Had an ugly breath, the fridge. Around lunchtime something was cooked and seasoned and left in terrines or in a pot; then we took our own knife, fork and plate – still empty – while checking if the glass was clean and went outside. A wooden tongue divided the garden in half, there were no tablecloths or matching napkins. The clear and bright sunlight warmed the feeling of conviviality under the shade of the leaves of a secular tree. Little by little everyone arrived, returning from the studio or at the end of a long afternoon spent with beach readings.
The beautiful French girl arrived late, dirty with clay, while her partner, same as me, was in need for some bottles of wine. If the boy from New York knew that cooking was not his gift, he offered his vital energy; while the sweet girl who lives in Amsterdam, who was of French nationality but also could speak Italian, prepared salads with seeds, herbs and flavours typically from northern Europe. When everyone arrived we started to live together and it was impossible not to feel in the middle of an Ozpetek film: a lunch among actors, artists, creatives and writers; someone was famous, for real! Celebrities at the table who complimented your cabbage in the pan. While eating, passing things, being silent and so on, an impulsive sense of everyday life, a feeling of precious warmth was established and we all knew it would be painful to leave behind The Villa Lena residence lasts thirty days, it is a successful experiment that combines talented and creative personalities together. Every month there will be those who write, photograph, act, compose, draw, cook and come from any corner of the world, of all ages.
Artists coexisting who live, for a specific time, in the province of Pisa, in the middle of the majestic hills of Tuscany, protected by five hundred hectares of land and woods. We stayed in a nineteenth Century villa where every door makes noise, the pieces of furniture are thick and made with dark wood, there is no modern heating, ceilings and walls are frescoed.
I stayed in the most unlucky room: a double bed, a chest and two bedside tables with a marble top, an old wardrobe whose door did not close properly, a broken-down armchair with a seat made of Tiziano red velvet, a chandelier and stars on the ceiling. There was nothing more perfect until I played Gino Paoli at full volume. It was the first day and while I was looking at the sky in my room, crying.
It is so rare and intense when all that surrounds you is a concordance of factors, when what you feel constitutes an algorithm of sensations, thoughts and sensory inputs that make you feel so lucky that they almost upset you, with kindness. I brought, in order to not feel alone, the entire collection of poems by Emily Dickinson. It seemed to me the most suitable choice, if I had not found a nice atmosphere, in fact, I would have been able to soothe myself, but not a word of the volume was ever read during the period of residence.
But let’s move on to serious things: next, to the Villa, there are two recent buildings, one is mainly used as an accommodation where anyone, or better any wealthy individual, can come and stay; on the ground floor there is also a game room with billiards and a ping-pong table, a small room with a bar counter, leather sofas and a room with some ottomans that functioned as a movie theatre. On Thursday evening this room becomes a sort of club, believe me absolutely dignified, whose DJ set is often done by visiting professionals, or if you are lucky enough, Sabina Sciubba arrives wearing gold shoes! The other building is a farmhouse with a “zero-mile” restaurant, exquisitely furnished, with works of art placed all over it, left by artists who came before you. In the dining room, there is also a bar overlooking the terrace where the bartender is a dangerously attractive Tuscan boy.
I forgot there is also the pool with a view over the hills and the olive grove, in this elevated area there is another outdoor bar, equipped to serve Spritz Cynar, in which the same guy works, who may have just finished taking a swim during the break. Damn!
Villa Lena is not just an elite holiday farm, it is also an artistic residence, so not far from the villa there are a series of concrete boxes: old stables for horses, empty, with white walls and wifi. The connection is good.
Summing up you live with artists from all over the world in a nineteenth-century Italian villa, a studio at your disposal, an elegant modern restaurant, a swimming pool, a yoga teacher, a masseuse on request, woods for taking a walk like John Keats, Tuscan food, beautiful scenery and climate; besides you’ll have disco, readings, performances on Thursdays and Wednesdays – for artists only- and the “aperitivo” (just perfection!) in the noble dining room with fireplace and wine. Villa Lena produces olive oil, red and rosé wine.
Nothing is missing, not even the nostalgia of a place in which you would have always wanted to live.
During the residency you are asked to do studio visits, produce a project and prepare a weekend workshop. The atmosphere of this idyll strongly reminds atmospheres from Call me by your name (2017) by Luca Guadagnino, released a few months before I stayed in Villa Lena.
The movie is set in Crema, but here you are one hour from San Gimignano, Lucca, Florence, Pisa and Siena.
The landscape in April is the same as in Franco Fontana’s photographs and the Tuscans are of genuine humanity perfectly reflecting the bewildering beauty all around them.
I realize only now how this experience was unrepeatable, and only after some months, I can coherently reflect upon my emotional experience.
There are nights when I still dream of being there, with all the others, and when I wake up I get into physical discomfort, a sort of backward traumatic experience. As I’m writing, in the middle of the night, the talented Tel Aviv actress that I know from the residence has shared a story on Instagram.
My dearest friend, with whom I shared one-day adventures and the most intimate chats, in some ways complicit as a mother and mentoring as a Maestra.
Thanks to Villa Lena I discovered that you can have new families, deep and solid human relationships, that you can communicate with only through your slender English vocabulary. Perhaps this is one of those important experiences you’ll have in a lifetime.
The Foundation was born in 2013 and since about that year every summer, month after month, a group of individuals arrives and stays.
In five years of activity and guests, I was the only artist of Italian nationality. I was really flattered by this incredible circumstance. Throughout the residence, I could not help but think about the privilege I had: as the first artist of Italian nationality, as an Italian in Italy who could experience his best heritage, being in a historical moment when an “artist” could live, sleep and breathe in that cultural asset.
I felt privileged to be able to speak in Italian with all those who work for the Foundation, lucky to be one of the youngest in a group of exceptional people. At that time I was reading the first volume written by Yuval N. Harari, a precious gift from a precious friend. I am sure that even reading this essay has compromised my sensitivity in a definitive way or perhaps, even if I am an atheist, my morality is unfortunately conditioned by Catholicism. It is, therefore, my training that leads me to give meaning and value to the sense of guilt that accompanies the privilege.
In my work, misunderstanding and circumstances become determining factors that guide me in my creative elaboration.
Fate is important, or rather I have decided to give an interpretative sense to the vicissitudes that happen to me.
It was the second week, late in the morning, and I hurried to my room. I saw from the corridor that the door of my room was wide open – I took no notice because I rarely remembered closing it – but there it was an unknown figure inside.
She was a girl, pretty much my age, black-haired with uncombed hair. Her face was sweet and ovally shaped like a Leonardo’s portrait, she had dark circles under her eyes and was visibly tired. She is Marta and she is part of the cleaning staff, both in the Villa and in the Hotel.
She apologized, justifying herself kindly but fiercely, then we introduced ourselves and I helped her make the bed.
She has a degree in modern literature from the Normale University in Pisa and works for the Foundation in the summer, I deeply envied her for this. Somehow Marta is the guardian of a fortune that she seizes and recognizes. We talked about the book I had on the bedside table and then she moved on to the front room assigned to the Australians.
Another privilege I had was being able to move by car, unlike all the others. Trying to reach civilization outside, you have to travel about twenty minutes on a dirt road, filled with countless holes, and then again small and dangerous roads and hairpin bends. The avenue is all surrounded by nature among the hills, ravines and olive groves. On this isolated route, you come across a stone tomb, of Elvira.
In 1947 “la Bella Elvira” was found slaughtered in the woods, when she was a little younger than Marta and she also worked at the Villa for the noble Salt family of Swiss origin.
Her death still remains a mystery, it was blamed her partner, but he was acquitted for lack of evidence; in the village, the inhabitants said that it was Lord Salt who killed her because the young woman became pregnant with him. Between reality and news, during the month of residency, I also met the rest of the staff who today works for the Foundation, in particular, I spoke with Donato, the caretaker, Daniela, the cleaning manager who has a family production of snail slime, Paul, the eccentric gardener, Giuseppe, Alessandro, Anna, Fabrizio and Pietro. People rich in stories and knowledge. I realized more and more that my pleasant stay was the fruit of their work, I could not remain blind to their silent effort.
What we perceive as beautiful, good and culture in our contemporary society it comes from ages where probably we wouldn’t live. Ages when just a little niche of people (noble white women and in particular men) could live a free life, in the meanwhile, other people had to work to maintain the freedom, wealth and power of these niches.
The Villa was conceived in the XIX Century by the aristocratic family Dal Frate, at the very beginning of the Italian Risorgimento. The architectural form was thought by minds that were not planning or had any knowledge in taking care of it. It was a servitude work, who was living as well in the Villa and that had a specific place in it: the higher floor, the rough one, without nice frescos and with low ceilings.
Some centuries later I found myself in the noble floor of this Villa, eating in the dining room with a view on the hills and the faces of Dal Frate’s family watching me from the ceiling, where their crest is placed.
You are not invisible it’s a simple but sophisticated installation. The first thing I noticed about the Villa was that it was not conceived to guest fifteen different people everyone pretending its own room. The Foundation, to solve this new request, without any logic, decided to number all the bedrooms (some of them were not a bedroom, but they become so for the first time in history) as if it was a hotel.
Numbers were written with a marker on tape or old labels. Awful, everything was really clumsy. My intervention was giving a sense, a new order, and name the rooms for future guests. After this act space has found a name: my room has become Stanza Marta, the one of my German friend Stanza Tano, and so on.
My work is not intended for my fellows and colleagues, rather for all the people we often consider to be invisible (and even if in our ordinary life we could be one of them, we tent to not escape this trap). Naming things means giving them sense and form. To really examine something, we have to find the words. Formally talking the project consists of ten brass labels carved by a local artisan. Despite the very simplicity of this act, it has a political and poetical meaning: for the first time people that never had the possibilities to inhabit those beautiful rooms now have at least their sign on it. Every artist that will stay in the residency will see the names of these new people entering them lives.
Maybe this will not bring any new true knowledge, but it’s a duty to remember the privileged every time it’s possible that real people were and are working for their pleasure and experience and to give recognition and gratitude where is owned.
When I got back home, they told me that Marta was moved by my action. I’m really happy that my work touched her, moreover, this artwork was inspired by her.
The season for 2019 is fast approaching and as we prepare for the first group of artists in residence to arrive at the villa, we thought we’d introduce some of what there is to look forward to this year…
The Villa Lena Foundation is over the moon to announce an exciting jam-packed schedule for the upcoming season in 2019. We have hand-picked a selection of creative practitioners spanning across all creative disciplines to join us from April through to November to live and create at Villa Lena.
Our artists are travelling from all around the world to join us on the residency, where they will be provided with a studio space; large airy converted stables set in the midst of the tranquil Tuscan woodland and olive groves.
Over the course of the year we will see painters, ceramicists, poets, writers, florists, architects, film makers and more, all of whom are at various stages in their careers. The Foundation aims to bring together a unique mix of multi- disciplinary artists to encourage creative collaboration, dialogue and new ideas.
Artists are invited to contribute to an eclectic programme of performances, talks and workshops throughout their six week residency. Our creative contributor programme continues this year with an exciting assortment of workshops to participate in. From flower arranging to exploring spirituality with clay, exploring art as therapy and learning how to create natural dyes with plants.
Create botanical memoirs of Villa Lena through foraging, cyanotypes, flower crowns, natural print dying with the Danish duo Liv H. Lauresen and Louise Jacobsen behind plant-based magazine BLAD.
The Venice Biennale is one of the most important dates on the global art calendar, and for the first time ever Villa Lena will be hosting an exclusive Biennale after party!
We invite guests who have spent the busy pre-opening week at the biennale, to wind down over a long weekend at the beautifully wild and peacefully remote Villa Lena, where we will be offering a programme of plant-themed activities.
What to expect over the weekend:
RELAX YOUR MIND AND BODY
Stretch out with a yoga session on the deck or a guided hike through the woods
GET CREATIVE WITH THE ARTISTS IN RESIDENCE
Experience a sacred cacao circle and botanical art workshop with Naama Alex Levy, arrange wildflowers with Rachelle Rickert, and enjoy a musical performance by Veronica Haiganoush.
FOOD & DRINK
Learn to create a plant based cocktail, forage in the garden with the help of artist Rachelle Rickert and chef in residence Christine Li to create a delicious lunch and enjoy large sit down plant-based dinners.
PLANT PARTY SCHEDULE
Following checking in to the Villa Lena hotel on arrival in the morning, stretch your travel-weary bodies with a guided hike or a session on our beautiful yoga deck before lunchtime.
In the afternoon guests are invited to a plant based cocktail workshop lead by our barman Andrea. Later on, join the artists in residence for a big sit down dinner at our farm-to-table restaurant, before winding down in the evening with a soulful performance fused with jazz vocals, live electronics and intricate harmonies by our musician in residence Veronica Haiganoush.
Follow breakfast at the farm-to-table restaurant with a collaborative event led by our chef in residence Christine Li and artist in residence Rachelle Rickert, who will teach you what to forage and how to cook it. Rachelle will then lead a wildflower arrangement workshop; starting by exploring the landscape together, discovering flowers and foliage and learning how to properly cut from a plant. Rachelle will then guide everyone in using the cut stems and blooms to create a beautiful wildflower, hand tied arrangement. Whilst you play with flowers, Christine will prepare lunch using your foraged goods.
Later on enjoy a plant-based dinner, followed by a cacao circle ceremony with artist in residence Naama Alex Levy. The Cacao circle on Friday is a wonderful, healing ceremony based on traditional cacao rituals of Mesoamerica. It is a non verbal, communicative journey for the senses, accompanied by therapeutic, deep-frequency sounds.
Wind down the weekend of all things plants with a yoga stretch immersed in the natural surroundings on our yoga deck, followed by a botanical art terrarium workshop with artist in residence Naama Alex Levy and her partner, artist and gardener Yossi Franko. Participants will create their own Villa Lena ecosystem in a small terrarium from items found in the surrounding nature.
VERONICA HAIGANOUSH: London based Armenian-British vocalist, writer, composer and musician, Veronica creates intoxicating sounds as she fuses her soulful and jazz vocals with potent writing through sampled vocals, live electronics and intricate harmony.
RACHELLE RICKERT: A floral designer based in Brooklyn, New York, Rachelle fuses the natural world with the imagined in arrangements using seasonally available blooms and foliage. Her work seeks to combine unusual elements and push the boundaries of colour.
CHRISTINE LI: Born and raised in NYC, Christine has cooked at renowned restaurants around the world including Relae in Copenhagen, The NoMad and Momofuku Ko in New York and Belon in Hong Kong. Inspired by similarities in cooking methods across cultures, her effusive cooking style draws from her ethnic roots and travels. She is particularly interested in processes including slow cooking, open fire, and preservation.
Regular trains run from Venice to Florence.
Please email email@example.com for more information.
A: I was doing some looking into residencies in the U.S. to start I have always wanted to work on a farm and be able to cook with the ingredients in a locavore kind of way. I was accepted into one residency in upstate New York but as I came to think I continued to do more research on chef-in-residency programs around the world. As I surfed the web Villa Lena show up in my search, I did what anyone would do and I clicked the link: it was “Amore a prima vista”! I was captured immediately I just knew I had to continue to read what this 19th-century Italian villa located in Palaia, Italy was about. Through this research, I put in some work (literally) and actually got in contact with the owner Lena Evstafieva we had a Skype interview and next thing you know I was set for 2018 Aug-October chef-in-residence. The ortos, the pigs, the agriculture, the ethos, land, community, farmers, butchers, hunters, cuisine, artist are what all brought me to the Villa.
Q: How was your typical day at the Villa like?
A: My day to day at the Villa was so beautiful it was like imagery from ‘Call me by your name’. I woke up to the Tuscan sun peeking through the stain glassed windows on the tower room I was staying in… I called it the Penthouse of the tower… because it was. I would shower in my very deluxe Italian bathroom. Then I headed out to go to the villa orto where the view was always beautiful and the produce growing was thriving. I would pick all of my vegetables I would need for my stock and either item for me in the garden or pasta workshop which I did twice a week and my favourite chef-in-residence dinners where me and my sous chef (culinary intern ) Valentina created epic menus and always uplifted the traditional Tuscan style of cuisine. Then with the artist who was chosen to come to visit each month, they had workshops, studio visits, and performances which I would attend. There were sometimes weddings I crashed w/ the artist after having the chance to craft the menu for them which was soooooo much fun. The typical day was never the same from morning to evening but I did have a regiment to check on the gardens, check in with the agriculture team who I loved they are all absolutely amazing and keep the everything at Villa Lena exquisite. Doing some morning and afternoon foraging, man, I was in heaven with the wild ingredients, checking on the pigs from day to day and having a conversation with them and just living my best life while being one with nature. Made friends with the talented artist, musicians, writers, photographers, ceramist, cooks, farmers and just so many great amazing individuals this was the highlight of my days.
Q: Villa Lena runs weekly cooking classes – what kind of workshops did you run during your residency and did you enjoy doing them?
A: Loved my workshops and everyone I met through them. I hosted a pasta workshop like an Italian Nonna. Like my classes we were making ravioli, agnolotti, tortellini, fettuccine, tagliatelle, farfalle, orecchiette, fusilli and so much more. We would have a toast with a great Villa Lena sparkling and go right into throwing flour in the air. We would then direct the guest to sit down for a demo of cooking the pasta with the salad. My first class I kind of wanted to show off a bit haha and be ambitious so I made this raviolis w/ local ricotta and parmesan and then tossed them into some of the tomatoes grown on the property with Villa Lena olive oil, chillies and lemons coming from the orto. I also made a foraged green salad with everything edible I could find and it was drizzled with a wildflower vinaigrette, I foraged for wildflowers every day.
My into the garden and forage workshop was fun to I felt like I was able to teach and also learn something myself in the ortos on the property and my good friend Paul the farmer who would be in the garden around 5 am daily watering the plants, planting new plants, and keep the orto precise. We would stay in the garden for quite a while haha before cooking the guest loved trying the vegetables fresh from the garden and the kids loved to pick everything haha. I would make all kinds of dishes in the class from salads to soups to risotto and even some pasta dishes.
Q: Let’s talk about truffle; did you go truffle hunting on the estate? And did you have the chance to cook with it?
A: Every day I was truffling! The truffle hunting was such an experience with my friend Paolo and his dog’s man he has them trained well and he even told how he found a giant tartufo bianco. I was amazed and the truffles we found on the hunts I would use in my pasta making workshops. The flavour was out of this world right out of Italian soil on the villa property it was like the land of gold accept for truffle. I took advantage of these activities and hanging with these agriculture guys they taught me a lot about the Italian landscape.
Q: Your favourite residency dinner menu?
A: My favourite dinner I did at Villa Lena was pretty much all of them because each dinner was slightly different especially with being as local and sustainable with ingredients as possible so I choose three dishes that I made I like the most; Caramelized onion and fennel zuppa I served with a caramel onion + fennel purée and deep rich earthy onion consommé, crunchy onion and fennel crispy. The agriculture team hunted this fresh I was there !!! haha Grilled Wild Venison smoked with Rosemary bush ( the villa had tons and they were HUGE!) Foraged sunchoke puree, Sunchoke chips, Cannellini beans, and green tomato. Then I crafted this really moist, rich and delicious Olive oil cake using the first harvest olive oil in the batter …Omgoodness this was life! Served with grilled wild peaches, sorrel granita, Honey almonds and crema and a little drip drip of the olive oil. Bellissimo!
Q: We know you went hunting during your residency. Did you like it? What kind of animals did you hunt for?
A: I loved hunting with Pietro and his buddy, another old school Italian hunter. I was so ecstatic I was making this hunting passion come true in Tuscany like how many people can say they went hunting for wild boar and deer in Italy. The boar hunts were fun we went deep into the wood to a hideout to capture the boar mid daylight on a timed schedule for feed. Once captured we went back out sundown to get the capture. This was very wild and native to see haha. This is the only reason why we should be eating me is if we can hunt our own and I did absolutely that. The meat was heavingly juicy, juicier and divine.
Q: In October you assisted to the olive harvest, and you had the chance to taste fresh Villa Lena olive oil. Tell us a bit about it, and how to use it…
A: The olive trees are everywhere on the property and it’s a sight to see. The harvest of the oil was fun to set down the netting and shake and use a tool to rattle the ripened olives off. Olives fresh off the tree don’t taste so good but when pressed the oil was like nothing I ever had and the way to sip it down so that it aerated inside of your mouth and reach or nasal glands it opened my palate the flavour was spicy and green. I tried to use this oil whenever I could in my sauces, dressing, pasta, truffle oil, and cakes
Q: Foraging is an important aspect of your cuisine. I guess at Villa Lena you were doing it on a daily basis…
A: Allday Everyday …Mushrooms, Wild Fennel, Wild Oregano, Wild figs, Wild lemons everything oh and grapes Sangiovese from the harvest!
Q: Did the residency affect your inspiration?
A: The residency inspired me to write, sing, create art, create wonderful food, to learn and pretty much do everything I love and set out to do them. I left the villa so inspired and have so many new things in the works because of that. I wish I would have documented the 3 months better but living in the moment was soooo much more rewarding than having millions of post to post on Social
Q: Is there any one moment of the residency which summed it all up?
A: The night of Ferragosto, we feasted and danced all-night this is the night where I felt this moment is and was where I was supposed to be my hard work is coming into fruition and being at the villa showed me this.
Q: What’s next for Kristopher Edelen?
A: So many blessings and manifestations happening you’ll just have to stay tuned ha-ha and maybe a surprise visit at the Villa!
At this point I am almost certain that I will not be able to give you what you want with my journal entry. The more words I assign to my experience, the less effectively I can communicate it. In fact, it is maddening; to spend so many hours reflecting, writing in search of some grand metaphor, to repeatedly think I’ve finished only then to erase the hundreds of words I have cobbled together and begin another new attempt. Each time I think I’ve finished, I’ll feel a small relief, eagerly reread the piece, realize I’ve failed, and then delete everything in a haste to begin once more and waste another thousand inadequate words.
Perhaps it will take more time for me to fully understand my time at the villa and be able to reflect on it with more precision. I collect fragments of my experience there, I stumble upon them day to day, but when I piece them together, they seem an incomplete or incoherent reflection. They don’t suffice our purposes—the fragments—is what I mean to say.
What should I write about? The poetic surroundings I fell in love with, for example? The bright red poppies that seemed to wave hello as they bent in the April breeze—the bees that hovered by the rosemary bushes, the peaceful olive grove that I would sit beside, the lapping of the fountain just beyond my window—the sun… I’ve also been tempted to describe, in detail, each one of my fellow residents. Their quirks, their work, what they were good at cooking, what I learned from them. The incredible fact that for the first week, over twenty of us managed to share one sharp knife in the resident kitchen. I’ve wanted to simply transcribe our conversations from my memory—but it was anything but simple, it was an impossible task. It was laborious—I couldn’t capture what was said, or at least, I couldn’t economically communicate their significance. The conversations seemed quotidian in retrospect, like you could have them anywhere, with anyone. And yet I know they weren’t—so I’ve stopped trying to wring meaning out of them. They work better inside my head. I’ve been tempted to address how it was at Villa Lena that I finally accepted that I was an artist at all. That I had not truly believed this until I arrived there and spent that month with the others. This might be profound, but only to me, no? Who really cares how I feel about myself?
If the purpose of my journal entry is to create a testament to my experience—to either entice other artists or attract the guests that interact with them to come to the villa—I’d like to fulfill my purpose. I want desperately for other artists to arrive in Palaia as I did, for guests to come and meet them, participate in their work when possible, reflect among the beauty. It is important to me that others do this, that the villa is attended whenever possible. And so what I mean to tell you is, I fear my personal discoveries might mean little to someone else in a journal entry, or, at least, it would take me an entire novel to grow tethers between the reader and the characters of my journey, the lessons I learned, the things that I saw. I can’t explain Villa Lena. As I said, I fail when I try—what I’ve settled to do is communicate the bewilderment I feel in reflecting on my month there. To express the absurdity of attempting to collect my experience in a jar, or a journal—fitting everything I felt inside such a limited space.
I said this in my last letter to you: “I think I know, in essence, what I’d like to say, though admittedly it is difficult to articulate. It is more of a feeling I had while I was there, a feeling I have found myself chasing ever since I left.” Let me expand on that. Yes, it’s true Julia, I have been chasing this very feeling since I left Villa Lena. There have been moments where I’ve found it, and moments where I haven’t. It is a feeling hard to place, I cannot assign it a location in my body, nor can I assign it a duration or intensity. I simply recognize it when it arises, a kind of energy that touches me, that syncs with me, when I am not disturbed by even the fly that buzzes by my head.
A door bursts open, or a window—or is it that light is flooding out of me? Am I the center, the origin, or am I the destination? I can’t tell. But I chase the feeling. I open myself up to it whenever I can. Words like productivity and flow have come to mind, but the first feels like a word that belongs to corporations and not to the artist, so the other feels perhaps closer and yet still too elusive, elusive to the point of being impossible to discuss intelligently. When you’re in the zone, when you’re unencumbered… When the work just comes out of you. It is an easefulness I felt, a kind of relinquishing of my ordinary anxieties; an acceptance of the now, of my place in the world, of the obstacles that might usually disturb me.
I’ll tell you a story, briefly, something small that happened to me at Villa Lena that I attribute to great significance, for whatever reason. It was one of my last mornings in my studio down in the artist village; well, Zoe Ghertner’s studio—I had taken it over after she left. It remains a mystery to me whether or not she herself had tacked up the arrangement of red leaves on the wall, or if they had been there all along. I remember I was always happy to be there, the leaves were scattered so tastefully.
I was waiting for either Nadine or Beth to visit me… Our conversations always stimulated my writing, more specifically, large swaths of newly generated text, and so in the meantime I was editing a longer piece of prose as I waited. I had the doors and windows wide open, welcoming them—perhaps even begging them to come join me. If they saw my doors wide open, they’d receive their invitation. I could hear the birds chirping. It was a sound I listened for these days, whether I was in my room at the residence, in the studio, in the attic, outside having lunch… It was a comforting sound as I waited. My eyes darted between my screen and the doorway. I was easily distracted, fiddling with a bag of rice crackers and a mealy green apple that had been sitting on “my” desk since I inherited the space.
Two small swallows flew inside, instead of Nadine or Beth. I smiled at first. They hovered near the buttresses of the ceiling. They’d perch, then fly again, then perch, then swoop down and bump into each other clumsily. After only about a minute, though, their flapping aggravated me—I had admired their chirping when they were outside my studio, but now, they were flying anxiously around the ceiling, beating their wings loudly and frightfully, their melodic chirps sounding more like short and dissonant screams. They had no idea how to escape the room and I became almost furious with them for it. Can’t you see the outdoors? Don’t you understand light? The music that had been trickling out of my laptop, David Bowie’s Let’s Dance, vexed me—as if disturbed by the unrest of the birds—as if the notes themselves were bending and sharpening by the sound of shrill swallow squeaks and rustling feathers. They’re going to shit on me, I thought. They’re going to shit on me and my books, my writing, the apple I have not eaten.
Then I began to laugh, it was a swift transition, ah, I was so unhinged, so buoyant those days, so unencumbered, skipping from one emotion to the next like a flat rock leaping across a pond. How was I upset with the trapped little swallows? Why bother wasting my energy this way? I was my own inhibitor, and not the frightened birds. Observe the birds. See what they do.
They’llfind their way out, I finally thought, isn’t bird shit supposed to bring you luck, anyway?
I’m not sure why I am telling you this story other than to say I believe this interaction between the swallows and I could only have happened there, at the villa. I wonder if it had happened here in New York, would I have left the room? Would I have attempted to shoo the birds out with a broom? Would I have shouted at them? What would I have done, had I not spent the month before in that place, with those people, doing the things we did?
I’m sorry I cannot give you something more defined in my reflection, Julia… I hope you can at least attribute my ramblings to an intense desire of mine to leave behind something meaningful—something that accounts for my formative experience at the villa. If I could name what it awoke in me, I would. If I could list how often I think of my time there, I would. If I could only show you my heart, how fast it beats when the images of that unforgettable month flood my mind.
For now, please accept my apologies—that I cannot complete this task in a more deliberate and legible way. I can certainly supply some pictures from my time there.
Julie Iromuanya travelled from Tucson, Arizona in the USA- where she is an assistant professor at the Creative Writing MFA course at the University of Arizona, to come to stay with us at Villa Lena as an artist in residence for the month of June.
She is the author of Mr. and Mrs. Doctor (Coffee House Press), a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award, the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction, the Etisalat Prize for Literature, and the National Book Critics Circle John Leonard Prize for Debut Fiction.
During her time at the villa, Julie worked on her second novel A Season of Light. We asked her to write down her musings on her time at the villa and how its environment nourished her work.
A Season of Light synopsis:
In April of 2014, a group of girls are kidnapped from their northern Nigeria school. News reaches Fidelis Ewerike in America. A former POW of the Nigerian Civil War, orphaned and exiled from his homeland, he begins to go mad. A Season of Light follows the four members of the Ewerike family over the course of a summer as they grapple with their turbulent history and an uncertain future.
When I first arrived in Tuscany, the days were cold and rainy. I drowned in tissues and meds as I fought off a cold and insufferable allergies. But then the sun came out. Vegetation, hills, cliffs (and allergy meds!) put me into a state of renewal. Living in the southern Arizona desert the last few years, I had forgotten about what it is to look out at such a verdant landscape; I had forgotten what it means to be suffused by its spirit. My novel takes place over the course of one summer in a central Florida setting bordered by a nature preserve where the annual prescribed fires fill the air with an incendiary energy. During my walks into Toiano, and along the nearby trails and roads, I would talk into my phone’s recorder, stream-of-conscious, using the landscape to help me enter my characters’ world of trees and forests. I thought a lot about the relationship between the landscape, its people, its history, and wisdom.
Since the 2015 publication of my first novel, Mr. and Mrs. Doctor, I’ve been traveling all over giving readings and answering questions about my work and process, but I haven’t had many opportunities to actually talk through my process. During my evening event at Villa Lena, I wanted to share that side of my work as an artist. Imagining myself charting my journey through the different ideas of the narrative in a visual map, I walked the audience through each site. For me, it was a beneficial exercise, mainly because I was still trying to figure out the relationship between all the parts—the wars of Nigeria and the Soviet Union, the kidnapping of the Chibok girls, the Igbo folkloric tradition and its heroes and villains; what it means to love and heal, to imprison and seek out freedom, and also to create and destroy life. Many of the questions prompted me to better articulate my vision.
I arrived at Villa Lena roughly three-quarters of the way through a revision of my novel manuscript, A Season of Light. Because this was a revision, rather than a first draft, I already had many ideas about character and direction, but everything to do with resolution was still half-formed. How to draw together all the incoherent threads? How to make sense of the ways my characters succeeded and failed at reaching the goal posts the opening had promised. By the end of my residency, I finished a rough, but promising conclusion, and I am grateful for the time and focus.