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Judith Sotriffer

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:

Judith Sotriffer

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.

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(*1968 in Oberösterreich) arbeitet als freiberufliche Journalistin und Autorin. Würde man sie fragen, was sie an ihrem Beruf am liebsten mag, würde sie vermutlich sagen: die Menschen. Das Neugierig-Sein, das Dazulernen, das Kein-Tag-ist-wie-der-andere. Zu ihren bevorzugten Themen gehören Porträts über Land & Leute, Natur & Architektur. Judith Sotriffer lernte sie vor Jahren im Zuge einer Recherche kennen. Und freut sich noch immer, wenn am Display ihres Telefons ein „0039" aufscheint.

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