A conversation with Willy Verginer

The artist opens the doors of his studio and tells all aspects of his work



Odles, Steles, Paia and Planadices are four Ladin words that tell about Willy Verginer’s work. In this ancient language there is a term for each stage of woodworking, a certain phase given by the human hand, since the wooden sculpture is deeply rooted in local tradition.

W. Odles are the needles of trees, and the Odle are also the ‘pale mountains’ between Val di Funes and Val Gardena. Steles are the largest pieces falling off when sculpting. Paia is the finest one, a sort of wood dust. Planadices is a larger part made by the plane. Any piece, any wood waste has a name here.

Q. How did your career start?

A. I am from Val Gardena, where I attended the art school. My aim was to be an art teacher, but I changed my mind during school. I trained in a workshop and I really worked my way up. And for many years I also carved religious sculptures, as they are traditionally made in my region. More than twenty years ago I embarked on my journey as a contemporary artist because I had the ambition to create my own works. Ever since I made sacred sculptures for hire, I have created something that was just mine.

Q. What makes your work different?

A. The most typical thing about my work is painting, maybe because I studied it in the art school and still have it. I have combined the sculptural tradition of Val Gardena with painting.

Q. How does your creative process take shape?

A. I always start from drawing, using simple yet valuable sketches; drawing is important for the development of ideas and the design of a sculpture. An idea starts to exist only if it is put on paper, then it begins to take shape. As a sculptor I also have problems with immobility and other issues that are solved by drawing.

Q. Does your work have something of Val Gardena’s tradition? And what inspires your art?

A. My sculptures are based on tradition mainly for the technical basis, but my inspiration and creative process are not linked to the place where I live. Maybe I am mostly inspired by news stories and books. I like reading. My next exhibition has also been imagined and set up starting from a book. Sometimes I collect ideas even while I am driving on the highway, in those dull moments when thoughts roam free and unconditional.

Q. How long does it take to create a wooden sculpture? How long is the working process?

A. This is the ambivalent thing. Sculpture takes a long time, and this is both negative and positive. A new idea or the desire to do something new often goes faster than the work you actually do. However, time allows for a better reflection and makes it possible to add personal elements. Time allows you to change ideas or concepts, add or remove them, so sculpture consists of much more thought and reasoning than a precipitous artistic activity.

Q. What is the relationship between art and craftsmanship?

A. Craftsmanship is currently making a great comeback in art. I could see that when my work was exhibit- ed in Detroit four years ago. I got to interact with many young people who were fascinated by a manual skill that has been lost in many big cities. We inherited it from craftsmanship – and they thought that the relationship with master craftsmen was a wonderful opportunity for artists, while in our region, until a few years ago, craftsmanship was conceived in a diminutive sense, like something that had nothing to do with art. Today things have changed, the knowledge of manual work gives a lot of freedom to artistic creation and opens up possibilities.

The essential ingredient in artistic creation is obviously concept, but manual skills are helpful.

Q. While you stick to tradition with regard to technique, does the pictorial element takes the form of innovation?

A. I cannot see any relationship between painting and tradition, especially in my way of painting sculptures. My relationship with wood is close as it is such a lively and warm material, with its grain… I love wood, its endless possibilities but also its technical problems and obstacles. It forces me to think and have a particular attitude. When I start a new project, it is like starting a mechanism. I immediately think about chances and limits; everything needs to be planned somehow. On the contrary, painting represents the fundamental creative aspect, as it defines the work, giving it a more alienating effect and inviting the viewer to ask questions. I do not want to explain anything with painting, but it conveys a message and takes the work to an artistic expression level. Naturalistic painting adds nothing to sculpture, while my way of painting makes the work rise conceptually.

Q. Do the colours you use have a symbolic value?

A. Colour often has a symbolic value. I often use the range of colours according to symbolism or in rela- tion to the message I want to convey, but this is not a rule. Sometimes I also use an opposite colour to surprise the viewer, as I want those who look at my works to be free and think for themselves, applying their vision. Each person has one’s own cultural field, and I like the message of a work being not so clear but containing various hints. A work can have many interpretations, to understand and love it.

Q. Your work actually features a disconnection between realistic representation and almost paradoxical, imaginary situations. Is that voluntary?

A. My largest effort and research focus on not tying myself to the naturalistic representation of figures, but on giving something more through a dreamlike study, or better an absurd one, and not an imaginary one. This is because I often see real yet absurd situations, which stimulate and influence my work very much.

Q. Can we say that you have developed a poetics of paradox?

A. Yes, paradox is also an inspiration for me. For example, the project about the donkey with the tearful child and the golden poo, is based on the crisis starting in America with the banking collapse. This world and the whole connected system were so absurd that they made me reproduce an equally ab- surd situation, starting from a really existing fact, a social problem.

Q. Did you say that even the news stories inspire a sort of narration?

A. Yes, my work is very narrative, but always very vague, not explicit. Who stands in front of one of my works should have the opportunity to distinguish or imagine another story. I would also like to stimulate reasoning and for this reason I leave this unknown factor in it.

Q. For some years now, you have been dealing with ecology and the environment in your works. Is it something you feel close?

A. Ecology has been a strong theme in my work, especially in recent years. Since I live in a beautiful valley, I am close to the mountains and the environment. So, I perceive it as the most important problem in our society, more serious than the pandemic and other evils that we suffer every day personally or through the media. In my recent works, however, although they still contain reference to nature, I have followed other directions, as artists should evolve and not tie themselves on a single theme.

Q. And what did you focus on in these latest works?

A. I was looking for innovative ideas and I came across a book by Julio Cortázar, a cult book entitled ‘Rayuela.’ It is peculiar because it can be read in both directions, from the last page to the first one and vice versa. I was impressed and fascinated because it is highly stimulating, simply thanks to its small pages. Each new work and theme I deal with slowly come to the surface and proceed with a highly creative period. It is the moment in which I am now.

‘Rayuela’ is the Spanish term for hopscotch, an ancient game existing in many cultures. Kids outline an ideal map on the ground, which starts from the earth and reaches the sky, through intermediate stages marked with numbered squares, on which they jump according to where a pebble is thrown. I can see a metaphor of life in this game; our existence is full of these jumps and obstacles. Each of us aims to reach a sort of sky. I am happy I can display it in the wonderful spaces of Raffaelli Art Studio, in Trento.

Q. It is not the first time that you have used the metaphor of game, even ironically, in your work …

A. Yes, let us say that I portray it, but I also have a lot of fun at work. The game has always been part of what I do; even in the most ecological projects, the representative part always features a kind of game.

Q. And despite the playful and ironic element, your works are also very poetic.

A. I hope so. Maybe the highest goal I could achieve is that my work also contains poetry.

Q. Some of your sculptures are self-portraits. What does this mean?

A. On the one hand, I like referring to me, making myself again and again. But I also see my representa- tion as the one of an average person, an ordinary man.