The Alchemist

 

Sculptor Stefanie Rocknak turns wood into captured moments of expression

By Pat Sims
 

Stefanie Rocknak ’88
Sculptor Stefanie Rocknak ’88 in her studio. A philosophy professor, Rocknak also is a serious artist, inspired by medieval wood carvings.

For Stefanie Rocknak ’88, life combines the best parts of the cerebral and the expressive. Her day job is teaching philosophy at Hartwick College in Oneonta, N.Y. In her off hours she makes sculpture that burns with passion. “Initially I kept them totally separate,” she said, “but making representational art is a manifestation of my philosophical belief that all art doesn’t have to be conceptual.”

If she’s not focusing on Hume’s epistemology, Rocknak is probably performing her alchemy on wood. “It’s something I have to do and love to do,” she said. “Sometimes there are moments when it’s driving me crazy, and that’s incredibly frustrating, but I get a certain satisfaction about being able to capture expressions in three dimensions.”

At Colby Rocknak concentrated on painting, art history, and American studies, and, though she studied sculpture at the Rhode Island School of Design Summer School and Tyler School of Art in Rome, she describes herself as self-taught. Apparently there was something about working with wood that had been percolating inside her all along. Her father, William Rocknak ’58, was an artist and cabinetmaker, and her mother, Lucinda Allerton Rocknak ’58, was an avid refinisher. (They now own and operate a boatyard in Rockport, Maine.) Rocknak was just a girl when she started trying her hand at carving.

After she earned her Ph.D. in philosophy from Boston University, a philosophy fellowship allowed her to observe a wealth of medieval wood carvings in Vienna and Germany, which left an indelible impression. Now, despite her admiration for such icons as Michelangelo, Bernini, and Donatello, Rocknak is most moved by “the nameless artists who created wooden pieces in cathedrals in Germany.”

By 1999 she began publicly displaying her work. Many of her life-size busts are characterized by an intense, haunted look, made more dramatic by the wood’s swirling grain. Her pieces are “cathartic, ways of externalizing emotions I have,” she said. “Sometimes I see someone with an expression that motivates a piece of work, certain microexpressions we might be uncomfortable with. You can freeze-frame those with a sculpture.”

Three of Rocknak’s works, sculpted from basswood. Rocknak is most inspired by medieval wood carvings in Germany.
Three of Rocknak’s works, sculpted from basswood. Rocknak is most inspired by medieval wood carvings in Germany.

Besides being included in more than 40 shows (one of which, “Captive Passage,” was presented at the Smithsonian and New York’s South Street Seaport Museum), Rocknak’s work has appeared in numerous publications. She is a member of the Sculptors Guild, and, in March, she received the $10,000 Margo Harris Hammerschlag Biennial Direct Carving Award, given by the National Association of Women Artists.

Along with teaching, Rocknak manages to devote a couple of hours a day to art, working in her heated garage, where she chips away at materials such as maple and basswood. Not only is the dense-fibered basswood good for carving, but Rocknak describes it as “the American cousin of the European lindenbaum,” a favorite of medieval sculptors. “It’s kind of nice to continue a tradition.”

She also constructed a model for minimalist sculptor Robert Morris, had work appear in a show at Saks Fifth Avenue in June, and recently learned she is a finalist for the Edgar Allen Poe Project in Boston. Also in the works is a “princess project,” she said, then hastened to clarify: “Not a traditional pink princess, but a feminist or maybe a falconer.”

Whatever she’s working on, her chosen materials keep her challenged. “The wood was alive, it has a certain warmth, and when you polish the grain it starts to speak to you in ways you hadn’t expected,” she said. “It’s not a rational argument; it’s a manifestation of a theory.”

Stephanie Rocknak's work can be viewed at www.sculptorsguild.org/rocknak.html

 
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