Sat atop of the rural hills of Tuscany, is an artistic haven. Villa Lena was once an estate in decay but when former gallerist Lena Evstafieva’s family acquired the property in 2007, a love affair started that is growing stronger with each new, creative year.
Lena and her husband, music producer Jerome Hadey, took on the challenge of restoring Villa Lena when the considerable size of the project became a source of anxiety to Lena’s family. “We both loved it, we thought it was magical” so they decided, without any knowledge of the hospitality and restaurant industries - let alone the Italian laws and legislation - to create a boutique hotel and artist residency program, on the property.
Now, nearly ten years on from Lena’s first visit, the hotel and residency program has been open for four years and the tangible creative energy of Villa Lena has seen around one hundred and fifty artists, across disciplines of painting, photography, music, writing and much more, enter and leave its ornate iron gates.
With workshops led by the residing artists, who are carefully selected by an eclectic advisory board, made of professionals like Brazil-born designer Barbara Cassasola and Wu-Tang Clan’s very own, rapper RZA. Villa Lena has also become a coveted destination for holidaymakers, who are able to stop by and stay for shorter periods of time, to interact with the ever changing pool of creativity, cultivated in the Villa’s walls.
“We really saw that we had a refreshing perspective on what is here at Villa Lena” she says explaining their decision to take on the challenge of restoring the villa and speaking of how their lack of knowledge in the industries they were entering eventually turned to their advantage. Together with their ‘nightclub ambassador’, Paris nightclub Le Baron founder Lionel Bensemoun they “were able to bring the creative element to this place which makes it interesting and unique”.
Semaine: Was it always your vision for Villa Lena to be an artist residency and a hotel?
Lena: It was always the idea to combine the two because they both compliment each other so well. The artists in residency have a great place to work, but at the same time they are isolated because we are. Essentially, we are isolated in nature but there is also this communal context of the hotel guests coming we hold different workshops or talks and provide possibilities to meet between the artist and the guests and I think both benefit from that.
Our hotel guests that come, come not only because we are in Tuscany and not only because we offer them organic food or kid friendly spaces and contemporary looking decor. They come because they are drawn to the cultural element that is happening here. I think the artists also benefit from meeting those interested people. We’ve existed for four years, and over the course of those four years, each artist residency group has always remained friends with each other and also with the guests that they met while they were here.
We started this project based on a hunch, on an instinct - it was based on a vague idea of what we wanted it to be. Over the years we have formalised it in a way that it can work and have put in place structures and process to make the lives of the residents easier and the relationship of the artist residency and the hotel work. That all required quite a bit of fine tuning. One of the interesting things is that we wanted to make the residency multi-disciplinary, so in every residency group we wanted to have people of different disciplines so they could interact with each other, exchange ideas and bounce off of each other from being exposed to people working creatively, but in a different way. What we realised is how often creative people work in isolation and how much they actually value working in a group where they are able to share, discuss and get inspired by others.
You do lose that exchange which is so crucial in any creative discipline. I think it is so beneficial for creatives to be experience being in a group for a limited amount of time it’s a big push in developing creative thinking.
Semaine: How does the residency work?
Lena: We have about forty-five residencies throughout the year, each residency is one month long and we’re open from April to the end of October. In every slot we have between six or eight artists, or ten it they’re a couple. We try to be supportive of young families and single mothers with kids, we can’t always accommodate the family, but we do try.
It’s alway hard when you have a little kid to pursue a creative career, especially for a woman. When you become a mother, you become more attached to your child and it’s harder to leave them behind. We try to be as supportive as possible, but we have limited capacity. We receive over two hundred applications per year and we have an advisory board to whom we reach out to nominate artists.
Semaine: What are the criteria you look for when you receive the application of an artist?
Lena: The predominant idea is original thought, and how well thought through it is. The applicant doesn’t have to be well established, or young. We think it’s important to mix ages and stages of career. We look for something that is interesting and that is thought through, but at the same time we do tend to select residents who are more life affirming or optimistic, which is kind of more of an unconscious selection, but we have noticed that!
We make a long-list of applicants, and then we do skype interviews with the longlist which gets cut into a shortlist by our in house team. The shortlist goes to our advisory board, which we grade and then we see who gets the highest average and that’s how we know who our top applicants are.
Semaine: When did you and Jerome first decide to take it on?
Lena: We came into the doors around 2011/2012 and it took us a few years to really get the property going again. We didn’t really open properly until after a test season in 2013. Neither of us spoke Italian at first, but we’ve sort of picked it up now. The other day I realised that my eldest child was actually speaking in Italian, and he’s never been put in an environment for him to actually learn it, so he speaks four languages and I didn’t even realise! It’s incredible and it’s just from him being here.
Semaine: You and Jerome decided to bring Parisian night-club mogul Lionel Bensemoun onto the team, why was this?
Lena: I think it goes back to wanting to create a specific environment here. We thought that bringing Lionel on board would be the perfect way to create this atmosphere. Lionel has a great imagination and a great understanding of how spaces should work.
He’s really one of a kind, when Jerome bought him here for the first time, the villa was so depressing to look at that no one even thought to photograph it because it was so depressing and nothing was done, it was raining and Jerome was thinking that he’d never want to touch the place, but Lionel thought it was amazing.
Semaine: We all know what Lionel’s nights at Le Baron are like, but what’s the party like at Villa Lena?
Lena: It’s fun, but it depends on the commitment of the party’s participants. You can either end up having a night swim at 3am or end up strolling through the olive groves at 7am partially naked.
Semaine: You also grow all of your produce here?
Lena: It’s a bio-dynamic garden, so that basically means that you cultivate everything all mixed up. You plant a zucchini next to a salad that’s next to a basil plant. The idea is that it doesn’t exhaust the soil as much as mono-cropping does. We can’t always produce the quantities we need, but if we can’t we’ll source it locally. The idea is to be completely self sufficient in vegetables, berries and fruits in the next few years.
We make our own olive oil and sparkling rose. We used to make just red wine, but the interesting thing with the rose is that you actually make it with red grapes. We have a whole load of chianti grapes, and we thought that there’s really no point in making another chianti wine, with all of the amazing chiantis around. The sparkling rose came as the logical next step and it’s amazing because pink is our brand colour. This year is our first production year, and then we’ll make more next year, but we’ll never be making it in large quantities.
Semaine: How did you and Jerome meet?
Lena: We met in Moscow. I was in London and he was in Paris and we commuted for about a year and a half, which was great. He decided to move to London and then we ended up here. He produces music, and there are a lot of musicians that have recorded their albums here. Benjamin Clementine was here, he was one of the first musicians that came. He played a few concerts which was really, really magical - he actually thanks us in his album release. Francis and The Lights was also here, he released his album last year, and the album cover is of him getting out of one of the Villa Lena cars, in front of the villa’s gates, photographed by one of the artists who came here for a residency called Emma Tillman.
Semaine: Do you have a favourite spot in the villa?
Lena: My favourite spot is the vegetable garden, I love it. you know I grew up in the Soviet Union and there everyone has a dacha, which is where you grow your own foods, your tomatoes, your berries. It’s a very Russian thing and being in the garden is a really natural thing for me. I love checking on the progress of the vegetables.
Semaine: Do you think that we all crave a bit of Villa Lena, being in solitude and getting out of the city?
Lena: Yes, I always loved nature, and I can’t be more thankful for the fact that I’m spending more and more time in nature now and that my kids are growing up in nature now like I did. I think now it’s becoming more rare than before, to actually grow up in nature. A big chunk of the population now lives in the cities.
Maybe this is a farfetched tangent, but I think that the Villa is a very modern product, we’re deep in provincial Italy, but we want to zero in on things that we feel are important to modern people, being in a sustainable environment. Whether that’s treating the nature around us carefully, or creating infrastructure through sustainable means. We hope to be as sustainable as possible, and environmentally focussed. The way that we treat the spaces is a not us trying to be a luxury product, we’re just creating a space where it is nice to hang out. We don’t have high finishes, but I think we have artistic flare.
Semaine: You also have a residency for chefs, do you have a Chef in residence all the time?
Lena: We have a chef in residence, which is part of the creative approach to the place. We work with, Alexis Delaney, a New York chef who helps us select the chefs for the residency. She was our first chef in residence and I found her by just emailing everyone I could.The chefs stay for a month and a half to three months, and they have total carte blanche, but we select the chefs that go with our ethos, so they have to be interested in seasonal cooking, sustainable cooking and in local cooking. We don’t have a menu, they cook whatever comes to them, for example, by the end of last week everyone was tired of zucchini, because we had it for every meal. zucchini gnocchi, zucchini cake, zucchini soup…
Semaine: If you could fast forward a few years, what are things you envisage for the villa?
Lena: We’d like to stay going in the same direction, it’s a never-ending project, there’s always things that could be improved. We want to have an organic approach, talking to people we’ve met already through this project who’ve been here, who know us and know what Villa Lena is about. There’s an endless list of constructions, there’s an endless list of exciting products that we could make. The biggest construction would be re-doing the villa, so it retains it’s charm, but there’s a lot that still needs doing, it needs to happen.
Semaine: Do you regret anything about starting Villa Lena?
Lena: I was at PACE (gallery) from the inception of the London office, I was there to help to set it up and then I left for this life. I don’t regret it. PACE was amazing but I’m really happy here.
Semaine: Please could you finish this sentence? “Art is…”
Lena: Art is life.
By Kezia Navey for Semaine.