Poe belongs to the city of Boston in 2014, and the unveiling on October 5th of Stefanie Rocknak’s powerful and dynamic statue of the poet, called Poe Returning to Boston, leads the way.
I was lucky to catch the busy and hectic sculptor during a particularly hectic and busy time---the ground had just been broken by the construction crews in Boston’s Edgar Allan Poe Square, and Rocknak was taking a brief break from running between The Hub, the foundry where the life-sized statue is being cast in bronze, and Hartwick College in New York, where she is an associate professor of philosophy…
THE STEFANIE ROCKNAK INTERVIEW
By Mark Redfield
MARK REDFIELD: When I saw that you had gotten the commission—and later saw the first images of the statue—I loved it immediately.
STEFANIE ROCKNAK: Oh, great!
MARK: So dynamic. The story that the piece, the figure you sculpted, tells, is exciting. How did you first find out about the call for the commission?
STEFF: I subscribe to a lot of art magazines and one issue called for art—a public art commission—and I had seen it a number of times, and quite frankly, initially I didn’t know that I would win. I finally got the confidence and I entered, probably in the last week, before the deadline. But I had seen it a couple of times come across my desk and I was intrigued by it and always loved Poe---so, I thought I could do a good Poe, so finally I just mustered up the courage to enter.
I was surprised when I got the call. I think it was about three years-ago exactly, when I was one of the finalists—so--
(265 artists applied for the competitive public art commission from 42 states and 13 countries. There were three finalists picked by the five-member commission committee, for the city of Boston.)
Then it was ten weeks to produce the maquette, which is a really short amount of time for me. I take a long time generally, working at wood sculpture, so that was pretty rushed.
MARK: What were the city guidelines like?
STEFF: They gave me a whole set of parameters of what they wanted, when I became a finalist. They didn’t want to go with an ordinary portrait of Poe, that could go in any city. They really wanted it to be Boston-specific and to somehow capture his relationship with Boston—so that’s when I came up with the idea that I did.
MARK: was your idea already in place? In your head? Did you give them a sketch or something in your initial proposal? Or did the ideas that became the statue come and evolve later?
STEFF: That came later. Initially, everybody just submitted a portfolio of work, and that’s generally how it’s done for projects like this and most public art projects. They will ask for a RFQ, a Request For Qualifications, not a RFP, which is a request for proposals. So there was a RFQ, and what you do is submit about twelve images from your portfolio and they look at your work and based on your work they kinda determine if you can create something that’s what they want.
MARK: The final image is indelible in my mind and I can’t see anything else in that space…the open, flowing coat, the hair blowing in the wind, the valise bursting—the movement forward…Was this image fully formed in your head once you got the commission?
STEFF: It took awhile.
I like to walk a lot and (laughs) you think a lot when you wake up at three o’clock in the morning! So—it took some time. I mean, I knew---those parameters they gave me were pretty specific, you know, they said, “…well, there was a train station here, he was born here, and the Frog pond was here--- So, I had those three basic things to work from , and it just came to me fairly quickly that he would be walking away from his train, and away from the Frog Pond, toward the place that he was born because that…it seems to me that it would be more important to him—in the long run—that the Frog Pond (you know, the Boston critics) so it seemed natural that he would be dismissing them and moving away from them and moving toward what he cared for, about Boston, which was his mother, and his roots there.
I came to that rather quickly but it took awhile to figure out what I was going to—what kind of struggle I was going to incorporate---would I use The raven as it’s been used so many times, but I thought, you know, it IS public art and I wanted to make it immediately accessible, but how can I incorporate The Raven and do it in an unusual way. And it took a while to figure all that out.
MARK: Were you a Poe fan before this? You knew this question was coming, didn’t you?
STEFF: Yeah—I distinctly remember reading Poe in my parents library when I was young and being intrigued. And Grimm’s Fairy Tales…
These days I’m a great fan of The Walking Dead, I know that’s a different genre, but I’ve always liked this kind of stuff—the dark side of Poe and I like mysteries. I’d always like that.
I was an American Literature Major in college, so I read Poe again in college. I was always attracted to American Literature—enough that I would major in it—Faulkner’s got to be one of my favorites.
MARK: Southern gothic authors…
STEFF: Poe was always up there as well. And that’s what initially drew me to enter my name in this competition. I certainly wouldn’t want to be in competition with somebody (a subject) I was not inspired by. I think that would be really difficult. That might result in a really stale portrait---maybe just a likeness, but has nothing else involved in it.
MARK: I want to jump around a bit, and go back and ask you about your training and inspiration, but before we go there, I’m dying to ask you—okay…you submitted your proposal, you’ve waited a very long time, then one day you get the phone call. The City of Boston calls and they say, “Stefanie Rocknak, make our public Poe sculpture!” They say, “We want ‘Poe Returning Home’!” What happened? How’d you feel? Was it an “Uh-Oh!”—a “Holy sh--
STEFF: (laughing) Oh yeah! It was definitely a “holy shit! I have to do this!” moment!
MARK: I'll bet! But let me jump back a moment, because I'm curious about your background. People seem to be surprised, in some of the other interviews I've read, in your dual interest and careers in art and philosophy. What's your background, and as an artist, I'm curious, how did you gravitate to sculpture, and why work in wood?
STEFF: Let me answer the “why wood?” question first--
I went to Colby college. That's where I did my undergraduate work, and I'd always been an artist, my father was an art teacher and I'd been drawing ever since I can remember. So, I've always done art. And I gravitated towards painting, and I had a junior abroad in Rome, through Tyler School of Art and I saw the sculpture there and I was just immediately intrigued. I spent most of my time drawing sculptures in the museums. I just kind of of taught myself how to sculpt and how to understand the figure in three dimensions, so—I came home and there wasn't any marble to work with—Vermont School, where they actually teach you to carve in marble hadn't been started yet—the internet wasn't there—so I didn't have any marble and I started carving in wood, because that was what was available to me and my parents had a great friend who was a bird wood-carver. So I knew that it could be done and a little about how it could be done. So that's how I started in wood.
MARK: Your work in wood is incredible. I especially like the photos I've seen of “the Swimmer”. I want to see them in person one day. So lets jump back—or ahead—to about three years-ago, when you got the call to do the Poe sculpture. What happened? How did you feel and what went through your mind after the “oh shit! I have to do it!” jolt!
STEFF (laughs): I was very excited! You know—this is a huge, high-profile project. I'd done some public art before, but, you know, nothing of this magnitude.
So, I just—you know I'm teaching full-time, but I was just 24/7 working on this
To try to come up with something that would be interesting and really hit within what they wanted, right? Something that was Boston-specific. And that was a real challenge, to do that. And again, most recently, I’ve been really interested in incorporating movement into my figures, and the Poe position is very important to me, to have everything move around the figure. To have every angle work, as best I can. So, yeah. That was some pretty intense carving fro ten weeks there...
And there were some mistakes made in that model, some proportional mistakes, because I was in a rush. I corrected those when I went life-size, and that was actually pretty gratifying to be able to finally correct those mistakes.
MARK: Now, at this stage, I imagine you're moving into somewhat unfamiliar territory. You have to create the bronze version. You've made the clay version after your wood sculpture...now the project is moving out of your hands, and other people have to be involved in making the finished piece. You're supervising the process, but what's that like?
STEFF: It's incredibly nerve-wracking. I'm a solitary worker. I don't collaborate a lot. I'm a little bit outside my comfort zone. But the people that are doing it, New England Sculpture Service, they're terrific, and they've done a lot of major sculptures in and around Boston. They're very professional. They're very good.
But never-the-less, it IS nerve-wracking and I knew that there would be some changes—you know, when you move from clay to bronze, --and this is why some of the features are a little bit exaggerated—you lose a little bit of that, and then it gets toned-down when you go to bronze and put the patina on. But I knew it would get toned-down a little bit.
So it's been nerve-wracking, but it's come together. In fact, I'm going to Boston tomorrow to finish the piece and put patina on. (Ed note: this conversation took place on September 6th, 2014.( So it's really coming together really well.
MARK: And you were present when they broke the ground where your statue is going to live?
STEFF: Yes. They've dug the hole, and I had to be there to make sure the hole's going in the right place, because the figure, Poe, is walking slightly downhill, and they have to figure out how to accommodate that, so all that has to be figure out.
MARK: You've been teaching, been Professor Rocknak, for 14 years now. This must've taken some time away as the semester started. How much time, outside of your work on this Poe statue, are you able to spend making your art?
STEFF: I've got another big sculpture going now that I hope to finish soon, it's a very large wood sculpture that's laminated and it's kinda related to the wood sculpture that I've been doing, because it's a guy who's terrified—he's running—so I wanted to take that idea of walking and push it even further. He's got some crazy hair, that's moving, trying to get it to move. It's like the water I'd been working on with “The Swimmer”—I don't know if you're familiar with that piece...
MARK: Yes. I love it.
STEFF: Thanks. It's very challenging, and I have been working on that, but that's taken two and a-half -years, too, which, you know, that's a long time—and it's not just time, it's focus, right?
So, I’m really focused with the project with Poe, and I have to manage a lot of people, to make sure every part of the project comes together, like digging the hole, making the plaque, the bronze being made—so even when I'm out there my mind is still on that. Psychologically it takes a lot of time.
MARK: I love your sculpture “The Swimmer”. The movement is palpable. The detail, even something maybe “throw-away” like the write watch, is inspired.
MARK : I'm a fan of animation, cartoon animation--
STEFF: Me too--
MARK : --and –then you know—that a good still frame, an in-between drawing, can make you feel movement and motion of a figure or object. That's what's happening in your work. I can't wait to see your Poe and walk around it.
STEFF: Thank you. I hope it's better than the pictures. I can't see it anymore. It's hard for me to see the piece objectively. But people tell me it's better in person that it is in the pictures! And some people like some angles, and some people don't. It's difficult to capture an angle that everybody likes.
MARK: It has to be experienced live, I think.
MARK : What do you anticipate about the unveiling? Will it be a big relief? I know you're excited.
STEFF: I think it will be. I think getting a project done is certainly going to be a big relief and I have a lot of angst about how people are going to receive it. I hope they like it. You know? I know some people are going to hate it, and that's okay—I'd be worried if everybody liked it. But I hope Boston enjoys it.
You know it took a lot of people to make it happen, not just me. This was a team effort.
Paul Lewis has done a lot of the background work, worked very hard on this. A tremendous amount of time that he's put into this project. There's a lot of people who contributed financially. So I think it will be a great relief for all of us when it's done! But again, I hope Boston can, and will, enjoy it.
MARK: This is Boston's time, to pay respect a a tribute to Poe—the Boston Poe Foundation has been great. I so look forward to the unveiling. Thanks for talking with me about your work, Stefanie.
STEFF: You're welcome. Thank you. See you at the unveiling ceremony.
“Poe Returning to Boston” Unveiling Ceremony
will be Sunday October 5th 2014 2pm
Location: Edgar Allan Poe Square, the intersection of Boylston Street and Charles Street SouthPoe Boston website with more details and info: http://bostonpoe.org/
All images courtesy Stefanie Rocknak, unless otherwise noted.
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