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Waves of Inspiration

posted Jul 2, 2012, 3:18 PM by Shannon Casey   [ updated Jul 4, 2012, 11:12 AM ]

The siren song that led me to sea came from 7,000 feet below the ocean’s surface, when scientists discovered an extraordinary crustacean thriving around underwater volcanoes. The yeti crab, Kiwa hirsute, whose lushly setae-covered albino pincers and unique biology instantly inspired a new series of artworks. I am an artist with almost no background in science, but I have become immersed in the world of oceanography and marine biology over the past 6 years. I always prefer to observe my subjects directly, so when my obsession with more exotic deep sea invertebrates took over my art practice, I began visiting marine labs to view my subjects “in the flesh.” I had already traveled twice to Paris to visit and draw the Kiwa hirsute holotype by the time Scripps Institution of Oceanography alumnus (then a Ph.D. student) Andrew Thurber discovered its cousin, Kiwa puravida, at cold seeps near Costa Rica.

Photo: Lily Simonson using preserved specimens as models for her painting of deep sea vents.

Photo: Lily Simonson,
Yeti Crab Embrace, 2011, Oil on canvas, 24x30 inches.

I soon became a frequent guest at Lisa Levin’s benthic lab at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, first coming to observe and sketch the yeti crab. But with each foray, Levin introduced me to more and more deep sea benthic animals. Slowly these strange and fantastic polychaete worms, crustaceans, and bivalves made their way into my practice, until I became totally hooked on painting all kinds of seafloor fauna.

Photo: Lily Simonson
"Wet and Wild" on view at CB1 Gallery through July 29.
Installation view by Jay Oligny.

Wet and Wild, my current exhibition on view at CB1 Gallery through July 29, includes over a dozen paintings inspired by the Scripps collection. Using Renaissance glazing techniques on a massive scale, my invertebrate muses are arranged into dramatic compositions. Magnifying the tiny subjects to human size allows me to truly investigate each animal’s anatomy, while transporting viewers to a new reality.

This journey on the Melville has the potential to transform my work.  Since my normal subjects are long-dead preserved specimens, whose color has been leeched and shape has been shifted, it will be a big treat to observe, draw, and paint animals as soon as they are harvested.  I’ll be working with the ship’s multicore machine, which will burrow into the  soft sediment, hundreds of meters down, to retrieve a cross section of the ocean floor along the San Diego Margin. 

Photo: Lily Simonson paints a temporary mural of a curratulid polychaete
aboard R/V Melville, using sediment collected 800 meters below the surface.

Today the silt deposits collected by the multicorer brought not only new subject matter, but an entirely new medium. Research Technician Drew suggested that since I didn’t have any big canvases with me, I make use of the ship’s large surfaces and render my observations of fauna using the excess silt harvested by the multicorer. Today I drew cirratulid polychaete sieved from the seafloor sediment, and I plan to use the mud to render a new drawing every day, in addition to drawing and painting in my sketchbook.  I’ll continue to liveblog the artwork I create on board the Melville over the coming week at

And the fun continues even after this cruise. On July 28 at 2 p.m., Lisa Levin, along with Dean Pentcheff and Regina Wetzer, will join me at CB1 Gallery for a panel discussion in which we discuss our interdisciplinary collaboration.

--Lily Simonson, Artist

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