Lily Simonson – “it was so beautiful that I often forgot the cold”

March, 2017
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4.5 mins
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Image © The Interviewee

Artist Lilly Lily Simonson talks about her work in Antarctica!

Today’s Creative Chair is very special as we’re talking to painter/adventurer Lily Simonson about her time living and working as an artist in Antarctica.

This interview means that Creative Chair has now come to you from all seven continents!

Lilly Simonson Antarctic
Lily Simonson – Photo credit Peter Rejcek

The temperature in Antarctica can drop to nearly −90 °C, which probably is why there are no permanent human residents but, at any given time there can be up to 5000 people working in and around a series of research stations across the continent.

I was surprised (and delighted) when I read about the National Science Foundation Antarctic Artists & Writers Program, which sends painters, photographers, creative writers, etc., to the Antarctic along with scientific expeditions.

We spoke to Lily Simonson to find out why her work is of benefit, not just to the artistic community, but to science as well. You can see more work from Lily Simonson on her website.

Firstly, am I correct in saying that you’ve ventured to Antarctica twice? How did these journeys come to fruition?

I had spent years working with oceanographers to observe and paint deep-sea organisms. One such scientist, Andrew Thurber, told me that in addition to studying the deep sea, he did field work in Antarctica.

Cinder Cones
Cinder Cones – Photo credit Andrew Thurber

I was totally riveted by images he shared from diving under the sea ice there. It seemed like the most beautiful place on the planet, and I knew I needed to see it and paint it.

Andrew also told me about the National Science Foundation Antarctic Artists and Writers Program, in which the government selects an artist or writer each year to accompany researchers to Antarctica and make work inspired by the scientists’ research.

I soon began the multi-year process of learning to scuba dive so that I could apply for that program and dive under the sea ice, which requires extensive experience.

In the meantime, while presenting at a conference on Antarctic research, I connected with Joe Levy, an Antarctic geologist and planetary scientist who was inspired by the history of the Antarctic Artist & Writer Program.

Don Juan Pond

He offered that if I wanted to go to Antarctica in just a few months, rather than waiting to apply to the NSF A&W program on my own, I could embed in his group. I would help the team with field work, and then paint when there was time.

I had an incredible season working with Joe in 2012-13 and made a series of paintings based on geological features he was studying. But I still wanted to return and dive under the sea ice. So I proceeded to apply for my own NSF Award.

Luckily my proposal was selected, and I returned in 2014-15.

What is the benefit of documenting science in an interpretive manner rather than, for example, via a more conventional medium such as photography?

I think both media are terrific vehicles for conveying aspects of scientific research. Painting allows me to highlight certain qualities of a creature or landscape that might convey nuances of the research surrounding it.

The 61st 366 Award goes to Lily Simonson for her outstanding creative work.

Antarctic Pteropods

I also magnify my subjects to larger-than-human scale, immersing viewers in an alien world and inviting them to identify with the subjects in my paintings. The tactile quality of paint can also convey a depth and richness that might not come through.

McMurdo, the station that you resided in is one of the larger ones with 1,200 residents, three bars and (bizarrely) a recent upsurge in the use of Tinder. What was it like living in this sort of setting?

I lived in Antarctica for almost 4.5 months over the course of my two seasons there. I was at McMurdo for less than half the time; the rest of the time I was living in a tent at various remote field sites accessible only by helicopter.

“There’s a wonderful level of intimacy and camaraderie that one feels in that setting”
View from McMurdo
View from McMurdo – Photo credit Andrew Thurber

Both experiences were mind-bending, stressful at times, but mostly a tonne of fun. I am a very social, cooperative person by nature, yet as a painter, I spend most of my time working alone.

I absolutely loved the opportunity to be a part of a community. Because everyone is trapped together in an isolated environment, you have this “in this together” mentality, an instant bond. There’s a wonderful level of intimacy and camaraderie that one feels in that setting.

McMurdo at Night
McMurdo at Night – Photo credit Joshua Swanson/NSF

Getting to Antarctica is competitive, so you’re surrounded by brilliant, adventurous, and high-achieving people who are generally very passionate. Almost everyone I met there was really special, and the friends I made feel like lifelong family.

What were the challenges of trying to work in such a cold environment?

I absolutely hate being cold. I lived in LA for ten years, and it was too cold for me. Before I went to Antarctica, I was very anxious about living full time outdoors in the cold, and scuba diving in -2 degree Celsius water.

“My paints did freeze on occasion, but other than that, it was surprisingly easy!”

Lilly Simonson

But I have to say that it was so beautiful that I often forgot the cold. My paints did freeze on occasion, but other than that, it was surprisingly easy!

What sort of response did your paintings get from the artistic community and its patrons?

In general, the art community has been very receptive to my work. My shows following these expeditions have gotten press from art critics as well as science writers.


I’m definitely occupying an unusual niche, but art is always viewed as a way to investigate the world in an intellectual and aesthetic way, and my work certainly fits that model. Besides, it’s led me to such a life of adventure– I can’t stop now!

And finally, if you died and got reincarnated as a song, what would that song be?

Beercan by Beck!

Creative Chair would like to thank Lily Simonson for her sharing her story with us.

Beercan (1994)
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What began as a fun question to end an interview, has now become a wonderfully eclectic collaborative playlist by 161 people (and counting).
Lily Simonson
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