Bringing a Legend to Life: Sculptor Stefanie Rocknak returns Poe to Boston

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Edgar Allen Poe NIGHT 101315 DSC 7767 2015
Poe Returning to Boston, seen at night. Photo credit: Derek Kouyoumjian, 2015.

 By Olivia J. Kiers

When the Edgar Allan Poe Foundation of Boston held a contest in 2012 to determine who would be awarded a commission to create a statue commemorating the Master of the Macabre’s Boston roots, they “didn’t want ‘Poe on a horse,’” explains sculptor Stefanie Rocknak. “Immediately it occurred to me that I had to do something dynamic and different.” Rocknak’s winning statue, called Poe Returning to Boston, is certainly that.

Poe’s relationship with his birthplace was turbulent, since his dark literary style was often criticized by the Boston elite, whom he ridiculed in turn. Yet, Rocknak says that Poe loved aspects of Boston, “namely, that he was born there and his mother had a fairly successful career as an actress there.” Rocknak’s winning design shows Poe running along at the intersection of Boylston and Charles streets near the Common, heralded by his trademark raven and leaving a trail of fluttering manuscripts and a pulsing heart in his wake, “moving away from the stuff he doesn’t like about Boston… to what he loved.”

Rocknak is known as a woodcarver, but to make this statue, she left her usual medium for bronze. Claiming that the process of sculpting the clay model for bronze casting “loosened me up a bit,” Rocknak explained that the possibility of an additive process enabled her to experiment. “Working in the clay, you can make changes. You can add, you can subtract. [It] is a lot faster and probably a lot easier than working in wood. It’s a different style though… a slightly different style.” Beyond any stylistic differentiation between Poe and Rocknak’s prior work, the intensity of Rocknak’s carvings remained. “I tend to exaggerate certain things, to exaggerate movement or expressions, and that definitely carried over… I also like to use a lot of line work—sort of a two-dimensional approach to the three-dimensional object—and that carried over to the clay as well.”

Despite the relative ease of working in clay, the unconventional pose of a striding man, coat billowing and joined by a feathered companion, offered its own challenges. For example, the manner of the raven’s inclusion had to be carefully considered. “I did know that I wanted to incorporate the raven, even though I know that it’s kind of hackneyed. You usually see it in most images of Poe, but [because the statue is] public art, I wanted him to be immediately recognizable. It wasn’t about me creating some sort of idiosyncratic expression of Poe—I wanted something that everybody could recognize and enjoy. So, I had to include the raven, but I had to do it in a way that was kind of different. I had to think about how I was going to attach it to the statue, [which] took a while to do, and I also decided to make the raven really oversized, to sort of re-appropriate the raven and make it something a little bit new and original.”

With Poe Returning to Boston, Rocknak certainly did not shy away from a compositionally demanding work of public art. In fact, she is still pushing the boundaries with a wood sculpture-in-progress that is currently called Gut Check. It is a larger-than-life figure presented at a full run, hair flying wildly back from an expressive face. Rocknak began this work in 2012, shortly following the Edgar Allan Poe Foundation’s selection of her design for Poe Returning to Boston. But while Poe is purposeful, making his way with a determinate, nearly triumphal stride, Gut Check is about fear and terror—running from rather than towards an unknown something. Doubtless, Poe would have approved.

Stefanie Rocknak with Gut Check. Photo credit: Stefanie Rocknak.

Rocknak’s appreciation of Poe and his legacy is obvious. Despite this, when Rocknak read his work as an American studies major at Colby College, and even while later earning a philosophy PhD at Boston University in the 1990s, she was only vaguely aware of Poe’s Boston connection. “I think there are a lot of people living in Boston who don’t know he was born here,” says Rocknak. “It wasn’t forefront in my mind… and I certainly had no idea that I’d make a public art statue for Boston; that would have blown me away had I known.” Now, it would be hard for anyone to miss Poe’s dynamic presence, and the statue has begun to turn golden at the edges where passers-by stop and touch it.

It has been nearly a year since Rocknak, who now lives and works in Oneonta, NY, has visited her own sculpture. She plans to check on Poe this December, and to walk around the Common greeting Boston’s other statues—even the ones on horseback.

Poe Returning to Boston can be seen in Edgar Allan Poe Square, on the corner of Boylston and Charles Streets in Boston, MA.

Olivia J. Kiers is an editorial assistant with New Venture Media Group LLC. She received her MA in art history from Boston University.

Excellent piece, connected me to the artist and her work!
Posted by: g dickersin    On: Jan 7, 2016 7:20 am
Wow! Who knew? Really well written. Thanks for the bit of Boston history and art.
Posted by: John    On: Nov 5, 2015 12:23 pm

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