Edna Lawrence's 117th Birthday

Edna Lawrence in the Nature Lab.

The RISD community recently celebrated what would have been Nature Lab founder Edna Lawrence’s 117th birthday.

During her education at RISD, Edna excelled in block print, pastel, crayon, oil, watercolor, and scratchboard, and was known for bringing her cat to class. After graduating in 1920, she set out on world wide trips alone, usually traveling by freighter with two suitcases: one filled with art supplies, and one with only clothes and bare necessities, so she could leave room in her case for the yet undiscovered treasures she would bring back from her travels.

Edna started teaching drawing at RISD in 1922, using any classroom available. In 1937, she was able to claim what is now the Nature Lab space on campus after the RISD library moved from that building to its current location. She began filling the completely empty library shelves that remained in the space with seed pods, pine cones and shells she picked up on her walks, and butterflies and insects she captured in her garden.

Edna and a specimen.

Every summer she added to the collection with specimens she and housemate Bessie Stone gathered while traveling cross country and around the world. Edna explained, “I started this lab with things I picked up myself and then others began to give me things.”

During World War II, Edna sketched over 600 soldiers and sailors in hospitals and service centers in Providence, Taunton, and Newport, and then mailed the portraits she painted of them to family members they had to leave behind.

For 53 years, Edna inspired students while teaching at RISD, as well as at the Handicraft Club, the Providence Art Club, and the Lifetime Learning Center of Hamilton House. Along with nature drawing, she taught cast drawing, life drawing, sketch and action, freehand and mechanical perspective, watercolor, drawing and painting for architects, foundation drawing, portrait drawing, still life painting, and museum research for the Interior Decorating department.

She was a member of the Providence Art Club, the Providence Watercolor Club, the Audubon Society, Rhode Island Field Naturalists, South County Art Association, and was a recipient of the Art Club Medal for outstanding service to the community in 1975. In 1968, Edna received the RISD Alumni Association’s Alumni of the Year Award.

Over the decades, Edna's collection grew to one of the most impressive resources available at RISD. She continued to add to its extensive collection of nature specimens with flowers, leaves, shells, birds, fish, insects, minerals, and sea life. Today, the collection numbers over 80,000 items.

After Edna's death in 1987, the lab was officially named in her honor. It was always Edna Lawrence’s intention that the nature lab be a research facility rather than a museum, where visitors could study specimens for what she referred to as “design content and inspiration value.” In 1941, Edna said her goal was to “open the student’s eyes to the marvels of beauty in nature: of form, space, color, texture, design and structure, and to help them realize the functions and reasons for nature’s creations.” A truly forward thinking woman, Edna succeeded in launching this research and cross disciplinary collaboration space unique in the country.

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The RISD Nature Lab is an EPSCoR|C-AIM Core Research Facility supported by the National Science Foundation under Cooperative Agreement #OIA-1655221 and EAGER Grant Award #1723559. ​​​Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed on this site are those of the Nature Lab and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.​

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