With the Dolomites lording over the forests of South Tyrol’s Val Gardena, it’s easy to let the mountains capture all the glory. But you would miss out on a vast world of artistic splendor if your eyes never explore beneath the peaks.
SOUTH TYROL IS A DREAM for creative types. Especially in Val Gardena. The hard-working people of this storybook land possess such celebrated craftsmanship their captivating creations adorn some of the greatest cathedrals and architectural wonders in the world.
But our discovery of these earthly talents almost didn’t happen. Not without an encouraging nudge from Mother Nature. On most outdoor adventures, bad weather is a misfortune. Yet sometimes, just sometimes, it can actually be luck in disguise. That was the case for us the day we came to love Val Gardena for far more than the majesty of its mountains.
The Call of the Mountain
The forecast said rain throughout South Tyrol. A glance out our balcony confirmed it. Clouds blushing with anger brooded upon the summits of Merano.
Our plan for the day had been to drive into Val Gardena and hike Seceda — one of the most iconic mountain scenes in the world. Seceda stirred in our imagination ever since gushing over pictures of its saw-tooth peaks looming above a sweeping Alpine pasture called Col Raiser.
We debated scrapping the hiking outing. Hopping from one winery to the next along the South Tyrolean Wine Road came up as an enticing alternative. But as much as we love wine, the call of the mountain was too hard to ignore. Who knows, we thought. Perhaps the Alpine gods will look upon us with favor and sweep away the gloom by the time we reach the village of Ortisei.
An Unexpected Discovery in Val Gardena
Less than an hour into our drive, the rain began. Softly at first, like a gardener sprinkling her flowers. Then as we turned off the A22 towards Val Gardena, the sprinkle swelled into a fire hose. We flicked the car wipers into Mach 10 and hugged the road as best we could.
By the time we arrived in Ortisei, the rain didn’t let up so we drove another 20 minutes to St. Christina. No luck. It came down even harder. We turned around. Back in Ortisei the downpour finally dwindled to a sprinkle. But the storm clouds stubbornly clung to the evergreens all along the mountain slopes. It was quite clear the Dolomities were going to be in a foul mood the rest of the day. We tossed out our hiking plans. Whatever mountainous glory lay high above the treetops was to remain a mystery to us.
As we knew next to nothing about Ortisei, we decided to venture to Brixen for the remainder of the day. Yet even under the thick canopy of clouds, the Alpine charm of Ortisei was undeniable. Timber-roofed chalets bearing balconies flush with bright geraniums revealed themselves through the morning mist. We made a note to come back and wander the village when the weather was more friendly.
But before departing, just off the road, we spotted a stunning stone studio clad in sheaths of glass allowing passersby to peer into its soul. Inside, stood hauntingly beautiful figures. Motionless, but full of life. A maroon sign on the facade said “DEUR Sculptures”. We had to check it out.
Encounters with Wood Carving Mastery
We walked into a showroom decorated from floor to ceiling with a treasure chest of artwork chiseled from wood. Deciding where to settle our gaze first was like trying to decide which rose to smell in a bouquet. Everything looked inviting. The elaborate artistry was astounding. From rows of Madonnas cradling child to hallowed angels and saints to figurines from all walks of life, the amount of talent on display rivaled a museum.
We perused the shelves studying the expert craftsmanship, but a wall adorned with crucifixes of all sizes, wood types and styles caught our eyes. Not surprising, really, since we found the heartfelt devotion many South Tyroleans have towards their faith endearing. They honor it in charming ways throughout the land with everything from sloped-roof wayside shrines along trails to intricately carved crucifixes hung in taverns, restaurants and lodges.
We spent some time looking over each one and were greeted in German by Nadia Demetz, DEUR Sculptures sales leader. We wrestled out some words in response. She gave us a wide, knowing smile and replied in English. Further international embarrassment averted. Nadia informed us of the price of a crucifix we liked in particular. Its weathered wood encapsulated the face of Christ with authentic sorrow. It brought to mind relics we had admired during our time in South Tyrol. We were sold.
As Nadia was packaging our purchase, she revealed the secret of Val Gardena’s creative mastery. We discovered the area is often referred to as the “Valley of Woodcarvers” as sculpting is the chief occupation of many residents. She relayed the wood carving tradition in Val Gardena began in the 1600s by the Ladin people. With farming not possible in the winter, families passed time carving toys, religious figurines and tools.
This cultural heritage fascinated us. We had to know more. We asked if we could visit with her on our return visit to Ortisei to learn more about the wood carving tradition and DEUR Sculptures. Nadia said of course as she was the daughter of the owner.
The Forges of Chisel & Mallet
The mood of the mountains was much more amicable when we came back to Ortisei this past fall. All of the Alpine glory we missed on our first visit was now on full display. Clear skies prevailed throughout the morning allowing us to finally ascend and wander what very well may be the Dolomites’ greatest masterpiece: Seceda.
After our hiking outing, we returned to DEUR Sculptures to meet Nadia for a grand tour of her family business. She picked up where she left off by diving deeper into the history of wood carving in South Tyrol. Nadia stated historical documents provide evidence of two Ladin families, Tröbinger and Vinatzer, carving wood with their children as early as 1624.
The wood carvings of Val Gardena eventually found demand beyond the farmsteads as artisans traveled to nearby cities like Innsbruck, Milan, Munich and even Paris to exchange their crafts for other goods. By the late 1800s, wood carving grew into a viable source of income for many Ladin families. So much so that wood carving schools arose to formalize teaching the craft from one generation to the next. Today, the wood carvings of Val Gardena are found in all corners of the world.
⇒ See More: Discover the massive wine casks chiseled by Val Gardena woodcarvers deep within the wine cellar of Elena Walch.
DEUR Sculptures is Born
The seeds for DEUR Sculptures began in 1954 when Nadia’s grandfather, Oswald Demetz, enrolled in a carving apprenticeship. His father was a wood turner and his mother a sculptor so pursuing a wood carving career was only natural.
Oswald nourished his creative talents under a master woodcarver for 12 years. In that time, he established a renowned reputation for excellence and scrupulous attention to detail. In 1966, this hard-earned reputation led him to found DEUR Sculptures. The name of which comes from the shop he initially opened in St. Christina.
His son, Karlheinz, made it a family business by joining in 1985. Together, they grew DEUR Sculptures beyond religious art and nativity scenes to include relief wall carvings, furniture and secular figures such as clowns, folk characters, gnomes, animals and much more.
DEUR Sculptures now even creates custom carvings based on pictures or sketches they receive. These personalized pieces include life-size figures of individuals, as well as beloved pets. Nadia shared images of this custom work with us. We were awestruck. The skill it takes to chisel such uncanny resemblance from a block of wood is remarkable.
Now one of the largest wood carving companies in South Tyrol, DEUR Sculptures’ staff is made up of specialty wood carvers, painters, business managers and a sales team who promote the company’s creations around the world. Many religious institutions look to DEUR for their artwork, as well as other organizations that do not deal in the divine. Recently, the company sold a life-size nativity scene to Stiegl Brewery, which is on display in Salzburg, Austria during the Christmas season.
How a Woodcarver’s Vision Takes Form
After giving us a historical perspective, Nadia walked through the actual art of wood carving. Once DEUR selects a subject to carve it is first sculpted out of plasticine (modeling clay). This prep work takes a sculptor 2-3 days; however, the time spent is well worth it. The finished plasticine sculpture becomes the model — making carving from a block of wood much easier and greatly minimizing the risk of costly mistakes.
With a model to emulate, a woodcarver can produce a 2 ft. figurine in less than 2 weeks. But the production time frame is also dependent on the wood type used. DEUR carves a variety of wood species with the most common being pine, maple and lime.
Thanks to the abundance of pine in the Alps, the woodcarvers of Val Gardena perfected their craft over centuries using the soft wood. Nowadays with greater access to woods from all over the world, DEUR can be more selective in matching the perfect wood species for a given subject.
For example, DEUR Sculptures uses maple for smaller figures. It’s a hardwood with bright color and minimal branches — an ideal choice for chiseling details. DEUR’s grandest sculptures arise from limewood. Softer than maple with a close grain and few branches, it is less liable to warp than other hardwoods like oak or walnut. Additional wood types used, although less frequently, include chestnut, nutwood, cherry wood, ash wood and oak.
When a woodcarver finishes a piece, DEUR will either leave it in its natural state or have a painter transform the artwork with even more detail. Nadia indicated they use three different coloring styles: brown toning, oil painting or antiquing. In antiquing, the artist applies 22-karat gold foil to give the carving a more vintage appearance and appeal. Layering gold foil over a piece is called gold leafing or gilding.
A Master Woodcarver at Work
Nadia led us to a studio off of the showroom so we could watch a woodcarver in action. Upon entering, the rich aroma of fresh-cut wood instantly enveloped us. A carver stood chiseling on a block of wood suspended on a post. His eyes flashed up momentarily to politely greet us before returning to his subject with a steady rhythm of gentle knocks.
Watching him masterfully perform his artistry was riveting. It’s one thing to be moved by a finished piece of art, but to see the artist’s vision unfold before your eyes is truly powerful. We studied his mesmerizing movements as he fashioned a sorrowful Madonna from a piece of chestnut wood. The beautiful detail he chiseled left no doubt it would only take the breath of life to make the wooden Madonna a living soul.
We could have easily spent the rest of the afternoon watching the carver seemingly dance around his subject, but did not want to overstay our welcome in the studio. No one likes a voyeur lurking over your shoulder while concentrating on a work of art.
Venture into the Valley of Woodcarvers
Nadia finished our tour by sharing with us the work DEUR Sculptures has done to make their artistry more accessible worldwide. Much of her time over the last several months was spent capturing artwork imagery and descriptions for a new storefront on their website. Thousands of products can now be purchased from DEUR Sculptures’ online shop. They ship to virtually any country in the world. Each item sold includes a certificate authenticating it is handmade in South Tyrol.
Of course as impressive as their website is nothing compares to browsing their shop in Ortisei. And if you’re venturing deeper into Val Gardena, you can also visit the original DEUR Sculptures shop in St. Christina.
Stopping in either location is an enamoring introduction to the wood carving tradition of South Tyrol. With more than half the region blanketed by forest, purchasing a carving is a perfect way to bring a bit of South Tyrol into your home.
Once you leave DEUR Sculptures, you’ll not only have an incredible piece of art, but also the conviction that within the hands of their artisans, there is scarcely any limit to the beautiful forms and expressions they can carve.
We’d like to give a special thank you to Nadia for her time and for giving us a wonderful glimpse into South Tyrol’s wood carving tradition.