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Idaho State University Biology Alumna’s Art Featured at Idaho Museum of Natural History

August 31, 2023

Ashelee Rasmussen

Seeing her artwork adorn the walls of the Idaho Museum of Natural History, Idaho State University Alumna Ashelee Rasmussen describes it as a bit of a homecoming. 

“This is where it’s meant to be,” says Rasmussen, “and there’s not a better place for it.”  

The Renaissance-era works of Raphael or Picasso's cubist creations would be out of place in a museum dedicated to the natural world; however, Rasmussen’s nature-focused pieces of saber-toothed cats, peregrine falcons, peacock spiders, tropical pitcher plants, and landscapes from her excursions in Oregon, fit right in.

“Some of my earliest memories are of me watching my mom draw mountain lions and horses,” said Rasmussen. “I’ve always been interested in nature, and as I got older, I realized I could draw the things I was seeing as a way to help remember them. My mom, being an artist herself, helped cultivate my interests in art and science.”

Throughout her youth in Malad, Idaho, Rasmussen nurtured her love of art and nature by capturing what she saw in nature with a pencil and sketchbook. Later, she ventured into other mediums.

“I started with detailed pencil drawings, which led to ink and watercolor, which is kind of my main medium currently,” said Rasmussen. “I didn’t explore digital illustrations until much more recently, but even my digital art seeks to replicate the traditional techniques and media I already love.”

When she started thinking of her education beyond high school, she knew she wanted to fuse her two twin passions.

“I wanted to pursue science education, and art was going to be part of it,” Rasmussen said.  

Majoring in ecology at Idaho State University, Rasmussen devoured classes on botany, herpetology, mammalogy, ornithology, and more. “I tried to take as many organismal classes as possible because I felt it would be important to have a broad knowledge base,” said Rasmussen. Along the way, she found support from Professors Emeriti Rick Williams and Chuck Peterson, who encouraged her to use her talents on her class projects. 

"Ashelee has been applying her skills as a biological illustrator since I met her as an undergraduate student taking my amphibians and reptile class,” said Peterson. “For her class project, she chose to illustrate all of the Idaho species of amphibians and reptiles with line drawings. Since then, we have used those drawings on multiple projects. I share her view that there is more of an overlap between art and science than is usually recognized.”

As a young scientist and budding illustrator, it was such a huge thing for me to have the support of my professors like Rick and Chuck,” Rasmussen said. “To know these scientists saw value in my interest in using art in my biology classes and projects helped me to see the potential in developing these skills. I am so grateful to them for not just accepting my somewhat unusual interests, but their encouragement and inclusion set me on the path I am on today.”

As a student, Rasmussen interned at the Idaho Museum of Natural History and was initially hired to work in the herbarium, to help care for the pressed plant collections. But, her interests and knowledge about other organisms led to her working in other life science collections. Also recognizing her artistic talents, she was soon tasked with creating illustrations for the museum's exhibits.

“At the Idaho Museum of Natural History, I learned that there are many uses for illustration in communicating science and nature,” Rasmussen said. “Sometimes art is used to attract attention or set the scene for specimens and information. Other times, illustration is the main way of explaining important ideas or showing unique organisms. I had many wonderful learning experiences figuring out the best ways to use combinations of illustration, words, and natural objects to engage and teach about nature and science.”

Earlier this year, she wrapped up her graduate studies at ISU with a doctoral degree in biology. Rasmussen’s dissertation focused on ways science teachers can utilize drawing in their classrooms to help students learn the material. 

“With this research, we designed and implemented drawing methods to use in natural science classrooms to help students develop observation skills, learn the material, and develop specific ways of thinking and learning,” said Rasmussen.  I developed and refined various ways to use drawing for different purposes, topics, learning levels, and skill levels. I had many opportunities to take what we learned about the benefits of using drawing as a science learning tool and put it to work in nature illustration workshops and courses. I also presented these methods in workshops for local educators to help them bring drawing directly into their science classrooms.”

Over the course of writing her doctoral dissertation, she created over 60 illustrations and was planning to highlight the works at an art show. It was her advisors who pointed her back in the direction of the Idaho Museum of Natural History and their new Community Gallery.  

“I jumped at the idea because it was the perfect place for my biological illustration-themed exhibit,” Rasmussen said.  “I approached my friends at the museum with the idea, and they happily agreed it was a great fit.”

“Ashelee's artwork is something special,” said Leif Tapanila, director of the Idaho Museum of Natural History. “We're eager to support Bengals with a venue to showcase their creative work and make connections between art and science."

The exhibit marks Rasmussen’s first formal art show and explores “how illustrative art tells the stories of science and nature to explain, educate, and engage.” 

“Ashelee's work is not only technically excellent but quite beautiful,” said Brandon Peecook, assistant curator of vertebrate paleontology. “It's been a real treat to work with her on her reconstructions as she merges the seemingly combative, but actually complementary, features of science and art.”

There is also a section with tips and advice to help anyone try their hand at illustrating what they find in the natural world. 

Even for someone who doesn’t feel like they are an ‘artist,’ drawing something from observation makes you slow down and look at what you are drawing,” said Rasmussen. “Drawing allows you to notice things you haven’t before, record those things you notice, and think deeper and make connections. Drawings are also a record of not only what you saw, but your experience and thoughts during that time. It’s a holistic and engaging way to experience nature. With practice, not only will your drawings get better, but so will your observation and deep thinking skills.” 

For more information on the ISU Department of Biological Sciences and Idaho Museum of Natural History, visit isu.edu/biology and isu.edu/imnh.


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