Coral Universe

Courtney Mattison is a ceramic sculptor and ocean advocate based in Los Angeles, California. She creates monumental ceramic installations that reflect both the astounding beauty of coral reefs and the tragedy of human behavior threatening their fragile existence. With a Bachelor of Arts degree in marine ecology and ceramic sculpture and a Master’s degree in environmental studies with coursework in advanced ceramics, she is uniquely qualified to investigate the science and conditions of coral reefs and translate her observations into large-scale works of art.

Growing up in California and visiting Hawaii on a number of occasions, Mattison developed an interest in coral reefs as a teenager. That initial interest grew into a passion after she spent time studying abroad in Australia. There, she took classes in coral ecology that focused on the damaging effect of climate change and human behavior on the reefs and “fell in love with the forms and colors of corals.” Like others exploring the oceans, she is an advanced diver.

Mattison explained to me in our recent conversation that in her initial studies, she was stunned to learn about the speed at which coral reefs around the world are dying and asked herself, “how could coral reefs cease to exist in my lifetime?” That question prompted her to create works of art that highlight both the beauty of coral reefs as well as the conditions that are killing them.

Our Changing Seas I

For her graduate thesis in 2011, Mattison completed her first large-scale wall sculpture. Entitled Our Changing Seas I, the piece was installed in the lobby of the Department of Commerce in Washington, DC. While searching for a venue for the installation, she contacted the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) “cold,” as she put it, and ultimately won the support of Jane Lubchenco, renowned marine biologist and environmental scientist, who was, at the time, the U.S. Undersecretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmospheres as well as the Administrator of NOAA. Mattison’s fortuitous cold call provided her with the opportunity to present her first public art project in this venerable space.

Our Changing Seas I took Mattison a full year to build and involved intricate and careful planning. The individual ceramic pieces represent corals, sea sponges, mollusks, anemones and other creatures that form the coral reef’s ecosystem. Each piece was formed, carved, glazed and fired. Mattison used different types of ceramic according to the coral’s place in the sculpture: larger, more structural pieces were made from stoneware, whereas smaller, decorative pieces were made from porcelain. She formed the shapes and patterns of the coral reef pieces using chopsticks and other simple tools. The sculpture was highly fragile, as is the coral reef ecosystem that it represents.

In addition to the colorful, living creatures, portions of the sculpture were glazed white, indicating where coral bleaching had occurred. According to NOAA, “coral bleaching takes place when corals become stressed by changes in water conditions such as temperature, light and nutrients.” As the waters in the oceans warm from climate change, the stressed corals “expel the symbiotic algae living in their tissues, causing them to turn completely white.” If the algae loss is severe, the corals starve, are prone to disease, and eventually die.

Ultimately, Our Changing Seas I weighed 2400 pounds, including a support structure that Mattison and her father engineered so as not to touch the wall. As she admitted to me, realizing her thesis project involved a steep learning curve.

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Our Changing Seas I. Installed in the lobby of the U.S. Department of Commerce hosted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), 2011. Photo courtesy of Derek Parks, NOAA, and the artist.

Confluence (Our Changing Seas V)

Over the next seven years, Mattison completed five more sculptures in her Our Changing Seas series as well as other major works. The fifth and largest of these, entitled Confluence (Our Changing Seas V), was commissioned by the U.S. Department of State through their Art in Embassies program, and in 2018, was installed in the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta, Indonesia. By then, she had developed a way to build lighter components, mount her sculptures directly on the wall and fine-tune her working system. First developing a drawing of her proposed sculpture, Mattison digitized the drawing in Photoshop so that it could be enlarged to the scale she wanted. She then created a grid on the floor of her studio and measured out the drawing to scale on the grid. After making paper cutouts of all the individual components, she located them within her grid and was ready to focus on building the sculpture.

Our Changing Seas V measures 28’ tall, 18’ wide, and 2’ deep. In a 2019 article on her work in the Brown Alumni Magazine, she calls it “a gigantic, vertical, swirling hurricane spiral of corals with the really colorful, healthy ones at the kind of eye of the storm, and then trailing white, bleached coral skeletons that wind out toward the edges.”

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Confluence: Our Changing Seas V. 28 ft. tall x 18 ft. wide x 2 ft. deep, 2018. Installed in the United States Embassy in Jakarta, Indonesia. Photo courtesy of Amanda Brooks and the artist.

Semesta Terumbu Karang (Coral Universe)

From 2016-18, Mattison was commissioned to develop a large-scale sculpture for The Coral Triangle Center (CTC) in Sanur, Bali, Indonesia as a focal point for the organization’s new building. Rili Djohani, a marine ecologist and accomplished diver, and a small team comprised of others who shared her vision, established the Center in 2010 as an independent foundation to collect information/research on the reefs, inform individuals about the beauty and dangers affecting the reefs, and empower local communities to preserve them.

Mattison calls the coral reefs in what is referred to as The Coral Triangle off the waters of Indonesia, the “Amazon of the Sea” because they act as the planet’s lungs in the ocean. As she explained, the Coral Triangle contains the most diverse, the healthiest, and the most colorful reefs in the world.

After visiting the Coral Triangle Center for the first time in 2016, Mattison decided that, instead of simply creating her own installation, she would design the sculpture but then train volunteers and others to make the actual pieces. Over the course of the next two years, she conducted an initial workshop for lead project contributors, spoke weekly through Skype to oversee the project’s development and visited the site a number of times. Ultimately, over 300 volunteers created 3000 corals, of which 2000 were used to construct the sculpture. The installation was designed as six coral swirls surrounding a central “bullseye” along a 61′ x 8′ masonry wall. Coral Universe was Mattison’s first project that involved others in the creative process.

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Semesta Terumbu Karang (Coral Universe), 61’ x 8,’ 2018. Installed in the Coral Triangle Center, Sanur, Bali, Indonesia. Photo courtesy of the artist.

As I write this article, Mattison is participating in a month-long cultural exchange in Jakarta and the islands in Eastern Indonesia. She is spending nine days talking to Indonesians about her art and conducting outreach workshops hosted by the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta and the U.S. Consulate in Surabaya, sponsored by the Art in Embassies Project. She will also be participating in a diving expedition in Raja Ampat. The expedition is hosted by the Oceanic Society and will be exploring the world’s richest coral reefs, where she will most certainly renew her passion for these fragile ecosystems and derive inspiration for her next installations. Mattison’s motivation/goals for constructing her powerful and towering works of art can be most accurately summarized in her recent statement in reference to Confluence (Our Coral Reefs V) below:

I hope the idea of creating such a monumental, intricately hand-detailed ceramic sculptural installation inspires a sense of excitement in viewers about the connections we share with coral reefs while empowering individuals and policymakers to act to conserve.

(Top image: Confluence (Our Changing Seas V) Detail 5. 28 ft. tall x 18 ft. wide x 2 ft. deep, 2018. Photo courtesy of the artist.)

 This article is part of Imagining Water, a series on artists of all genres who are making the topic of water and climate change a focus of their work and on the growing number of exhibitions, performances, projects and publications that are appearing in museums, galleries and public spaces around the world with water as a theme.

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Susan Hoffman Fishman is a painter, public artist, writer, and educator whose work has been exhibited in numerous museums and galleries throughout the U.S. Her latest bodies of work focus on the threat of rising tides, our new plastic seas and the wars that are predicted to occur in the future over access to clean water. She is also the co-creator of two interactive public art projects: The Wave, which addresses our mutual need for and interdependence on water and Home, which calls attention to homelessness and the lack of affordable housing in our cities and towns.

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