Feature Mondays - Stefanie Rocknak in profile archive
Monday 27 February 2017
Philosopher, professor, carver: Stefanie Rocknak isn’t one to take it easy. Perhaps we shouldn’t have been too surprised, then, when she managed to squeeze in a tutorial for Woodcarving between taking lectures at Hartwick College in Oneonta, New York. Indeed her talents are as impressive as that of her acclaimed artwork, The Triathlete, comprising The Swimmer, The Runner and The Biker, which readers will recognise from our ‘taster’ feature last issue. And given the chance to find out more about the New Jersey-born professor’s extracurricular activity as a professional sculptor, we made sure to take copious notes (after all, we didn’t want to come bottom of the class).
What soon becomes clear is that Stefanie’s capacity for hard work runs in the family as does her love of wood and the process of creating pieces. “I was very fortunate to have grown up surrounded by people who enjoy making things,” she explains. “My dad worked as a high school art teacher for a while, as well as a cabinet maker and as a carpenter, and my mom was constantly restoring furniture and making things such as sweaters and dolls. Also, one of my parents’ good friends, Ted Hanks, was a well-known bird carver. If you have been to the [outdoor clothing and equipment store] L.L. Bean’s mothership in Maine, you will probably have seen his wooden ducks flying out of the store’s trout pond. So, at an early age, I saw what could be done in wood, beyond forts and toy guns. At the time, though, Ted’s work seemed like magic.”
Completed in 2007, The Swimmer was carved from a single piece of basswood and is slightly larger than life-size. Alongside The Runner and The Biker, it forms part of The Triathlete
A close-up of Gut Check with pencil markings evident on his face. The work is part of Stefanie’s intention to explore a ‘non-ideal physical type’ and stands in contrast to the athleticism of The Triathlete
One of the earliest wooden sculptures she saw was by her older brother Russ, then seven. And her eldest brother Scott also sculpts. Rocknak’s first carving, meanwhile, was a collaborative effort with her father when she was aged 10. “One of my favourite comic books was
a tattered copy of the Iliad, from the old Classics Illustrated comic book series. So I decided to put an Iliad-like helmet on this piece, which was convenient because I recall being terrified at the thought of figuring out the correct shape of a head. The nose that I initially carved was very primitive, and my father helped me to shape it, as well as the mouth. I learned a tremendous amount about the basics of carving by working with him on this project.”
Detail of The Swimmer’s hand
With her creative interest clearly obvious and her talent developing, the junior-school age Stefanie headed to Rome for a year to study painting only to return to the States with a different focus. “I found that I was much more interested in sculpture. I spent hours drawing and studying the work of the greats, including Donatello, Bernini and Michelangelo. I’ve never ‘formally’ studied sculpture, that is, taken a sculpture class, but I have certainly studied sculpture. I returned to Europe 10 years later, as a Junior Fellow at the Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen in Vienna, Austria. I spent most mornings working on my Ph.D. thesis, but in the afternoons, I toured the many wonderful museums in Vienna, where I gravitated towards the medieval wood sculpture. I was impressed by the figures’ playful, stylised hair, particularly when juxtaposed to their calculated and dignified expressions. In 2006, after presenting a paper on [US philosopher and logician Willard Van Orman] Quine at a philosophy conference in Kazimierz, Poland, I made a beeline for the medieval wing at the National Museum in Warsaw. I was floored by what I saw. The carved figures in this collection are, for the most part, very stylised, but not in some kind of contrived contemporary effort to be ‘different’, ‘new’ or ‘shocking’. Rather, they are wrought with an almost tortured emotion. The suffering was so visceral, so genuine, and beautiful, that I literally gasped. I got so close to the work that by the time I left I had accrued my own personal entourage of security guards.”
Stefanie has since gone on to exhibit her own work in galleries and museums across the US and Europe, garnering critical plaudits and winning many awards, including the 2011 $10,000 Biennial Hammerschlag prize and, in 2012, the commission to create a permanent statue of US writer Edgar Allan Poe in Boston (see panel on page 43). Her more recent solo exhibitions have included last year’s ‘The Royal Family’ at The New York Sculptors Guild Gallery in Brooklyn. This featured The King, a piece completed in February 2008, and The Queen, finished in August 2010. Both are slightly larger than life-size, with the former carved from two pieces of basswood (Tilia americana) and the latter carved in laminated basswood. “Rocknak’s larger-than-life sculptures are bound by the dark imagination of their creator, and preside over a fantastical meticulously sculpted dysfunctional family,” said a spokesperson for the gallery at the time. “‘The King’ appears to be entirely consumed with himself as ‘The Queen’ looks on with disappointment, if not contempt... The human figure, with all its imperfections, immediately speaks to us through naked ambition…”. That Stefanie was able to convey such emotion is little wonder given that she herself says: “I have been drawing and sculpting people for as long as I can remember; the human form speaks to me like nothing else.” Added to that are the hundreds of hours she often spends getting the details of a sculpture just right, be it the ripples of the water in The Swimmer or the elegant floral designs on the dress sleeves of The Queen.
Side view of The Queen with its intricate floral designs
The King, formed using two pieces of basswood, was finished in 2008
The works reflect Stefanie’s assertion that her sculpture is not an explicit argument. “For the most part, it’s an emotional reaction to the world, similar to say, the horror we might feel when we see a car wreck. Although this kind of reaction can be construed as a kind of statement, it’s really not something you can argue with, just as you generally don’t, or shouldn’t, argue with someone about her reaction to the car wreck, even if it’s wildly inappropriate. Similarly, the person who has the reaction does not, generally speaking, need to explain it – you either get it or you don’t. This is partly why I don’t feel the need to write theoretical ‘artist statements’, that is, philosophical explanations of my work. My figures are my almost involuntary reaction to the ‘car wreck’. You either get them or you don’t.
Bostonians have taken the life-sized bronze Poe to heart
The Academic and The Philosopher, 12in-high companion carvings from lime
“On good days, I’d like to think that my sculptures are a kind of visual chorus, where the lead singer is life itself. I’m thinking of the London Bach Children’s Choir in the Rolling Stones’ song ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’. Towards the end, when the choir moves back into the song, the turmoil and grit of [Mick] Jagger’s voice is translated into a beautiful kind of dignity. It’s almost primal; for me, it’s like seeing those figures in Warsaw all over again. And again, you either get it or you don’t: the Stones’ song does not need an ‘artist statement’ to make its point.”
On a practical note, Stefanie explains how until a few years ago she carved mostly from green basswood logs. For her last two pieces, however, she has used laminated blocks of kiln-dried basswood. “This means I can make bigger pieces,” she explains, “and not be confined by the shape of a given log. To do this, I build the piece up by clamping and gluing large blocks together. To carve it down, I use a variety of tools. For instance, I rough cut with an electric chainsaw. I don’t do any actual sculpting with the saw; I just use it to quickly remove sections that I know I don’t need. Next, I use hand tools until the whole figure is almost entirely roughed out. At that point, I’ll use a power sander, although I will continue to intermittently use hand tools until the piece is finished. To bring out the grain, I do an extensive amount of hand sanding, all the way up to 2000 grit.”
Stefanie working on the hand of Gut Check
Given this dedication to her work, does she have a favourite piece? “I always tend to like the piece I am working on the best,” she reveals.“Right now, I am finishing up the biggest piece I have ever made, ‘Gut Check’. It’s a running figure, from the waist up, and it was inspired by the Edgar Allan Poe sculpture. I wanted to create a figure that moved like the Poe piece, but was motivated by fear; the figure is running because it has to run, not because it wants to run. I also wanted to explore a non-ideal physical type.”
As to the future, Stefanie might go back to thinking small for a while – at least for her carving. “As soon as I finish ‘Gut Check’, I am going to make three or four small pieces, probably high-relief faces. I might make coloured frames for them as well. ‘Gut Check’ has taken forever, so I need to change my pace up for a bit. This helps me to keep things fresh.” Her previous smaller pieces have included 12in-high companion carvings The Academic and The Philosopher.
In all other respects, Stefanie will continue to think very life-sized. On top of her existing commitments, this summer will see her teaching ‘Introduction to Woodcarving’ at Peters Valley School of Crafts, adding to previous craft classes on ‘The Figure’ at Tennessee Tech University and ‘Philosophy of Drawing’ at Hartwick. We’d quite happily trade places with any students – assuming, that is, we’ve made the grade this time round.
The Poe commission
Perhaps best known for literary classics The Tell-Tale Heart, The Raven, and The Fall of the House of Usher, Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) is one of Boston’s best-known sons. Stefanie’s 5ft 8in bronze sculpture of the writer stands in Edgar Allan Poe Square at the intersection of Boylston Street and Charles Street South, just two blocks north of where Poe was born. It was chosen after the city launched a competition to commemorate the author’s life shortly after his bicentennial in 2009. Rocknak triumphed against 264 artists – drawn from 42 US states and 13 countries – who applied to create the life-size sculpture after a five-member committee, empowered by the Boston Art Commission, selected her design.
Stefanie’s original 19in basswood model
“This was my first major public art piece, and my first bronze,” says Stefanie. “It was digitally enlarged from a wooden model that I carved in 2012, and was permanently installed in Poe Square in Boston in October 2014. This figure captures a complicated Poe: he was born in Boston, but he had a very contentious relationship with the Boston literary establishment. Poe geographically associated these writers with the frog pond in the Boston Common; he thought that they croaked like frogs. And thus, my figure dismisses them (and the frog pond behind him) as he walks towards the house where he was born. The basswood model [19in tall] took about 10 weeks to make, but only because I was under a strict deadline. Normally, I take a lot longer to finish a piece, especially one that is as complicated as the Poe figure.” The statue was warmly received by modern Bostonians on its unveiling. “Poe is one of the most influential writers ever born in the City of Boston,” said its then Mayor Thomas Menino at the time. “And I’m so pleased to see this wonderful tribute come to fruition. The statue is full of life and motion, and is sure to inspire residents and future writers alike for generations to come.”
(PHOTOS COURTESY OF STEFANIE ROCKNAK)