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What It’s Like To Be The Only Painter In Antarctica

Making art at the bottom of the world, where paint freezes and the best subjects are millimeters long.

Lily Simonson in mid-sketch, next to a glacier.
Lily Simonson in mid-sketch, at Antarctica’s Lake Bonney. (Photo: Peter Recjek)

In October 2014, teetering on the edge of a hole in the ice in the middle of Antarctic’s McMurdo Sound, Lily Simonson took a deep, brisk breath. The air around her was sub-zero, and she was about to dive into the water.

It’s a rare adventurer who chooses to scuba in Antarctica. But Simonson, a painter, wasn’t jumping in the water for the thrill of it. She was doing it for beauty—and beauty came through for her. Even a year later, describing the sights, she enters a kind of reverie: “The sea ice is all these crazy colors… gold, neon green turquoise. There are these huge stalactite-type things made of ice crystals. They look like giant feather boa chandeliers.”

As soon as she slipped under the water and opened her eyes, her nerves calmed. “It’s so magnificent, you almost don’t even notice your body,” she says. “The first 10 or 15 times I dove, I didn’t feel cold.”

A pair of pteropods—one of Simonson's favorite subjects. "They're really beautiful and charismatic," she says. "They look like tiny butterflies."

A pair of pteropods—one of Simonson’s favorite subjects. “They’re really beautiful and charismatic,” she says. “They look like tiny butterflies.” (Image: Lily Simonson)

This past weekend, Simonson exhibited some of the work inspired by those dives, filling Los Angeles’s CB1 gallery with midnight sunbeams and sea life. Her wall-sized paintings push viewers into that same sea that dazzled her. Multicolored mollusks called pteropods hover, hundreds of times larger than life. A blue and green seal emerges through yards of darkness. Some of the paintings, positioned under blacklights and swabbed with fluorescent pigment, glow from within. Others seem to surge and sway.

Simonson has always sought inspiration in less-than-obvious places. She has a particular thing for crustaceans, and the search for subjects has sent her everywhere from grocery store lobster tanks to deep-sea research ships. But after meeting a scientist who studies Antarctic oceans, she knew her next journey would be even further afield.

When he showed me photos of life under the sea, i just knew immediately that to me, that was the most beautiful place in the world,” she says. “I thought, I have to see it for myself.

A unique angle on a solo seal.

A unique angle on a solo seal. (Image: Lily Simonson)

After an early foray with a geologist who “needed an extra pair of hands,” Simonson found another patron: the National Science Foundation’s Antarctic Artists and Writers Program, which has shipped poets, photographers, filmmakers, and historians to the bottom of the world since the 1980s. Creatives who make the cut spend three months living alongside scientists at McMurdo Station, the continent’s (relatively) bustling metropolis.

As Pacific Standard detailed last year, Antarctic explorers have always relied on artists to help manifest their discoveries—in the early 20th century, expeditions came home with black and white photos and watercolor landscapes, and Shackleton’s Nimrod crew brought along a small printing press, which they used to make a sealskin book.

A century later, the Antarctic Artists and Writers spin the continent’s past and present into marionette shows,  children’s books, and mystery novels.

A 1922 black-and-white photograph by Herbert Ponting. In early expeditions, most art focused on the basics of life on the new continent.

A 1922 black-and-white photograph by Herbert Ponting. In early expeditions, most art focused on the basics of life on the new continent. (Image: Public Domain Review/Public Domain)

Simonson’s medium brings specific challenges, she says: she could only work outside for 20 minutes before her paints froze, and it is difficult to get, say, a nudibranch on the go to stay still for a portrait. She had to undertake 50 practice dives before she could first venture under the ice, and speaks of sending early drafts, painted at the station, back to her LA studio “on vessels.”

After a month of near-daily dives, she left McMurdo Station to camp in the continent’s Dry Valleys, and at the top of Mount Erebus—the world’s southernmost active volcano, which boasts, embedded in its frozen peak, a permanent lake of molten lava.

Getting close to subjects as small as pteropods and as large as a whole continent meant grappling with their fraught situations. Climate change is literally reshaping the continent, and ocean acidification disproportionately impacts cold water, leaving Antarctic mollusks with increasingly thinning shells.

It’s this paradoxical relationship, where there’s no human population there and it’s extremely remote, yet it’s very susceptible to human-induced change,” she says.

An extremely southerly sea cucumber.

An extremely southerly sea cucumber. (Image: Lily Simonson)

This lack of residents translates to a new kind of visibility challenge. Back in California, Simonson works to address this, writing up guides to the species in her paintings and holding scientific panels in conjunction with her exhibits. At gallery shows, she fields all kinds of questions: “People often look at the work and think that my subjects are invented,” she says.

When they learn the truth, they want to know more. “It’s hard to put what would be in a whole scientific paper into a painting, but the painting acts as a jumping off point for a conversation.”

For Simonson, now an old pro at both scuba and malacology, the biggest hurdle isn’t logistical or scientific—it’s aesthetic. The Antarctic sea teems with opposites: it’s alien and familiar, pitch black and rainbow bright, freezing and brimming with life. On-site photographs can help her nail down specifics, but how to conjure this larger impression for an audience, especially one sipping wine in a swanky LA gallery?

Some creature-free Antarctic sea.

Some creature-free Antarctic sea. (Image: Lily Simonson)

Fluorescent paints and mural-sized canvasses help, but Simonson is always seeking new ways to bring people in. It was probably one of the most exciting challenges I’ve ever had as an artist, to have experienced so much beauty,” she says. “I feel like I’ve really pushed myself as a painter, being so concerned with conveying that experience.”

It’s an experience she’d love to repeat—“It’s a really addictive place,” she says—but it’s tough to get to the edge of the world, and she has already exhausted many of her potential routes.

But even if she doesn’t manage it again, the continent has frozen itself into her mind’s eye: “I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface of this subject,” she says. “What I saw down there, I feel like I could spend a couple more decades painting.”

More pteropods, with no surface in sight.

More pteropods, with no surface in sight. (Image: Lily Simonson)

Naturecultures is a weekly column that explores the changing relationships between humanity and wilder things. Have something you want covered (or uncovered)? Send tips to [email protected].