Semenov, the Home of Matryoshkas

Semenov, central Russia.

Aamu with Master wood turner Igor Napilov at his workshop in Semenov, Russia.
Matryoshka making is turning 100 years this year 2022, and our collaboration with the masters at Semenov, is turning 10 years, since 2012.

This factory is more like a fairytale story than a factory. Everyone here are like characters in a story book. A dog named Arieta († 22.5.2015) with a cool black tongue was the factory symbol for many years. There is also a cat with a very soft fur living inside the factory getting all kinds of love from the masters.

Galia is the spiritual boss here: she is the head master of wood carving department with greatest heart and smile. She has been working here for more than 40 years. There is another Galia who makes always delicious lunch when we visit. There is a saying in Russia that if you stand between two person with same names, you get good luck. So, we always try to stand between the two Galias.

Olga, the daughter of painting master who paints the scarf and shawl of Matryoshka dolls speaks beautiful English and reminds Kate Winslet. She helped us for communication in the beginning so much that all could understand well who we are and why we are interested in Russia. We couldn’t meet her often after she became a mom. If she would have come to join us, her mom, the master painter, would have to stay home with Olga’s baby.

They once organized a school of Matryoshka painting for us. First, the master of face expression came to teach us how to draw the eyes, the nose, and the round face. She used only black color. She had big and black eye glasses. It was very difficult because the eyes and mouth always make a certain expression. To achieve a great Matryoshka, one should be able to draw this face without any personal feeling.

Second, Olga’s mom came to teach how to paint the scarf and shawl. We used very thick brush to create a smooth surface. Then rolling a little piece of cotton into a kind of fabric stamp we made this surface very rich. Then the master of the rose came. She was wearing a woollen vest with rose pattern. We learned how to draw the rose without looking at the sample rose but memorizing the lines and the rhythm
of the hand. It was not easy. There are many grand masters, mainly ladies, who paint very traditional Matryoshkas using aniline dyes which has been the symbol of Russia. This factory’s Matryoshkas are one of the most beautiful and traditional ones among the many different Matryoshka models.

There are also many young practicing masters who just graduated art school located in the next block. They use mainly gouache painting and paint rather modern Matryoshkas. Oksana was the amazing painting master among the many masters in this young masters group. She always had amazing hair and clothing. Recently she changed her career and became a hairdresser.

There is also one grand old man who makes all the tools on the factory ground floor. He is a metal smith hammering metal everyday to fulfill the need. He looks handsome and strong. He was 80 years old when we first met him 5 years ago. Sveta and Oleg are representing this big group of people of ‘Semenovskaya Rospis’. Oleg as a manager and Sveta as the deputy manager. Sveta and Oleg’s son Denis is also working here after graduating from a university in Moscow.

When we visit this fairytale factory, first by airplane for 3 hours, train for 4 hours, one night sleeping in Nizhniy Novgorod and finally local train for 1 hour, we first sit around the kitchen table under a gigantic apple painting by Oksana. Masters bring their pickled mushrooms, pies and omelets to share a warm moment with us. Then Sveta always asks. ‘Chai ili Kofiye’ (Coffee or Tea)?

After some years of our togetherness, master Galia commented. ‘Your design is completely new and we’ve never made such before but we feel they belong to us.’ It was the most beautiful compliment we got, and became one of the guide lines we keep in our minds when we work with other cultures.

Master Wood turner Igor Napilov. Matryoshkas are made of soft Lime (Linden) wood.

Before the dolls are painted, Alexandra coats them in potato starch. The startch creates a good surface for the paint work.

Master painter Lena Napilova shows how the master painters work. Often one master paints only a part (flowers or the scarf) of the doll before handing it to the next master.

Lastly the dolls are lacquered. Several layer are applied for a perfect gloss.

The dolls are bathed in potato starch. This creates a surface where the paint can be applied sharply.
Each master paints only a part, like the flowers, or the face or the scarf, before handing it to the next master.
Adding last details.
Lacquer is applied in several layers.

Work of the Masters