Lily Simonson is on another planet. She is a painter based in Hollywood whose mind is soaked in otherworldly creatures, these beings from the beyond. She paints them in bright colors, her specimens often at war or passionately making love. Her work is abstract while being literal and isn’t actually made up from another world at all: all of Lily’s paintings are entrenched in scientific truth. Lily is part painter, part scientist.
“I feel like growing up in Maryland is relevant to my current subject matter because I got really into painting and drawing lobsters there,” she says as she takes a seat at the center of her studio, paintings of fossils and various crustaceans framing her. “I’ve been into these creatures my entire life. I think lobsters are more rare out here–in Maryland, there is a tank full of lobsters in every supermarket. I would just go up to them and stare at the tank in every grocery store. Aesthetically, they were riveting to me. I doodled them constantly.”
Lily’s parents are both artists, each with MFAs in ceramics. She has bleach blonde hair and is slightly tiny but exudes this huge energy, this excitement. She has a slow cadence to her voice and a quick, dry sense of humor: she takes her work very seriously but, yes, is aware that she is creating huge abstracts paintings of sea life, some even being presented under black light.
She made her way out West to attend college, where she went to UC Berkeley. She didn’t plan on ever pursuing painting until late in high school either: it was revealed to her. “I kind of wanted to be a lawyer growing up but, in high school, I did this three year art program where we had a big show. I realized it was really satisfying to take something I was doing privately for so long and share it with people. Painting is so solitary, which makes it odd that it all clicked for me when I shared the work with other people. It made me realize I could do it: showing is a really fun part of the process for me.”
“I went to UC Berkley because I didn’t want to go to art school,” she continues. “I get influence from a lot of different things and I hadn’t given up on law so it made sense. My first year, I took painting and became obsessed with painting, specifically. I was really hooked on that.”
Like art revealing itself to her, so did her subject matter: crustaceans. “I grew up making lobster drawings. It was an intuitive, aesthetic attraction,” she says. “The first big series of paintings I did were these mammoth lobster portraits, which were super quirky and weren’t about much more than a personal fascination. I eventually developed another series of paintings on moths, which was very personal and came out of a childhood phobia of moths. It was the other side of the same coin, this thing from early childhood that I was examining in a non-cathartic way. They were like the lobsters in that I was reviving an obsession or, rather, a repulsion and reveling in them, examining them as a personal symbol for myself.”
“I had this idea that if I explored something deeply personal it would resonate with an audience in a deeper way,” she says. “That’s true to some extent but it’s also a little naive: it needs to be more nuanced than that.”
This nuance she desired came from another revelation: she applied to UCLA’s graduate art program, was accepted, and found herself in Los Angeles. “I told myself that I would go back to New York for grad school. I kind of applied to UCLA as an aside. But, the faculty at UCLA, the alumni, and LA itself, which has this mythology for me: it was captivating. Everyone loves music when they’re a kid–and I loved rock music. LA was a huge draw because, in high school, I was really obsessed with Beck and to the point that I was on the MTV show, FANatic. They flew me to LA and I got to meet him: LA had this mysterious draw from that experience.”
Her education was brought about new ways to explore and articulate her fascinations in addition more discoveries in regards to what she was expressing. “I didn’t just work with painters there. I worked with Catherine Opie, Jennifer Bolande, Mary Kelly–everybody! But, also, the painters, like Roger Herman, Lari Pittman, Patty Wickman,” she says, speaking to the program’s outstanding faculty.
After grad school, she decided to stay in town as well as she found a community of artists from school–and LA just felt right. “The New York art world is such an institution. LA has this freedom to it that you don’t necessarily have in New York: there’s an openness here. There is also a legacy of really cool MFA programs in LA, too–and an emphasis on teaching as practice.”
Lily exemplifies this, too: she compliments her work in art by teaching at Cal Poly Pomona, where she teaches one class a semester. For her, teaching is a part of being a Southern Californian artist and is deeply tied to her practice. “Art gives you this way to research whatever you want in the world, which you can turn into a way to connect with other people,” she says, alluding to the scientific nature of her work.
Los Angeles as an entity shaped her as well, the city assisting in defining her current work. “When I came to LA, I had been painting moths for a few years. They were really dark and influenced by European painting and chiaroscuro. I think that living in LA, I got more inspired to expand my palette and not be so goth. The moth paintings were nuanced but tied to death and decay. Los Angeles, as cliche as it sounds, is a sunny, happy place. I had this history of these exuberant lobster paintings and these dark moth paintings: I was searching for a new subject matter that was more nuanced, that was maybe not so quirky. I needed something without my own baggage.”
As if on cue, the scientific community discovered a new crustacean: it was another revelation for Lily. “It’s called the yeti crab. It was literally described in the New York Times as a ‘lobster with the fur of a moth.’ It was this confluence of these two things I had been working with that I found as I was searching for something that married lobsters and moths. I didn’t have a choice but to embrace it as a subject.”
For her, the yeti crab represents so much. It speaks to discovery and to searching, the limits of knowledge and the unknown. The crabs are very complicated and sophisticated as well, these physiologically complex deep sea creatures that live off of methane and sulfides that erupt from fissures near underwater volcanoes. Lily spits out fact after fact on the subject, she an expert in the field as a result of an artistic obsession.
“Since the yeti crab paintings started, I’ve begun working more and more with scientists,” she says. “I think the element of protecting the environment as there is much to learn comes into my work a little bit–but it isn’t that literal. It comes in by finding these alien creatures in places that we thought were barren, like the deep sea. Now we know that there are thousands of species that we haven’t discovered.”
However, the discover of the crab in relationship to her art brought up a little question: since this crab was so rare and new, how was she supposed to paint it? “I prefer to always paint from direct observation, rather than relying on photographs. When I was painting moths, I’d catch moths and use them as models and, when I was painting lobsters, I would buy a lobster at the grocery store and examine it. When the yeti crab was discovered, how was I supposed to paint them? The only specimen was at the Museum of Natural History in Paris.”
This is how Lily almost literally became a scientist as the yeti crab demanded it of her. “I visited the crab in the Summer after my first year in grad school, where it was at the Paris Museum of Natural History lab, not on display. I met the woman who was studying it, which was almost as exciting as seeing the crab itself since she was so funny and interesting: it felt like meeting a kindred spirit. I started to realize that a lot of scientists are very similar to artists. There’s this obsession to study really specialized things, which relates to my own practice. There’s always this impulse for them to do something new and learn things that have never been learned before.”
“It’s handy for me to be painting new species, as it relates to Dürer and Audubon who were scientists and artists,” she says. “It’s also a shortcut as well for me to do something original. I’m obsessed with old paintings and traditional, Dutch painting. That was the style I used to go for, which is my point of departure now. Painting these new creatures is a way for me to do something new: I don’t think anyone has painted a yeti crab in the way that I’m doing.”
She eventually caught the attention of the Census of Marine Life, who were in the process of counting and documenting all marine populations. “They found out about my paintings and brought me to a couple of conferences and, through that, I started meeting more and more of these Jacques Cousteau-like ocean explorers. Since then, they’ve discovered two more kinds of yeti crabs–and one of them was by a scientist at Scripps, which is a lot closer than Paris. I started going to Scripps to look at their yeti crab, working more and more with Lisa Levin there. The Natural History Museum here has a huge collection of invertebrates and crustaceans, too.”
“It feels sort of glamorous to me to go into labs and museum stores and look at things that are hidden away in jars,” she says. “The jars on the table are from specimens I’ve borrowed from the collection at Scripps. What I usually would do is go to these labs and make sketches and take photographs, using the drawings and photos to make paintings.”
At this point, Lily has become almost a marine science celebrity as she’s been asked o speak at conferences, her art has been featured in textbooks, and she’s even painted live at scientific events. “They’re doing really esoteric research and worry that its not having an impact. It’s really exciting for them to see that someone in another field cares about what they do. It’s almost the same for me to see that someone outside of the art world cares about what I do,” she says, laughing. “It’s a very fulfilling relationship. I didn’t see it coming, either. It kind of happened naturally.”
Science is now a very large driver in her work and sometimes leads her to very obscure subject matters and inventive techniques. For example, at her solo show at Downtown’s CB1, she will have a section of work that are displayed under black light. “It was something that I was thinking about as I was studying bioluminescence in ocean creatures,” she explained as she hovered a black light over a few paintings. “I’ve always been obsessed with the light in Dutch still lives, as these grapes and oysters and objects seemed to glow from within. I’ve always used lots of translucent glazes in my painting for that effect–but this was almost like a shortcut.” The black light work also relates to creatures that actually do glow (like scorpions, which is one of her subjects in a black light painting) and her obsession with Burning Man, which she attends every year.
“A lot of people think that my subjects are invented,” she says, speaking directly to how advanced and sophisticated her work is. Looking into the future, she sees her subjects staying in the same world and even sees different mediums being brought into her work, from sculpture to performance. Scientifically, she has a lot going on from a Summer exploration of the San Diego Margin with a Scripps research group to a potential research trip to Antarctica: her relationship with the scientific community will continually grow.
And, as far as subjects, she won’t be straying very far from her creatures. “Even if I wanted to get away from them, that’s not happening any time soon,” she says with a laugh. “You can have as many threads as you want to with this subject matter, too. I’m even tying fossils into my work! I know I ask a lot of my audience with these deep sea creatures. I think the focus is important for this body of work but I do think that it would be interesting to add in a human element that is maybe parallel to this work. There are a lot of different directions I could go.”
For more on Lily, be sure to check out her website. And, of course, her work is currently on view through July 29 at CB1 Downtown in her solo exhibition, Wet and Wild. She’ll also be participating at a panel discussion with artists and scientists at CB1 on July 28.