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The Interview Files:

Stefanie Rocknak

By Janie Rosman


"It's not really a hobby. It's more than a hobby, it's a necessity," says Stefanie Rocknak, Ph.D. and associate professor of Philosophy at Oneonta's Hartwick College. Rocknak "has been doing this for a long time, since the age of 21," when she went to the Tyler School of Art in Rome for a semester and saw the marble sculpture there.

Rocknak graduated from Colby College in 1988 with a B.A. in American studies and art history with a concentration in painting. She received distinction in all majors; Magna cum Laude. She admits she's never taken a sculpture class even while continuing her education at Boston University, where she earned a Ph.D. in philosophy in 1998.

"I would go to the Museum of Fine Arts, into the sculpture section, and draw a lot of the sculpture," she says, adding that her interest in art lured her into philosophy. Very early on, she says, "I asked questions like, 'Why do I make art? Why does any artist make art?' For instance, do artists make things to just impress or charm other people (e.g. potential mates) or are there other reasons? For instance, at some level do humans make art to deal with death?'

"To properly answer these questions," she continues, "I am discovering that philosophy is not enough. Eventually I'll have to appeal to-at least-the fields of psychology, anthropology and biology."

When asked about the correlation between her academic and creative interests, Rocknak replies, "My creative interests can motivate my academic interests but I would NEVER let my academic interests contaminate my creative interests. As a philosopher I can rationally reflect about the emotion that I dump into my sculpture. But moment I let rational reflection enter into this emotional mayhem I effectively distill the intensity, and so, inevitably KILL the piece. Then I become a philosopher-making-mediocre-art, not an artist."

Rocknak works from the studio in her Oneonta, NY, home and also loves to draw landscapes and architecture as well as people. Upstate New York is especially enticing with its bizarre Victorian houses and rolling hills.

"Drawing is also much more immediate than sculpture," she adds, "and within an hour, I am finished."

<<Seeing a Jewel Hang in Ghastly Nights, 2004


She bought the wood for Seeing a Jewel Hang in Ghastly Nights and then decided what to do with it. The mood speaking to her at the time was "kind of hard to explain," she says. "It's whatever I feel motivated to do at the time. I might have a name in mind; however the past few pieces were named after they were completed."

For example, The Philosopher (a two-year project that was completed in 2003) and The Academic (completed in 2000) were both named before she began carving them. "I might do a king next," she says, although she's not entirely sure what her next sculpture will be. "Lately I've completed a piece every four to five months."

Jewel was made using "regular woodcarving tools, chisels and an axe, and a power sander," Rocknak explains. "I wanted to do something with emotional fatigue so I asked a friend to pose, kind of tired."

The piece is finished with tung oil, which she likes because it's a permanent finish, unlike beeswax. Jewel took at least six to eight months to complete because the maple is difficult to carve. "I didn't start to use power tools until the Jewel piece," she says, adding that she's getting faster as she goes along and "uses power tools to rough cut the big pieces."

There were some cracks in the maple, which Rocknak carved green (wet) then filled with pieces of wood and glue. She recently finished a piece in basswood and returned to the saw mill she frequents, Wightman's in Portlandsville, NY, to buy more of the same. Wightman's staff was kind enough to fling about 10 full-length logs on the ground (with their skidder) and then let her pick the best cut.

"Hard maple smells like pears when it's being carved and is a seductive kind of wood . . ."

When the work is commissioned, like The Triathlete, her ideas are generally guided by her client's needs. "But for my own work I like to create pieces that allow me to deal with a specific mood. It's a kind of venting where I articulate my mood in wood, externalize it and-quite literally - face it head on."

Rocknak remarked in closing:

So in short, for me, the philosopher is not allowed in my world as an artist. In this creative realm, emotions and technique are enough, regardless if in the end these emotions take control of me and, perhaps as a result - at least from a rational point of view - compromise me.

Conversely however although my artistic interests may motivate my philosophic interests, the artist is NOT allowed in my world as a philosopher. Not any more anyway; she is decisively irrational, petulant, and emotional. Almost anyone in her right mind would agree that these are not good traits when it comes to do doing good, sober-headed and clean analysis, empirical and/or rational.

So in end, Plato may have been right; the artist and philosopher do not play well together (see Plato's Republic). However, as I have mentioned in other interviews, there are, indeed, some rare hybrids out there. That is, there are, in fact, effective artistic philosophers, these being, mostly, excellent creative writers and thinkers. Plato was one of them, but boy, did he ever have his emotions reigned in tight, releasing them only when it was absolutely safe. And there are philosophical artists; these being excellent "conceptual" artists, although there are only a few of these, I think.

To see progress and finished photos of Seeing a Jewel Hang in Ghastly Nights click HERE.

To see more of Steff Rocknak's work, visit her web site HERE.

Janie Rosman writes on a freelance basis about community, lifestyles and business for online and print media.  Email her at lecriver@yahoo.com