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Lily Simonson's luminous Antarctica art

Turtle Rock, Antarctica, 2016, Oil, acrylic, and ultraviolet pigment on canvas 24 x 36 inches by Lily Simonson
Turtle Rock, Antarctica, 2016, Oil, acrylic, and ultraviolet pigment on canvas 24 x 36 inches by Lily Simonson
Lily Simonson/CB1 Gallery

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How far will an artist go for her art? For Lily Simonson, it’s Antarctica. She went there last year with the National Science Foundation’s Antarctic Artists & Writers Program. These creative professionals accompany scientists to the South Pole to collaborate on research, and then bring back their findings back to share with the rest of us.

Antarctica felt like a perfect fit for Simonson, who’s been painting and drawing marine life for years. After a rigorous application process, she was accepted to the program. Before flying to Antarctica, she shipped gallons of paint, a sketchbook, charcoal and enough clothing for six weeks. Once there she stayed at the U.S. research base, McMurdo Station, for 99 days.

The base sits at the foot of Mount Erebus -- the southernmost volcano on Earth. In the summer it reaches a high of -4 degrees. Simonson accompanied scientists to the top of the volcano and tried to paint. “My paints immediately froze," she says. "So I wasn’t able to make any plein air paintings, but I did make a lot of drawings. But it’s so windy and so cold, that my drawings were a little shaky. They looked a little scribble-y.”

Simonson’s proposal for the National Science Foundation was to illustrate Antarctic life on land and in the sea, which also meant scuba diving in below-freezing waters. She had to wear a massive dry suit and gloves to protect herself from the icy waters. And yet, when she finally dove six feet under the ice, she discovered a world unlike anything she’d ever seen.

“It doesn’t even feel like you’re in the water, it feels like you’re flying through the air,” Simonson says. “Sea stars, and urchins, and anemones, and huge sponges — there’s this phenomenon of gigantism. Because there’s more oxygen in the water, the animals grow bigger in more temperate waters ... and it glows. It’s very luminous.”

Simonson not only makes these other-worldly creatures accessible to the public, but scientists such as oceanographer Andrew Thurber see a value in working with an artist like her too. Thurber studies worms that are only visible through microscopes. He says one of his collaborations with Simonson included "telling her about the worms and showing her some imagery of the worms that I studied in the Antarctic ... I think she was able to capture that beauty and mystery of the ocean in the way that I never could using words — definitely not what I can convey in public using a scientific graph.”

For Simonson that’s where the worlds of art and science converge. She sees herself following in the heritage of explorers who were also painters, such as like Audubon, Dürer, Henslow, and Darwin, who documented newly-discovered organisms. Simonson says Antarctica and the deep sea are some of our final frontiers: “They’re both under-explored. And we’re constantly discovering new phenomena and new organisms, and so that makes me feel very close to that lineage. I’m painting things as they’re discovered.”

Simonson is part of that legacy. She just uses neon paint to help us understand it.

Lily Simonson’s show, "Midnight Sun," is on view through May 29 at CB1 Gallery.  


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