Artist's lifelike coral reef ceramics combine high art with hard science

Courtney Mattison
© Courtney Mattison

We've known for some time that the world's coral reefs are in danger -- not just from habitat destruction, pollution and ocean acidification -- but also from seemingly innocuous things like sunscreen. But not everyone can go abroad and underwater to fully see and understand what we are losing -- and that's why art can be one important avenue to bring this deeper awareness to the public.

Seen over at This Is Colossal, Colorado-based American sculptor Courtney Mattison is one person whose work is combining the fine beauty of ceramic art with environmental advocacy. The artist, who is also an "ocean advocate" and "artivist" (artist-advocate), creates lifelike, delicately colourful sculptures that show the fragile nature of these marine organisms.

Courtney Mattison© Courtney Mattison
Courtney Mattison© Courtney Mattison
Courtney Mattison© Courtney Mattison

Mattison, who studied both ceramic arts and marine ecology, explains that art often impacts our emotions more than scientific data, compelling us to pay attention and deeply feel in a way that numbers and hard data cannot. Her creative process is painstaking, and requires a lot of care, reflecting the breakable nature of coral animals. She says:

I hand-build enormous and intricate ceramic sculptural installations inspired by the fragile beauty of reefs and the human-caused threats they face. I enjoy feeling like a coral, patiently and methodically constructing large, delicate, stony structures that can change an ecosystem. I build hollow forms by pinching together coils of clay and use simple tools like chopsticks to texture each piece by hand - often poking thousands of holes to mimic the repetitive growth of coral colonies.

Courtney Mattison© Courtney Mattison
Courtney Mattison© Courtney Mattison

Not only are Mattison's sculptures realistically detailed and faithful to the real thing, she also poetically notes that the medium of ceramics fits perfectly with the very essence of corals:

Individual coral polyps precipitate calcium carbonate from seawater to form stony skeletons that grow atop one another to compose the vast, complex structures we know as reefs. It therefore feels essential that the medium of my work be ceramic, as calcium carbonate also happens to be a common glaze ingredient. Not only does the chemical structure of my work parallel that of a natural reef, but brittle porcelain anemone tentacles break easily if improperly handled, similar to the delicate bodies of living reef organisms. This shared sense of fragility is fundamental to the message of my work.

Courtney Mattison© Courtney Mattison

Mattison's integrity as an artist and activist extends to the lifecycle of energy and materials involved in her work. Cognizant of the energy required to fire kilns, she makes effort to recycle, reduce, and to fire up the kiln only when it is completely full, to lessen energy consumption. A portion of works sold benefit Mission Blue, an ocean protection organization founded by Mattison's hero, Dr. Sylvia Earle, a well-known oceanographer.

Courtney Mattison© Courtney Mattison
Courtney Mattison© Courtney Mattison

In protecting our most fragile of ecosystems, the sobering science alone will only reach us at an intellectual level. But combined with art, it will get us at the gut level, hopefully waking us up to act quickly before it's too late. Mattison's latest exhibition is “Sea Change”, currently being exhibited at the Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art until April 17, 2016. More over at Courtney Mattison.

Tags: Artists | Arts | Conservation | Coral Reefs

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