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Interview with Artist David Rosenthal

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Basic bio: Where are you from? Where did you attend school, for what, graduated what year? Basically, trace the narrative of your life up to this show.

I grew up in Maine and graduated from the University of Maine at Farmington in 1976. In 1977, I first came to Cordova, Alaska to work in the fishing industry. I worked seasonally at first, but moved full-time to Cordova in 1981, a place I’ve considered home ever since. Continuing to fish while I developed my career as an artist, I also taught drawing and painting through the local community college. That started in 1981; I’m still there. I also got involved in the artist-in-the-schools program in 1984 and have done many residencies around Alaska. This program has been a great way for me to see some beautiful places in the state, and I hope to continue to participate.

In 1988, as part of the US Coast Guard Art program, I traveled on the icebreaker "Northwind" north of Spitsbergen, Norway, in the ice of the polar ocean. In return for this unique opportunity, I painted a view of their ship breaking ice—this painting is now part of the US Coast Guard art collection. In 1989, I traveled on another icebreaker "Polar Star" as it escorted supply ships in and out of Thule, Greenland, and then on a diplomatic mission through the Northwest Passage. This trip also yielded several paintings that ultimately wound up in the Coast Guard collection. In 1989, I took a job with the National Science Foundation (NSF) contractor in Antarctica. I ended up spending more then sixty months on the ice during a ten-year period, including six austral summers and four austral winters. During two of the winters and one of the summers, I participated in the NSF Antarctic Artist and Writer program. I was Artist-in-Residence at McMurdo Station during the summer of 1993-1994, and during the winter of 1996. I was Artist-in-Residence at Palmer Station for the winter of 1999. In 2004 I worked for the NSF contractor as a science tech, up at Summit Camp on the top of the Greenland ice cap for the first three months of the winter season. I continue to live here in Cordova, and paint scenes from around Alaska.

Where did the idea of “Landscapes” come from? Obviously, you’re a landscape painter, but what about the concept for this exhibit?

I have not shown my work in Juneau for something like 25 years. I figured it was time. Basically, I’ve tried to include pieces from all the incredible places landscape painting has taken me.

What is it that so captivates you about “the frozen and geographically isolated polar regions of the earth”?

I have always liked the cold seasons and have been drawn to places that have long if not endless winters. Then when I got to Alaska and later the arctic and antarctic, I found the incredible light to be a source of endless inspiration.

How do you get to these frozen and geographically isolated polar regions? Under your own power, or by airplane/snowmachine? Dog sled?

I’ve traveled to the places seen in my paintings by many different means. I have worked and traveled on boats. I have flown out to villages in planes, and flew to sites in the Antarctic by helicopter. Mostly, I have gotten to the actual sites by foot or skis.

What is your favorite piece in the exhibit and why?

It would be difficult to pick out a favorite painting in this show. These paintings are some of my best works from over the years, and are all favorites.

Can you describe your process? Your work is realistic, and yet not photo-realistic—why do you work solely from memory?

The key to understanding my process is that I only work from drawings done in the field, memory and knowledge gained from experience. The images I create in my work are actually more real to the human eye than photographs. True, the details are not as accurate, but the paintings emphasize the things that speak directly to our visual system. A camera records an image in a passive process, recording the light fluxes averaged across the field of view, from one point of view, and one point in time. Our view of the world is based on an active process that uses a fast moving eye and very sophisticated processing system to create an image with a much broader range of values, color and perspectives. We look into the bright places, and then into the shadows, or into the distance and back to focus on the foreground. The forms we see are modified by our experience and innate senses. Relief is exaggerated, and colors are sorted by color constancy. In thirty years of working this way, I have learned enough about the difference between photos and realistic paintings to fill a book.

Surely you must have had your share of “close calls” throughout your career—what’s the craziest thing that’s happened to you while in the field?

I’ve been very fortunate and also well prepared in my travels. So, exciting adventures? Yes, but no real close calls. One of my favorite experiences is represented in the painting "Aerial View: North Victoria Land." I did the drawing for this painting as I stood on the open back cargo ramp of a C-130 while it made a turn at about 10,000 feet, and flew directly away from this mountain in the midnight sun.

Is there a difference painting different polar regions? To put it another way, what is different about painting Alaskan polar landscapes as opposed to Greenland’s polar landscapes, or Antarctica for that matter? Do you change your approach?

I look to the higher latitudes as my subject for painting. Within the vast areas of the high latitudes there is great variation, but I approach everything the same. I observe, I try to get a sense of place and I draw.

What kind of gear do you take with you out into the wilderness? Is your own physical experience part of your artistic rendering of a particular location?

I always travel with some form of emergency supplies, like food, water and extra warm gear, and I always carry a sketchbook. An example of a book and sketches is on display at this exhibit. I usually do some quick drawings of the overall scene with things that change captured as quickly as possible. I use a short hand of cross-hatching to indicate light and dark and other types of lines for other elements of the scene. These drawings look a bit like scribbles but actually carry a lot of information about time, place, atmosphere and emotion. If I decide a drawing will result in a painting, I then do a number of details to gather structural information of solid elements and perspective. To carry a small sketchbook is easy and has allowed great flexibility in my travels. I can draw with oven mitts on in extreme conditions, and have been able to draw scenes thru the scratched Plexiglas of a window while seated in the middle of a helicopter. Many situations that do not work for an airplane painter or photographer can work for me.

Of Alaska, other arctic locations, or Antarctica, do you have a favorite to paint?

My favorite places to paint are those I am most familiar with, and that I call home. The area around Cordova has always been a continuing source of inspiration.

It’s been 25 years since your last show at the Alaska State Museum. How have you and your work changed/evolved in that time?

My approach to painting has not changed in 25 years. It has been the same personal exploration of the natural world that I started with, but of course I have learned and my vision has changed. My world has become bigger and I am a better painter, so it is nice to show at the Alaska State Museum.