In Memoriam: Lawrence B. Isham
December 27, 1922 - September 18, 2011
by Mary Parrish, scientific illustrator, and Martin A. Buzas, research geologist Department of Paleobiology, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution
Larry Isham, scientific illustrator for the Department of Paleobiology, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution for 30 years, died on 18 September 2011 of congestive heart failure at his home with hospice care in Arlington, Virginia. Larry helped found, drafted the first constitution, and was the first president of the Guild of Natural Science Illustrators.
Larry belonged to the “greatest generation” who saved the world from tyranny in WWII. He joined the Army Air Force in May 1942 and became a bombardier on a “flying fortress” or B-17. From a brief overview of his career as of 1970 Larry wrote:
“After the freshman year it became apparent that the Allies were not going to win World War II without help, so Larry decided to assist the air force. (This was so long ago that it was then the Army Air Corps.) His decision must have boosted German morale greatly. His first published artwork was a series of cartoons and a cover design for an air force yearbook, drawn in bombardier school before going to Europe to terrify the Germans, also the English, French, Dutch, et al. Following his three-year career in the Air Corps, it was decided that in the interest of national survival, Larry should resume civilian life and go back to school."
His squadron saw combat in the air offensive over Northern France Ardennes. Some of the events he encountered on missions over Europe make movie versions of the air war pale by comparison. He received his honorable discharge in April 1944.
Larry returned to school, studying at the University of Miami where he earned a bachelor’s degree (1947) and a master’s degree (1952) in marine biology. While a graduate student he prepared illustrations for the Bulletin of Marine Science and others. He published several scientific papers in marine biology during the 1950’s, but soon decided his true calling was as an artist and scientific illustrator.
Larry’s early professional work at the United States National Museum (now called National Museum of Natural History) began in 1953 as a contractor drawing foraminifera for A. J. Loeblich, Jr. Larry’s talent was quickly recognized and in 1954 he was offered a permanent Federal Position at the museum drawing fossils for what was then called the Department of Geology. During his career he drew thousands of illustrations of specimens ranging from protista to dinosaurs. The quality and detail of his drawings were beyond comparison. Much to his chagrin at the time, scientist Martin Buzas recalls that the remarks colleagues made about a paper using a new statistical technique were not about the statistics, but about how wonderful the illustrations were. Larry's drawings were published in the most prestigious scientific journals, such as the cover of Nature, as well as in the more arcane such as the Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections.
As a new young curator at the museum, Marty Buzas remembers Larry Isham inviting him to join a march up Constitution Avenue one day in 1963. When they got to the Lincoln Memorial, they witnessed Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial. Nearly every day for the next 20 years, Buzas and Isham had morning coffee and lunch together.
They discussed all subjects and developed a rather cutting repartee. Larry's personality was large and attracted many people. Others who joined in these events, and there were many, sarcastically coined the experience as attending the Buzas-Isham school of charm and diplomacy. Artist colleague and co-founder of the Guild Carolyn Gast relates of her association: "I remember sitting around a table with Larry (and other co-founders of the Guild) and having a SERIOUS (Guild) BUSINESS MEETING, (if you know what I mean) and laughing so hard…I almost fell off my chair."
Larry wrote articles about illustration, taught workshops (including the Guild summer workshop – then part of the graduate school, U.S. Department of Agriculture), mentored students, and lectured about scientific illustration throughout his career. Of special note are his chapter Preparation of Drawings for Paleontological Publication in Handbook of Paleontological Techniques published in B. Kummel and D. Raup, eds., and his Pencil (author), and Illustrating Fossils (co-author) chapters in The Guild Handbook of Scientific Illustration, E. R.S. Hodges, ed. Larry also contributed substantially to editing the Guild Handbook.
Larry was master of all traditional scientific illustration media, but he is most well known for his superb pencil technique referred to now amongst scientific illustrators as "the Isham Technique” (March 1976 GNSI newsletter, Proceedings of the GNSI 1986 annual conference, and Guild Handbook). Larry notably excelled in preparing difficult interpretive drawings including three-dimensional cutaway illustrations and reconstructing extinct animals. These sorts of illustrations go well beyond the mastering of drawing techniques; they are complex illustrations difficult to conceive and execute correctly.
One of his last jobs at the museum was to reconstruct a series of plants and animals for the Burgess Shale exhibit. The drawings were printed on the wall via silk screen, a reproduction medium that required pen and ink drawings to be bold, simple, and clean in order for it to work properly. Many of these illustrations were later published in Briggs, Erwin, Collier's The Fossils of the Burgess Shale, 1994. They are now among the Department of Paleobiology's most requested images for reuse in books and other media today.
Larry retired from the museum and scientific illustration in 1983 to devote full time to fine art painting and teaching. His specialty was painting in oil and acrylic using both brush and palette knife. He sold paintings in galleries in Virginia, Maryland, Michigan, and New Mexico. The subjects he painted were varied but included scenes of the Chesapeake Bay (particularly its skipjacks), portraits, landscapes, and even surrealistic paintings. He taught painting in the Arlington County Adult Education evening classes two times a week since retirement in 1983 and taught painting for Arlington County, VA senior adult centers as well.
Of Larry's later life, Robert Cwiok, who also maintained a studio at CPAS for many years, says:
“Larry Isham was not only a talented and skilled illustrator; he also pursued his long time interest as a fine art painter. He was one of the initial artists selected for the Arlington Arts Center studio program when it opened in 1976. This rag tag group worked together with Arlington County to establish a center for the visual arts in the former Maury Elementary School in Arlington. Larry developed many lifelong friends at the AAC and in 1989 a small group of them set out to establish a private shared studio space enclave. Through their efforts Columbia Pike Artist studios opened in August of 1989 above the Draft House and Cinema on Columbia Pike. Larry served on the CPAS Board of Directors for many years and continued to maintain his painting studio until shortly before his death. His sharp sense of sarcasm and good humor was always appreciated by (most of) the artists he spent so much of his time with.”
Larry's death marks the end of an era in natural history illustration; his generation is the last to prepare all their illustrations using traditional media (rather than digital), designed for printing on paper (rather than electronically), and usually in black and white. Larry Isham’s work is among the best in the world. The few examples we show here cannot begin to do justice to the volume, diversity, quality and intricacy of his work. His talent, humility, honesty, sharp wit, and kindness will be missed.
We thank Ellen Alers and Sarah Stauderman, Smithsonian Institution Archives (SIA); Robert Cwiok, CPAS; and Larry’s widow, Elizabeth Isham, for their assistance. Information at SIA was obtained from record unit 543.
Larry's official job description is also transcribed for a look at the requirements for a scienctific Illustrator in the mid-twentieth century.