Fear is constantly on sculptor Stefanie Rocknak’s mind these days – but not because she’s afraid of anything in particular. She’s been reading Edgar Allan Poe’s scary stories.
Back from the acclaimed unveiling of her “Poe Returning to Boston” Saturday, Oct. 4, she’s riffing on that fear in creating “Gut Check,” the latest sculpture coming to life from a block of wood in her West End Avenue garage-studio.
The sculpture depicts a man running from an unknown terror. “I’ll let the audience decide what’s following him,” she said.
Rocknak, a Hartwick College philosophy professor, took up sculpting while a Colby College junior spending the year in Rome. “My parents’ best friend carved ducks, so I grew up around it,” she said. “I didn’t know how to start carving marble, but I knew I could carve wood.”
She minored in painting at Colby, then completed her master’s in philosophy at Boston University. “They complement each other,” she said. “Philosophy has so many restrictions, but there are no rules for art.”
In 2011, she answered the call for designs for the Poe statue from the Edgar Allan Poe Foundation in Boston. In March 2012, she learned she’d won. The foundation began fundraising, using images of the 19-inch wooden model Rocknak had submitted for consideration. Soon, $255,000 was in hand.
To create the full-sized Poe, she enlisted fellow Hartwick Professor John Dudek to pose for her. “I was in the right place at the right time,” he said. “I’m roughly the same height and build as Poe, so I dressed in a suit and she photographed me.”
But it wasn’t until she gave him the note to “stride away” that she found her perfect photo. “I have my hand turning away from the ‘Frogpondians’,” said Dudek, the term Poe used to characterize Emerson and Longfellow, whom he despised. “The amazing thing is what she did with that picture.”
Poe’s relationship with Boston was contentious – though born there, he did not make friends among the city’s literary elite, accusing Longfellow of plagiarism and complaining loudly that the city’s famed authors were too didactic. Emerson, in return, called him a “jingle man.”
The bronze statue of Poe stands mid-stride, just shorter than his 5-foot-8 stature as he strolls through Poe Square, at the corner of Boylston Street and Charles Street South, returning to his mother’s home on Carver Street. “I didn’t want to make him larger than life,” she explained. “I wanted to make him part of the community.”
At the dedication – it was featured on the front page of the Sunday New York Times – Rocknak found the statue blended in with the sea of admirers, including Dudek and his wife, former Olympian Andrea Thies, and their children, as well as Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh and Dan Currie, founder of the Poe Foundation. Poe “looked like he was pushing his way through the crowd,” she said.
“I wanted to get my picture taken with him, but it would have been a three- or four-hour wait,” said Dudek. “I’m in awe of what the final project looked like.”
And now with “Gut Check,” she’s devoting over 1,000 hours in her garage studio carving, sanding and sculpting the basswood block customized for her by Wightman’s Lumber. The piece will be on display at an eponymous solo show at the Sculptor’s Guild in the DUMBO district of Brooklyn.
But as she returned to her home in Oneonta Monday the 6th, she drove past her Poe, his suitcase full of manuscripts and his raven taking flight, one last time. “He’s walking towards his home,” she said. “He’s returning to the good part of his life in Boston.”