GOOD WOOD DOESN’T LIE
VISITING JUDITH SOTRIFFER’S WORKSHOP IN ORTISEI, VAL GARDENA, IS ALWAYS AN EXERCISE IN OPPOSITES: YOU INSTANTANEOUSLY FEEL THE BUZZING ENERGY THE WOOD CARVER LIVES AND WORKS IN AS SOON AS YOU STEP INTO HER WORLD. A UNIVERSE MADE OF SMOOTH CEMENT WALLS AND FLOOR, INTERSPERSED WITH A CORNUCOPIA OF WOOD: COARSE PLANKS, CURLING WOOD CHIPPINGS, AN OLD WARDROBE, WOODEN DOLLS, HARLEQUINS AND PINOCCHIOS.
This studio has a story to tell, and so does she. Judith is Guido Sotriffer’s daughter and as a child, she accompanied her famous dad – a well-known sculptor, painter, and drawer – into the atelier with her mouth wide open. Judith was, and still is, fascinated by the resinous scent of wood, the raw and archaic nature of the materials used, and the creative act itself. Picking up her father’s trade was an easy choice, one she made at an early age.
The other episode which would shape her story is related to her upbringing in Val Gardena. The valley is a living dichotomy, set in a remote place yet at the very same time open to the wonders and people of the world, overlooked by the imposing peaks of the Dolomites. It didn’t take long for competent tradesmen and inventive merchants to find a way out of the valley and start selling their wooden sculptures and toys all over the world starting from the 17th century. Truth be told, the linguistic skill of the valley denizens was also extremely helpful: the locals could speak German, Italian, and Ladin. In 1873, a school to train wood carvers was set up, and lives on to this very day in the form of the local arts high-school: there are still a good one-hundred wood carvers in Ortisei. Walk into their shops and ateliers to find a range of objects, from sacred art to small tourist knickknacks. Even Judith’s grandparents traded in the woodcarving business, and her mother still owns a toy shop. ‘I was shaped by art and toys while growing up,’ explains Judith. She completed her studies in wood carving under the wing of her father Guido. He taught her everything she wanted to know. And so, today, the best of both worlds can be seen in her workshop:
she whittles and carves beautiful creations in wood, mostly dolls and specifically the famous Val Gardena doll, with its alabaster head, its white socks, and raven black hair.
The doll was sold all over the world at the end of the 17th century as Dutch Doll or Wooden Doll, and the Dutch and British exported them to the farflung corners of the world. Even today, you can find this wooden childhood companion in museums in Tasmania or as part of the collection of former English monarch, Queen Victoria: a good twelve of them! Trade boomed over the course of the centuries, until the 1930 international financial crisis stopped the production of dolls. Forever. But in the last few years, the Val Gardena doll has made a comeback. Judith Sotriffer has given the doll a new lease on life, shaping it anew with love and creativity. The 52-year-old carver takes care of everything, from turning the body to the final layer of paint applied to the toy. A doll can take up to 100 individual steps, regardless if it’s a miniature doll or real-size version.
Over the course of the years, the carver and sculptor has become the expert on Dutch Dolls and other wooden toys from Val Gardena. More than anything else, Judith is interested in the story of the object. She finds inspiration for her work in old, dusty catalogues, books, on her travels or when visiting museums, and then gives them her own spin when creating her wooden masterpieces. Judith calls these colourful figures – often equipped with simple mechanical features – her ‘wooden objects’. After all, these aren’t toys any longer, as they’re mostly bough as collector’s items. Pinnochios, roly-poly toys, and jumping jacks are so beautiful and perfect clients simply want to show them off in their homes. Some of these objects conceal interesting stories… quite literally! Take her dolls inspired by the rotund matryoshkas which were brought over to Val Gardena by Russian workers toiling on laying down the train tracks during World War I.
Before picking up her chisel, Judith researches the history of every single object. It helps her, ‘with making the object progress, rather than leaving it as it is.’ There are tiny details which help her characters and dolls stand out despite their resemblance: the arch of their eyebrows, the cascade of curls; these are just some of the elements the artist adds spontaneously and with a deft hand. The only commonality between the mass production of toys and Judith Sotriffer’s creations is the draft inception: the steps taken to complete her work are markedly more challenging.
When she needs some distraction from the wooden joints of dolls, she delves into portraits, and carves faces or dolls inspired by people. Manual dexterity is coupled with an exceptional sense of observation and plucking out the essential details. She hones her skills during her exploratory walks in the woods, one of her favourite places. This is also where she finds pine wood, her material of choice when whittling and carving objects. A resinous tree with a wealth of branches whose wood carries its fine aroma around for some time after it’s been carved.
‘Passion drives us,’ is how Judith takes her leave, flicking the wood chippings from her working apron. She touches a button, and the roaring hum of the wood turning lathe fizzles out, replaced by the loud hammering from the nextdoor studio. Judith’s husband, Franz Canins, is working on his wooden and bronze sculptures and it suddenly becomes clear how we’ve come full circle: opposites attract as well as needing each other to be complete.