Strange Truths of the Deep Sea


Artist Lily Simonson dramatizes the unusual creatures of the deep sea in her upcoming art exhibit at the CB1 Gallery in Los Angeles.  The exhibit, titled Wet and Wild, features larger-than-life paintings of deep-sea invertebrates whose biological truths are stranger than human fictions.

The exhibition opens June 17 with an artist reception and runs through July 29.

On July 28, CB1 Gallery will host a panel on the symbiosis of art and science with Simonson, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego scientist Lisa Levin, and scientists from the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

Simonson says her inspiration for the deep-sea paintings began several years ago, when she was in search of new subject matter.

“I had been creating mural-sized lobster paintings, very jubilant in nature, as well as a darker series that explored my childhood phobia of moths,” said Simonson.

After reading about the discovery of the yeti crab (Kiwa hirsuta), described in the general press as a lobster having the fur of a moth, Simonson knew she’d found her new muse.

While attending a scientific conference in London, Simonson met kindred spirit Lisa Levin, a marine ecologist at Scripps, and Andrew Thurber, at that time a graduate student in Levin’s lab.  In a 2011 paper, Thurber had described a second species of yeti crab (Kiwa puravida) discovered in 2006 off Costa Rica.

Video taken from the submersible Alvin showed that the crabs appear to be constantly dancing.

“Andrew’s theory is that the crabs wave their arms to stir up methane and sulfide that arise out of the seafloor to feed the chomosynthetic process,” said Simonson.  “The bacteria that reside on the crab’s setae [hair-like structures] convert these chemicals into energy, and the crabs harvest the bacteria off of themselves.”

Simonson traveled to meet the yeti crab in Levin’s lab and was later loaned a specimen from the Benthic Invertebrate Collection at Scripps.

The exhibition features several paintings of the crab, which Simonson said were brought to life by the presence of the specimen in her studio.

“As a scientist, it is difficult to describe the deep sea as we observe it through the lens of a microscope,” said Thurber.  “And yet, preserved specimens can be made available to artists like Lily, who can excite society by depicting their uniqueness.  Artists are some of the few people who can cause these life forms to infiltrate the imagination of society.”

In addition, Simonson’s artwork depicts a number of the other deep-sea organisms held in the Benthic Invertebrate Collection at Scripps.  The collection has some of Scripps’ oldest specimens, dating back to 1903, and Scripps scientists are constantly adding to it.

“Lily was particularly interested in some of these specimens,” said collection curator Greg Rouse.  “We were privileged to be able to loan them to her.  With her paintings, Lily presents visual imagery of a world that’s hidden from us.”

Rouse also said that the Benthic Invertebrate Collection, one of a series of curated oceanographic collections at Scripps, enables the public to better relate to the deep sea.

“Having someone like Lily present these remarkable creatures in a different context is a fantastic way to help the general public understand them,” said Rouse.

The paintings evoke the human emblems of sexuality and revelry in deep-sea organisms while depicting bizarre behaviors.  Benthic Bacchanal II, a 48-by-60-inch scene depicting giant tube worms, a giant isopod, and Armstrong’s spider crab, all borrowed from the Scripps collection, synthesizes elements of nature and fantasy into a romantic narrative.  These deep-sea creatures seem to wave enigmatically from the corners of the painting while immortal jellyfish swarm the scene.

According to Simonson, the painting remains faithful to the creatures’ morphology, while magnifying their size heightens the affinity between the human viewer and the invertebrate subject.  The exhibition also features a number of paintings that react to blacklight, including a 48-by-60 inch interpretation of a sea hare mating chain.

“The unusual physiologies of the various subjects epitomize the mysteries of ocean life,” said Simonson.  “There is still so much in the deep sea that awaits our discovery.”

For her next series of paintings, Simonson will join Scripps scientists this summer on a two-week expedition to explore the seafloor region offshore San Diego.


  • Deborah L. Jude

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