Life (or death) drawingEdna W. Lawrence Nature Lab, RISD, Providence, RI

RISD Nature Lab sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Speaking of taxidermy, Wednesday’s post reminded me of my trip back to Providence a couple of years ago, to show the Tailor around my old city and my alma mater. He was politely interested in my tour of the campus, but I knew he’d completely freak out (and I was right, he did) when I showed him my favorite haunt of all: the Nature Lab.

I can’t tell you how many hours I’ve spent in this place, but needless to say, this building was a second home for three years of my life. Now before you think I’m a total nutcase for spending all that time in a room full of dead things, let me explain. The Nature Lab exists for a very specific purpose: to provide real, no-kidding, three-dimensional reference material for drawing.

RISD feels very strongly (and if you read this blog, you know I do, too) about the importance of drawing from life. When you sketch something tangible, right in front of you, all sorts of sneaky extra knowledge (understanding of anatomy and structure! A real grasp of 3-D space! An interest in science!) takes root in your brain, making you a far better artist than any photograph ever could. In this age of Google image searches and the Inter-tubes’ enabling of half-baked research, this stuff is more important than ever.

RISD Nature Lab sketch by Chandler O'Leary

The Nature Lab was founded in 1937—and it remains remarkably unchanged today. So the result is a stunning combination of natural history museum and down-home lending library. RISD still operates its specimen collections as if the Internet never existed, and I love that (ask me sometime about the glorious Picture Collection—their circulating library of half a million physical image clippings!).

RISD Nature Lab sketch by Chandler O'Leary

When I was a student here, I was mostly entranced by sketching the individual objects in the collection. (I mean, how often do you get to touch a baboon skull?) But now it’s the overall effect of the whole that gets me. This place is the ultimate cabinet of curiosities—and proof that you really can get lost in one room.

RISD Nature Lab sketch by Chandler O'Leary

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Comments (2)

  1. Angie

    Wait – a lending library???? Does this mean you can check out a sailfish or a crocodile skull for a week, and take it home with you? How awesome is that!
    Please tell us more about the Picture Collection…

    1. Chandler O'Leary Post author

      Hi, Angie! Yep, a lending library—at least in a limited capacity. Students/alumni can only borrow certain specimens, and definitely not the big taxidermy animals or fragile things. I remember being to check out shells, insects in cases, resin replica skulls and other small items. And faculty can check out many of the larger items (including some of the taxidermy pieces) to bring to their classroom for the day. Most of the freshman drawing classes are in the same building as the Nature Lab, so it’s common to walk into drawing class and find a stuffed squirrel in there or something. And there are occasional live-animal drawing events at the Nature Lab, too! I spent a Saturday sketching an alpaca there once.

      And the Picture Collection is the best! I was a student there before there was any sort of decent online image search, so it was invaluable to have an entirely analog collection at my fingertips. They have image clippings of every conceivable photo reference (and lots of art history examples, too), laminated and catalogued in minute detail, by subject matter. So you could look up something like “Furniture Design > 20th Century > Finland > Alvar Aalto > round stool” and find a whole folder full of images—and check ‘em out, just like library books. It was (and still is) fantastic.


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