Member Spotlight: Trudy Nicholson

TRUDY NICHOLSON AT HER WORK DESK. PHOTO © MIKE NICHOLSONFrom the moment I could see over the top of my mother’s drawing board, I was captivated by the magic of a blank sheet of paper turning into an image. I saw her hand with pen, pencil or brush create charming animals – often for me. That fascination never left me. All through school, in the Philadelphia suburbs, my interest especially centered on Art and Biology. Just before graduation, my biology teacher told me about medical art schools — information that I stored in my mind.

> Trudy Nicholson at he work desk. Photo © Mike Nicholson

After Columbia University majoring in Fine Art, I stayed in New York and worked at art museums – first at the Hispanic Society, and then in the print department of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In both cases, I was surrounded by magnificent art that inspired me to want to do my own art. That’s when my biology teacher’s suggestion kicked in and I applied at the Massachusetts General Hospital School of Medical Illustration, a three-year program headed by Muriel McLatchie Miller, who had studied under Max Broedel. I started that program in 1955 and there lies my introduction to a medium new to me, namely scratchboard. After graduation, I headed for Washington D.C. to take a contract position illustrating the snails that carry schistosomiasis at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and then on to join the Medical Illustration Department there, where I stayed for 30 years.

COTTONMOUTH SNAKE, 2002 © TRUDY NICHOLSON; INK ON SCRATCHBOARD; PUBLISHED IN STORIES FROM WHERE WE LIVE: THE GULF COAST, SARA ST. ANTOINE, ED.Even in that research environment, I longed for more variety — for an opportunity to do work in other natural science fields that might bring me closer to illustrating animals. I would go to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. In those days security was almost nil: I could wander the halls, knock on doors, introduce myself as a scientific illustrator to curators, and ask if they needed illustrations. Some did. One serendipitous day in September 1969, I walked into the Museum foyer and there was an exhibit of scientific artwork. Not only the work was on display, but the artists were also. This was the first GNSI exhibit of members’ artwork following the foundation of the Guild. There sat the founders actually doing the work that I longed to do, and prepared to answer questions about that work. So I asked and in the process discovered the Guild. It didn’t take long for me to join. I felt that I had reached a long-sought-for goal. Cherished friendships developed.

> Cottonmouth snake, 2002 © Trudy Nicholson; ink on scratchboard; published in "Stories From Where We Live: the Gulf Coast", Sara St. Antoine, Ed.

I was already a member of the Association of Medical Illustrators (AMI), attending their annual conferences. Gradually a small group of artists who like me were both AMI and GNSI members started using these AMI conferences as an opportunity to have our own meetings and small workshops and exhibits. My husband, Mike, made a fold-up exhibit stand that I carried to conferences, set up in whatever space we had been assigned and displayed the Guild artwork that we had collected. This continued until 1979 when the Guild had our own GNSI conference and a larger Annual Members’ Exhibit. At our own Guild annual conferences, I set up a small exhibit that we called “Price Guessing” that was fun as well as informative in giving samples of freelance pricing. That exhibit continued until 1999.


 > Cat and Locust. 1998 © Trudy Nicholson; graphite pencil on scratchboard; Published in Grass Instrument Co. Calendar: Motor Control

In 1974 I took over the Guild Newsletters from Elaine Hodges, who was finding it difficult to continue that along with her other Guild work and illustration work. I continued in that job for 8 years, collecting articles, typing them up, pasting up pages and running it all to a nearby printer. In 1982 Alice Tangerini and I collaborated on sending illustration technique articles to new members, which evolved into a packet of “Technique Sheets”. These created the kernel of the idea for The Guild Handbook of Scientific Illustration that Elaine R.S. Hodges worked so hard for so many years to bring together.

In 1972, along with Guild work and NIH work, I started a free-lance job doing the illustrations for a scientific calendar for a Massachusetts-based company manufacturing medical equipment, the Grass Instrument Co. That work continued for 26 years, each year bringing in a neurobiologist to write the calendar’s essays and plan the illustrations. And here I had the opportunity to illustrate animals — one for each month and one for the cover. I was illustrating animals in their habitats. I had arrived. All of those illustrations were done with graphite pencil on scratchboard. While I was in Medical Art school, a friend had given me a small book, How to Cut Drawings on Scratchboard by Merrill Cutler. I had already been introduced to the medium of carbon dust on scratchboard and also ink on scratchboard, but this little book showed me how dramatic and exciting scratchboard art could be by using the light and dark contrast to its full advantage. Having been interested in printmaking, I took to this medium with enthusiasm. It seemed to me to be a medium that could show even fine detail with accuracy and yet still be stimulating art. And its correctability certainly helps. Over the years, since I’ve retired from NIH, scratchboard has become pretty much my only medium. For the work I’m doing now it fills my needs perfectly. Since I joined the Guild I’ve given so many workshops on scratchboard at many of the Guild conferences since they began. I think that I notice a shift away from digital art leaning back toward traditional art, where scratchboard lies.


> Cheetah Mother and Young (in progress) 2013; ink on scratchboard; for the National Zoo, Smithsonian Institution

I enjoy the work that I’m doing now, which is mainly illustrating books about nature and the natural sciences. In 1998 Charles Kingsley Levy, a scientist who had worked on a Grass Instrument Co. calendar, asked if he could use some of the calendar illustrations for a book that he was writing, Evolutionary Wars: A Three-Billion-Year Arms Race, and asked me to do new illustrations for parts of the book that Grass calendar illustrations wouldn’t cover. Since then I’ve illustrated numerous books on science and nature including Owls Aren’t Wise and Bats Aren’t Blind by Warner Shedd – published in 2000 and still selling, The View From Lazy Point by Carl Safina and The Kingdom of Rarities by Eric Dinerstein. I’ve also illustrated a series of books by the geneticist John Avise. Each one of the books that I’ve illustrated has been a treasured experience. Among other treasured experiences is working at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo. I’ve illustrated every animal in the Small Mammal House, and in the process, I feel that I’ve bonded with each one. Their unique beauty never ceases to fascinate me.

Along the way, all my family have been enthusiastic and supportive and have posed for me since humans often find their way into my illustrations. Mike scans my work and photographs creatures for me and contributes whatever effort could help the Guild. Although neither our sons nor our grandchildren have followed my path, as I followed my mother’s, now a great-grandson shows inclinations of becoming an artist. Here I am, all these years later still enthralled by that magical process of turning a blank surface into a scene, a creature, a story. My animals don’t have the human attributes or accessories that my mother did, they stand on their own as they are, in their natural world. What a splendid way to spend a career.


> Greater One-Horned Rhinoceros, 2013; ink on scratchboard; published in the Kingdom of Rarities by Eric Dinerstein


This article appears in the GNSI Journal of Natural Science Illustration 2014 no.13

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