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Dentist Harry Rosen spread positive messages through art

Harry Rosen poses with his stone sculpture The Ascent at its dedication outside the Jewish General Hospital’s Lady Davis Institute of Medical Research in 2010.

The indomitable spirit of prominent dental specialist Harry Rosen, who devoted the last decade of his life to bringing his inspirational sculptures to the public in a late-blooming burst of creativity, will live on in his favourite medium – stone.

Rosen, who died on Nov. 15 at age 89 after a relatively short bout of pancreatic cancer, was working almost up to the end on a final sculpture, a self-portrait.

It was a project he started a couple of years ago, at the urging of longtime “facilitator” Sherry Goldstein. Not much more than a week before he died, Rosen was in the Montreal atelier of his collaborator, noted sculptor Jules Lasalle, readying his last creation for casting.

Self-Portrait, as it is titled, will have a permanent home in Ellerdale Park in Hampstead, Que. The plan is to install it on March 30, which would have been Rosen’s 90th birthday.


Meaningfully, this will be the 18th Rosen sculpture on public display. There are 15 in Montreal and three in Toronto. Over the past 10 years, Rosen has donated his colossal renderings of whimsical human figures to hospitals, cultural centres and recreational institutions that he chose for their association with healing in the broadest sense of the term.

Rosen devoted not only his professional, but also his personal life to fitness through skiing, horseback riding and dancing – a lifelong passion he shared with Delores Rosen, his wife of 62 years – as well as, of course, splitting rocks.

An irrepressible optimist, Rosen was a believer in positive thinking and all the sculptures bear a saying encouraging passersby to aim high and not give up.

Rosen did get to see the installation of Self-Portrait’s foundation this fall, a process that was expedited so that it would happen while he was still strong enough to get out, Goldstein said.

Harry Rosen, right, takes part in the inauguration of his sculpture, Reliance, with, from left, Côte-St-Luc library director Janine West, Coun. David Tordjman and Mayor Mitchell Brownstein.

The transport and positioning of his works, which often weigh up to two tonnes, was almost as important to Rosen as the artistic process. He took a hands-on interest in the engineering aspect of his projects, whose environment and grounding were an integral part of the whole for him.

Self-Portrait started to take shape in his imagination when a photo was found of him at his country home in the Laurentians, showing him hauling boulders out of the lake some 40 or 50 years ago. He was making terraces and walls from the abundant remnants of the Precambrian era long before he tried his hand at turning them into “earth art,” as he called it, which is made by layering chiseled plates of stone from the ground up.

The picture shows Rosen using a system of pulleys and winches that he devised to life the rocks.

In the maquette of Self-Portrait, a muscular, faceless figure strains backward, legs firmly planted, with both hands on a cable that is tied to a stubborn rock at one end and wound around a tree stump at the other, with the mechanism in the middle easing the load.

Dr. Harry Rosen poses with, from left, wife Delores, assistant Sherry Goldstein, and Theodora Brinckman, director of the MAB-Mackay Foundation at the unveiling of his sculpture Maximus. JANICE ARNOLD PHOTO
Dr. Harry Rosen poses with, from left, wife Delores, assistant Sherry Goldstein, and Theodora Brinckman, director of the MAB-Mackay Foundation at the unveiling of his sculpture Maximus. JANICE ARNOLD PHOTO

The figure will be life-sized and the almost waist-high boulder will be real, as will the stump, which will be bronzed, said Goldstein. The mechanism, sometimes nicknamed a tire-fort, is also the genuine article that was retrieved from Rosen’s shop, or at least parts of it are.

Rosen, who grew up in the old Jewish neighbourhood in Montreal, graduated from McGill University’s faculty of dentistry in 1953. He was a specialist in prosthodontics (restorative dentistry), which he practised and taught uninterrupted for 55 years at McGill, and was a mentor to generations of students.

He initiated the first Canadian graduate program in prosthodontics in 1970 and directed it for 20 years.

In 2006, the Dr. Harry Rosen Endowed Clinical Teaching Fund was established at McGill, primarily by patients, as well as the dental community at large, and was described as the first of its kind in Canada.

In 2008, Rosen received the William John Gies Award from the American College of Dentists for his extraordinary contribution to the profession and society. He was the first Canadian in 50 years to be receive the honour.

Rosen always said he transferred the dexterous skills of dentistry to a vastly larger format.

The actual Self-Portrait awaits casting at a foundry in Iverness – a village in central Quebec, near Thetford Mines – with which Rosen has been working since he switched from creating with stone to the less arduous, but more painstaking, lost-wax method.

Self-Portrait will bear the inscription, “My work is my play,” which is interpreted somewhat differently in French as, “je crée donc je vis” (I create, so I live).

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