Salon: RISD's Nature Lab and the vision of founder Edna W. Lawrence

The Providence Athenaeum's April 6th Salon, "Edna’s Nature Lab | RISD’s Nature Lab", celebrated the vision of the Lab's founder, Edna W. Lawrence, honoring the Lab’s 80th anniversary and Miss Lawrence’s mission to “open students' eyes to the marvels of beauty in nature.”

Jointly presented by the Providence Athenaeum and the RISD Nature Lab, the Salon brought together three panelists (Betsy Ruppa, Alba Corrado and David Wagner) to discuss the significance of Edna Lawrence’s vision from their respective disciplines.

Lab Coordinator, Betsy Ruppa, kicked off the open panel with stories about the Lab's founder and how she began her natural history collection. Miss Lawrence graduated in 1920, began teaching at RISD in 1922, and started the Nature Lab in 1937. She collected specimens during her adventurous travels around the world and brought items back to the Lab for her students to use, a practice continued by Ruppa today.

What Lawrence started has grown not only in size, but into a hands-on teaching collection. Ruppa shared how the Lab “continues to be a resource for students to visualize, contextualize and juxtapose specimens. They ask questions, gain information and inspiration from their observations.” Today, the Nature Lab also houses a Wet Lab (soon to become a Biodesign Makerspace) and an Imaging and Microscopy Lab, which allows students to look at pattern, form, texture and color in nature at a microscopic and macroscopic level. In describing the value of having a natural history collection at an art school, Ruppa concludes: “You never know what will spark someone’s imagination or how any given student will interpret a specimen. That’s why you give them as much as you can and let them run with it.”

Alba Corrado, a designer, artist and Senior Critic in RISD’s Experimental and Foundation Studies department, shared her memories as one of Miss Lawrence’s former students. All first-year students took the required yearlong Nature Drawing class taught by Lawrence (endearingly referred to as "Ma Lawrence" by students). Corrado discussed how she learned to “notice the mathematical growth in nature;” its composition, organization and how to capture that in a drawing. In her own teachings, Corrado emphasizes observation and in depth visual analysis in the 3D courses she instructs at RISD today.

Entomologist David Wagner spoke to the audience about the role that color and pattern play in nature. Wagner, Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at University of Connecticut and the co-director of the Center for Conservation and Biodiversity, spoke actively about the significance of “looking structurally at insects and flowers” and how color can function as camouflage and mimicry in the natural world. For example, a caterpillar’s color combinations or a praying mantis's movements are just a few of the many examples of visual communication that exist in nature.

All the panelists alluded to how interacting with and expressing nature through investigation, representation and the observation of forms, pattern and color provides a deeper understanding of our natural environment. Miss Lawrence’s acknowledgment of nature’s teachings holds true throughout various professions and can be appreciated from different perspectives.

How Edna Lawrence moved through this trajectory can be seen at the current exhibit Observing Nature: Edna Lawrence & The Cabinet of Curiosities at the Providence Athenaeum’s Reading Room. We can encourage you to visit and learn more about Miss Lawrence and her mission!

Exhibition Dates:

April 6-June 17th, Tuesdays and Thursdays 12pm-6p. Other days and times by appointment.

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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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