Hollow Bodies Carry Their Own Stories
During her first visit to Point Hope, Alanna DeRocchi combed the Chukchi Sea beach and found a dead seal — headless and hollow, picked over by birds, its spine exposed where a patch of skin had been cut from its back.
It left her with questions, she said. And the image stuck with her. Later, she would transform the memory into a sculpture.
For DeRocchi, a ceramic artist and teacher at the University of Alaska Anchorage, animals spark an innate sense of wonder, and every new landscape brings new inspirations. Each one tells a story, she said. Each kindles a new curiosity.
“I feel like every time I go somewhere different, I pick up something from it,” she said.
Her journey started in a small town in Illinois, where DeRocchi grew up surrounded by farmland. She loved art from the beginning, she said. In high school, teachers excused her from math class to spend more time in the studio, then later, at a college nearby, she made pottery before branching into sculpture. That’s when things started to click, she said.
“I guess I just slowly began to realize that I wanted to tell a little bit more of a story, and I was having a hard time doing that with making pottery, as much as I loved it,” she said. “The second I started making sculpture, it just became this kind of need — things just started coming out.”
Working with clay in three dimensions gave her the space she needed to explore and experiment. At first, she said, she created depictions of life-size human figures, but she found herself shifting to animals “because they’re more ambiguous” — animal art inspired by different parts of her life could represent different things to different people, she said.
She grew up surrounded by domesticated animals and deer. After she’d earned her first degree, she moved to California to work in a ceramics studio and make sculpture. Along the way she became obsessed with animals she’d never known existed, she said. Leaving the Midwest was eye-opening. From California, she moved to New York, then Montana, Michigan, Wisconsin, Korea, back to Illinois, back to Montana, then north to Alaska, observing all the strange and varied wildlife along the way. She remembered the first time she ever saw a moose; the gangly ungulates seemed almost prehistoric. She developed a soft spot for Alaska wildlife, “because it’s not what I grew up around.”
The whimsical, outsized creatures she brings to life in her studio aren’t exactly anatomically correct and not exactly lifelike. The bulging moose, whiskered walrus, sinewy black wolf and other sculptures are molded partly from memory and partly from imagery, informed by early natural history illustrations. Taxidermy fascinates her, she said. The stuffed, posed animals in natural history dioramas captured her imagination.
“They’re just kind of like these hollow things; they’re not a sentient being anymore,” she said. “It’s interesting to me, and I think that’s more of the feel I’d like my sculptures to have.”
DeRocchi’s sculptures, also hollow, carry different stories for different viewers.
To her, the animals she creates now mostly relate to her relationships with people and places, she said. To others, the sculptures can embody any number of different stories.
She thinks of the days in Point Hope. The Arctic landscape left her awestruck, she said. The lifeless animal on the beach left her wanting to know more.
“I just had all these questions about it,” DeRocchi said.
She said she wondered about its history and purpose and felt a sense of sadness. She wanted to recreate those feelings with a sculpture, she said. And — like all her art — she said she hoped it could elicit the same sense of curiosity that helped inspire it in the first place.
“I guess my hope would be that other people would have questions, too,” she said.