Painting the Deep: expanding the reach of ocean sciences through art

Lily Simonson, Artist, Oakland, CA, United States
Art has a unique capacity to engage viewers on both a cerebral and emotional level. As a painter who collaborates with oceanographers in Antarctica and on deep sea expeditions, I aim to share scientific discoveries from these sites and inspire the public to protect them. This task is more urgent than ever. The Southern Ocean and the deep sea represent the most remote reaches of our planet, yet they are paradoxically very susceptible to anthropocene-induced shifts from ocean acidification, warming, and deep sea mining. These changes have accelerated just as technological advances are enabling scientists to explore these worlds in a comprehensive way.

Working with scientists in situ infuses my art with an in-depth view of my subjects and the research around them. Through art-science residencies and invited collaborations, I have participated in numerous oceanographic expeditions, creating art while aboard research vessels, in DSV Alvin, and scuba diving beneath the sea ice of McMurdo Sound, Antarctica. Most recently, as the Schmidt Ocean Institute Artist-at-Sea on the RV Falkor, I stood watches, assisted in experiments, and even painted with the ROV manipulator arm. Sharing my cross-disciplinary process through social media, video, and exhibition texts demonstrates that hard sciences can be accessible to individuals from varied backgrounds.

Showing in galleries and museums around the US and Europe, I find that my art engages audiences that might not otherwise be exposed to this type of research. My current exhibition of paintings, on view at the Harvard Museum of Natural History through March 2020, will reach an estimated 500,000 visitors. The dramatic compositions glow under blacklight and highlight the rich connectivity of life in environments that were once thought to be barren. Magnifying tiny organisms to human scale on giant canvases, I invite viewers to identify with their otherworldly marine counterparts and immerse them in worlds that would otherwise remain obscure. The expressive and immersive qualities of my art serve to highlight current research in a way that is nuanced, memorable, and highly personal. The paintings serve to not only advance public knowledge of these rich ecosystems, but to inspire stewardship.