Shirley Rosenthal built a reputation – both locally and nationally – with her artwork in copper, her skill as a master craftsman and her role as co-founder of the 100 American Craftsmen show at the Kenan Center in Lockport.
But one of her greatest pieces of personal expression may be the documentary of her dying days.
She died last month at Hospice of Buffalo after a brief illness at the age of 90.
“We think we know how we’re going to be when we face a major life event,” said Stephen Rosenthal, who recorded a series of four interviews with his mother for the documentary. “We don’t want to face death, and we are all going to die. She said things that people will find useful for themselves. She said we need to think about it more.”
Mrs. Rosenthal, who would have turned 91 Friday, died three months after she was diagnosed with leukemia, and those who knew her best said she made clear she did not want to live past 90.
“I want my quality of life. I don’t want to live until I’m 90,” Rosenthal recalled his mother saying. “She said that when she was 50.”
The final 20-minute interview was recorded on the morning of Nov. 16, six days before she died, her son said.
“Each time she looked a little different,” Rosenthal said. “One of the last questions I asked was about the title. She brought up the Dylan Thomas work ‘Do not go gentle into that good night.’ She thought her documentary should be called, ‘Go gentle into that long good night.’ ”
Lynn Northrop of Amherst recalled having lunch with her on the day of the last recorded interview. She brought her chicken noodle soup with “extra noodles” as requested.
“Her mood was great,” Northrop said. “She had already contacted hospice. I told her how beautiful she looked, and she said she got the first good night’s sleep she had in a long time because she had oxygen from hospice.”
Mrs. Rosenthal was born in Hartford, Conn., and attended the University of Connecticut before settling in Amherst with her husband, Howard Rosenthal, a sculptor who died in 2002. They were married for more than 50 years.
Their son, a member of the Amherst Saxophone Quartet, recalled games his parents liked to play when they visited art galleries.
“They would go to an art gallery and pretend they had enough money to buy one piece,” Rosenthal said. “They would try and convince each other which one they should buy.”
Mrs. Rosenthal practiced a pre-Renaissance art in fusing glass with copper in a kiln heated to 1,600 degrees.
“She was fascinated with shapes. She loved working with copper,” said her son. “There was my sweet little old gray-haired mother wearing a safety mask standing at a metal band saw cutting copper shapes. That’s what she loved to do.”
Mrs. Rosenthal’s work is in the Charles Rand Penney Collection of the Burchfield-Penney Art Center and the Annette Cravens Collections at the University at Buffalo Anderson Gallery.
A color seen in many of Mrs. Rosenthal’s works is muted turquoise, similar to the colorful patina that forms on copper over time. A giant wall-mounted piece crafted by Mrs. Rosenthal in 1990 is on permanent display at the Benderson Building of the Jewish Community Center in Getzville.
“She was really fun to go to a show with,” said Northrop, who recalled an art exhibit they attended together after the death of Howard Rosenthal. “It was really one of those wonderful outings. She had just shifted gears after moving from their house to a condo. She lost her studio and was doing smaller mixed-media collages. We had the best time talking art.”
Northrop pointed to the creativity required when working with copper enamels.
“Most copper enamelists do small things like jewelry,” she said, “but Shirley did wall pieces. Doing enamel that big requires innovation.”
Future plans for the video have not been determined.
Mrs. Rosenthal is also survived by a daughter, Jan Dziadzio of Montague, Mass., and a brother, Dr. Edwin Furshpan, a neuroscientist at Harvard University School of Medicine.
A memorial service will be held at 7 p.m. Dec. 15 in the Unitarian Universalist Church of Amherst, 6320 Main St., Williamsville.