The Art of Science

RISD’s Nature Lab continues its founder’s mission to find beauty and design in the natural world


Have you ever passed the Edna Lawrence Nature Lab on Waterman Street, between North Main and Benefit, and wondered about the items you glimpsed within? Perhaps you spotted taxidermied, antlered animal heads and various potted plants, or small glass boxes full of curious objects and a massive porcupine fish hanging from the ceiling. Perhaps you turned a corner and noticed a tank of swirling live jellyfish, glowing purplish-blue at night.

It may surprise you to learn that this assortment of natural artifacts, both living and preserved, in fact comprises a nature lab at the Rhode Island School of Design that just celebrated its 80th anniversary – a lab that also now houses cutting-edge technological equipment, helping students, researchers, and other innovators to bridge the perceived gap between science and artistic design. The site is home both to art students drawing inspiration from the artifacts to scientific experiments on climate change and the intersections of nature and design. And it’s all thanks to longtime RISD professor and class of 1922 graduate Edna Lawrence.

The Waterman Building, constructed in 1893, was the first structure built specifically for RISD (founded 16 years prior); the first floor housed the school’s museum, and drawing studios were up above. When the museum moved out, the first floor became library space available for faculty teaching use, where professor Edna Lawrence began teaching “Nature Drawing” in the 1930s.

“She started collecting things from her own travels to serve as specimens the students could look at and gain inspiration from,” says Jen Bissonnette, Biological Programs Designer for the lab and one of three full-time scientists on staff there, who supervise students at work in the lab and teach classes and workshops. It was unprecedented for an art school to have a nature lab, and most of the items Lawrence amassed are unlabeled, instead grouped together “according to how Edna thought they made a nice display,” says Bissonnette.

Although at times challenging from a forensic standpoint, Bissonnette notes that the lack of identification – “we call it direct, unmediated access,” she says – does have its advantages. Rather than feeling educationally onerous to students – “sort of ‘Oh, I guess I’m going to have to learn today’” – the lab instead asks, “‘What do you see that’s appealing and intriguing?’ and invites you to explore that however you want to,’” she says. “It’s about getting inspired by those forms, colors, and patterns.”

RISD students and faculty can “check out” many of the lab’s 80,000 specimens – a collection that has grown even after Lawrence’s retirement in the 1970s thanks largely to donations from alumni and various organizations. Between RISD student and faculty activities, approximately 8,000 “checkouts” every year, classes, and visits from off-campus researchers and other groups, the 5,000-square-foot Nature Lab tends to stay quite busy during the 80 hours it is open weekly. Last year, it provided visits and tours to 62 different
organizations and schools.

The first-floor collections, including the ornithology “bone room,” make up only one part of the Nature Lab. Before her retirement, Lawrence specified that she wanted the lab to have a microscope and projector so that students could see the world up close. Over the years, with help from two Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) grants awarded to the state of Rhode Island to research the impacts of climate change on coastal ecosystems (RISD is the only art and design school nationwide to receive such a grant), as well as an EArly-concept Grant for Exploratory Research (EAGER), the lab has been able to purchase high-tech imaging systems, research-grade microscopes, and high-speed camera systems with 3D-scanning technology: “everything to take students from the micro to the macro, to look at the fundamentals of pattern form and structure of ecosystems, or a citywide scale, or a regional scale – all in one place,” says Nature Lab Director Neal Overstrom.

The bottom floor furthers Lawrence’s original mission to “open students’ eyes to the marvels of beauty in nature… of forms, space, color, texture, design and structure” and complements the collections upstairs by using technology to focus on the inter-connectivity of nature, science, and “emerging areas of evidence-based design.” (The upstairs floors are still used as art studios.) The work of students like Maria Ferreira, who used the inverted compound microscopes to record crystals growing under polarizing filters, and Brown graduate Beatrice Steinert, who used the lab’s technology to study and later create a children’s book about marine plankton, demonstrate the potential for innovative ideas at the intersections of science and art.

“It’s not just adding an artistic viewpoint or skills to existing STEM disciplines,” Overstrom says. “It’s really a way of thinking about how art and design study can provide that gateway to students who might not otherwise engage with them.” Cutting-edge concepts like Biomimicry (emulating nature’s patterns and strategies to find design solutions for human living), Biophilic Design (integrating nature into architecture and industrial design), and Bioremediation (using microorganisms and other life forms to break down environmental pollutants) are all the subjects of experimentation at the Nature Lab.

The lab invites work-study students with weekly shifts to curate their own display cabinets from time to time. The lab’s old wood-and-glass cabinets and small glass display boxes containing various insects, plant components, and other specimens create “this cabinet of curiosities kind of feel, and it’s very loosely organized – very little if any interpretation,” says Overstrom. Each time a student reorganizes a cabinet, “you juxtapose specimens in a new way, and you create a different narrative.” Such an unstructured approach invites viewers to think “more holistically about the fundamentals of pattern, form, texture, color structure,” Overstrom says. “All of the things that are as integral to our design education as they are to the sciences.”

One room houses a living wall and aquaponic tanks with fish and plants sustaining each other in an integrated system. The room will soon become a biomaker space, Bissonnette says, and this spring, students will actually design the space according to Biophilic principles, which are currently being studied intensively for their potentially positive impacts on health, productivity, focus, and well-being.
“To my mind, the Nature Lab becomes this crucible – this space where you can hold the art and science together and have some really interesting reactions and interactions happen,” says Bissonnette.

“It’s all transdisciplinary,” Overstrom adds. “Edna Lawrence said that you can always turn to nature as a source of ideas and invention, and that’s especially true now that we have more people living in urban spaces than ever before – and that trend is going to continue.” By marrying scientific inquiry and artistic innovation, the Nature Lab is the place to examine “living systems in the context of urban spaces.”

The lab is a private facility but occasionally holds programming open to the public. From April 6 through June 17, the Providence Athenaeum will host Observing Nature: Edna Lawrence & Cabinets of Curiosities, an exhibit of the Athenaeum’s Natural History Collection displayed with specimens from the Nature Lab.