Discovery: Lorella Paleni

Lorella Paleni speaks casually about her Monday classes and the snow falling outside her window. Manhattan has been treating her well, she says, and as she begins the second half of her first year at Columbia University’s Master of Fine Arts program, she talks about New York like it’s where she’s always wanted to be.

Originally from the Italian hinterlands, Paleni first visited the city in summer 2012 for a six-week intensive painting program at Columbia. There, she encountered a supportive faculty and warmth among her artistic peers—elements she felt were lacking during her time at an arts academy in Italy.

Challenges in Italy—both at home and while at the university—solidified her desire to move abroad and pursue art as a means of living. The idea of “artist” as a bona fide profession was nearly nonexistent in the town where she grew up, but she couldn’t lie to herself and threw herself into her artistic pursuits. Fast-forward to 2013, and she’s garnered a handful of international praise, including the Art Takes Time Square’s Cut & Pick finalist prize in 2012. On her website, you’ll find the stunning work she’s been crafting over the past four years, rich with her own Francis Bacon-esque style that nests somewhere between contemporary surrealism and figurative art. It’s as if her paintbrush is guided by sudden lapses into chaotic memory, tangled up in both tragic and life-affirming themes.

We talked on Skype about Berlin versus New York for the young artist, why making it in New York isn’t impossible, and how a friend of hers told her not to talk about her cat during the interview (spoiler alert: we talked about her cat).

AGE: 27



BERLINERS: While waiting for my [MFA] application to go through I decided to move to Berlin to work there, and I think for an artist it is a very exciting city. Berlin has a lot of opportunities and is more approachable for artists than New York, because you can afford a studio for less money and living is cheaper. If you can’t or don’t want to move to New York, the other city is Berlin. I found many similarities between both cities, even though they are completely different. They are both multicultural. This is one of the most beautiful things about New York, and it gives you the opportunity to meet people from everywhere, but Berlin is like that, too. There are also a lot of art events, artists—it’s equally alive. Both places are just very connected, too. A lot of Americans living there—it’s like you won’t be surprised to hear perfect, native English.

DO NOT DISTURB?: The good thing about an MFA is basically you are studying but still working on your work, so you don’t ever really stop. There is more pressure, maybe—it gets more critical, but you are still working on your portfolio, except you just have more feedback on it. When you work outside of a program, you are mostly alone, but when you are in a program like this, you have a bunch of people coming to your studio and talking to you, giving feedback. And that is an experience that, if I was not going to do now, I don’t know if I would have another opportunity to do it. As an artist, you have your whole life to spend alone in a studio.

PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG WOMAN: Sometimes an artist is too afraid of letting the public see their work, so they keep it secret and private because they don’t think it is ready. But sometimes it’s better to take the risk and let people see what you’re doing. It is kind of scary at the beginning, but that is the only way that people can start knowing about you. Of course, the connections you make with other artists are important because we’re all dealing with the same problems and the same issues in the arts scene. This just means artists are the ones who need to support each other.

MAKE IT HERE, MAKE IT ANYWHERE?: To me there is more meritocracy here [than Italy], but I still have the impression that, in New York, starting from nothing you can do something. I just don’t think there’s any other place to be if you’re an artist. lt feels like there is more opportunity here than there was in my country. In some environments in Italy being a painter is kind of stigmatized, while I feel like New York is still hungry for it.

CAT POWER: My friend was just telling me, “Don’t talk about your cat,” but I love animals, and my cat is like my baby. At the end of the day, when I come home and she’s purring: it’s the definition of peace. It’s a gift with cats, you can have so many thoughts in your mind and a cat’s quietness teaches you to be quiet and accept anything. But one time this publication came to my studio to do a feature on me, but while we were talking my cat walked out like a star from the other room. And they said, “No, that’s cool, we’re actually doing a series of interviews on artists and animals, so we want to know about your cat now.”  But I said I wasn’t going to talk about my cat, and I just did. My friend will kill me.