Art and Science Meet at Nature Lab to Inspire Students
July 24, 2021
PROVIDENCE — Taxidermied birds and bull moose heads. Glittering geodes and jarred animal fetuses. Dried butterflies in glass cases and live axolotls in glass cages.
The crowded collections — estimated to include nearly 80,000 specimens — practically spill out onto Waterman Street through the arched windows of the Rhode Island School of Design Nature Lab.
It’s a captivating sight, but this is no natural history museum. There are no labels, no signage to explain the specific habitat, ecology or scientific classification of every item. Those exactitudes are not the focus here.
Instead, interim director Jennifer Bissonnette said the Nature Lab is meant to catapult students into the crossover world of art and science, to encourage them to connect nature and design in innovative ways.
“We have a lot of students that are excited to not have to silo and keep those things separate, that they can experience them both together,” said Bissonnette, who herself balances a background in coastal resource management and a Ph.D. in marine science with a love of painting.
During the past century, Bissonnette said the Nature Lab has been purpose-built to prioritize students’ “direct, unmediated access” to natural objects in the name of inspiration. Students are encouraged to lift specimens from the shelves, lug them back to their design studios or dorm rooms on lend and scrutinize them as a historian might a leather-backed tome.
Even the live specimens — including two Chilean degus, an albino corn snake named Netop and an axolotl donated after being subject to a Brown University embryology study — can be handled by the students, though these visits are staff mediated.
The lab was the grand idea of RISD alumna Edna Lawrence, who taught nature drawing beginning in the 1920s and planted the seeds of the lab in 1937. She traveled worldwide — by steamer, train and convertible, in true 20th-century fashion — to bring specimens of all sorts back to her students.
“Her thinking was that nature provided endless inspiration,” Bissonnette said. “If ever you were stuck and didn’t know where to go in terms of color, pattern, form, structure, that nature would provide endless opportunities for you to get inspired.”
By Lawrence’s death in 1987, her lifetime of collecting had endowed RISD with a full-fledged cabinet of curiosities. As other schools, including Brown, discarded their collections in the guise of modernity, RISD held Lawrence’s dear.
The collection is still growing today, less from global scavenging than from regular donations from the public. The lab won’t accept items “killed for the purpose of being taxidermized,” according to Bissonnette. But the occasional “cool bird” that flew into a window or unfortunate roadkill may well end up a postmortem model for a resident RISD artist.
Faced with building closures due to COVID-19 last year, the Nature Lab digitized vast swaths of the collection using a 3D scanner, so students could continue the up-close study of form and structure remotely.
But even before the pandemic, the lab was expanding its purview and embracing a more modern approach with a collection of high-tech equipment. A set of National Science Foundation-funded microscopes and stereomicroscopes in the lab’s basement microscopy room allows students to see structural detail at up to 45,000 times actual size.
There is a lot of insight to gain at that level of magnification, said Bissonnette, pointing to a blown-up, black-and-white image on the wall that to her resembles a “leaning tower of Pisa that fell over.” It’s actually the translucent silica cell wall of a diatom.
“Literally billions of years, millions and millions of years, before the Romans came along nature was doing arches as supporting structures, right?” she said. “You can start to get a sense of like … how that design problem was solved through evolution and what can we learn from that.”
Geographic information system (GIS) software and global positioning system (GPS) tools, too, give students another vantage point and help them understand shape and pattern on a landscape scale.
In a dark closet attached to the microscopy room, two students are huddled over a 3D map of Narragansett Bay, lit up by oscillating neon lines. This model is climate, temperature and bay dynamic data, derived from Brown University and the Rhode Island Geographical Information System, visualized in mesmerizing fashion.
Individual data points are input into mapping software to create a virtual mesh overlay, which is then projected down onto a miniature bay, explained co-principal investigator Georgia Rhodes. The goal, she said, is to get art students engaged in scientific data and to better communicate this data to the public.
“We’ve been doing a lot of different testing,” Rhodes said as she hits play on the map’s kinetic energy model — one of many animations in development. On cue, shining blue contour lines rush in and out over Narragansett Bay, demonstrating the “sloshing” of the bay due to tides, wind and storms.
With climate change ever more apparent and younger generations increasingly engaged in environmental activism, Bissonnette said more and more RISD students are seeing opportunity in the Nature Lab.
Students are testing and developing new biodegradable materials made out of wood ash, algae and even kombucha cultures — and organizing them in a new biomaterial library. They’ve designed and built an immersive, biophilic classroom space from the ground up — complete with sustainable cork benches and aquaponic fish tanks — all as part of studio coursework.
The lab is about getting scientists and artists out of “siloed thinking,” Bissonnette said. She is adamant that the reductionist thinking of science — the whittling down of information to a “nugget of truth” — and the expansionist methods of design — the broadening of a prompt into many directions — can be complementary.
“It’s just about encouraging all of that flow between the disciplines that I think makes for a richer experience for the individual and leads to much richer collaborations …,” Bissonnette said, “where there [are] two people effectively starting with the problem at the beginning and really playing off of each other to come up with solutions.”