Cordova Chronicles: A Rosenthal painting is worth a thousand words

After McMurdo Station, much of his work centers on snow and ice

Local artist David Rosenthal stands between two of three large 4 X 5.5-foot landscapes of the Copper River area that he is creating for the Cordova Center. Photo by Dick Shellhorn/The Cordova Times

His art is defined by paintings of outdoor scenes with such depth that one feels they are three dimensional. All are based on quick pencil sketches made on a small pad that is conveniently on hand, usually stored in a special pouch he made in Antarctica, of all places.

Local artist David Rosenthal, you see, has spent time way down under as a National Science Foundation Artist at McMurdo Station, so it should come as no surprise that much of his work centers on snow and ice.

Surrounded by an array of stunning landscapes in his studio, Cordova artist David Rosenthal shows a small oil proof beside almost completed work of the same scene, which happens in this case to be a view of a sunrise to the east from Egg Island Entrance.
Photo by Dick Shellhorn/The Cordova Times

Everyone who spends seasons at stations on the southern end of the earth must also have a second specialty, which in Rosenthal’s case turned out to be mending and repairing all-weather clothing and tents designed to withstand the brutal conditions on the planet’s most icebound landmass. And making a weatherproof pouch, in this case.

Rosenthal hails from Maine, as you may notice from his slight Northeast accent, but has resided in Cordova since the 1977, when he came north to Alaska for work in the local canneries.

At one time he was Ken Roemhildt’s right hand man down at North Pacific, and one of his favorite stories of those years is about the time the entire operation was delayed because the cans were slow coming down from the upper floor loft. He discovered Helen Grindle, the most punctual cannery worker in history, was resetting the starting clock to match the time of her wristwatch, which unfortunately did not coincide with the time down on the main floor, where everyone was anxiously waiting for containers to come shooting down in which to put the all those salmon.

Rosenthal paintings begin with pencil sketches on small pads, usually carried in a special weatherproof pouch shown in his hand. He made the pouch while a National Science Foundation artist in Antarctica.
Photo by Dick Shellhorn/The Cordova Times

Rosenthal, who started drawing as a hobby, describes himself as “a self-taught artist”, with his works evolving over 45 years.

These days you rarely see Rosenthal around downtown Cordova, for his most productive hours are late at night when most of us are sleeping. It is then that he creates landscapes in hues that are uncannily real, often working on four or five paintings in various stages of completion all in one evening.

Somehow, from those simple pencil sketches, which include codes for light and color, comes such masterpieces.

Recently, I took he and my sister Sharon Ermold down to our duck cabin at Pete Dahl for vistas of the Delta from a different perspective. It happened to be a beautiful day, and I offered to stop the riverboat at any time, so he could make his sketches.

After 60 years of trips up and down the sloughs, I have my favorite views, but none caught his eye. For example, we spent 10 minutes drifting at the mouth of Alaganik, as he drew the vast panorama looking toward Pt. Whitshed and Hinchenbrook. This is rarely a stopping point, as it is usually one of the roughest places on a trip to Pete Dahl. On this particularly calm day, I had a chance to enjoy a new perspective on a view often overlooked.

It was inspiring, and I mentioned that Lt. Henry Allen, who in March of 1885 struggled across this seascape in a raging southeaster at the start of his famous exploration up the Copper River, drew several illustrations, but none included the mouth of Alaganik. For good reason. His small party was too busy trying to survive, while dragging overloaded boats through snow, ice and tides. Ironically, it was over snow and sketches that I first came to know Rosenthal.

Cordova artist David Rosenthal’s studio on Center Drive includes an amazing collection of his remarkably realistic landscapes.
Photo by Dick Shellhorn/The Cordova Times

It was on a backcountry ski trip up Baldy, the first major peak just to the right of Mt. Heney. When we reached its summit and took a break before beginning a long run down sunny slopes, he pulled out his sketch pad from that ubiquitous pouch around his neck and began drawing.

I made the mistake of asking why he just didn’t take a couple photos.

Oh my. Sweaty after the long climb, I was well chilled before his lecture on true color and depth, as we see it, versus what ends up on film, was complete.

Twenty years later, at our duck cabin, I asked a different question: How do you remember the colors that will go in your pencil sketches?

His reply was a simple: “I just do.”

Anyone who has seen his works will agree.

HIs paintings have won numerous awards, and recently one of a moon-set over Mummy Island born of a pencil sketch made from the channel near Big Point on the way out for a gill net subsistence opener was accepted into the 2018 All-Alaska Biennial Juried Art show.

It turns out the process from pencil to oils involves intermediary small watercolors – literally hundreds of them – in which he first captures those colors, which are then translated into small oils, and from there into large works containing countless layers that produce the remarkable depths.

His studio on Center Drive is filled with stacks of these watercolors, and the walls are covered with paintings in all stages of progress. When completed, each of them provides a unique view of the true landscape we see, somehow captured through his marvelous talents and memory.

“Rosenthals” are scattered around homes, businesses and public places throughout Cordova, and can be seen at art shows and the Copper River Gallery on a regular basis.

A popular pastime of viewers is trying to guess the location of the paintings, and hence where the artist must have been to create them. One of my favorites is a view of the Copper River Delta from atop Baldy titled “Summer Over the Flats.”

I have taken countless photos from the very same spot, and there is simply is no comparison.  Rosenthal canvases make one feel like that he is actually standing there and truly seeing the vast panorama.

And even with the digital magic of iPhone photograph I do not dare ask him: “Why not just take a picture?”

After all, who needs another 20-minute lecture?

Note: If you are interested in more information about David Rosenthal and his works, visit his website at [email protected].

Rosenthal’s landscape “Summer Above the Flats”, based on a pencil sketch from Mt. Baldy in the Heney Range, shows much of the Copper River Delta (commonly called “the Flats”) and surrounding mountains and glaciers in marvelous color and detail.
Photo courtesy David Rosenthal
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Dick Shellhorn
Dick Shellhorn is a lifelong Cordovan. He has been writing sports stories for the Cordova Times for over 50 years. In his Cordova Chronicles features, he writes about the history and characters of this Alaska town. Alaska Press Club awarded Shellhorn first place for Best Humor column in 2016 and 2020, and third place in 2017 and 2019. He also received second place for Best Editorial Commentary in 2019. Shellhorn has written two books about Alaska adventures: Time and Tide and Balls and Stripes. Reach him at [email protected].

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