Painting Connections Between Parallel Worlds with artist Lily Simonson


Jennifer Berglund, Lily Simonson

Jennifer Berglund 00:04

Welcome to HMSC Connects! where we go behind the scenes of four Harvard museums to explore the connections between us, our big, beautiful world, and even what lies beyond. My name is Jennifer Berglund, part of the exhibits team here at the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture, and I'll be your host. Today, I'm speaking with Lily Simonson, an artist who works with scientists at remote field sites in the farthest reaches of our planet. I wanted to ask her about the inspiration behind her large scale luminescent paintings of the weird and wonderful creatures she encounters, and the insights into that world that she's gained along the way. Here she is. Lily Simonson, welcome to the show.


Lily Simonson 01:07

Thank you so much for having me.


Jennifer Berglund 01:15

As an artist, you developed an interest in deep sea creatures early on. Describe how this happened and how your interests evolved over time.


Lily Simonson 01:26

Ever since I was a really little kid, I was obsessed with the sea, and specifically marine invertebrates, so like lobsters, and clams, and mussels. And whenever we would go to the grocery store, I would want to, you know, my parents to get that stuff so I could save the shells and, like, study them and draw them. This is like kindergarten age, and even younger, I think. And then, when I was maybe seven, I saw a NOVA special on Alvin and on the discovery of deep sea tube worms at hydrothermal vents.


Jennifer Berglund 02:03

And Alvin is a human-occupied submarine,


Lily Simonson 02:06

We're on a first-name basis. Hopefully, listeners can catch up now. I learned that there were these creatures that lived off these sort of deep sea volcanoes, and they looked so crazy, and that just blew my mind, and then I was tubeworm for Halloween, and when I became interested in painting as like a serious pursuit, I got back into sea creatures and started making this series of giant lobster paintings. I had noticed that lobsters are a big theme in Flemish still lifes, and I love Dutch to lifes. So, that was sort of an integration of this sort of quirky childhood obsession with these creatures that are sort of alien and human at the same time. I love the way the paintings seem to glow, and so you have these sort of rich, dark colors, and then they used lots and lots of translucent glazes, and the paintings are just so luminous. I love trompe-l'œil paintings where the painting looks like you're looking at something real, and you almost feel like you can touch it. In the 17th century in European painting, they would have these trompe-l'œil sort of painting competitions amongst themselves to see who could make, like, grapes, glow and pop the most, and so I work in that way too with lots and lots of glazes. I started using fluorescent paints that glow in black light. One of the things that I really like about it is it's this sort of shortcut to the luminous qualities of Dutch paintings from the 17th century.


Jennifer Berglund 03:58

And when you say luminous paints, you mean paints that glow under a blacklight?


Lily Simonson 04:04

Yes. I do the whole painting with regular paint first, and then I redo it with fluorescent pigments that are translucent in white light, but in black light, they glow. So it's sort of two paintings on one canvas.


Jennifer Berglund 04:17

I'm thinking in particular of the display we have at the museum, your exhibit, your art. It's like walking back into the 1970s, or it's like walking into a rave, which I think is just awesome. It just creates this ambience, this experience, like no other art I know of.


Lily Simonson 04:39

That is such a big compliment. I love that because I work for Burning Man, or I used to, and I went to


Jennifer Berglund 04:46

What did you do there?


Lily Simonson 04:47

Burning Man takes place in the Black Rock Desert, which is public lands. It's in Nevada. And the event is a week long, and it's very about DIY and self reliance, so everybody brings their own stuff, or they used to, and builds their own camps, and it's very creative, but there is, like, a city, basically. There's like streets, obviously not paved streets, but marked streets, and there's like public infrastructure. You know, you bring everything yourself, but there are some things that are public in public spaces. So there's a Department of Public Works for Black Rock City that comes like a month before the event, and so my crew that I worked on builds shade structures for, like, the public spaces. So anyway, yeah, I love that culture of psychedelia, and like the 60s, and then the environments that I paint, like the deep sea, and the Antarctic are so otherworldly, they have this very, like, hallucinatory, psychedelic quality. So, that's another thing of why I like the black light paints, and the black light is like reminiscent of rave cultures in the 60s, and that is what a lot of these creatures and a lot of these environments remind me of. The muse that got me back into the deep sea is an organism called the Yeti crab, so I've been making these paintings of lobsters, and then there was a separate series of paintings of moths, and then this discovery of a new organism in the deep sea called the Yeti crab was announced when I was in grad school, and that the New York Times published an article describing it as a lobster with the fur of a moth. So it felt like it was just meant to be because it was these two things that I had been painting merged into one creature. So I've been painting the Yeti crab ever since. And one of the species that was discovered off the coast of Costa Rica, they have this amazing behavior where they're constantly waving their pincers over their bodies, so it looks like they're dancing. And the theory is that they are trying to circulate methane. So they have these amazing furry white pinchers. The fur is actually setae that's covered in filamentous bacteria.


Jennifer Berglund 07:17

So what are setae?


Lily Simonson 07:19

It's like hair and filamentous bacteria, or bacteria that are also hairlike. So they're very, very fuzzy. They've got hair on hair on hair. So, they're very cute, so they've become a popular deep sea critter, not just to me, but a lot of people like the Yeti crab. These yetis live off of cold seeps where methane just seeps sort of slowly out of the sea floor. The bacteria on their pinchers eats sulfur. Basically, there's bacteria that eat the methane and turn it into sulfur, and then the bacteria on the yetis eats the sulfur, and then the yetis eat those bacteria off of their own pinchers, so they're like farming this bacteria. So the theory is that they're waving their arms to try to circulate the sulfur so that they can feed their little bacteria that they're farming, and then they eat those bacteria. However, there's no way to know for sure. They could just be dancing, so their Latin name is actually Kiwa puravida, and pura vida is, like I'm probably saying it wrong because they don't speak Spanish, but it's a Costa Rican term for like, "party on." Erik Cordes, who's a scientist that I work with a lot, I actually finally did get to dive in the sub Alvin to see those yetis. I would have dove anywhere in the world, but it happened to be to see these dancing yetis, which was amazing luck, and we decided on that dive that a group of yetis would be called a "party of yetis," and that actually has come into scientific parlance. It's been used at formal presentations by various scientists.


Jennifer Berglund 09:10

That's so fantastic.


Lily Simonson 09:12

So that's my contribution to science, and every time I think I'm going to get away from the blacklight paint, something happens, such as these yetis, that makes me realize I have to keep working with it. If you're painting a party of yetis, you have to use fluorescent paint. It's like a natural law.


Jennifer Berglund 09:29

You have to! You have to! Now that I've seen it, there's no other way to do it. Absolutely no other way to do it.


Lily Simonson 09:35



Jennifer Berglund 09:35

So yeah, you've really tapped into something there. Both of your parents are artists, right?


Lily Simonson 09:46



Jennifer Berglund 09:47

So tell me about their art, and how did their artistic leanings influence you?


Lily Simonson 09:54

They mostly did ceramics, still do. Most of all, it was just very encouraged from a young age. They're very enthusiastic about art, and so I think that's a big part of what path you choose. If you're a rebellious person, maybe it doesn't matter, but I'm not, so my parents encouraged me. So I think part of that is just the 10,000 hour rule that Malcolm Gladwell talks about where if you do something long enough, you get good at it, so I spent a lot of time drawing, and I think that was part of it, and then also the work itself. And I think one thing that influenced me, they pioneered their own method of creating iridescence on their pottery by blowing tin chloride crystals into the kiln when it's cooling. They have this really beautiful work. They use these dark glazes that have these sort of glowing rainbows. So perhaps that also helped influence my attraction to these glowing styles of painting, like the luminous Flemish and Dutch still lifes.


Jennifer Berglund 11:00

But they also were interested in science, and encouraged your scientific mind as well. Can you talk about that a little bit.


Lily Simonson 11:08

Their hobbies definitely were formative to me too. My mom reads biology textbooks for fun. She has a lot of theories about medicine and the human body, and so her lifelong hobby has been, like, researching that, and then my Dad is an avid birdwatcher, and so I learned to draw studying his field guides. So, I was exposed to Audubon really early on, and so I've always been very influenced on a very deep level by this sort of confluence of art and science, and specifically, folks like Audubon who made art to document scientific discoveries.


Jennifer Berglund 11:52

The exhibit that we have of your work at the Museum, which no one can go to right now, unfortunately. But we have a section with videos, and also in the text, where you talk a lot about the connections between art and science. And you've in fact said you had this realization at one point that artists and scientists actually aren't so different.


Lily Simonson 12:13

Yeah. Well, when I first began working with scientists, I realized immediately that they were like kindred spirits. Because, I mean, in our society right now, I think the connection is becoming more recognized, but most people think of like STEM and the arts as very different, and like left brain, right brain. First of all, scientists, there's not a lot of money in it, so there's like a labor of love element there, but on a deeper level, there's this need to always be doing something new, and to discover something new, whether it's a new discovery, or a new tool. And then of course, art, the whole idea of contemporary art is you've got to be doing something that's never been done before, so there's this need for exploration. And then growing up, I kind of thought of art as just about aesthetics, and then when I was older, I started to realize that what it really is, is you're taking these big ideas, big questions about the nature of life and existence and trying to find material expressions of those ideas. So you're investigating and researching, learning, and then translating that into something physical in the physical world. And I think that science is very similar, where, you know, there are these specific little things that might be getting researched, but they're microcosms for answering, like, life's big questions. Especially in biology, you're looking at physical things, you're exploring the physical material world, but it's this embodiment of big thinking questions. So I think that's a really important parallel too. I mean, going back to, like, Da Vinci, there's always been a lot of overlap and scientists that were artists, and vice versa. Audubon, Maria Marion, Hackel--those are some of my big influences during this Golden Age of Discovery where you didn't have photography yet, and so painting served as this way to show people back home what was in this new world. So yes, art and science have always overlapped, but then specifically, there's this niche of art that documents scientific discoveries, which I've always looked at, but I've seen parallels in my own work, and I draw a lot of inspiration from them. My show at the Harvard Museum is right next to the display of Blaschka glass invertebrates. And the Blaschkas were a father-son team that created these amazing glass models of marine invertebrates, flowers too, and that's what they're better known for, but I've always loved their marine invertebrates. It was a huge honor for me to be able to display my paintings adjacent to their work. With the deep sea and with Antarctica, I think it's very similar to, sort of, what North America was to, like, Audubon. So it's this world that most people won't ever have the opportunity to see firsthand that I have gotten the chance to explore, and can sort of translate, not just what it looks like, but sort of what it feels like to be there. One of the functions I see my art as doing is sort of transporting viewers to a world that they might not otherwise get to experience. There is a lot of photography and documentary filmmaking about those environments already out there, and very accessible, but I think that there's an atmospheric quality that painting can provide, and also an emotional quality. So, I want my paintings to operate on, like, a few different levels, and I like sharing discoveries. Then there's this other thing with painting where, when you first look at a painting, you don't know if you're looking at something that's made up, or made from observation. And the first reaction of a lot of viewers when they see my work is the subject matter I'm working with is so bizarre, and so unfamiliar that they usually think it's something invented, and so I love playing with that, and playing with abstraction, too, and then I often have wall text talking about what the subject matter actually is, and so I love that moment of realization where the viewer thinks they're looking at something totally out of this world, and then they realize it's actually existing on our own planet. Its biology as even weirder than its appearance.


Jennifer Berglund 17:08



Lily Simonson 17:09

Like, Yeti crabs live on sulfur, and there's, like, no light needed in this environment. There's no plants in the food chain. It's a whole separate parallel universe.


Jennifer Berglund 17:19

I love this idea of the deep sea and the life under the Antarctic ice being this parallel universe, what is it that interests you about the parallel universe, and what inspires you to interpret that for the public?


Lily Simonson 17:40

There is a mystery embedded in life in the water. I think that we can understand it intellectually, but there's something about it that just feels unknowable, and almost magical, like, how can something breathe underwater? Humans don't know how to do that. And then you've got this extra dimension where you can move vertically, and gravity is totally different in the water. And because it's something we can't access readily, I have this automatic license to play with abstraction, and I get to paint things that aren't automatically familiar. It's almost like painting in a foreign language. Like, when you paint a tree or a human, something that's, like, immediately recognizable, it's a very different experience for the viewer. I love paintings of those things, but it's much more literal, right? And I always am drawn to the world of metaphor, so I feel like these environments that are under the water or on land, but in Antarctica, where there's no sense of scale at all, you get to live in the world of metaphor more easily.


Jennifer Berglund 18:53

What do you mean, there's no sense of scale?


Lily Simonson 18:55

Well, in Antarctica, there's no trees, except on the research station, there are no buildings. There are almost no people, except for the researchers you're with. So when you look around, you have no sense of distance. You see Mount Erebus, the volcano, in the distance, but there's nothing to indicate how far away it is, and you're just enveloped in this vastness. It's a very different experience.


Jennifer Berglund 19:27

You as an artist, got to go down there with scientists who are studying life under the ice. And that was a surreal experience. Would you say that your experience was unique because of the way in which you experience the world as an artist?


Lily Simonson 19:46

McMurdo Sound has the largest expanse of sea ice in the world. It's covered usually in about six feet of sea ice, sometimes more, but about six feet, and you go down through a hole in the ice that, sometimes they use dynamite to blast the hole, sometimes they saw it out. But generally now, if it's close to the research station, they use a big drill, and drill like a four foot wide hole, and then the water is the clearest water on the planet at this certain time of year, early spring in Antarctica, and so you can see close to 1,000 feet, and generally the best visibility elsewhere is about 100 feet, and that's like really good. So it just feels like you're not even in water. It eels like you're flying through the air. Like on land, lhere's no macro algae, so there's no like seaweed. Off McMurdo, it's volcanic, so you just have this dark, dark volcanic rock with tons of critters all over the seafloor, and then the sea ice itself is just beautiful because you have sunlight streaming through, and then there's diatoms, these microalgae that grow inside the ice, that make it glow neon green and gold, and then the normal ice is just this turquoise that's just a beautiful color, and the light coming through just makes it radiate. It looks like it's totally glowing from the inside. And then there are these amazing giant brinicles, these sort of icicle shapes that are covered in ice crystals, that make them look almost like feather boas or something, they're very feathery, and the underside of the sea ice is very feathery, its texture, because of all the little ice crystals.


Jennifer Berglund 21:38

Sounds like a rave kind of environment, by the way.


Lily Simonson 21:41

Yeah. Very much a psychedelic environment. Yeah. The trippiest environment you could ever imagine, like, it's just such an insane experience. Before I went, I hate being cold, I was so nervous about being too cold, but when you're down there, you just don't even notice your body. It's just so overwhelming the beauty of it, and so unlike anything else I could ever imagine seeing. And then in terms of seeing it from an artists point of view, I think that everybody who dives there has a similar experience of being almost transformed by it, but I think that most people who dive there are researchers, or going there and supportive research, and so they're looking for something really specific, and they're working really hard, and your time there is valuable, so I think the special thing for me was that my duty there was to really absorb the beauty and translate it. I don't know if there's anything special about me in that sense because the beauty is just so overwhelming, you can't miss it. But I think that I had the luxury of getting to just focus on that. And I did help with fieldwork too. I always like doing that. But my primary mission was to just absorb how gorgeous it was, and try to figure out how to translate that into painting.


Jennifer Berglund 23:17

You've also been diving in Alvin, which is a pretty amazing experience. I think for a long time, it was at least one of the only human-occupied deep sea research vessels in the world, so that's pretty incredible you got to dive on it. Tell me about that experience, and, same question. How do you think your experience was unique to you as an artist?


Lily Simonson 23:41

Alvin is a three-person submarine, so there's two scientists, or in my case, a scientist and an artist ,and the pilot, and it's also like traveling to another planet or something. So, you're in this crazy little situation where you're in this small little sphere, and you're crowded together, and you spend a full day on the seafloor, so you leave first thing in the morning and you get back in the evening. The most surprising thing about diving in Alvin was, again, the sort of psychedelic quality. So descending through the water column, you know, you see it go from light blue, and then it gets darker and darker, darker, and then it's pitch black for a long time. But there are so many bioluminescent organisms that fly by through the portal. I mean, I had heard about it, and I thought it would be sort of what I'd seen at the surface where you sometimes get to see those bioluminescent bacteria on the surface, but you see whole glowing creatures with crazy shapes whizzing by constantly. They're just everywhere, and I'm forgetting the statistic, but it is actually, like, the majority of organisms in the ocean do make their own light.


Jennifer Berglund 25:02

Yeah, I think it's like 75% or something like that. It's insane.


Lily Simonson 25:06

That sounds right. It's just astounding. And so you really see that, which was one of my favorite parts of being there, aand there's nothing else like it just, it's so trippy! It's pitch black, and then these glowing--and it's not just that one sort of green glowing color, there's like turquoise and all these flashing, glowing critters flying around outside, it's just amazing. Even weirder was seeing these dancing Yeti crabs in person. They're like little Fraggles. I don't know if you remember the show Fraggle Rock. So it's really dark, and then you see there all these big muscles around. I thought we'd see like a dozen little Yeti crabs, but there were hundreds--this rare species, but they're just everywhere, and every little muscle, you see these little fluffy white claws peeking out, waving back and forth. I mean, I've seen so many nature documentaries, I spend a lot of time hiking, but there's just nothing else like that either. That was just mind blowing. All these little fluffy little Muppets surrounding you everywhere, dancing. That was my experience diving in Alvin, and I think it was a similar distinction where, as an artist, it was my job to spend all that time making sketches and taking it in, and thinking about the experience. And of course, I also helped locate various samples, and helped with the science a little bit. You have to take tons of notes. A lot of your time is staring at this clipboard writing down every sample you take, and there's a lot of focus there too, even for somebody like me because the spot in the sub is so valuable, so I had to contribute in that way. But still, it was my main assignment, and my main purpose was to just take in the visual qualities and the experience, and think about how to translate that to the public. My training is in being a contemporary artist. So, I went to art school and got an MFA, and so a lot of my work is thinking about being in dialogue with that world and contributing something new to it, and exploring the materiality of paint, and responding to movements in art history that I've talked about, and thinking about big questions that impact everyone. But then there's this other level where I've realized that the subject matter that I'm drawn to is in a very precarious position where, even though these worlds are so remote, like the deep sea and the Antarctic, they are sort of paradoxically susceptible to human activities. And I think that climate change, and finding a sustainable way of interacting with the planet is, like, the big existential question facing all of us, and I feel like everybody should be talking about that, so part of what I'm doing is documenting these things before they go away, and then also hoping that they will not go away because I'm documenting them, and because I'm inviting viewers to relate to them, not just intellectually learning about them, but also realizing how special, and how beautiful, and how biologically rich they are. I think a lot of people think these areas are barren, so, okay, we can mine them for lithium for or phone batteries. That's sort of my goal is that people will have the sort of sublime experience, but also that that will change the way they think about how they inhabit the world and what they can do to conserve it.


Jennifer Berglund 29:06

You've had this incredibly exciting and interesting life. Younger explorers listening to you who are, perhaps, interested in both art and science--what advice would you give them?


Lily Simonson 29:23

My path has been discovering something that I'm authentically, genuinely excited about, and then exploring every possible avenue to go in depth on that subject, and also just sort of being really open with what I want, and putting it out there. So you know, I really wanted to go to sea, and so I kept putting it out there. And you have to put in the time, so finally, after, I think three years of working with Lisa Levin at Scripps, she invited me to go on an expedition, and then, you know, I got to go on a couple more. I sailed on the Nautilus first, just by applying to go as an educator. They had a program for educators, and I said, well, I think of myself as an informal educator, can I apply? And they said, "Okay." So you sort of have to stretch the limits, and now they have a program for artists at sea after I did that, and then, also, just every single scientist I met who was looking at the deep sea, I eventually started saying, like, "I'd like to dive in Alvin, do you have any Alvin expeditions coming up?" And that's how I eventually started working with Pete Girguis at Harvard, and then because of my ongoing collaboration with Pete, I ended up getting the opportunity to share my work at the Museum at Harvard. All these opportunities just build on each other if you really put yourself out there. I think it's much easier to keep at it if you are focusing on something that you're genuinely passionate about, and genuinely moves you. Find that thing, and then go really deep on it. That's been my path and it's worked for me.


Jennifer Berglund 31:11

Lilly Simonson, thank you so much for being here. This has been really fun.


Lily Simonson 31:15

Thank you so much for having me. So great to talk to you, Jennie!


Jennifer Berglund 31:26

Today's HMSC Connects! Podcast was produced by me, Jennifer Berglund, and the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture. Special thanks to Lily Simonson for regaling us with her stories, and inspiring us with her art. You can see her work in the Harvard Museum of Natural History as soon as we reopen. Thank you so much for listening! If you liked today's podcast, please subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Podbean or wherever you get your podcasts. See you in a couple of weeks!