Nora Engels is a gifted sculptor as well as a talented mountain biker. The Engadin offers her a stage on which to use her skills in style.
The mountain biker zips down the twists and turns of the Foppettas Trail above Champfèr. She flies through the air as if she has grown wings during her descent. She plays with the terrain, leans into the banked corners until nearly horizontal, and reacts with lightning speed to whatever the trail throws at her. Nora Engels’ pleasure is clear from every movement. She rides the flow trails on the slopes of the Corviglia like a professional surfer – with a certain home advantage. Nora is from Bever, and it was on the bike trails of the Engadin that she first learned to ride.
Two hours later, Nora is in her workshop in Samedan. Instead of a mountain bike helmet, she is now sporting the kind you see foresters wear. Chunky hearing protectors cover her ears, safety goggles shield her eyes, and instead of carbon handlebars she is holding a screaming chainsaw. Nora is a wood carver by profession, and she is using the chainsaw to rough-cut a new sculpture from the trunk of a Swiss stone pine tree. She does this with the help of three different chainsaws that would normally be wielded by burly foresters. But the slim woman from the Engadin controls the heavy machines with remarkable ease.
“Good fitness is an advantage for a wood sculptor,” she says with understatement. “Dealing with heavy tree trunks, and also chainsaws, is tough physical work.” And here, too, her mountain biking puts her in good stead.
It is no coincidence that Nora practises her craft in the Engadin. After living in the Bernese Oberland for several years, she returned to her home region – for love, in a sense. Love of Swiss stone pines. In the world of wood sculpture, this tree’s timber, with its complex structures and many knots, is regarded as having a mind of its own. But also aside from art, the Swiss stone pine has played a significant role in Nora’s life. As a child, she grew up in a house extensively furnished with Swiss stone pine. Later, in her original occupation of joiner, this timber was her main working material. And when she goes mountain biking, the unmistakable tree always forms part of her experience of nature. But the moment Nora really fell in love with the Swiss stone pine was years ago when she made an alphorn with the native wood herself – an instrument that she continues to play to this day.
Back in her workshop, Nora now swaps her chainsaws for chisels. She starts carving. Hundreds of different versions of sharp implements fill her tool cupboard. Nora uses them to create the fine details, a hallmark of her sculptures. An eagle, for example, with feathers, eyes and talons that look remarkably authentic. A child with features straight from real life. Or a bust with striking anatomical precision. Many of the works by the young artist are depictions in wood of nature, from which Nora also draws her inspiration. Usually on one of the many bike trails: “When I’m on my mountain bike,” she says, “I can really switch off and let go.” Her ideas often arise out of this carefree frame of mind. Sometimes, when she is biking, she discovers material for her other speciality: sculptures from old driftwood. “The actual work of art is created by nature. The wood, the shapes and the weathering are already sculptures in their own right.” Nora completes them, working on the details and giving the timber new form; she takes the washed-up pieces of dead wood and breathes new life into them.
Nora’s love of nature is one reason she is always happy to climb on her bike; finding inspiration for her work is another. But adrenalin also plays an important role. “I like going to my limits,” she says. Riding a tricky section of trail, performing a jump, mastering a tight corner without dismounting – and above all leaving her comfort zone, time and again. In this respect, her sculpting has a lot in common. “Working with the big chainsaw is a physical challenge for me. But that’s exactly also the appeal. When you overcome your own limits, it’s deeply satisfying.” And she finds this satisfaction on the trails just like in her workshop.
By now, a night-time tranquillity has settled on the Engadin. Stars are twinkling brightly in the cloudless sky; working lamps illuminate Nora’s workshop. The unmistakable aroma of Swiss stone pine hangs in the air like a pleasant perfume. The sculpture is clearly taking form: a person is coming to life. “It’s going to be a child,” Nora says. “I enjoy doing children. They have something carefree, something natural about them.” Nora’s way of working with her different chisels seems just as playful as her style on the banked turns along the flow trails. “I have the anatomy in my head, up to a point,” she says, “the rest is intuition.” Nora steadily gives shape to the child: she is completely engrossed in her craft. And when, in a couple of days’ time, she sits in front of the finished sculpture and observes it from a distance, a certain smile will appear on Nora’s face. The satisfied smile she also had in Champfèr, at the end of the Foppettas Trail, when she dismounted from her bike, exhausted but happy.