Summer 2005; New York. When the piece is small enough, I
almost always carve in my lap. I think I picked this habit
up in Japan.

I was about 10 when my father and I made this wood
sculpture; it is my very first carving. One of my favorite
comic books was a tattered copy of the Iliad, from the old Classics Illustrated Comic Book Series (along with equally beaten-up
copies of Frankenstein and The Last of the Mohicans). So I
decided to put an Iliad-like helmet on
this piece, which was convenient, because I distinctly 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, to where they are now. I learned a tremendous amount about the basics of carving,
as well as the ABC's of facial structure by
working with him on this project

My older brother Russ made this robot in my grandfather's
wood shop when he was around seven. I was about four
at the time, and extremely jealous that he could use a hammer
and nails. This is one of the first wood sculptures I remember
seeing, and I have always loved it. Russ is now a graphic
designer and photographer.

1970; New Jersey. I was four when I horned my way into
this photo. My mother was taking a picture of the desk and table
that she had just stripped and refinished (she also
refinished the "work" chair that I am using in the
photo posted above).

My oldest brother Scott recently made this dinghy-
bassinet for his daughter Stryker, and now, his new
son Conrad. This is Scott's own design, and as is
the case with all of his work, it is very detailed and
scrupulously finished.

After completely refinishing 4 old houses (two in New Jersey
and two in Maine) my parents decided to build a new home.
They designed and built this one in Maine in the 90's, hiring
carpenters to do the major work, but doing much
of the finish work themselves, e.g. the floors and cabinetry.

Close up of Hegewald's "Dead Christ" (early 1600's). I was
touched by the mixture of strength and
vulnerability in this figure (reprinted here with the permission of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria)

Steff Rocknak: Figurative Wood Sculpture

About the Work

Although I was born and raised in the United States, there is no doubt that my sculpture has been significantly influenced by my trips to Europe. In fact, having been trained as a painter, I may not have started sculpting had it not been for the semester I spent in Rome in 1987—or at the very least, it may have taken me longer to realize that I prefer three dimensions over two. While there, I was especially impressed by traditional marble sculpture, particularly, the work done by three classical giants: Michelangelo, Dontatello and Bernini. But never once did I entertain the (currently popular) idea that their work is superficial, trivial, or even trite, primarily because it has been so popular, particularly with the masses. So, quite content with the vulgar appeal of representational sculpture, I returned to the U.S. and began working in wood, which was the only medium available to me; I made George at this time. But in the back of my mind, I was certain that I would eventually work in some kind of stone. However, over the next few years, I grew attached to the warmth and unpredictability of the wood. I was hooked.

This shouldn’t surprise me since I have been around woodworkers for as long as I can remember—while growing up, my mother meticulously refinished countless pieces of antique furniture and for a while, my father worked as a professional carpenter (as well as an art teacher). My grandfather also had a wood shop at his boat yard (Rocknak’s Yacht Basin) in Forked River, New Jersey. In between swinging on the travel lift and sniffing around the docks, my brothers and I would sneak into his shop and create giant piles of saw dust and then blow them up with a bike pump, volcano style. My brother Russ still has the wood robot that he made during this time. And after my family moved to Maine in 1972, I was fortunate enough to get to know Ted Hanks, a master bird-carver. I especially remember picking up a life-size body of one his birds before the wings were attached and thinking, how did he do this?

I returned to Europe in 1997 for a four-month fellowship at the Institüt fur die Wissenschaft vom Menschen in Vienna, Austria. During this period, I primarily worked on my Ph.D. thesis in philosophy, but during my free time, I cruised most of the museums in Vienna, where I was exposed to Germanic Medieval wood sculpture for the first time. I was especially impressed by a small Christ figure in the Kunstkammer section of the Kunsthistorisches Museum: (“Dead Christ”) by Zacharias Hegewald (1596-1639; Dresden). I also had the opportunity to see an exhibition of a carved wood alter (1509) at the Österreichen Galarie Belvedere. In both cases, I was shocked by the degree of detail and emotional integrity; these artists had pushed figurative expression in wood to a level that I had never seen before. While in Vienna and with this tradition in mind, I carved “Old Man.”

Just a couple of years later (1998-99), I was fortunate enough to receive a DAAD (Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdients) to study Heidegger with Dr. Heribert Boeder in Osnabrück, Germany. While there, I saw a lot of Medieval wood sculpture, particularly in Lüneburg’s Town Hall, which is filled with fantastically detailed pieces dating back to the 1500’s. I also took in a Dürer exhibit at St. Marien-Kirche in Osnabrück. With these influences in mind, (as well as Hegewald’s “Dead Christ”) I completed two small sculptures while in Osnabrück: “The Crucifix” and “The Philosopher.” Not only was I trying to recreate the Medieval detail in these pieces, but the passion. I was also interested in developing a forced perspective with the background faces of “The Philosopher,” as Dürer does so successfully with the architecture in, at least, Antonius vor der Stadt (1519) and Das Meerwunder (1498).

Finally, as a philosopher, let me return to my initial comments about the marble-carving giants, i.e. Michelangelo, Bernini, Donatello; particularly, my remarks concerning their popular appeal. I have to confess that I am very suspicious (if not occasionally contemptuous) of gratuitous intellectual complexity—an affliction that plagues academia as well as the art world. As a result, some, but certainly not all, conceptual art leaves me cold. So my figures, quite intentionally, are immediate and obvious; ideally, they do not need a theory to do their talking. And that’s precisely why I haven’t spun out a theoretical artist’s statement here, but instead, indulged myself in an autobiographical account of my favorite influences. Eventually, I hope to crawl out from under all of them, but not in attempt to destroy the past, or to ignore it, but instead, to absorb it in a way that makes it my own.