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Deep-Sea Artist Paints Creatures that Glow Under Black Light

Lily Simonson joins scientific research expeditions as the onboard artist, painting creatures most people will never see up close.

by J.H. Fearless
Oct 30 2016, 12:10pm

In the studio (paintings left to right: Loose Seal Under Ice, 2016, Oil, acrylic and ultraviolet pigment on canvas; Sea cucumber, Oil, acrylic and ultraviolet pigment on canvas; Antarctic Nudibranchs, 2015, Oil, acrylic and ultraviolet pigment on canvas). Images courtesy the artist, unless otherwise noted. 

Despite everything we know about our world, the deep sea is a mystery. Scientists are researching and discovering marine species every day; artist Lily Simonson dives to see them up close, then paints their wild new forms.

Carving out this niche took a combination of resourcefulness, luck, and personality—along with a lifelong dedication to painting sea creatures. Simonson has been drawing marine invertebrates since childhood. After receiving her MFA from UCLA, she started painting yeti crabs, which had just recently been discovered.

Simonson with Antarctic Sea Butterfly, Oil, acrylic, and ultraviolet pigment on canvas, 2016. Photo by the author

The odd, hairy, albino deep-sea crabs merited a closer look, so she contacted Dr. Daniele Guinot at the Museum of Natural History in Paris to see the world’s only specimen up close. “It was the first time I met an oceanographer,” Simonson says, “and she felt like a kindred spirit. She was so passionate about this very specific thing.”

She wasn’t the only one who loved yeti crabs. The species was a significant discovery of the Census of Marine Life, an international project to document and discover marine species. Simonson’s paintings of this discovery earned her an invitation to speak at the Census’ symposium. More conferences and panels followed.

Simonson still wanted to go diving and see marine life in its element. She began seeking out opportunities, mostly through the scientists she’d met. She was in luck: there’s a shift happening in the hard sciences, a movement to invite the public in and share the experience. For some researchers, having an artist along looked like a welcome opportunity.

Lily Simonson beneath the ice in Antarctica, 2014. Video still courtesy of Rob Robbins.

Yearning Yeti Crabs, 2007, Oil on canvas

Soon, Simonson was participating in deep sea expeditions with oceanographer Bob Ballard’s Nautilus and Scripps’ research vessel Melville. She also successfully applied for a government-funded Antarctic expedition through the Antarctic Writers and Artists program. She also began an alliance with Scripps oceanographer Lisa Levin; the two began collaborating on proposals to the National Science Foundation.

Simonson still hadn’t seen her favorite creatures—tubeworms and yeti crabs—in their element. She wanted to get invited onto the Alvin deep-sea submarine. In 2013 at the Schmidt Ocean Institute conference, she met Peter Girguis, head of Harvard’s deep sea lab, and Erik Cordes, who has made over 35 dives in the Alvin. Neither scientist could promise Simonson anything, but she stayed in touch and kept asking. Three years later (and at this very moment), she is at sea with Dr. Girguis’ team, studying tubeworms. Later this year, she will make her first cruise as an official collaborator alongside Drs. Levin and Cordes: an Alvin expedition to see yeti crabs.

On an expedition, using sediment from the seafloor to sketch on the side of the ship van

It’s taken Simonson ten years to secure this opportunity, but in this decade, many more opportunities for artists have become available. Bob Ballard and the Schmidt Institute both now have artist-at-sea programs. Simonson believes that the scientific community is friendlier toward artists now, because art reaches people in a different way than science does.

“The way I see myself fitting in, it’s partly to share aspects of the research and start a dialogue, but I can’t fit the content of a scientific paper in a painting,” Simonson says. “It’s not illustrating either. It’s working in concert with what researchers do.”

With one of her source samples, 2016

Her work isn’t exactly figurative, either. Simonson uses abstraction and anthropomorphization to fascinate viewers, and adds fluorescent and UV-reactive glazes to make her paintings glow. “Most people who see my work haven’t seen that organism before. They know they’re looking at something representational, but they don’t quite know what it is.” It’s the best way, she feels, to capture the mystery of the deep sea and the bizarrely beautiful beings dwelling there.

Sea Butterfly Upwelling (Limacina Antarctica), 2016, Oil, acrylic, and ultraviolet pigment on canvas

Lily Simonson is currently studying and painting tubeworms at 9 degrees North, and will study yeti crabs in spring 2017. Click here to see more of her work. 

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