City Life

Inside the Nature Lab, RISD’s Cabinet of Curiosities

You never know what kind of friends you'll make at RISD's Nature Lab.

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For young artists studying at RISD, the Nature Lab is a portal into forests and ocean depths well outside of our state’s humble borders. Taxidermy and specimens line the walls of the Edna W. Lawrence Room, where students work off of the stuffed and skeletal forms on everything from life drawing to industrial design. The space is generally only accessible to students, but the Nature Lab’s coordinator, Betsy Ruppa, recently gave us a tour after introducing us to the lab’s well-loved mascot – a gentle, eight year old corn snake named Netop.

Of the lab’s “namesake and spiritual guide,” Betsy says that Edna Lawrence, a RISD instructor who founded the Nature Lab in 1937, travelled the world collecting specimens “back in the days when women didn’t do that too often and when customs weren’t so tight.”
The collection has only grown over the decades, incorporating live saltwater marine life and a powerful electron microscope whose ability to magnify specimens up to 45,000 times allow students to experience even the tiniest of organisms. In the Nature Lab, science and art inform one another in tandem.

“The application of natural materials and the specimens themselves inspire students in ways we can’t even predict,” says lab director Neal Overstrom. “We’re facilitators in that regard.”

A passerby might be lucky to catch a glimpse of a specimen through the Waterman Street window but for the students, the lab is a chance to experience whole new worlds of wildlife. 13 Waterman Street.