Although climate change is still a hotly debated topic, we can’t deny that its effects are manifesting in our world today.
The disruption of natural systems, the warming seas, the melting of glaciers—these events are all indicators of climate change.
Our waters are also becoming acidic and pushing corals to their breaking point. According to research presented in February 2020 at the American Geophysical Union’s Ocean Sciences Meeting, corals are expected to face a 70-90 reduction in the next two decades.
Courtney Mattison, a Los Angeles-based ocean conservationist and ceramic artist, aims to spread awareness about this alarming phenomenon through her large-scale ceramic wall structures.
Her works can grab the attention of anyone who sees them, and it’s partly due to the scale. Her installations depicting real-life coral reefs comprise hundreds of individual clay and porcelain pieces that overlay entire walls.
Mattison received an interdisciplinary Bachelor of Arts degree in marine ecology and ceramic sculpture from Skidmore College in 2008.
She could have easily worked in the scientific field, but she decided to pursue art instead.
“Now I can contribute to public perspective on coral reefs, because art impacts us emotionally and can speak to us in ways that scientific data and literature often cannot,” she said.
Mattison sculpts her material into eccentric shapes and paints them with different colors to portray the intricate landscapes of marine life. But as beautiful as they are, her art aims to represent something far more compelling.
She pairs her colorful installations with white and gray objects to detail the most common indicator of stressed corals: bleaching.
“It’s really hard to visualize climate change unless you can see its impact,” Mattison said. “Corals offer a really stark visualization of climate change because they bleach.”
With the increasing number of global heatwaves, climate change is throwing off a delicate balance in the oceans. Since coral reefs are sensitive to warming temperatures, these events are hitting them quite hard.
Zooxanthellae, a photosynthetic algae that lives within the tissues of corals, give their host most of the energy they need to survive. They’re also responsible for the vibrant colors of the reef.
But when corals are stressed, they expel their zooxanthellae and reveals what’s left: white coral tissue and the skeleton underneath.
Mattison refers to this loss of color as “ghostly and ominous,” with most of her work reflecting coral reef bleaching.
Although ceramics aren’t as fluid as corals, Mattison says their frail nature reminds her of the threats that ocean life faces every single day.
“Coral animals are so tiny and fragile; if you touch them by accident they break really easily,” she said. “This is also true for my sculptures; they’re very delicate.”
Mattison grew up in San Francisco and developed a love for the sea when she was just a little girl.
“It was always really fascinating for me to get a glimpse of what lived in the ocean, because it seems so removed from our daily life,” she said.
Despite the existential threat that corals face, the unrelenting work of scientists, artists, and activists who are using their platforms to promote environmentalism gives Mattison hope for the future of corals.
“It’s exciting that so many people feel galvanized to help and contribute, and I think each of us has a unique talent or skill that we can use to inspire each other,” she said.
Mattison also believes that everyone can play a role in restoring the earth, and she hopes that she’s able to do her part through her art.
“I hope my work is making a difference and inspiring people to use their unique skills to do what they can do to protect our oceans,” she said.