A Conversation with Carol Panaro-Smith & James Hajicek

Posted by on May 23, 2017 in Interview | No Comments

Our 2017 workshop in Italy is fast approaching, and we couldn’t be more excited for this year’s edition. Led by fine-art photographer and Guggenheim fellow Greg Miller, the workshop will give photographers a rare opportunity to focus on their work in the hilly countryside of Tuscany.

We spoke with Greg last month about photographing in unfamiliar places and his personal connection to Italy; you can read that interview here.


This month, we sat down with James Hajicek & Carol Panaro-Smith of Alchemy Studio, who are hosting the workshop at Villa San Rocco in Benabbio, and asked them some questions about themselves, their work, and what photographers can expect out of the workshop.

Project Basho (PB): Could you tell us a little bit about yourselves and your backgrounds?

Alchemy Studio (AS): James is a Professor Emeritus at Arizona State University where he taught fine art photography for 34 years. His area of specialization is late 19th-century photographic printing processes. Carol has held a number of positions in the arts both as teacher and administrator throughout the valley for over 30 years. Some highlights in her career include establishing Alchemy Studio, a working and teaching studio in Phoenix and Program Director/Curator at Art Intersection in Gilbert, Arizona. Together, we have spent over 50 years collectively being dedicated to and fostering in others the love of photography. This is evidenced in our own creative work as well as in our careers as educators. Our collaborative work has been collected internationally and is represented in several galleries throughout the United States.

PB: How did you first discover Benabbio and Villa San Rocco?

AS: A friend of ours had a house in Vitiana, a nearby village. Our Italy program started there and after a few years, we wanted to find a place that could accommodate all of us – faculty and participants – in the same dwelling. We booked over a dozen appointments to look at villas in and around the Provence of Lucca. The second day of appointments, we had a lunch in one of our favorite restaurants and saw a flier on a table about Villa San Rocco. We decided to have a look out of sheer curiosity. When we arrived, there were people playing guitars, homemade banana bread being shared, and a real sense of an artful community happening. We fell in love with the bohemian charm and warmth of both the owners and the villa.

PB: What can you tell us about of the history of the village?

AS: It is a beautiful little village with its own history literally written on its walls. Scratched symbols from the Knights Templar can be found in the rock walls that line the walkway by the villa. Benabbio has a long history as being along an early Roman trade route and later the pilgrim’s path from Rome to the shrine of the apostle St. James in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Spain, known as the Camino de Santiago. This is most likely the reason that the Villa San Rocco’s history can be dated from the 14th Century, when the complex, much larger than the present dwelling, is believed to have been a seminary and pilgrims’ rest. The chapel opposite the main gate is dedicated to San Rocco – a patron saint of illnesses – and weary travelers on the Franciscan Way would have found care and repose in the quiet and spacious rooms and garden. The emblems of a religious Christian group, as yet still unidentified, can be found above the doorways below. The main church in Benabbio was built is 1338 and remains an amazing structure filled with a beautiful altarpiece along with significant works of art. On the very top of the hill above the village proper there are ruins of a castle that is presently an archeological digging site being undertaken by the University of Pisa. Benabbio once belonged to the Lupari family and the village was known for its fierce fighters called into service by surrounding nobles as descendants from the Trojan warriors settled here.


PB: What is it about the area that makes it so great for photographers?

AS: The light in this region is something extraordinary. The village is situated on a hilltop surrounded by chestnut forests and on the horizon the Carrera Mountains. The Villa San Rocco itself is a photographer’s dream. Every room has its own unique character and charm. The people in this region here are genuine and warm.

PB: I understand you’ve actually purchased a house in the village, could you talk about that experience?

AS: The first year of summer workshops, a new friend from the village suggested we look at real estate. Being curious but not serious we thought, “Why not? It’s a great way to see the village inside and out.”. So we toured 9 properties in 2 hours. With our heads spinning and a disc full of photographs we returned home. For 2 months we tossed around the crazy idea of buying one of them – one stood out –it needed some cosmetic work and a new kitchen but the views from each window were breathtaking. Also, the price was within our meager means. We would vacillate almost daily – should we, shouldn’t we? Then one day we both said – let’s do it. The process was relatively easy with the help of a great agent. We’ve loved becoming a part of the community – we love our Italian neighbors, some of them have been here for 80+ years.

PB: How far will workshop participants venture out from the Villa?

AS: We’ll be going to the walled city of Lucca, a stunning city. Then to the very quaint town of Collodi, the “birthplace of Pinocchio.” These two visits, plus scheduled time with a variety of residents in nearby villages and in Bagni di Lucca.

PB: What is your advice for photographers who are interested in taking one of the workshops?

AS: Many participants say that the experience was life changing. To go to a foreign country and to completely immerse yourself in your craft, with an inspirational teacher, and a community of enthusiasts is an unparalleled experience. The food and wine in this region is beyond compare – local cheeses, prosciutto, farro, and the freshest produce is lovingly prepared by “Mama P” twice a day.


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