Rachel Hovnanian’s luscious art and empowering messages

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Easter weekend in Pietrasanta: a medieval town in Tuscany, nestled between the Italian Riviera and the foothills of the Apuan Alps. In the cathedral square, a mammoth black bronze teddy bear lies with a knife in his heart. Inappropriate? Not at all, said their priest. This sculpture, Poor Teddy in Repose, promotes family values.

It was the centerpiece of a five part installation by Rachel Hovnanian, her call to resurrect child creative play. Screens are replacing tactile experience, she says, endangering the cuddly Teddy Bear and the stories children create around and with him.

Technology isn’t only affecting the very young. “The ubiquitousness of the cell phone creates anxiety,” says Hovnanian. “If you don’t hear back immediately, or if somebody seems to be doing better than you, it can be unnerving. Being hyper connected is actually making people feel more alone.”

Hovnanian’s multimedia installations — spread across the Cathedral Duomo, Medieval confessional room, Renaissance Cloisters and public gardens — deal with these issues and invite us to heal.

Rachel greets her New York friends in Pietrasanta Square, in the center of town, where her monumental cast bronze Poor Teddy in Repose has been installed.
The 4.5 m. bronze Teddy bear has a knife plunged into its chest which speaks volumes about the impact of technology on the culture of childhood.

Her art inhabits spaces where Miró, Henry Moore, Fernando Botero and Damien Hirst have exhibited. Michelangelo put Pietrasanta on the map for its Carrara marble. And its foundries have attracted sculptors ever since. Botero had a home there, part of an artist community that has grown around its quarries and foundries.

More than 75 of Rachel’s New York friends/collectors came for a two-day celebration. Dennis Basso, Richard Mishaan, Nicole Miller, Carlos Souza, Carlos Mota, Karin Meyn, Dayssi and Paul Kanavos, Fiona Rudin, Jill Roosevelt, Bettina Zilkha, Carolina Alvarez-Mathies (Exec Director of the Dallas Contemporary), George Farias, and Laura and Harry Slatkin were among those who walked the path to learn about her installations and share private dinners at the Hovnanian home.

Palmer Taipale, Karin Meyn, Nicole Miller, Kim Taipale, Bettina Zilkha, George Farias, Cristina Macaya.
Palmer Taipale, Karin Meyn, Nicole Miller, Kim Taipale, Bettina Zilkha, George Farias, and Cristina Macaya in front of Poor Teddy in Repose.
Dayssi & Paul Kanavos and Carlos Souza stand next to Poor Teddy in Repose.
L. to r.: Dayssi and Paul Kanavos; Carlos Souza.
Rachel Lee Hovnanian, Laura Currie, Carolina Alvarez-Mathies_Poor Teddy in Repose
Rachel Lee Hovnanian, Laura Currie, and Carolina Alvarez-Mathies.
Richard Mishaan, Rachel Lee Hovnanian, Laura Slatkin.
Richard Mishaan, Rachel Lee Hovnanian, and Laura Slatkin.
The House of Poor Teddy: “The house resembles a sad face,” Says Rachel. “The roof is Medea-like snakes with European/Italian plugs.” Because plugging in has replaced play.
Fiona Rudin_House of Poor Teddy
Fiona Rudin next to the House of Poor Teddy.
Rache Lee Hovnanian, Carlos Mota; Jill Roosevelt and Fiona Rudin.
L. to r.: Rachel Lee Hovnanian and Carlos Mota; Jill Roosevelt and Fiona Rudin.
Nicole Miller_Angels Listening
Nicole Miller flanked by Angels Listening.
Rachel Lee Hovnanian, Dennis Basso_Angels Listening
Rachel Lee Hovnanian and Dennis Basso.
Richard Mishaan.
Rachel Lee Hovnanian, Gill Roosevelt, Lisa Jackson, Bettina Zilkha.
Rachel Lee Hovnanian, Jill Roosevelt, Lisa Jackson, and Bettina Zilkha.
Oliver and Lily Rockefeller.

Rachel walked them through “You Are Not Alone, Angels Listening,” the installation she expanded from her Venice Biennale 2022 show: white bronze beauties with mouths taped shut. “The culture silences us,” says Rachel, “politically and personally.” Elsewhere, she invited all to write their secrets, anonymously, on ribbons and drop them into “a cathartic box.” Those messages were inscribed on listening mats and paintings.

Rachel’s art is a vehicle to bring those dark feelings to light, realize  we are not alone in having them, and cast them off.   “I want people to understand we are perfect as we are,” Hovnanian says. Keep walking and you come upon a healing garden. Further down, she’ll create a permanent “Hope Garden” in a public park.

Walking through “You Are Not Alone, Angels Listening,” features seven large-scale angels cast in white bronze, each with two pieces of cast tape over their mouths. Rachel originally debuted this work at the Venice Biennale 2022.
“You Are Not Alone, Angels Listening” features seven large-scale angels cast in white bronze, each with two pieces of cast tape over their mouths. Rachel originally debuted this work at the Venice Biennale 2022.

Carolina Alvarez-Mathies_X Listening Neon & The Silver Confessional
Carolina Alvarez-Mathies in the Silver Confessional in the X Listening Neon, located above the stairs of the Chiesa e Chiostro di Sant’ Agostino.

The healing herbal garden was the result of a three-hour foraging trip into an Umbrian forest with ‘Intuitive Herbalist’ Marta Selvatica. “When I found out Marta does trauma therapy using herbs,” Hovnanian said, “I asked her to work on the project.

“When I was nervous before the opening, I ran out to the garden, grabbed some rosemary, rubbed it in my hands and breathed it in. It calmed me.”

The healing garden is a contained sanctuary space that is a deliberate conduit for healing.
Dennis Basso, Dayssi Kanavos_Garden of Hope
Dennis Basso and Dayssi Kanavos in the healing garden. Rachel compiled anonymous messages and ironed them onto prayer-like canvas mats, “navigating a delicate terrain of trauma. Instead of glorifying an idealized identified persona, it invites you to share your fears and  weaknesses, anonymously,” shared the artist.
Bettina Zilkha, Rachel Lee Hovnanian, and Karin Meyn.
Nicole Miller_Shhh, Angels Listening_Garden of Hope
Nicole Miller.

There were more lessons for Rachel in Tuscany. Setting up the show, she tried to skip a meal to save time. “No, Rachel. You must eat lunch,” the locals insisted. “And they turned the lights off! They made me realize eating is life. From then on, even when we were working, we made certain to stop, break bread, talk and connect in a personal way.”

It’s all part of the romantic lure of Italy. “In the 20 years I’ve been working in Pietrasanta part time,” Rachel continued, “I’ve really gotten to know the community: the store and gallery owners, other artists, the wonderful open air market that brings us together once a week.

But, it doesn’t have pecans. They don’t grow in Italy. She brings them from America. “I like to cook,” says Rachel, whose mother was a famous culinary personality in Texas. “And I make American deserts for the foundry. Some of the metal workers had never had a pecan pie.”

Rachel Lee Hovnanian and Laura Slatkin.
Carlos Souza, Carlos Mota
Carlos Souza and Carlos Mota toasting the artist.

For the Americans who came for the week-end, it was lasagna at the Hovnanian home, country-style. “I was so appreciative of all the friends and collectors who came from New York,” Rachel told me. “The amount of support was really overwhelming.”

She’ll have to pull herself away from Italy by September for a women’s group show that will feature her neon work. Curated by Christine Mack and Natasha Schlesinger, at Room57 Gallery, the show is titled “These Boots Are Made for Walking.”

But, for now, it will be art patrons walking the tiny streets of Pietrasanta who will discover Rachel Hovnanian’s luscious art and empowering message.

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