Don’t miss “Turn the Tide,” an immersive art installation co-produced by the Marine Biological Laboratory at Highfield Hall and Gardens in Falmouth. Courtney Mattison evokes both the brilliant biodiversity of coral reefs and the real existential threat they face, in her large-scale, intricately hand-sculpted work. The exhibit closes on October 31.
Below, Mattison reflects on the muses that led her to fall in love with coral reefs and to dedicate herself to rendering them in sculpture and, through advocacy, preserving them from extinction.
What is a coral reef, from your perspective as an ecologist and artist?
A coral reef, to me, is a lot like a city. It’s an exquisitely diverse ecosystem of different species that all play a role. Being in the middle of a truly healthy, vibrant coral reef is like being in the middle of Times Square, pre-Covid, with horns honking and food smells, and all kinds of people and creatures running around. You have no idea what’s coming at you next, but everyone in that ecosystem plays a role, and you notice when some of those species are missing. I’ve seen healthy coral reefs and I’ve seen unhealthy ones, and the contrast is stark.
The first time I dove at the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, it was just thriving with corals and invertebrates and all these huge sharks and snappers and predatory fish bumping past me. When I went back nine years later, it was coincidentally during the 2016 major bleaching event when 93% of the northern section of the Great Barrier Reef bleached. Not only were all the corals completely bleached white, which was shocking and devastating, but all the sharks and predatory fish were gone. It was like a ghost town. The change in the reef from colorful and diverse and having a lot of movement, to sterile, ghostly white skeletons of bleached corals – I try to highlight that in my work.
When did you start to combine marine biology and art?
Growing up in San Francisco, I was fascinated with exploring tide pools along the California coast and peeking below the water’s surface to see what faceless creatures were under there. I was also a really artistic kid. I took a marine biology class in high school and was also in a ceramics class at the time, and it felt natural to start sculpting what I was studying: sea squirts and corals and flatworms, all kinds of invertebrates that were so alien-looking but were from our own backyard. That was exciting for me.
I spent a semester in Australia during college, and that’s when I literally dove in and fell head over heels in love with coral reefs. I just went all in. I took reef ecology classes and a ceramics class; I joined the dive club and went to the Great Barrier Reef. Simultaneously, I was heartbroken to learn in detail how climate change was expected to devastate reefs. I felt like I was falling in love and losing that love at the same time. That was a turning point in deciding to dedicate my career to inspiring coral reef conservation through my art.
I decided I wanted to create a masterpiece. I didn’t know what that meant, but I knew I needed to find a graduate school that would allow me to combine this interdisciplinary set of interests in a powerful way. Brown was the perfect place for me; I received an education in marine conservation biology and policy and took half of my coursework at the Rhode Island School of Design.
The culmination of my thesis project at Brown was my first large-scale ceramic sculptural coral reef work. I interviewed my heroes in marine research, conservation, and art, and they inspired its design. It became obvious that I had to create something enormous, if I wanted to communicate how big the problem was. I started by building as many corals as I could and in the end I decided to fit them all together, which ended up being a complicated puzzle because I had to completely engineer this apparatus to hold everything together. I learned a lot! But that work is still on display at the headquarters of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Washington, DC.
How realistic are your reef sculptures?
I started out being very realistic but quickly became more flexible in that regard. I’ve started creating hybrids of my favorite coral species. I’ve come up with a sculptural language in my work, so I have a “toolkit” of textures that I create and put together in different combinations.
The important thing in my work is to evoke the sense of wonder and curiosity and excitement I feel when I’m diving on a healthy coral reef. There’s an intimate interaction you have with the textures and forms and colors of corals, if you take the time to stop moving and look. That’s something I want to evoke in viewers of my work.
My choice of ceramic for my medium is important. Coral reefs compose their skeletons from calcium carbonate, which is a common ingredient in a lot of the ceramic glazes that I use. So, there’s a chemical parallel. But most of all, ceramic and coral have a shared sense of fragility. If you improperly handle the porcelain tentacles on my sculpture or the living bodies of coral reef animals when you are diving, they can break and be destroyed in a similar way. That fragility is fundamental to my work.
Where is your work heading now?
I’m struggling with this right now, because I am coming to terms with the fact that climate change is coming on more quickly than we expected when I started this work. I’m becoming more and more pessimistic, honestly. I’ve been creating coral sculpture for about a decade and trying hard to advocate for conservation, and I feel like if I just keep on that same tone, it will start sounding naïve.
Reefs are my muse, so figuring out how to continue creating artwork about them in a way that isn’t totally tragic is a challenge. I think my role is starting to evolve from being an advocate into more of an observer.
I’m thinking of reefs now as a way to visualize climate change, which is often hard to see unless you are looking at horrible devastation on the news — flooded cars and people on rooftops and forest fires. I think there’s a more personal way to think about climate change, one that makes us care and want to galvanize political support and a commercial revolution to slow climate change enough to protect the habitats that are still possible to protect. I hope coral reefs are in that category.
Not all corals will survive climate change; I’m not naïve about being able to turn it around that much. But some coral species will persist. And if we limit our emissions and warming enough, coral reefs could also potentially persist in some form, even if they’re not completely ecologically functional. We’ve seen that with fisheries that have been devastated. Some of them are too far gone, but a lot of them can eventually recover, if you let them. Nature can heal itself.
Interview edited and condensed by Diana Kenney.