Villa Lena: a creative retreat in the heart of Tuscany

Inside the grounds of a boutique hotel and artist residency in rural Italy, the next generation of artists are figuring out what it means to make a living from the work that they create.
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Situated on a 500-hectare estate in the hills of Tuscany, Italy, not too long ago Villa Lena was just an old building in need of care. ‘It started as a very personal idea, as this was my family's estate that was falling into disrepair. It's a passion project,’ says the hotel's founder and namesake, Lena Evstafieva. Following a career in the art world, Lena built this not-for-profit art foundation and boutique hotel.

‘The art world can be so insular, so we wanted to connect a diverse mix of artists from different disciplines and countries [to] create change. It supports artists in a really specific way, by giving them space to work,’ Lena says of the residency program, which has supported hundreds of artists since it began in 2013. Building custom studio spaces within a luxury hotel isn't new, but the way Villa Lena integrates the guest experience with the artists makes it a place unlike any other.

Having space and time to create are key concerns for artists trying to make a living, so Lena and the foundation focus on selecting artists who will most benefit from the experience. 

We speak to four of this summer's artists in residence about creativity and the commerce of creating.

Taylor Bull

Taylor Bull is a London-based painter who describes her work as ‘sun-kissed’. ‘I wouldn't do well with a proper job. Being an artist was born out of not knowing what I wanted to do,’ she says. 

While Taylor was studying abroad in Sydney, she began to define her aesthetic and share it on social media. ‘Social media is vital for selling my art. The art world is changing with the rise of NFTs [non-fungible tokens], digital art and so on, but I don't want things to change,’ she says. Acknowledging the urge to create works that will sell: ‘It's tempting to create work for Instagram, but I keep going back to what I'd want to hang on my wall,’ she says.

‘The hardest thing is balancing the economics and the creativity,’ continues Taylor. ‘I need to always remind myself that we're all more similar than we realize – that's what I'm learning at Villa Lena. Everyone is looking for answers – no one is the master at everything.’

Guo-Liang Tan

‘I stumbled into art and then stumbled into painting,’ says Guo-Liang Tan, a painter from Singapore. He makes his pieces by pouring acrylic paint, swiveling it or directing it with a hair dryer. 

‘Growing up in Singapore, being an artist wasn't a traditional pathway. I was the first generation in the nineties [when] the government put art into the curriculum. Nowadays, there are a lot more artists in Singapore who are willing to spend their 20s practicing and seeing where it takes them.

‘University doesn't teach you how to make a living, so I looked to peers. As an artist, you don't divide your work and life clearly.’ 

This trip to Villa Lena is the first time Guo-Liang has left Singapore in two years. ‘I came without a plan. I just want to take this time to think about the work I want to create. These things are what fund my creativity.’

Janine Saul

‘It's taken a long time to call myself an artist,’ says Janine Saul, a London-based textile designer who has studied in both London and New York. She creates screen-printed patterns on recycled silk and is influenced by spirituality, as well as natural forms and materials. 

Janine can't imagine doing anything else. ‘At school, art was the only subject that I engaged with, but I always felt like you had to be something special to work as an artist,’ she says.

In the past few years, she'd ‘be in the studio all day and work in a restaurant all night. I burnt myself out.’ She soon realized this schedule wasn't sustainable. ‘You have to back yourself as an artist, because you're creating your own path – you're not getting a paycheck every month, so you need to believe in yourself to succeed.’ 

Time in the studio, being quiet and creating, is what Janine loves most about what she does. ‘It's nice to be able to chill and see what inspires me while I'm at Villa Lena. It's a space to breathe without feeling guilty.’

Eve Tagny

‘If you want to be doing this when you're 40, you need [to] start valuing yourself and your work,’ says Montreal-based multidisciplinary artist Eve Tagny, whose work ‘deals with themes of grief and the rhythms in nature’. During her time at Villa Lena, Eve has been exploring the estate and foraging for things to feature in her work, such as poppies for making red dye to stain photos. 

‘In Quebec, there are a lot of grants to support artists, but writing [applications] is like a full-time job,’ says Eve. ‘Other than making the art, half of the time is running your business – and the business is yourself. It's a precarious industry.

‘When you're young, you're hungry for every opportunity, but everyone needs to set better boundaries. Not every opportunity is good.’ 

Eve ‘doesn't believe in the myth of self-made artists’, which is why she wanted to come to Villa Lena. ‘My practice is anchored in daily life. All of us are learning from each other.’

This article was first published in Courier issue 48, August/September 2022. To purchase the issue or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.

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