History of The Illustrated Organism Course

In 1990, during his tenure review, Professor of Visual Arts Walter Hatke described an unforgettable high school physiology class in which he and the other students made exacting illustrations of specimens and wrote about them. Fascinated by this creative combination of art and science, Professor of Biology Carl George, one of the tenure committee members, declared that Union should have such a course.

Soon afterward, the two faculty members designed and submitted a formal course proposal that was enthusiastically embraced by the College administration.

The Illustrated Organism debuted fall term in 1991.

Co-teaching the twice-weekly, three-hour sessions, Professors George and Hatke encouraged students to use both artistic ability and scientific observation to understand the structure of living things.

Their course was an instant success, and over the past two decades, it has been taught by numerous faculty members. Professor Sandra Wimer, a printmaker, and Carl George taught together for four years in the late 1990s, while Hatke joined forces with biologist Peter Tobiessen in 2004, a collaboration that endured for six years.

In Spring 2017, Biology Professor, Nicole Theodosiou, and Drawing and Painting Professor, Laini Nemett, developed a new iteration of Illustrated Organism tailored to their respective expertise. This course was comprised of 16 students with majors ranging from Biology, Neuroscience, Bioengineering, Studio Art, Film Studies, and History. Students engaged in weekly laboratory and studio projects, and classes met either in the drawing studio or in a biology teaching lab, depending on the day’s activities. The weekly lab and studio activities were complemented with studio-based homework, reading assignments, and reflective blog posts. The course was structured around three essential questions: How do form, shape, and space appear at the macro level? How do form, shape, and space appear at the micro level? How do YOU think across biology and art? At the culmination of the course, students responded to this last question with independent final projects. Through self-directed research and preliminary sketches, they explored a significant biological question that they then represented in artwork of varying media, including graphite, ink, acrylic, watercolor, and stop-motion animation. The final artworks were exhibited on the ground floor of the Wold Science Center with a reception in June 2017. Some of these works are included in this exhibition at the Kelly Adirondack Center. 

The course continues to be popular among students in a variety of arts, humanities and scientific majors. Students learn through individual observation in the classroom, regional field trips, guest lectures, outside research and teamwork, an essential component of the syllabus. The course culminates in an exhibition of artwork with corresponding texts by the student artists describing the connection between art and science.

Over the years, countless students have described this as one of their favorite courses – and among the most rigorous, given the combination of intense technical demands and untold hours of highly concentrated work.

Whether sketching duck wings or dragonflies, painting pine cones or sunflowers, students must pay rapt attention. They must learn how to achieve color as accurately as possible, to annotate their drawings with scientific fact and theory, and to interrelate multiple perspectives involving the structure, functions and evolution of living things.

Many students have reported that this focus on precise observation greatly aided their subsequent studies in medicine. Some have found the course to be an entré to art-related fields, including professional illustration. No matter where their careers have taken them, they appreciate the opportunity to have engaged in such a compelling interdisciplinary experience.

This exhibition offers an opportunity to enjoy the outstanding results former students achieved in The Illustrated Organism. It is hoped this unique course, a showpiece of liberal arts in action, will continue to make an impact well into the future.

The organizers of “Drawn from Nature,” along with contributors and participants, wish to thank the wonderful administrators and staff of the Kelly Adirondack Center. This event would not have been possible without their support and generosity.


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Link to recording of

Drawn from Nature Exhibit Opening

January 28, 2021 7:00 p.m.