Harvard Museum depicts deep-sea creatures through artistic lens

The entrance to "Lily Simonson: Painting the Deep" a new exhibition at the Harvard Museum of National History. (Photo by Dan Dellechiaie/BU News Service)

By Dan Dellechiaie
BU News Service

CAMBRIDGE – On the dark walls are six large fluorescent paintings depicting yeti crabs and polychaete worms that glow in the darkness. The sound of water trickling and rushing gives the sensation of being underwater.

“Lily Simonson: Painting the Deep,” the new exhibit at the Harvard Museum of Natural History, at first seems like an appropriation of science by an artist, but it’s actually an expression of the intimate relationship between art and science.

Simonson joined Harvard University professor and marine biologist Peter Girguis on research expeditions in the Pacific. The paintings are the results of these expeditions and add to the two-dimensional research conducted by the scientists.

The Chronicle recently chatted with Simonson and Girguis to discuss the exhibit. These interviews were conducted separately and the answers have been edited for brevity.

Lily Simonson’s “Party of Yetis, Costa Rica Margin” depicts a yeti crab dancing around on the seafloor. (Photo by Dan Dellechiaie/BU News Service)

What interested you about marine biology and ultimately drew you into working on this project?

Simonson: It started with a specific animal called the yeti crab. I had been making paintings of moths for many years and before that I was making paintings of lobsters. The yeti crab was described in the “New York Times” as “a lobster with the fur of a moth.” It was this very weird, serendipitous hybrid of two of my subjects.

So I made paintings of just the yeti crab for several years and started meeting more scientists and getting more interested in more deep sea creatures and that was when the idea of chemosynthesis became interesting to me. There’s this whole parallel universe that basically lives without light. They just need bacteria and microbes. I like that story.

Girguis: Imagine for a moment that you lived in a five-room house and you spent your entire life in one of those five rooms. You never went to the other four. Eighty percent of our planet’s living space is deep sea, which is an extraordinary number when you think about it.

I was drawn to marine sciences because the deep sea really is such a major part of our planet, and it’s the least understood part of our planet.

Why get involved with “Painting the Deep?” It’s really quite simple. As scientists, I can tell you quite a bit about the ocean and really pique your interest by telling you tales of fishes with bizarre, enlarged jaws or strange glowing appendages or microbes that can grow in the presence of radioactivity. And so on. But there’s truth that’s captured in Lily’s art that I can’t capture in our measurements.

What was it like working with each other?

Simonson: I was very nervous about working with scientists early on because my paintings take a lot of poetic license. They’re accurate but they’re not scientific illustrations. I’m not just copying what that thing looks like but I’m also telling a whole story about it.

Girguis: I’d say the one thing we learned working with Lily was to start thinking about form and function again. As a physiologist, I think a lot about how animals work. I care about how a tube worm, for example, gets oxygen out of the water. But working with Lily, hands down, the most striking example of what she brought to the table was to pause and say, “What does this worm’s form tell us about its function or its life history?”

Do you see yourself being involved in more projects that merge art and science?

Simonson: I definitely foresee staying in this direction. One thing I’ve been more and more interested in is the microbes that drive these chemosynthetic processes. I’ve painted a lot of the bigger organisms that are visible to the naked eye that rely on the microbes instead of light and plants. I’m working with a few different scientists to figure out how to even access them using electron microscopes and fluorescent microscopes. So that’s kind of a fun possible direction for me.

Girguis: Absolutely I want to keep working with Lily for as long as I can because most of the science is funded through tax-payer dollars, that includes you. The more perspectives I can bring to bear on our missions, the better I use your tax dollars. I believe that’s where my job is to help reinvigorate some of that love and passion for our ocean and that’s something I can do with Lily’s help.


“Lily Simonson: Painting the Deep” will be on display now through June 30 at the Harvard Museum of Natural History at 26 Oxford St.

For more information, visit call 617-495-3045 or visit hmnh.harvard.edu.

This article was also featured in the Cambridge Chronicle.

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