Symbiosis with Lily Simonson and Peter Girguis
Artist Lily Simonson’s exhibition, "Painting the Deep," on view at the Harvard Museum of Natural History, is based on her ongoing work with scientists at remote research sites - from the deep sea to Antarctica. In particular, the show highlights her six-year collaboration with Peter Girguis, Professor of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University. A conversation between Simonson and Girguis follows.
Lily Simonson: You study symbiosis, which seems like a very poetic parallel for our interdisciplinary work together. Would you explain a little about what it is that you research, and how you became interested in it?
Peter Girguis: I study symbiosis that occurs in the deep sea. Symbiosis is defined as the interaction of living organisms, often in close physical association, that is to the mutual benefit of both partners. That’s a mouthful, but it simply means that, in nature, there are plenty of examples where two different organisms live together in a way that is good for each partner. I fell in love with symbiosis because I thought the idea of two organisms living together in peace and harmony was beautiful. I wanted to understand how that happens. I wanted that for me. So I did my graduate work on symbiosis.
As I matured, both scientifically and personally, I learned that, in nature, symbioses are at risk of falling apart if the partners aren’t communicating well. I grew to better understand the investment that partners make to maintain their association.
Honestly, studying symbiosis taught me the value of good communication, and the value of seeing the world from different points of view. That’s why I love sailing with you: it’s an experience that I suspect is mutually rewarding, and most importantly yields an understanding, a perspective, that is greater than what either of us could achieve on our own.
Being symbionts, you and I, means that we have to communicate well with one another. We have to strive towards a mutual understanding. It’s not always easy. We often spend hours, you and I, talking about how we present our collaboration - our symbiosis - to the broader world. Regardless, it’s been far more rewarding than I’d ever imagined.
LS: You and I first met when I presented my work at the Schmidt Ocean Institute Symposium in Honolulu. I remember you approached me about sharing my work with early career scientists at the annual Deep Submergence Science Committee meeting. Had you previously been interested in connecting deep sea research with art? Was there something specific about my paintings that seemed apt?
PG: When we first met, I was the chair of a committee that advised the U.S. government agencies on the status of deep sea research. In that role, I sought to find ways to bring deep sea research “to life” with young scientists (many of whom were under the impression they could not pursue careers in deep sea research) as well as the general public.
I’d seen other artists work at sea, but your paintings - to me - were the most “immersive” deep sea art I’d seen. Their rich palette of colors, their texture, their subject... all gave your paintings a truly visceral quality.
LS: It was your idea to present an exhibition of my paintings at the Harvard Museum of Natural History. How did the idea first come to you?
PG: Was it? Hah, I suppose so! I had the pleasure, truly, of working with the exhibit developers on the museum’s most recent marine gallery. It was a wonderful experience, and I learned so much about how to capture the attention of an audience. Through that process, I also noticed that many natural history museums stick to more literal depictions of our world. For example, natural history museums will have scientific illustration and photography displays, as well as specimen exhibits. They will also display more literal depictions such as sculptures, models, and even anatomically realistic paintings (à la Audubon, for example).
I felt strongly that we should try and expose our museum visitors to art that captures the spirit of an organism or ecosystem. I wanted to see how people would react to seeing you art within a stone’s throw of the dead pickled bodies of some of the creatures you portrayed! Would this change their perception of these animals and their communities? That was the motivation.
What I was not prepared for was the overwhelming enthusiasm visitors had for the show. I knew it would likely be a hit, but even today - months later - I still walk by and hear people raving about your paintings. When I have the chance, I point them to the pickled specimens, and the conversations that ensue exemplify the value of showing your part in this context: it’s a catalyst for expanding people’s understanding of our natural world, and a means of showing the value of art in science (and, conversely, science in art!).
LS: How did our work together to plan the show - writing wall text, meeting with the exhibition team, advising me on subject matter - compare to our work together at sea?
PG: Working with you to develop the exhibit was a real treat. At sea, there are many other demands on our time. This exhibit gave us an opportunity to focus on your art, on your act of creation, and how it has shaped our understanding of these creatures and communities. I was surprised at times when you revealed a particular inspiration or method. I was surprised at how our impressions of each piece - and of the exhibit as a whole - were different yet somehow synergistic. It was a chance to take a deeper dive (pun intended) into these worlds through your art.
PG: As you’ve worked with scientists over the years, how has it changed your perspective on the subjects? Does knowing more about them scientifically sway your perceptions?
LS: Absolutely. I first came to the deep sea with a purely humanities-oriented perspective. While my subjects have always come from the natural world, they served as symbols for human ideas - my interests had been rooted in the history of painting, in human psychology, and modernist literature. I had spent years painting moths, which represented a childhood phobia and before that many years painting giant lobsters and exploring their role in art history. I struck upon my first deep sea muse in 2006 when The New York Times published on the discovery of the yeti crab, describing them as lobsters with the same kind of “hairs” as moths. So taking it on as an artistic subject stemmed from a very personal interest. I loved that the name borrowed from mythology, and its morphology seemed almost humanlike. I really emphasized those qualities in my early paintings of it. But then when I met the scientist that was studying it and learned more about its biology - how it lives without light, consuming bacteria that transforms chemicals from beneath the planet’s crust into energy, I was reminded that truth is stranger than fiction. I began to feel that the forces driving life in the deep sea were much more fascinating than any human ideas I might project onto my subjects. As a result my choice of subject matter is typically rooted in a specific scientific question that is currently being investigated.
Moreover, the ability to observe subjects in situ by going to sea has enabled me to use painting to explore not only single organisms, but how they relate to an entire environment. Earlier in my career, I was tied to painting one creature at a time using preserved specimens as models. Now, after having dove in the research submarine Alvin and having been embedded in so many oceanographic expeditions, I have an understanding of what it really looks and feels like in the deep sea. Instead of inventing or using video footage to situate my subjects, I am able to represent entire ecosystems, and explore questions of how organisms relate to their environment.
Of course I have not totally abandoned my anthro-centric, symbolist perspective - I have a rather loose hand and often exaggerate certain qualities. I used to be concerned that scientists would take issue with that style, but often they respond most to my more atmospheric, abstracted paintings.
LS: What is it like for you and your colleagues to have an artist like me in your ranks while at sea?
PG: In many ways, your comfort with the science makes it easy to have you on board. It’s kind of like you’re a scientist who also paints, which is a little disorienting! Don’t misunderstand me, you’ve got a really impressive command of deep sea biology. That said, you didn’t come to sea to just dissect animals; you came to sea to capture it through your art. Sailing with you is easy, but when we’ve sailed together I’ve been the Chief Scientist, which means that I’m tasked with distributing the shared work to all the onboard scientists. The toughest part about sailing with you is being mindful to give you the time and the samples to do your work. You blend right in, so it was sometimes easy to forget you’re there to paint!
PG: What’s your favorite part of being at sea? More specifically, can you think of the one or two moments that were most extraordinary?
LS: Being at sea is truly transformative. I love being isolated for weeks at a time from normal society, surrounded only by scientists and crew members who are totally dedicated to exploration and discovery. Painting is a very solitary task, and I spend most of my time alone in the studio. Being a part of a team and helping with the research is really special, not only because it gives me insight into the scientific questions being asked, but because I love being part of a team. And just as I contribute to the research, I get to paint in the lab and get feedback from the scientists as I work. So it becomes a true collaboration.
But my first love, really, is the organisms themselves. So my favorite two most thrilling moments center on “meeting” those critters in the wild. Since childhood, I’ve been fascinated by the deep sea giant tubeworms that you study - Riftia pachyptila. The first time I sailed with your lab, we were collecting these tubeworms from 2,500 meters deep and keeping them alive in your extraordinary pressure vessels. I had only ever seen them on video or as preserved specimens in jars. To see them still alive, with their full rich red pigmentation was totally earth-shattering. Their morphology, their texture, their movement, and coloration is unlike any other creature on earth, and I had never fully understood it before “meeting” them.
And of course diving in the research submarine Alvin has been a lifelong dream, and getting to experience the deep sea was thrilling beyond words. Of course I would have gladly dove anywhere in the world, but I had the incredible luck of getting the opportunity to dive on the Pacific Margin of Costa Rica, where I got to directly observe my longtime muse the yeti crab! Like Riftia, I had been using preserved specimens as models. I literally jumped up and screamed when I saw them. We were surrounded by dozens and dozens of them waving their inconceivably fluffy pincers constantly. I’ll never forget it.
LS: Have my paintings informed the way you conduct research? Have they shaped the way your research is shared?
PG: Without question, any scientist who takes the time to look at your art, to really look at what you’re representing, will see these organisms and environments in a different light. Literally, you work to capture aspects that we don’t see with our eyes or with cameras. It seems to me you use your canvas to tell a story about the critters. That story always gets me thinking about the subject. The tubeworms, for example, which I’ve studied for 23 years, are as familiar to me as my children. Still, your painting of the tubeworms got me thinking about how they intertwine, and whether they know that they are among their own species. There are all sorts of chemical cues that animals use to communicate, and being in a bunch of other worms is really advantageous for making baby tubeworms, and for avoiding being eaten by crabs. That is something that I hadn’t thought about until your paintings.
PG: If you could pick any spot to dive in the ocean, where would it be and why?
LS: I would love to dive at a hydrothermal vent site, where sea water becomes so hot and laden with methane, sulfur, and other chemicals from below the earth’s crust that it bursts out in plumes that look like volcanic smoke. The stories-high precipitate so-called “chimney” structures that it leaves behind are like spires from a fairy world. These sites seem almost mythical - they are literally gateways to the underworld of the earth’s crust. And the fact that life thrives at these sites, with bacteria transforming the methane and sulfur into energy for tubeworms, yeti crabs, and other organisms feels equally mythological and improbable. I love the theory that life on earth may have begun at hydrothermal vent sites, and now we know that they exist on other moons and planets in our solar system. So they are an incredibly rich subject. But having been in Alvin I know that there is a whole range of dark colors and blacks that get lost in video, and are well-suited to the chiaroscuro style of painting. I imagine that the dark fluids coming from the vents have so much detail that I would love to capture, and the kinetic quality of painting would be great for depicting the way they flow. I’ve painted some vents based on chunks of the precipitate chimneys collected, but I feel that I would really need to see active vents firsthand to understand and capture all the nuances.
PG: If you could depict deep sea animals and habitats in another, different media, what would you choose? How might that particular medium shape your portrayal of these subjects?
LS: Honestly, there is no other medium that I would want to use to depict the deep sea. I have previously worked in photography, sculpture, and video. But I feel that those mediums are all too literal for creating art inspired by the natural world. They have a one-to-one, documentary-like quality. Painting is really the only way, in my opinion, to capture not only what exists there, but also how mysterious it is. Especially with video and photography, there is a promise of veracity. But with my paintings, viewers often believe, at first, that they are looking at something invented. Then there is this thrilling moment of revelation when they learn that, no, this is actually something that exists in real life. Painting also has this tension between luminosity and darkness that evokes the light in the deep sea in a way that nothing else can.
LS: What would you tell colleagues in the science world who might be interested in working with an artist?
PG: I’d say that partnering with an artist is no different than partnering with a different kind of scientist. When biologists work together with geologists, they end up with an understanding that is far deeper than either one on their own. That said, each person has to invest some effort in learning the other person’s language, culture, and goals. So to with artists: you invest in learning each other’s language and before you know it... you’re mind has been expanded in ways you’d never considered.
LS: Here’s a big question for you: what do you think the value is of bringing collaborating across the disciplines of art and science?
PG: We scientists sometimes fool ourselves into thinking that our work is objective and empirical. We think that our data tells the story of these animals, microbes, and the habitats they live in. Yet we are all just storytellers of one kind or another, and science is but one way of telling a story. Frankly, my favorite stories are those that I experience from different points of view, as in when two friends convey the same story but the details are different! In so many ways, storytelling from one point of view can be limiting. To me, hearing a story from one point of view feels incomplete. I find that we enrich our understanding of the world through the creation of both art and science, yielding a richer tapestry that tells us where the organisms came from, and where they’re headed.