Steff Rocknak
Figurative Wood Sculpture

Article from Arts and Antiques

text only: the photos from the article
are not included here

Stefanie Rocknak
Arts and Antiques, 2003
by Patti Verbanas


"Why do art at all?" poses philosopher-sculptor Stefanie Rocknak. "Quite simply, because we have no other choice. My work is meant to capture certain self-evident aspects of the human condition. Wood sculpture has become the antithesis of my philosophical work; it purposely repels elite, intellectual interpretation." Though Rocknak began sculpting in the late 1980s, she experienced an artistic epiphany a decade later while in Vienna working on her doctorate in philosophy. In her spare time, she visited the city’s museums and was astounded when she encountered Germanic medieval wood sculptures, which seemed strangely familiar. "It was the first time I saw something similar to what I had been doing," she says. "They had a stylized way of sculpting. I see my work as a continuum of this traditional woodcarving."


Although Rocknak uses many types of wood--which she either buys or finds--she prefers basswood. "It's a soft, light, incredibly dense wood," she explains. "It's what the medieval artists used to get their detail." She also enjoys exploring new woods, even types that are more challenging, such as eucalyptus or cherry. "Eucalyptus is extremely hard and heavy. For example, 'Woman in a Crowd' is 20 inches tall and probably 35 pounds, but the grain is remarkable. Basswood has no grain, so that's something I have to sacrifice."


"I'll leave a piece of wood in my house to look at for awhile before I decide what I'll do with it," Rocknak says. This self-taught sculptor approaches her pieces in the tradition of the old masters--studying the raw material and then trying to free the figure within. She begins by drawing a rough outline on the wood--to "ensure that I don't inadvertently cut an arm off or something"--but her goal is to become more fluid. "I want to get to the point where I stop thinking, 'This is what a hand looks like and this is how it relates to the arm.' Then I can think more about the technique." Rocknak doesn't employ any electric tools--just chisels, a rawhide hammer and micro tools for details. Each piece typically takes several months to complete, worked in around her day job as assistant professor of philosophy.


"My father was a high school art teacher, a watercolorist and worked as a cabinetmaker, and my mother refinished furniture, so I've been creating art since before I can remember," Rocknak says. Trained in figurative painting and drawing, she might not have started sculpting if it were not for a semester spent in Rome in 1987. There she studied the marble sculpture of Michelangelo, Bernini and Donatello. "Donatello's work has a kind of quiet sorrow to it, and I see that in the medieval work as well,” she says. "The emotion is very powerful." Inspired, upon her return home she found a half-rotten oak log in a friend's yard and started carving her first work, "George."


"It was serendipitous," Rocknak says about the inclusion of "Figurehead" in the traveling exhibition "Captive Passage: The Transatlantic Slave Trade and the Making of the Americas," organized by the Mariners' Museum in Newport News, Virginia. Rocknak had already created "Figurehead"--carved from iroko wood from Sierra Leone that was left over from the reconstruction of the slave ship Amistad--when her mother spotted an ad for the Mariners' Museum and suggested that she show it there. "I e-mailed the director, and he requested 'Figurehead' for the show," she says. "It was as easy as that." Inclusion in this exhibition, which will travel until 2007, has given Rocknak exposure in top museums, such as the Smithsonian.


Rocknak is a figurative sculptor. "I want to explore the different ways people look and carry themselves," she says.


Rocknak's current project is a limewood triptych titled "The Philosopher, the Academic and the Artist"--"a political statement about the politics that go on in academia," she says. "To a degree, it's a self-portrait. However, it's more than that: It's a commentary. 'The Academic' is grotesque. It's all about people with their labels and degrees, the power trips they can be on. 'The Philosopher' is about the real spirit of philosophy, which is trying to give birth to an idea and constantly being in that uncomfortable state of intellectual pregnancy: You think you have it figured out, but you don't quite have it figured out. 'The Artist,' which I haven't done yet, will probably be a woman with an infant, in the crude respect that you can actually produce something tangible."


The International Art Contest, first prize in the mixed-media category, 2002; Northeastern Woodworker's Association Showcase, judge's commendation in the carving category, 2001.

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