Memories of Carolyn Gast
This article appears in the 2015 no.4 Journal of Natural Science Illustration
– by Trudy Nicholson
Carolyn Bartlett Gast, the primary founder of the Guild of Natural Science Illustrators, passed away in September, 2015. Carolyn may have left us, but certainly her efforts to establish an organization to bring scientific illustrators together has flourished beyond her expectations since GNSI became a reality in 1968.
Carolyn’s career started with her studies at Boston University, near her family’s home in Wellesley, Massachusetts, where she earned a BS degree in Book Illustrating. Her father, Lt. Commander Samuel C. Bartlett Jr., a WWII veteran, awarded the Legion of Merit for his service, was recalled to duty by the Navy after the outbreak of the Korean “police action” in 1950. Assigned to the Pentagon, he brought his family from Wellesley to Washington DC, where Carolyn did her first scientific drawing at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in 1951. The following year she spent training and drafting for the Army Map Service. Returning to the Museum, she then specialized in drawing micro-fossils for the U.S. Geological Service.
When her family returned to Massachusetts, Carolyn stayed at the Smithsonian to become the staff illustrator for the Zoology Department; when Zoology divided into Vertebrate and Invertebrate Zoology (July 1, 1965), she chose to be staff illustrator for Invertebrate Zoology. In all, she worked for the government for 30 years, retiring in 1985.
Just prior to her retirement, the National Museum of Natural History held an extensive exhibit of her work consisting of a selection of 80 pieces. The illustrations on view ranged from fossils and fish to insects and invertebrates. Many of these subjects could be seen only under the microscope. There were also illustrations where the elements of Medieval illumination — fine pen work and raised gold embellishments — were evident. Highly praised, this exhibit opened the eyes of many to exactly what natural science illustrations are and how beautiful the work can be.
The Medieval development of professional guilds during the Middle Ages fascinated Carolyn and led to our organization being established as a guild. This fascination also led to her work in stereo illumination manuscript letters, which she had originally intended to do for each letter of the alphabet, including raised gold leaf and also inlaying mother-of-pearl that she carved from abalone shells.
Whatever media that she chose to use, she perfected. She generously shared her expertise, giving workshops on carbon dust and matte lineation (black and white mixed media). Perhaps her favorite medium was damp wash on scratchboard, which she described in the Guild Handbook of Scientific Illustration [1st edit. p. 163-4], as well as “White and Gray Carbon Dust on a Black Ground” [1st edit. p 146-7, 2nd edit. p.159-160].
The most unique quality of Carolyn’s approach to her artwork was her creation of gadgets that went far beyond what can be found or even imagined among standard art supplies. She invented and made an ultra mini-vacuum cleaner that could be held in one hand for taking excess carbon dust and other detritus from the board!
In her personal life were her husband, Mike Gast, and her stepdaughter, Bonnie Lutz, both of whom she loved dearly. Mike, an accomplished painter, was always by her side in her later years.
Carolyn is listed in Who’s Who in American Art. She had such a wonderful wit and gave those who knew her numerous anecdotal stories that revealed her humor, her talent, and her kindness as mentor, friend and associate; a few of these follow:
Contributed by Molly Kelly Ryan:
In the nine years that I was a contract illustrator, I had come to know Carolyn, not only as the person who produced unbelievably beautiful drawings for the Department of Invertebrate Zoology and the founder of the Guild of Natural Science Illustrators but, as a sweet and generous mentor to many illustrators.
When Carolyn decided to retire in 1985, she lobbied for me to “replace” her. Carolyn was leaving the museum in the middle of a project, which the scientist wanted completed in Carolyn’s technique. So on several Saturdays I went to her house where she patiently tutored me in her complex black carbon dust/white dust/ pencil/ink rendering of invertebrates, using both sides of the drafting film. Start with the hard stuff!
Not only did I inherit scientists who expected accurate and beautiful work, I also inherited a lab full of wonderful and exotic supplies to create the “just right” effect or push creativity in a new direction. There were drawers full of all kinds of brushes and pen points, many having been altered by Carolyn, even a brush with only one full-length hair. There were powders and paints and pencils of all kinds. She loved trying new gadgets and techniques. I found several handwritten and illustrated tutorials detailing techniques, so I could get started making sense of these tiny, often bent or broken creatures from the sea.
I could not have asked for a better immersion into my chosen field.
Contributed by Karen Ackoff:
The first time I met Carolyn was at the National Museum of Natural History when I was invited to give a talk to the DC chapter on my research on the biomechanics of movement in horses. Of course this included showing some of my artwork. Prior to my talk, I met Carolyn briefly and she was standoffish. After my talk, she came up to me and apologized, saying, “I didn’t know you were good.” There was no higher praise!
Although Carolyn was an accomplished scientific illustrator, some may be unaware of her other interests. She did decorated letters, with incredible illumination work (raised gold leaf). But if that wasn’t enough, she did these letters in the form of stereoscopic cards, so that in the appropriate 3D viewer, they appeared 3-dimensional. Being interested in Medieval manuscripts and historical styles of decoration and illumination, she and I chatted. Working with raised gold leaf is, at best, difficult. Her craftsmanship was flawless. I asked what technique she used, and it was like no other. Instead of the traditional Medieval recipes of white lead, slaked plaster, etc., she described carefully removing the top ply of the paper, creating an inset shape. She then packed in typewriter Wite-Out until it was raised slightly above the surface of the paper, and shaped it to a smooth surface. She then applied gold leaf. I’ve never seen anyone do this before or since. Amazing ingenuity!
Contributed by Scott Rawlins:
One time, when Carolyn was in the hospital recovering from minor surgery, she was trying to finish a drawing of a sea anemone — a drawing that is featured on one of the color plates of the Guild Handbook. Because of the medication she was taking, her dreams were especially vivid. In one, she found herself seated among the tentacles of her anemone, irritated that the tentacles on her left were singing the Hallelujah Chorus, while the ones on her right were singing the French National Anthem. They seemed to want to drown each other out.
Carolyn once told me that when she was in art school her assignments consistently received lower than desired grades because she was kind of sloppy. One of her teachers told her that she needed to take a scientific illustration class to help her “tighten up”. I think we can all agree that Carolyn’s work is some of the “tightest” (meant as a compliment) that has been produced by scientific artists.
Carolyn shared some of her crustacean illustrations with a curator at the National Gallery of Art. The man said to her, “This isn’t illustration – it’s fine art!”
In my classes I use Carolyn’s drawing of the Loriciferan (the new phylum discovered a number of years ago) as an example of why illustrators are needed — no camera could effectively reproduce the detail, complex structures and transparencies found in animals that are about the size of sand grains.
Excerpted from the GNSI Founding Member Awards (1996) write-up by Marlene Hill Donnelly:
Once, in order to achieve the perfect tone in a drawing, Carolyn went to a police detective and obtained finger-printing dust, which has appeared in many subsequent drawings.
In the Washington Post review of her 1984 exhibit, Pamela Kessler wrote:
When she was illustrating lobsters from preserved specimens at the Smithsonian, she found herself spending a lot of money to satisfy her appetite for lobster dinners after work.
The fact that a particular fish was caught by a fisherman who dragged it behind the boat made things difficult, because its scales stuck up at angles. But she didn’t know this, and with a policy of drawing exactly what she sees, she carefully limned the shadows cast by the scales. But fish scales are supposed to be flat against the fish, and when a curator saw it, he said, “That’s the most beautiful drawing of the worst fish I have ever seen in my life.” This fish, on display in the exhibit, is the only one she terms “a Disaster.”
Portrait of Carolyn Gast, painted by her husband, Michael Gast in 1984. Photo by Michael Nicholson.
Carbon dust on Cronaflex UC-4 film, by Carolyn Bartlett Gast, image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.
Dilute ink on tracing paper, by Carolyn Bartlett Gast, 1966, image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.
Carbon dust on Cronaflex UC-4 film, by Carolyn Bartlett Gast, 1977, image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.
Mixed media on Cronaflex UC-4 film (includes paint, ink, black & white carbon dust and pencil, on both sides of film), by Carolyn Bartlett Gast, 1982, image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.