The Swimmer relaxes into his stroke. The elbow is high. The fingers are pressed together, thumb entering first. His shoulders are laterally rotated. He wears goggles and a cap. Maybe two caps, given the ridge along his forehead. With one eye and one nostril below, and the other above the surface, he appears to breathe water. The waves, with their tiers of wind-whipped curlicues are more turbulent than the backwash of a lap pool. The swimmer’s arm reaches over the chop, and everything about his stroke signifies intensity and control. This is clearly a race in open water, and his wristwatch tells him he is on the pace to win.
The creator of this masterpiece, made from a single piece of wood, is Stefanie Rocknak who lives and works in a small town in upstate New York, Oneonta. She confirms the figure is male, but we know this from the way she has refined the muscles, the sinews, the tendons in the one visible arm.
The detail and authenticity in this sculpture make it enthralling to contemplate. Any open water swimmer could spend an hour or two looking at the photographs and find them mesmerizing – and instructive. Sadly, they probably won’t be able to examine the original as this now resides with a new owner in California who commissioned it along with triathlon companions: a cyclist and a runner. All are equally remarkable pieces.
The Swimmer took Rocknak just a few months to finish, working from a small apartment with a view overlooking the densely wooded escarpments dominating the town. Oneonta and the surrounding Catskill Mountains area are home to many artists, especially those who take their inspiration from nature. Rocknak captures a love of the outdoors and the challenge of the elements. From growing up in the state of Maine in the northeast of the United States, to her present position as a professor of philosophy, her life and sculpture have always been intertwined.
Over coffee, she told me how, from an early age, her father taught her how to work with a single piece of wood to create art. He taught her how to use the sculptor’s tools, how to carve elaborate details and which woods are best to work with. What look like streaks of water down the swimmer’s face are a feature of her preferred American basswood, as its creamy colour turns golden brown over time. Basswood is similar to European lime, and favoured by sculptors because it is a relatively soft wood, but with a very tight grain which makes it amenable to intricate carving. The waves in this piece were moulded using a power sander to carve across the grain, with the droplets emerging from layers of planed wood that resembled lettuce.
Stefanie Rocknak grew up in Jefferson, Maine, where the family home overlooked a lake. Her father was a high school art teacher and so access to the techniques, the medium and the inspiration for art were all in place. After college, she travelled widely, and alone, in search of the aesthetic of South East Asia and Europe. Here she encountered the soaring postmodern skyscrapers of Singapore, as well as the art and literature emerging from British colonialism. In Europe she came under the spell of Giacommetti whose sculptures urged her towards simplicity of technique. The German expressionist, Kathe Kollwitz, showed her that human suffering can be transposed into serenity via the medium of wood. Rocknak traces all these experiences in her own art.
Rocknak’s work is inspired as much by her philosophy as her sporting prowess – she is a skier and cyclist. She is fascinated by the work of enlightenment philosopher David Hume who believed that passion, rather than reason, governs human behaviour. This seems to be the question posed by The Swimmer– what animates him? Is he consumed in the rapture of exertion or absorbed in the strategy of conquest? Does his emotion mirror that which guides the hand of the artist?
Hume’s work interrogates the problem of the human condition, and so does Rocknak’s sculpture. The Swimmer is an individualist, inevitably. He pits his own mastery against the ability of his competitors. That individualism, verging into narcissism, is also a philosophical theme that fascinates Rocknak, approached through the poetry of TS Eliot. The artist, though, is often the antithesis of narcissist. Their urge to share is more potent. Was it hard to let the piece go? No, she replies, revealing that her gaze becomes overly-critical of her own work, so it is better to let it go and be enjoyed by others.
Rocknak has a strong instinct to create for widespread enjoyment and she would like to do more public art. She has already won several grants and prizes from foundations which support the work of artists. Her 2014 bronze sculpture of Edgar Allan Poe, produced with the help of several grants, is permanently installed in Poe Square in Boston, MA. Poe was a writer who also strove to capture the human condition, just as Rocknak does so brilliantly.
As an artist and sportswoman, Rocknak is interested in the issue of gender and its representation. We chatted about women and sporting achievement and our female sporting heroines. I talked about that levelling of gender in marathon swimming, and how many of the records for the longest swims are held by women. That thought drew a smile, and I see on Facebook that she has begun to pursue some of those stories. I hope that inspiration will find expression in a sculpture of a female marathon swimmer one day.