Lily Simonson Tests Divides Between Art, Science

A portrait of two pteropods, based on Antarctic creatures Simonson observed while diving under the sea ice. The painting of these 1/2-2 inch creatures is 72 x 216 inches ( 6 x 18 feet). The gorgeous, luminous colors vibrate with the energy of the Antarctic waters. photo courtesy of Lily Simonson.

A portrait of two pteropods, based on Antarctic creatures Simonson observed while diving under the sea ice. The painting of these 1/2-2 inch creatures is 72 x 216 inches ( 6 x 18 feet). The gorgeous, luminous colors vibrate with the energy of the Antarctic waters. photo courtesy of Lily Simonson.

On April 20, 2016, Lily Simonson, painter and educator, visited Lick-Wilmerding’s Journalism and A Block Short Story classes. Simonson’s expansive and profound works explore the intersections between abstract art and natural science. A keen observer of nature, Simonson specializes in creating portraits of marine life, that she obtains from labs or collects herself on expeditions. In her own words, she creates “large-scale paintings of remote, otherworldly organisms and environments, from Antarctica to the deep sea.” 

Simonson developed her interest in painting as a child growing up in Maryland. In particular, she took an interest in lobsters, painting broad, abstract portrayals of the crustacean. 

“I always made drawings, ever since I can remember,” Simonson says. “I discovered that today, making art means that you’re also a thinker, and it’s more of an intellectual pursuit.” 

Simonson initially wanted to do social justice work, but had a change of heart upon starting college at UC Berkeley. 

“When I got to college, I had some professors who were really inspiring. I grew up wanting to be a civil rights lawyer,” she remembers. “I decided, though, that I’d try being an artist and try to contribute to the world through my painting instead.” 

In college, her interest in lobsters moved gradually to moths, but she retained her same artistic style. She graduated with a BA in Art Practice from UC Berkeley, and went on to receive an MFA in Painting from UCLA. 

After college, Simonson went looking for a new subject to paint. By coincidence, scientists discovered Kiwa hirsuta in 2006. More commonly known as the “yeti crab,” Kiwa hirsuta is a white crustacean with long, hairy arms; it resembles a combination between a moth and a lobster. In an interview with radio station 89.3 KPCC, Simonson expressed her excitement in her scientific, time sensitive art; she’s “painting things as they’re discovered.” Enthralled with her new subject, Simonson traveled the world to visit science labs to paint the crustacean up close and personal. 

Lily Simonson at a preview of Midnight Sun in her Oakland studio. Photo by Robin Von Breton

Lily Simonson at a preview of Midnight Sun in her Oakland studio. Photo by Robin Von Breton

Simonson looked to continue her involvement in science. A scientist friend tipped her off to the National Science Foundation’s Antarctic Artists & Writers program. The purpose of the program is to provide a bridge between the esoteric scientific work being done in Antarctica and people back in the United States. The program gives artists and writers the opportunity to live and work with scientists in Antarctica, documenting aspects of the experience through a creative medium. 

Simonson applied for the program and won the grant. She then traveled to Antarctica and was immediately struck by the artistic rarity of the place. 

“Antarctica itself is a totally unique place. The sense of scale is totally distorted, because there are no plants, no buildings; it’s like being on another planet,” Simonson says. “There’s an interesting sensation of being somewhere really remote. It’s outside the realm of normal existence, it feels almost transcendental.” 

 On her first trip to Antarctica, Simonson spent three months living with the scientists in the camp. She participated in many of the same activities as the scientists, including camping outside the base among massive glaciers and diving in the freezing waters beneath several feet of ice. 

While in Antarctica, she had the chance to interact and tap into the experiences of the scientists and compare their work to her experience as an artist. 

“I think it’s nice for morale to have an artist along because the process for scientific research is so slow, they have to do their fieldwork, and research, and repeat those studies, year after year, and it’s often many months or even years before they can publish their research and do anything with that data,” she recalls. “Painting is much more immediate. I work very slowly, but I can still make a painting anytime between a day and a matter of months. So, they see results from their work in my paintings much more immediately. So it’s kind of nice for them in that way.” 

The works that Simonson has created based off her experiences are nothing short of remarkable. The works are vast, profound, and possess a somewhat magical aspect to them; most of her work features two-inch wide deep-sea life on six by eight feet canvasses. 

“There’s an element with my work that I really enjoy, when audiences look at my paintings and think that I’m painting something imaginary,” she says about her art. “Then they realize that it’s a real organism with this totally improbable existence, like it’s either living with no light, or really deep down in cold temperatures, or around these hot vents. So that part is really cool, too, to see that moment of discovery in my audience.” 

Simonson often layers her paintings with fluorescent paint that glows under black lights. Simonson hopes that her works will inspire viewers to take more of an interest in and become more passionate about their natural surroundings, as she has. She speaks of her use of art to stir environmental awareness: “There’s this feeling in the scientific community of urgency, because our environment is changing so quickly. A lot of these deep sea communities are being destroyed quickly, from mining and climate change. 

A lithograph created by Simonson portraying a yeti crab (2006) photo courtesy of Lily Simonson

A lithograph created by Simonson portraying a yeti crab (2006) photo courtesy of Lily Simonson

There used to be a culture in science of wanting to be totally objective, but at this point I think the feeling is wanting people to care.” She views art and creativity as “a way for scientists to share their research in a different way besides just publishing papers. It’s bringing emotion into it. How do we get people to care? We’re trying to expose people to the beauty of these creatures, and these environments.” 

Simonson credits inspiration for her work from other famous nature illustrators such as Ernst Haeckel and Maria Sybilla Merian. Both artists were active centuries ago, before photography became the primary medium of documenting nature. Simonson believes that natural illustration have great value in both the scientific and artistic hemispheres. 

“I think I like painting and drawing because it’s got this long tradition, and it’s related to the history of natural illustration,” she states. “Now we have digital photography to document new discoveries, so that’s doing the job of natural illustration, but I can do something that photographs can’t really do; I sort of create my own narrative.” 

Simonson has had three solo exhibitions at the CB1 gallery in Los Angeles, California. Her first show, in 2012, was entitled “Wet and Wild” and featured large paintings of deep ocean creatures. Her 2014 show, “On Ice,” featured her art from her Antarctica expedition. Simonson is currently showing “Midnight Sun,” a multimedia show that includes more large portions of her work from Antarctica. 

The exhibition Midnight Sun is on display through May 29. 

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