Steff Rocknak
Figurative Wood Sculpture

Article from Sculptural Pursuit

text only: the photos from the article
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Stefanie Rocknak:Thought Provoking Works in Wood

Sculptural Pursuit, 2003

By Nancy DeCamillis

Stefanie Rocknak started carving wood in 1988 and began showing her work ten years later. A wood sculptor and assistant professor of philosophy at Hartwick College, Oneonta, New York, Rocknak creates evocative figures in fine woods such as basswood, ebony, eucalyptus, limewood, maple, and iroko wood. As a sculptor, she says she is very emotive--she reacts--not over-thinking the process.

Rocknak experienced art and wood through her family. Her father taught art and was a cabinet maker for a time. Her mother refinished furniture, and Rocknak accompanied her to supply stores where she took in the smells, colors and textures of the wood. A local carver also impressed her as she watched him carve wood ducks.

"My father is an artist and, when I was very small, he was a high school art teacher. As a result, I was exposed to art as early as I can remember. In fact, I cannot remember not drawing or playing with clay. So there is no doubt that he had a significant influence on my desire to do art (in fact, both of my brothers are artists as well). However, I did not decide to sculpt until I returned to the United States from a semester abroad in Rome. I had been focusing on painting. Yet the work I saw in Rome had a profound impact on me; I was thoroughly seduced by the permanence of it all. There is, I think, a certain magnificence to temporal figurative expression. But when I returned to the States, I did not have access to marble, so I began to carve in wood. I've never regretted this decision--the wood is warm and refreshingly unpredictable. My later trips to Austria and Germany reinforced my choice to work with wood; Germanic Medieval woodcarving deeply impressed me."

Rocknak learns much from drawing other people's work, especially the sculptures created by past masters. She draws these pieces to understand the decisions and technical choices they made as the sculpted, and to get an overall sense of their understanding of the figure.

"My work is figurative, fairly realistic, and is modeled after the Medieval tradition of woodcarving. I think that viewers can relate to my work through their almost innate comprehension of figurative expression. The human figure inevitably moves us, and thus, the most successful figurative sculpture catches us off-guard, allowing us to see an aspect of humanity that might otherwise be veiled. I attempt to provide a somewhat uncomfortable look inside."

Rocknak says her depictions take viewers by surprise and they do react, but don't always understand the work. Take, for instance, "The Academic," part of a self-portrait triptych, which also includes "The Philosopher." Her portrayal of the academic speaks to the pretension and pomposity of that world, but the viewer does not always get this.

"Some very successful works of art have been created with the viewer specifically in mind. However, I think that genuine works of art are created because the artist simply has no other choice but to do so. In these cases, the viewer is, quite frankly, secondary; the piece is for the artist, not the viewer. In fact, works of art that are created just to be different or original are, I think contrived. But pieces that are created out of a genuine need to express one's self do inevitably, but sometimes incidentally, precipitate change--these are the most powerful pieces out there."

Rocknak's figurative sculptures have a narrative nature expressing a range of emotions from sadness to joy. The works show her compassion for her subjects in the moments of misfortune, happiness, pain, laughter, or humiliation. There is a mix of irony and empathy with her subjects, particularly in "Woman in a Crowd" and "Figurehead."

"Woman in a Crowd" was inspired by a 1970's photograph of a protest for women's rights; this woman was in the crowd seeming to be ignored, yet noticed. Rocknak wanted to capture that sense of her, her desire to be heard. She used eucalyptus wood in its natural state, still drying out. This condition led to a crack, but she worked with the crack, not avoiding it, but allowing that natural condition to enhance the pathos, the emotion of the face.

"Figurehead" is carved of iroko wood, a durable hardwood from West Africa used as shipbuilding material. The Republic of Sierra Leone's government donated the iroko wood to Amistad America, Inc. for the construction of the freedom schooner "Amistad" (a sailing vessel used as a slave ship. The "Amistad" visits national and international ports as an ambassador for friendship and goodwill). When Rocknak visited the ship's building site in Connecticut's Mystic Seaport, she received a scrap of the iroko and used it to carve "Figurehead." The sculpture is part of a national show: "Captive Passage: The Transatlantic Slave Trade and the Making of the Americas," touring the United States from 2002-2007.

We also talked about challenges she experiences. "Finding the right space to work has always been a challenge for me. Because of my job, I have moved constantly in the past fifteen years and, as a result, I have never had a studio. Instead, I work outside or on my living room floor, which can be a mess. But this problem should be solved shortly; I hope to buy a house and studio soon. Also because of my day job (philosophy professor) I find that I do not have as much time to sculpt as I would like. This can be depressing and lead to a creative slump. To pull myself out of it, I just force myself to work—I find time. Looking at other artists’ work is always inspiring as well."

Referring to the business of art, Rocknak feels, "The business aspect is certainly challenging. The hardest thing to get over is being shy; an artist has to be ready and willing to promote herself and her work. But this constant selling of oneself can be somewhat tiresome, if not nauseating. But it is necessary. Also, although I am beginning to put together a fair amount of shows, I do not have gallery representation yet, nor do I have dealer. That is the next step."

She is always interested in figurative sculpture "... there is some great contemporary stuff out there, representational or not. However, there is a certain prejudice that cutting-edge artists and critics have against representational art, this being an almost Platonic rejection of what they take to be imitation. But these reactions are ill-founded. For one thing, representation need not be imitation. Second, we have to ask, why not imitation?"

As far as talking with any of the greats in the world, past or present, she says, "I am afraid that if I actually had the chance to talk with say, Donnatello, or any of the Medieval wood carvers, I might not like them; they might turn out to be unbearably sexist and/or arrogant. But I think that I can and do talk to the best part of them by drawing their work. This is an intimate method of connection for me--it is as much about learning to sculpt as it is about 'talking' to someone else who shares the same obsession that I do. In fact, in a past interview I remarked, 'Some of my best conversations have been with dead men.' I stand by this."

Rocknak possesses a mastery of the human anatomy and her technical skills produce strong expressive figures that explore the emotional stories of human nature. They are alive with a power that can disturb the mind, excite the eye, and inform the imagination.

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