Q&A with ILENIA PEZZANITI
Who are you?
My name is Ilenia Pezzaniti. I am a 30-something creative living in Highland Square, Akron.
What do you make/do?
I am a multidisciplinary artist producing work in photography, film, ceramics, metals, writing, multimedia, and music. I’m a freelance photographer and videographer, and a photojournalist, writer, and reporter for Akron’s local co-op magazine, The Devil Strip. Within the arts, I make work that largely reflects womanhood, as well as the human experience overall. The work is often documentary, social commentary, or personal, and serves to create awareness, introspection, healing, and/or empowerment.
In what ways do you approach the many facets of your practice differently and/or similarly?
I approach most of my work with intention and mindfulness. In my fine art work, I can take more time to be thoughtful and really suss out what is going on in my mind and my body so that the work makes sense and connects on as many levels as possible. With my photojournalism work, I have to create trust within a matter of minutes. I have to combine the tenderness of intention and mindfulness, with the speed of wit. I have to assess a situation or a person efficiently and with care, which forces me to be present as I literally cannot exist outside of the moment I’m in or I miss it completely. It’s incredibly challenging and exhilarating. There is not time for the deliberation I often go through in my fine art process. Both processes are necessary for me to feel fully alive.
Do some of your projects feel more like “work” or “play” than others?
I would say both photojournalism and fine art feel like work because I take them seriously. They render integrity and respect because I am generally honoring someone else or a societal idea that needs addressed. However, they both have elements of play because the process is fun for me, which balances the work out, and keeps it warm.
The process is play because it’s both challenging and engaging. It holds my attention and demands my presence, but it’s meditative. If I’m out documenting on my own, that is largely play for me. I also think it’s important to hold space for light-heartedness and sometimes a touch of humor or irony is present in my personal work. When I make jewelry, I am all play!
What are the challenges and benefits of having such a prolific practice?
You know, I’ve never considered myself to have a prolific practice until you said I did, Kelly. I have felt like I was running out of time since I was a teenager. I have felt behind since my 20s. The existential crisis that I live with has been the reason for how much I push myself. I’ve been in a collecting phase for the last few years and right now I’m working on moving it out.
At first it felt presumptuous and a little self-indulgent, like who the heck wants to see my work? Why does it matter? Who am I anyway? Sometimes my work is incredibly vulnerable and painful and bold. Much of it is outskirt work, which can feel naturally isolating. Once I started sharing it, though, I realized exactly why it matters- there are others. The people who have told me how they’ve been impacted by my work have moved me. It feels like we are standing alongside each other.
Now the challenges are, what the hell do I do with all of this? I have way more than what’s on my website. Where do I put it? Who do I talk to about it? And then, who/when/where aligns with my values/the body of work at hand? I’m starting to figure that out now whether it’s within my own grassroots effort or a more well-known sphere. Printing and framing are also challenges. I love printing my work, I love the tangibility of the practice. It legit drives me a little batshit when a body only lives on a screen or in a drive. So it gets expensive.
Another challenge to having a lot of work is that it can be an indicator that I might move too quickly, which can be reckless without reigns. It can be overwhelming. As hard as I try, there are still piles of images either forgotten or poorly organized. So now I get nervous that if I don’t move the work then that body will fall by the wayside. I’ve had to learn patience and commitment. The process can drag on and on and on. The work has reflected back what I am afraid of, something I have had to sit with in order to work through. It has been transformative. I can feel what it’s done to me in my physical body. There is a settling there where there used to be a restlessness. And I think that restlessness was a way to avoid my discomfort. Now we sit down for tea.
The benefit of having a large body of work is that I can connect with a spectrum of topics and people. I don’t pigeon-hole myself into a single category. I’ve had all sorts of jobs, projects, people, and experiences head my way that I might not have even considered had it not been for the diversity I’ve touched on. There’s always something to work with. The work has expanded me, it has shaped me. I think it has saved my life in many ways.
It’s also simply just really fun.
Do any themes and or motifs consistently come up across your work?
My experiences inform much of my work, and much of that experience is as a woman living in a society that is still largely brainwashed by this real yet delusional patriarchy. In my fine art work, I work a lot with the female body. I draw on my own struggles as well as circumstances from my fellow vulva, breast owning comrades to explore and create work that challenges standard social protocol. I like to call attention to the shit that we’ve grinned and barred, what we are still fighting, and topics that cause discomfort.
Does one project ever lead to another in an unexpected way?
Maybe, but I can’t think of anything right now where I can say for sure, though I’m sure it is all connected since it is all connected to me. Many times, one project has led to another idea within that same project. Projects are very much breathing things, contracting and expanding over and over again.
How much is collaboration a part of your process, whether it’s responding to your subjects or literally partnering on a project?
I think we are always collaborating in some way, always transferring energy between us, and in that way everything is a collaboration of some sort.
Specifically with photojournalism, I have to be able to read people, I have to be able to hear them and be considerate of them. Consideration is an exchange. And exchange is a form of collaboration.
I’ve partnered with people musically, but never in any other art form, though I’m not opposed to it! That experience was like no other. The very process of intentionally creating something together is its own art form. An ebb and flow, a give and take. It’s a relationship at the end of the day.
There is also an artist, work, and audience collaboration that happens. Once the work is up or out and people have a chance to interact and respond, that is the final body of that work in my opinion.
In your statement, you talk about “opening conversation”, can you talk a little bit about what you think the conversation needs to be and what kind of progress you would like to see that conversation yield?
I think we need an entire reform on how we talk about the body, how we talk about our genitalia, how we talk about sex. There is this taint of life that we live on. The taint is that delicate, vulnerable spot between fact and fiction, reality and fantasy. And I think it needs to be mindfully seduced, handled with care, firm but tender. It’s where both the truth and the fantasy can coexist without hurting each other. It’s where truth can be acknowledged and appreciated and where shame cannot survive. It’s where genitalia are discussed like the weather. It’s an open dialogue- fair game. Our bodies should be honored and respected because of what they do for us on the entire spectrum between reproduction and pleasure, biochemistry and bad habits, yin and yang. It’s an all inclusive resort. And because of that, it is special, but not extraordinary. It is something we all have and the fact that we can see it in all these ways that we’ve deemed the epitome of beauty, which is arbitrary, but we can’t see it the same holy light when it’s more commonplace, meaning among the majority of people, the fact that variety hasn’t been as represented and that we’ve idolized specific genitalia as if they’re celebrities is a fools concept. We’re missing out! By opening the conversation, we all win. And we open the conversation by starting it, by living it, by calling attention to it in some way, and we keep talking about it until it becomes commonplace, understood, accepted, and even desired. That’s the true epitome of beauty, the entire spectrum we get to witness. And we’re seeing it more and more and it’s because we’re sick of living in this taboo world where normalcy is considered lewd, isolated in tiny pods on the taint. That’s what the conversation yields: creating the world we want to live in, the one we want to see, where different is normal, not homogenized.
People say they’re attracted to a little mystery, they think the depth of the challenge equals the value of the piece, that if it’s just out of our reach we are safe to want it, but I think that’s a perversion, a consequence of submission to ego, a neglect to our emotional depth and capabilities, and ultimately fear. We’re so play driven that we made that shit up. It makes no sense to me that we can’t talk about the vulva at a family dinner, but yet everyone in that room was created because they came out of one.
What do you get/learn from your work, and what do you hope your audience gets/learns from your work?
I learn that being vulnerable is the one thing we can all do without a certification or a degree to help each other and this world heal, and make progressive changes for ourselves and our future generations to live a truly free life. I also learn that I don’t know shit. I learn who I am and who I am not. My work provides me with an outlet, a home, connection, and revolving energy.
I hope anyone viewing my work gives it a chance, mulls it over, lets it settle onto their being, sheds a layer of their own inauthenticity, or is empowered to have agency over what they truly believe, instead of going along with an illusory, arbitrary social standard because it’s all they’ve ever known.
What projects are you working on now/have upcoming?
Right now I’m working on piecing together a large project I started in May of 2020. I photographed 12 people who were all living alone at the time during the pandemic. I gave them each a disposable camera and told them to document their lives over a week or two. I had them fill out a questionnaire. I’ve been cataloging my own time during this pandemic living alone via different documentation records as well. I’d like the entire project to be a book eventually, a time capsule of sorts. It was suggested by the gallery director, Arnie Tunstall, at the University of Akron Myers Art School, that I select a handful of those photographs for the projects gallery. This version will only feature the people in the project, their photos, and their words. The wall across from that body of work will feature another project I created pre-pandemic of photographs of windows in the Akron area. Arnie suggested these bodies work together by communicating across the room to one another.
I’m also working on a family documentary piece about my Italian immigrant grandparents. They’re in their 80’s and the two of them go out every summer to pick tomatoes to make tomato sauce for the entire year, for our entire family (five families). They go about five times and stay all day, under the hot sun, filling up to 20 buckets with tomatoes each time. At home, the laboring sauce making begins.
Another active project is a body hair project I cultivated over the summer and fall of the pandemic. I grew out all of my body hair, everything I’d ever shaved or plucked. I did it to question protocol, to challenge my comfort and the complacency of others, and ultimately to grow and have agency over my decisions. It was a truly beautiful and liberating process. I’ve released another layer and am closer to my whole truth. I learned what I liked and what I didn’t and I acted accordingly. I documented what I had grown. It was suggested to me again by Arnie Tunstall that I print them at life size. Those will likely hang in the atrium at the art school once completed, and hopefully in other spaces.
I’ve got a couple other bodies of work in the queue but I’m still forming them.
Where are you headed?
My mantra lately has been to keep following my feet, but I’m walking in a meditative manner. I’m largely letting myself figure out where I’m heading day by day. Some days I’m following my heart, other days my gut is leading me, sometimes I just need to make ends meet. All I know for sure is that I’m heading toward my core, my center, my truth, and hopefully helping others do the same. I believe truth is equal to complete freedom. That’s my only real destination: cracking open, shedding, getting naked, being, healing. The work I make from there will dictate where I’m physically heading. I have a few photo exhibitions lined up within the next two years, and I’ve been mulling over ideas for interactive installation pieces. I’d also like to curate art shows in my garage. I plan on continuing my photojournalism work, cultivating community, creating a book, pursuing work in holistic health, and releasing an album.
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Ilenia Pezzaniti is a multidisciplinary artist, exploring her experience as observer, female, and human, at once and separately. In her work, she reflects moments for introspection and truth. Her work is largely documentary, social commentary, and personal. Find more about her at www.ileniapezzaniti.com