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Artist Illuminates Science's Deep-Sea Discoveries

deep sea vents, ocean expeditions, art and science, nature paintings, ocean life images
Giant tubeworms, Riftiapachyptila, originally discovered at the Galápagos Rift in 1977. Among the first known creatures to subsist off of methane and sulfur hydrothermal vents, they become emblems of art and science's shared passion for exploration and discovery. (Image credit: Lilly Simonson.)

A deep-sea oceanographic research expedition is one of the last places you may expect to find a visual artist, but on a recent summer day, Lily Simonson had just stepped off a vessel returned from just such a trip.

"It's kind of a culture shock to be back on land," she said.

Simonson's obsession with alien, yet familiar creatures started when she was young. She always wanted to be an artist, and she started producing large-format paintings of moths in art school.

"To me, [moths are a] metaphor for hysteria," Simonson told OurAmazingPlanet. She added that she likes to think about "how to depict their kinetic motion and the chaotic way they fly in a painting, and thinking about their furriness and how that distinguishes them from other insects and makes them seem almost mammalian."

From moths, she moved to painting lobsters — a creature she said looks alien, yet seems almost human in some respects. In 2006, several of her friends emailed her a news story about a new deep-sea discovery and the perfect marriage of her two alien creature interests: the yeti crab. It was described in the media as looking like a lobster, but with the furriness of a moth. 

Simonson now had a new obsession: deep-sea creatures. But she also had a dilemma; she couldn't very well paint the crazy crabs from photographs. She wanted to see them up close, from all angles. Simonson traveled to the lab in Paris that had discovered the first yeti crab, and talked with the researchers who found the creature.

Then, a second species was discovered by  Lisa Levin’s lab at the Scripps Oceanographic Institute in La Jolla, Calif. — serendipitously close to where Simonson lived. She contacted Levin, and they started talking.

"We instantly clicked, and I started thinking about how artists and scientists have kindred spirits," Simonson said. "There's an impulse in both fields to be doing something new and revealing something new and exploring in a certain way. There's this passion that goes into science. It's a labor of love, and it's the same feeling for artists."

Levin began loaning specimens to Simonson to paint, and soon invited the artist out to sea with the lab. For Simonson, it was the opportunity of a lifetime: to paint the creatures as they were, still alive, breathing and bathed in their natural colors. Marine life from the deep doesn't live for very long on the ship's decks, but in that time Lily could see, smell and watch the worms and crabs the expedition brought up from the ocean depths. [Gallery: Simonson's Deep Sea Creatures ]

"Many of these mud-dwelling animals are incredibly iridescent and bioluminescent, and that goes away when they die. So it was really thrilling to see those exquisite colors," Simonson said.

The researchers used a corer to bring up muddy sediments from 700 meters below the sea's surface. After researchers sifted through the mud, Simonson used the mud to paint murals on the side of the vessel, which were washed down at the end of every day.

A downtown Los Angeles gallery isn't the place you’d typically expect to find an oceanographer, but Lisa Levin of Scripps was every bit as interested in Simonson's world as the artist was in the world of ocean exploration.

"Lily is one of the few artists who paints deep-sea organisms," said Levin, whose lab studies the ecology of deep-sea vents. "What Lily does is — she's not a scientist, she doesn't do scientific illustration in her artwork. She takes the basic form and structure of an organism, and then takes off to use her imagination."

Levin says that scientists today are more concerned with communicating to the public than ever, and that reaching out to artists can help.

"I think that artists have [the] potential to make science more approachable and interesting for people. And that's one important benefit of having artists who are willing to talk to and work with scientists," Levin said.

The two hope to work together again, but first Simonson has a new expedition: She will be painting landscapes during an expedition with geologists to the Dry Valleys of Antarctica later this year.

This story was provided by OurAmazingPlanet, a sister site to LiveScience. Follow OurAmazingPlanet for the latest in Earth science and exploration news on Twitter @OAPlanet. We're also on Facebook & Google+.

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