Skeleton Crew: The Bones and Bodies Behind RISD’s Nature Lab

For 78 years, the Edna Lawrence Nature Lab at the Rhode Island School of Design has given art students a place to inspect—and draw inspiration from—the natural world.

The two naked, middle-aged men scowl; they can tell I’m not where I belong. I entered this room on the top floor of the Edna Lawrence Nature Lab expecting to sit in on a Drawing from Nature class. (The Audubon prints on display were a promising sign.) I imagined I’d find art students at their easels, analyzing the bones of some obscure mammal or, better yet, learning how to load specimens into the lab’s new scanning electron microscope. Instead, the “nature” these two dozen kids are drawing from turns out to be of the nude human variety.

I quickly back out of the room, and head to the front desk, where a student gives me directions to the freshman nature drawing course one flight down; there, the only naked models are dead grasshoppers. The teenagers, all in their first month here at the Rhode Island School of Design, are still swapping weekend war stories when Betsy Ruppa, a gray-haired, red-bandanna’d painter and printmaker “with a thing for human bones,” begins showing them how to prep and mount the preserved insects, then operate the state-of-the-art compound microscopes in front of them. Soon she sets them to work. Silence descends. In less than an hour, the room is filled with near-photographic ink sketches of arthropod anatomy, down to the 100-times-magnified veins fanning out like rivulets across the glassy wings. Any of these kids, each of whom beat out three others for a spot at this school, could give a pro draftsman a run for his money. Biology, meet Beaux Arts. 

There’s plenty more on offer besides pickled insects in this cavernous, four-story redbrick building on Providence’s East Side: geodes; seeds; ctenophores; turtles; spiders; snakeskins; 500 birds or bird remains and their nests; five genuine human skeletons; tire-sized whale vertebrae; ungulates from every continent, their heads mounted wherever there’s wall space. It’s a cathedral, weird and wild. “You know in Brother From Another Planet, how in awe the Brother is of everything?” Ruppa asks later, sitting in her cubicle in the main hall. “That’s how I feel about this place all the time.”

The nature lab has nearly 100,000 specimens in its collection; thousands of them can be borrowed by anyone with a university ID. Fourth-year sculpture major Zoe Lohmann, the helpful receptionist, is partial to the shell and bird holdings. Outside of her schoolwork, she’s a theater technician for student plays at both RISD and nearby Brown University, and the string-and-pulley wings she built for an Icarus production evolved from her study of waxwing and kite bones.

And there’s senior Durga Gawde, who’s also studying sculpture. Her work is full of grotesqueries—inspired by her dreams, she says—including her capstone project: a demented, 10-foot-tall clay flytrap garlanded with modeled viscera she’ll encourage viewers to touch. “It’s big enough to climb inside, because I want you to.” Her eyes turn to saucers. “I want half the audience to look and have to turn away.”

Gawde explains that the typical arts education back in her native India de-emphasized wonder in favor of more regimented, practical study. The space to roam that RISD offered was what brought her here in the first place. “When I transferred from design school in Bangalore, I nearly cried,” she says. “It felt like home.”

Following nature’s inspiration wherever it may lead has been part of the school’s philosophy since its founding nearly 140 years ago. One 1920 graduate in particular came to embody that tradition: A Staten Island-born pastor’s daughter, Edna Lawrence, began teaching nature drawing here in 1922, working with the university’s youngest artists. (It was a freshman course even then.) For 15 years she used whatever classroom the registrar provided. When space opened up after RISD’s library was moved to downtown Providence in 1937, she finally settled in. The nature lab was born in the building where it still lives today.

Lawrence’s first displays came out of the trove she and her housemate Bessie Stone had accumulated, as the tale goes, over years of cross-country drives in their small car, accompanied by a dog bigger than either of them. Edna crossed the sea, too: The lab’s corners are stuffed with sketches of coastlines from Tangiers to Taegu. Over the 38 years she worked at the lab, her stash of wonders grew and grew. In came birds’ feet, washed-up fish, fresh cat carcasses. She never met a roadkill she didn’t like.

By the time Lawrence died in 1987, the collection had become the jewel in RISD’s crown. That year, half a century after it was launched, the lab was named in her honor—some measure of thanks for the life she gave to it. “She never got [the credit] she deserved,” says Joanne Stryker, the dean of foundation studies. “If I wanted to start this thing now, they’d say, ‘Yeah, right!’ ”

By the early aughts, RISD's governing board was worried that while a classical education might be a perfectly reasonable way to train studio artists, it might not be sufficient preparation for kids entering the real world of work in the Internet Age. With businesses increasingly fixated on design as critical to the success of almost any product, RISD’s potential as a breeding ground for design-literate businesspeople was plain—after all, Brian Chesky, a 2004 graduate, went on to found the $20 billion vacation rental company Airbnb. To replicate that sort of triumph, though, the school needed a leader who wasn’t offended by a little commerce.

In 2008 the board hired John Maeda, a graphic designer coming from the MIT Media Lab. Maeda had little in the way of administrative experience, but he offered a sexy new vision for the school: Wrap more science and engineering education around the arts to teach students to see the applications of their work. The STEAM initiative, he called it (that’s STEM plus “Art”); the idea was fewer David Lynches, more Steve Jobses. But despite all the money he spent, including $400,000 for the nature lab alone, the careerism suddenly infiltrating campus was at odds with the old, sentimental spirit of experimentation the school cherishes. Students and staff revolted against what they saw as Maeda’s jargony, autocratic management style, and he decamped for a Silicon Valley venture capital firm in 2013. (He declined to comment for this article.)

Good news was, the nature lab got to keep its new toys. The $85,000 that had gone to the scanning electron microscope, the $22,000 to begin work on a pair of aquarium units, and the chump change to revamp the internal database—digital for the first time in 2014—now mean the questions artists and scientists ask can more comfortably live together, says Neal Overstrom, the director of the nature lab since 2010. “We became a conduit for those questions.”

Footsteps upstairs announce the new period, and Overstrom has to fight to be heard over the rising din: A young man tracing beetles in the next room shatters a jar. Two giggling teenage volunteers are sword-fighting with model tibias in the staff room. Gawde is hollering from the wet lab about the ctenophore tank.

In other words, it’s a typically busy day. The students settle in and the volunteers get back to work, although it never actually gets quiet. The next iPhone could very well find its roots in the nature lab, right here. But the next big startup idea is less important that the underlying genius of the place: the spirit of discovery. The building is teeming with it.

Near the atrium a crowd of first-years futz with taxidermied mouse deer and mounted Barn Owls, trying to beat the clock on a pastel-drawing task. In the adjacent room, four very hip upperclassmen gently arrange the model human skeletons. “You can tell art students use these from all the charcoal smudges on the rib cage,” says Ruppa. This is the “bone room,” she adds, though the eight-foot dolphin skeleton hanging like a chandelier might have given it away. One of the hip kids hushes us; the assignment is due tomorrow.

Thus exiled, I trudge to the basement one last time. In a small room I’d missed before, away from the unending jostle, a graduate student in printmaking loads a set of quartz crystals into the electron microscope. The craggy landscapes, as alien at 40,000x as the surface of a distant ice moon, would eventually become a series of photographic etches. “No point,” he murmurs, without looking up. “Just beautiful.”

Raillan Brooks is a former Audubon associate editor. He is now an editor at The Huffington Post.