interview by OLIVIER ZAHM
portraits by JONATHAN FRANTINI
all artwork by LOLA MONTES SCHNABEL
copyright and courtesy of the artist
escaping the big apple, where she was raised in the frenzied eye of the art scene, lola traveled the world before finding a place where she could become the artist she always wanted to be: the island of sicily, land of milk and honey.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, Lola, tell us how you ended up in Sicily, an island. Because you were living in Milan before, right?
LOLA MONTES SCHNABEL — Yes, but I knew, going to Milan, that I really wanted to have a studio in nature. Then Covid-19 happened, and I was locked in my apartment for a month and a half, and I realized that I didn’t want to be indoors breathing paint. What originally brought me to Sicily, though, was that five years ago I discovered I had Lyme disease, and one of the cures is to drink unpasteurized goat’s or cow’s milk for a month or two. Only milk. So, after dealing with the health-care system in America and trying to stay on a spiritual path in a city in which you have to be a real soldier all the time, I just realized that I was going against my own nature. It was a choice between Sardinia or here, wherever I could find milk.
OLIVIER ZAHM — That’s beautiful, like a mythological tale.
LOLA MONTES SCHNABEL — I discovered this land of milk and honey because what is real luxury, to me, is being able to make a fire every night, be barefoot, see the stars, and hear my own intuition. Listen to my dreams. A lot of my work comes from an imaginary place, so I need to feel centered inside. There are symbols like this every day. Driving to work today, I took these little roads, and I saw an old woman — all in black, with this knit shawl — picking persimmons. And I’m seeing paintings all around. So, this idea of, I don’t know — what is every artist’s job? To go where you’re not supposed to go and discover that invisible thing. I had a very fortunate childhood, being exposed to a lot of art and a lot of people, and I was extremely social, but I realized that this wasn’t going to get me to the essence of what I’m supposed to make because I know I’m supposed to make art. So, to have a studio in Brooklyn, looking at an industrial yard and having to take a car an hour and a half before I get there… Whereas here, I wake up, and it’s always sunny. And I’m in the center of Europe. In an hour, I can get anywhere. I think the Mediterranean was always calling me, as well. I feel very olive inside and attached to the Greek and Roman myths. My soul is kind of an antique one. I thought perhaps it was in India. I went on many travels in my 20s, looking for where home was, from Mexico to Haiti, the Caribbean to India. I was never really in New York. I was always working and running away because I didn’t feel well there.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And your father, Julian — where’s he from?
LOLA MONTES SCHNABEL — My grandparents were Czech. They were immigrants who came to Brooklyn during the war. His father was from near Prague, so true Bohemia. And my father’s grandmother is Romanian. Then my mother is Belgian, from Antwerp, but she has a mix of Danish, Austrian, and French blood.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, no Italian blood.
LOLA MONTES SCHNABEL — No. I’m half Jewish. So, maybe there’s something, I don’t know — Babylonia… People were always trying to conquer this land, too. The Sicilians are very different from the Italians. They’re extremely disponibile and street-smart. They use their instincts, and everything is based upon intuition. There’s a lot of pride. If you say something, you have to do it. And you never make an agreement on the phone or via a text message. You write it on a piece of paper, and you say it to the person’s face.
OLIVIER ZAHM — How would you describe Sicily? Have you moved around the island?
LOLA MONTES SCHNABEL — Well, I arrived here four years ago to rent a place for two summers, and then I moved farther south. I first went to Vendicari, Noto, where a lot of people go, and then I realized that this was all kind of fake. A lot of interior decorators have moved there, and it’s fashionable to be there. In my town, Scicli — which is 15 minutes from Modica or these little beach towns that feel like you’re in the ’60s, Cava d’Aliga and Sampieri — there’s real life. And they actually have some great schools. I don’t have kids, but they teach kids how to make incense and spices under a tree. I’ve painted a lot of portraits of kids in New York City, and I see them at seven or eight years old with the stress of having to make it and going to their psychiatrist. I don’t think those are the tools that a child needs. So, I like seeing these little Mowglis running around.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, you’re going deep into the Sicilian south.
LOLA MONTES SCHNABEL — I’ve driven through the whole island. Basically, you can spend a lifetime driving through here because it changes every hour. And there’s so many things to see and different types of Baroque churches and architecture. Palermo has a very different energy than Catania, say. I prefer Catania, honestly, because there’s the fish market, and you feel the magic that you feel in India. There’s a kind of mystery and a big Arabic influence, whereas Palermo is very much like Rome. It can be a bit heavy. But a lot of artists have moved there.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What about Mount Etna?
LOLA MONTES SCHNABEL — It’s beautiful, all the towns around there. Etna has a presence because it’s like having a big woman who’s always about to explode. [Laughs] Sometimes, the flights can’t come because she’s erupting, or there’s too much fog. She determines if you can come and go, she spits you out or accepts you.
OLIVIER ZAHM — I’m not that familiar with your work, but I have the feeling Sicily has had a liberating effect on your painting…
LOLA MONTES SCHNABEL — Yes. Also, because I can work outside — natural light changes your brain completely. Also, I’ve just eliminated all the negative aspects of having a lot of pressure, growing up in a town where there’s so much expected of you, being born in the center of the art world and feeling like I need to be seen. I don’t want to be seen. I’ve always liked to be invisible and draw the invisible. My work is about that. When I do a portrait of someone, I draw that their mother died a few months ago. I can feel what’s going on inside of them, and in order to be open to feeling these things, I can’t be in a place where I have to always protect myself.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Did the island change your color palette?
LOLA MONTES SCHNABEL — Yes. It’s hard to describe the light here. I made this video in September, and it was really hard to color correct because every green should be treated separately. It’s not like an antique filter, like a Gucci ad where you put on everything to make this golden light and pastels. Everything here is cut in a certain way that’s kind of brutal to the eye. I don’t know if you’ve been to New Zealand, but it feels that you’re on the edge of the world. There’s a white light that cuts with this golden glow. So, yes, the way I mix colors outside, and also all the stone… There are stone walls around every little village that you drive through. It’s a kind of gray-violet, but, inside, there’s peach. So, this also has come through because you’re always looking at things against these stones.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Your painting is a bit mediumistic?
LOLA MONTES SCHNABEL — Yes. I want to make symbolic metaphors or feel the person’s pain and go deep inside of them. Then it looks like them. Editing out everything that was superficial in life made things a lot simpler. Being able to go get these vegetables — there’s no “organic” because there are no pesticides, and genetically modified crops are illegal — and having iodine in the air… When you have a health scare, you see how important it is to walk barefoot on the beach and just breathe clean air. Even if I smoke, it compensates.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, you do portraits, still lifes, landscapes…
LOLA MONTES SCHNABEL — I’m trying to paint where the abstract and the figurative meet, and put some narratives or hidden stories within these. My latest series, The King of Love Is Dead, is about a god that I invented, a deity with different-color skins: yellow, red, black. Run by this white head floating on this chariot, like in the Merkabah in Ezekiel in the Bible, made out of tomatoes. The big lesson for me, during the Covid-19 era, has been that we need to coexist. It’s not as if Korea has a nuclear bomb and blows it up over there, or Fukushima happens, that the wind doesn’t come here. We’re on a very small planet together. We should be at a point where we accept one another already. Also, each one of us has to put a seed back in the earth because there’s just not enough room for us not to be planting our own gardens. So, I tried to make a god about this and create an army of these kinds of soldiers going out in the world to heal the planet. There are about 10 of these guys now, and when I sit in the garden, I feel like I’ve painted a bunch of new friends. I also make portraits. Then this ceramic thing. It’s very much like aquarelle, painting on ceramic. You have to move fast, and you dip your brush each time, so they’re bleeding into each other. I don’t really know what I’m going to make when I start. It’s like jazz, where you start off, and you end up somewhere else: this thing comes through me. This space allows it to happen as well.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, the ceramics will be like paintings on different tiles?
LOLA MONTES SCHNABEL — Yes, hopefully I can get rid of the tile and start to make bigger pieces that go on the wall. But right now, they’re 40 x 40 tiles that come together to tell a story. So, wherever you sit, you see the myth that I’m painting, or the story. You can hang them upside down or … they go from every angle. Some of them look more like tables because there’s a centerpiece that seems decorative, like this heart with two lions around it, or a baby being born with two swans, and then around it tells the story. Others just bleed to the edges. I did Hercules’s 12 labors, and through reading these myths, you get to see the labor of man, as well. And then making up my own myths.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you read a lot of Greek mythology?
LOLA MONTES SCHNABEL — I did when I was a kid, and I listen to them on audiobooks. And this land — the rocks talk to you, and the trees. There’s a lot of mythology here. It looks the same as what I imagined Jerusalem would have looked like in Jesus’s time. Sometimes, you see the light coming through a cypress tree and a goat on the top. It’s very apocalyptic.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, you don’t miss New York?
LOLA MONTES SCHNABEL — Sometimes, I go in my mind through every street in New York. I walk through the night with my eyes closed. I go from 30th Street down to 14th Street and back up through the West Side Highway. It’s like the lines of my hand: that city is very much inside of me. I’m a true New Yorker. I worked at the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church and with Jonas Mekas at Anthology Film Archives. I lived in the Chelsea Hotel. I had a real New York existence. It wasn’t that I was fooling around, but you give a lot to a town, and then you realize you can’t help anyone unless you save yourself first. I think getting that tick bite was also a blessing because it made me cut out everything that was unnecessary.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What I love about your work is that it’s a direct expression of your life. It seems that everything is connected in your life. Where you work, your garden, the air you breathe, your dreams, your paintings — everything comes together.
LOLA MONTES SCHNABEL — Yes, because it becomes a life’s work. I mean, Picasso lived till 90 working in these different places. I was just looking at his ceramics because he was also 39 when he began making things. It’s a love affair, this pottery. A lot of artists made ceramics, and I’d look at them, but now the idea that it goes in the oven, and the next day it’s born…
OLIVIER ZAHM — Ceramic: earth and fire.
LOLA MONTES SCHNABEL — Yeah. And you can move the fire. With the outdoor furnace here, we can tip things upside down and make the direction of the paint go with the fire. So, there’s a lot of alchemy involved in it, as well.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, being here is also part of a spiritual journey?
LOLA MONTES SCHNABEL — Yes, I can follow my own spiritual path here. We can travel anywhere and take inspiration and meet your heroes and have these kinds of experiences in city life. But ultimately, I need my time in my studio. So, that means no dinners, no museums, no whatever it is that distracted you before. But it’s always there. To have a base here and be able to go and spend a month in a city or a region of France, and then come back with all of that inside of you… I’ve been to Cairo to see the Egyptian Museum, I saw the pyramids in Mexico. All of these things are in me — I just need the time to process them. Now, with Covid-19, you can’t really be anywhere, so I’m in the best place that I could be.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Have you been accepted by the locals?
LOLA MONTES SCHNABEL — Yes. When I’m at the flea market or go to the fish store, everyone calls my name. I’m a very friendly person. I like to talk with the men who sit on the bench when I have a coffee, and work with locals for metal and wood. I have these different characters. Even if I don’t speak the language well, with drawings and Google Translate, it all comes out, somehow.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And you fell in love with an Italian.
LOLA MONTES SCHNABEL — Yes, I did. He’s from Ravenna originally, and he’s lived in New York and Paris.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Art filtered through the island. You’re so right: you need a life that reflects exactly who you are. This is truth.
LOLA MONTES SCHNABEL — And to produce work here and be able to ship it anywhere in the world is kind of the dream. Why stay in a room in a basement in a city making things?
[Table of contents]
by Olivier Zahm
cover #13 chanel s/s 2021Read the article
essay by Édouard Glissant
doug aitkenRead the article
an island of one’s ownRead the article
cover #11 elizabeth glaessnerRead the article
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la cupolaRead the article
cover #16 bottega veneta s/s 2021Read the article
lisa yuskavageRead the article
a folder called islandsRead the article
pleasure islandRead the article
cover #10 miriam cahnRead the article
the ibiza mythRead the article
cover #17 berluti s/s 2021Read the article
mugler s/s 2021Read the article
raoul hausmannRead the article
testo-maniaRead the article
island undergroundRead the article
hans ulrich obristRead the article
balenciaga summer 2021Read the article
donna harawayRead the article
cover #3 au départ parisRead the article
carsten höllerRead the article
prada s/s 2021Read the article
tiffany siaRead the article
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emporio armani s/s 2021Read the article
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miriam cahnRead the article
lili sumnerRead the article
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ami s/s 2021Read the article
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paradise regainedRead the article
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cover #1 lisa yuskavageRead the article
marina baie des angesRead the article
sweden’s islandsRead the article
cover #4 raoul hausmannRead the article
mathieu briandRead the article
mark dionRead the article
cover #14 comme des garçons s/s 2021Read the article
the red islandRead the article
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cover #8 prada s/s 2021Read the article
utopia, utopiaRead the article
torbjørn rødlandRead the article