Life-Long Devotion to Nature and Art - Aleta Karstad

July 10, 2012 share
Artists for Conservation

We all know someone who is devoted to a cause. Sometimes, we think the person is eccentric or extreme; sometimes, we wonder "Why the dedication?"; sometimes, we simply admire the commitment and never-ending effort. In this blog, I would like to introduce you to a person who unquestionably deserves our admiration, who begs the question "Why?" and who is maybe just a little bit eccentric.

Throughout her life, Aleta Karstad has followed her muse of environmental awareness and the use of "art" to foster public awareness. Born in Guelph, Ontario in 1951, Aleta learned her love of nature through helping her wildlife pathologist father, Lars Karstad, with travels and field work. After a three-year Fine Arts course at Central Technical School, Toronto, where she studied under Doris McCarthy, she began work in biological illustration at the National Museum of Canada.

Aleta's passion for nature and illustration has never diminished. Her qualifications as a naturalist and her artistic abilities have been demonstsrated clearly in the projects she has completed. In 1979, Aleta's "Canadian Nature Notebook" was featured in "NATURE CANADA" magazine wherein Aleta's credentials as a "fine young artist and a consummate field naturalist" were specifically noted. In her compendium of work, Aleta has tackled subjects of ultimate difficulty for a biological illustrator; subjects such as, "Unionids in Freshwater Molluscs of Canada" and "Identifying Land Snails and Slugs in Canada: Introduced Species and Native Genera" (2009/10). (A listing of publications can be found at

In 1973, Aleta married a brilliant biologist, Frederick W. Schueler....a marriage of interests and dedication that allows them to goad each other into doing things that they don't think they have enough strength to do. Aleta and Fred have been residents of Bishops Mills outside Ottawa since 1978, and have been very involved in recording local natural history. More importantly, their shared passions have gone far beyond mere "artistic expression" and "interest in nature." At the start of the new millennium, Aleta was a major force in the creation of the EASTERN ONTARIO BIODIVERSITY MUSEUM. Besides addressing issues of scientific/artistic concern for conservation at a level far more abstract than that of an average "nature lover", Aleta was responsible for painting a four-season diorama more than 50' long and for curating the collection of exhibits inherited by the new Museum.

Aleta has captured Fred's field note system and blended it with her own as an archival system of record-keeping which they offer to the public as the Nature Journal. [See ] Her concern for "seeing" details and for the permanence of records she makes of the places she visits have led to an original journal format combining drawings, watercolours, lettering, and design in archival-quality materials. Like many carefully thought-out individual techniques, this approach has proven useable by others - both experienced artists and novices of all ages. This can be a vehicle for every interested individual who loves nature. In her words, "The careful study required for a drawing of a natural object, and the reflection that must precede a verbal description of it, bring one closer to the natural world than more superficial methods." Since 1995 she has been teaching groups of children and adults that, even if they think they cannot draw or write effectively, the elements of the ‘journal page' support each other in a pleasingly unified work of art that is a permanent record of its place and time.

Aleta's focus on the environment and art has not deviated throughout her life. Aleta's and Fred's travels in the ‘90s resulted in the production of a book entitled "FRAGILE INHERITANCE". Written and illustrated over the course of two trans-Canada trips, ambitious and lavishly illustrated with paintings and drawings, the book was passed between publishers in the design stage, and unfortunately remains unpublished. Through the ensuing three decades, Aleta and Fred have continued with the same work... the long term monitoring of nature in Canada.

In 2001, Aleta and Fred reframed their project as "30 years later" revisits to sites and hypotheses they had been to over the past 20 to 40 years, assessing the condition of ecological communities and populations of plants and animals, some of them now ‘Species At Risk.' Their plan is for Aleta to paint and draw enroute while Fred adds valuable new data to historical records. Aleta's daily paintings constitute the majority of the financing for their project thus preserving the independence of research into what-seems-most-important rather than what-is-glamorous. Fred's contribution is a database partnership with the Canadian Museum of Nature...a partnership that is building on a database of over 100,000 records.

In 2010, the Canadian Museum of Nature made the "30 Years Later Project" its "International Year of Biodiversity" project, as Aleta and Fred set out across Ontario and eastern Canada, doing daily paintings as they revisited locations and gathered more data. The "30 Years Later Project" is a rare, long-term study being undertaken in an age of short-term projects. As such, the importance of their work has not gone unnoticed:

"The 30 Years Later project is not only exceedingly ambitious, it is vital. It is vital in the sense that we all need to pay attention to what is happening to our natural world. The original expeditions over the past 30 years produced comprehensive and elegant documentation of a broad spectrum of ecosystems in North America. The exquisite paintings by Aleta are gems of art and observation. I look forward to the results of 30 Years Later. This project deserves wide support and the wide-eyed attention of all Canadians and beyond. The world needs more teams like Aleta and Fred." - Robert Bateman

As a Signature Member of AFC, Aleta's life-long effort and dedication as an Artist for Nature and for Conservation merit recognition worthy of very few.

A more comprehensive overview of Aleta and Fred's accomplishments and activities can be found at]


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