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Turid Holldobler-Forsyth
Turid Holldobler-Forsyth

Lives Lived: Turid Holldobler-Forsyth, 74 Add to ...

Artist, photographer, scientific illustrator, gardener. Born on May 26, 1939, in Wurzburg, Germany; died on April 27, 2014, in Kingston, Ont., from brain and lung cancer, aged 74.

Given a dish of live ants to draw at her first job as a scientific illustrator at the University of Wurzburg in Germany, 19-year-old Turid Fenzl faced a problem: how to get them to stay still. The ants, as they are wont to do, never stopped moving. She soon learned to put them in the refrigerator for a little while so she could draw them before they revived. She knew her illustrations had to be perfect. The entomologists who were her bosses were going to count every hair and check every detail. So she kept looking into her microscope to make sure she got them right before she drew and painted the insects.

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Turid’s illustrations of the ants would appear in some famous books, including the Pulitzer-winning The Ants, by renowned Harvard entomologists E.O. Wilson and Bert Holldobler, Turid’s first husband. By the time that book was published in 1990, Turid was no longer married to Bert, but to her second husband, Adrian Forsyth, a Canadian biologist and author. In 1982, they had moved to a home they built themselves in the woods near Opinicon Lake, north of Kingston, Ont.

And Turid was no longer painting insects, but rather large watercolours of plants and other flora, in microscopic detail. She painted a fantastic, huge triptych of a cabbage seen from an ant’s perspective. Her image of castor bean from 1980, which hangs in our home, is a captivating, dappled patterning of subtle shades of browns and greys.

Turid Forsyth, as she was known in Canada, worked as an artist, illustrator, photographer and, during her final years, as a china painter. Her works give pleasure, with their exacting detail and energetic form. Her paintings and photographs, many made from her own garden, grace many bestseller gardening books and calendars. Her illustrations in field guides to the tropical rain forest of Monteverde, Costa Rica, where she had a winter home, bring plants, animals and insects to life.

Turid was a small, sturdy woman, and very strong from a life of continuous work, gardening, and hauling wood for her wood stove. She enjoyed wine, meat and good bread, and playing the piano. She dressed with the distinctive style and elegant flair of the artist she was. She punctuated her words with wit, a knowing smile, and criticism, which she readily offered whether it was needed or not. She lived alone after her divorce, and only her cat Robbie escaped censure; he repaid her love with endless purring and morning gifts of small dead animals, which he put on her bed.

Turid had a wide circle of friends in Canada, the United States and Costa Rica, as well as her family in Germany, whom she visited every year. Raised with her brother and two sisters during and after the Second World War by their mother, Turid recalled her childhood not as an ordeal but as a time of discovery. When Allied soldiers requisitioned the family’s home, one of the few intact houses in severely bombed Wurzburg, they moved to the countryside, where Turid’s new delight in the natural world brought her – and many others afterward – joy in the pictures that she made.

Steve Lukits is Turid’s friend.

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