Polar Careers: David Rosenthal

When David Rosenthal left Maine in 1977 for a four-month stint in a cannery in Cordova, AK., the aspiring artist figured he’d earn some cash to help launch his career as a landscape artist. In Maine.

Instead, four months in the far north planted a seed of adventure for the resourceful young man.

“Of course after coming up here to Alaska and seeing what it was like, I realized that, wow, this really is a beautiful landscape,” he says.

Four years later he relocated permanently to Alaska and set out to find ways to support himself.

“Most artists don’t make a living as an artist, at least not in the beginning,” says Rosenthal. “I came up to work as a commercial fisherman, but really it was a way to develop my art career.”

That nascent career bloomed into a seemingly endless trek to the earth’s most remote regions. Rosenthal was hired as a general field tech at Antarctica’s McMurdo Station before eventually being selected for the National Science Foundation’s Antarctic Artists & Writers Program.

It was during these forays into the field that Rosenthal honed his artistic process. In the field, he draws scenes and does water color studies. Then he brings his drawings home to his studio where he paints them in oil. “The key to art is to draw things, and only work from drawings,” says Rosenthal. “That way you see the world as humans see the world. You’re not copying photographs or trying to impose yourself on the landscape.”

Rosenthal aims to remove himself from his art. He sees his role as a documentarian and takes seriously the task of presenting these stunning landscapes as they appear to the naked eye. He says he learned this skill through the process of trial and error.

“When you paint landscapes, you eventually learn the landscape,” he says. “After a while, I began to figure things out, things like why the light hits the top of the ripples on the water and how that creates a reflection, and on and on. You have to learn about how we sense the environment and the entire landscape.”

Naturally, Rosenthal doesn’t simply sense the world around him. He experiences it. Following his stints in Antarctica, he traveled north to the Arctic. He stayed at Summit Station in 2004.

He also traveled several times on U.S. Coast Guard icebreakers. In 1987, he traveled USCGC Northwind, north of Spitsbergen, in the polar ice to close to 83 degrees north. Next he traveled on Polar Star up and down the coast of Greenland breaking ice for Thule Base resupply vessels. These travels were preceded by residencies in the Artist in the Schools program in Alaska. Put simply: David Rosenthal has been documenting polar landscapes for decades. In the process, he’s seen first-hand the impacts of climate change on the landscape.

“I sometimes refer to it as though I am getting the chance to chronicle the end of the ice age,” he says. “Is it depressing? It is to me as an artist. More importantly, it is creating tremendous problems for the world.”

That change in the landscape underscores the importance of Rosenthal’s work. His process of discovery and documentation has captured some of the world’s most beautiful places. And embodied in his work is the imagination and spirit of the wild. Now a well-known artist, Rosenthal shows in galleries in Alaska and sells his work directly to consumers elsewhere. And recently, the National Science Foundation purchased a painting of Arctic sea ice for their new research vessel, the R/V Sikuliaq.

“That was fun because I’ve left work all over the place, but this time, the NSF came to me,” says Rosenthal.  —Rachel Walker