Steff Rocknak
Figurative Wood Sculpture

Article from Craft Arts International

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

Submission to Stillness
Craft Arts International, 2005
by Martina S. Anderson

The wood sculptures of Stefanie Rocknak seem to emerge out of another age, a distant place, while at the same time appearing strikingly contemporary and immediately present. The eyes beckon, but their smooth wooden surfaces emit a blankness that denies the viewer's gaze. The figures turn in on themselves, and, as the artists intends, they impel self-examination. We find it hard to look away.

For Rocknak, her pieces have a personal significance. Carved out of a wide range of woods, her figures retain the warmth of the living trees from which they are carved, while capturing the pain and emotion of the human condition. A self-taught wood carver, Rocknak works with the medium in its natural state, using the knots, cracks, discoloration and grain to enhance the expressiveness of her pieces. Her quest for meticulous detail is aided by a technique she developed, whereby wood oil (such as lemon oil or feeders finish) is used to soften the wood while she carves. The oil does not affect the final finish since Rocknak sands back the surface. In fact, some of the finer details, which give the pieces their distinctness, are brought out by the sanding process.

Although Rocknak was a relatively "late starter" in this field, she has met with her share of success. Her work has appeared in shows and galleries across upstate New York, New England and California, as well as in New York City. She has also been featured in national and international publications and won numerous awards. The piece that has brought Rocknak the most recent attention is Figurehead, which depicts a black man on a ship's prow. The sculpture is made from iroko wood donated by Sierra Leone to the Amistad America Project, which constructed a replica of the Amistad, the slave ship that was featured in Steven Spielberg's 1997 film. A powerful and striking piece, Figurehead was featured in the touring exhibition, "Captive Passage: The Transatlantic Slave Trade and the Making of the Americas," which opened at the Mariners' Museum in Newport News, Virginia in 2002. It was recently on display at The Anacostia Museum and Center for African American History and Culture at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C, before traveling to New York City and St. Louis, Missouri.

As many of Rocknak's pieces do, Figurehead plays with expectations and tradition. Figureheads are traditionally women, dragons or sea serpents; they stand as a ship's proud emblem. Historically, sailors protected them at all cost, based on the belief that the ship's fate was tied to that of the figurehead. Hence Figurehead represents a slave struggling to escape, the proud emblem of the captives who rebelled, captured the Amistad, and eventually gained freedom. The sculpture stands as a reminder of the captives' resilience but also of the captors' cruelty--simultaneously an emblem of pride and shame.

Although Rocknak has been interested in wood carving since childhood, she did not start carving in earnest until after graduating from college. As an American Studies and Art History Major (with a concentration in painting) at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, she spent a semester abroad at the Tyler School of Art in Rome. Although she was in Rome to study painting, she was enthralled by medieval and Renaissance sculpture, particularly works by Michelangelo, Donatello and Bernini.

On returning home, she began to study philosophy and sculpt in earnest. She received her Ph. D in 1998 from Boston University and is now an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Hartwick College in Oneonta, New York, where she specializes in epistemology, philosophy of mind, analytic philosophy and logic.

Rocknak feels her carving is a release from the hyper-rational work of philosophy--her sculptures result from emotive expressions that seem to flow from her without thought. Though not self-consciously working in the style of another age, Rocknak is critical of "trendy" contemporary art, much of which is inaccessible and contrived. "My work is unapologetically representational and shuns elite, intellectual interpretation. I strive for immediacy, and hope that my figures speak directly to the viewer." When asked about technology's influence on the skill of artists, Stefanie Rocknak replied: "Nothing will replace the intimacy of the human touch. Art isn't about technique, but about ourselves." That said, the motorcycle-riding leather clad professor returned to her studio to live like a gerbil among the wood chips.

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