Courtney Mattison: Our Changing Seas

Throughout history, people have given different meanings to the role art has or should have in society. Some have used it to communicate their beliefs to their followers, others say art should provoke an emotional response in its audience, and others use art to activate or raise awareness for certain causes.

One of the latter is Courtney Mattison. Her impressive ceramic sculptures depict the wondrous world of coral reefs. And although they are gracious works of art in themselves, they are built with a specific goal in mind – to raise awareness for coral reef bleaching.

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Courtney grew up in San Francisco where she developed her love for the sea. “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.” This led her to sculpt the organisms she was so interested in – exploring every detail of these tiny animals.

Funnily, Courtney now works from what she calls her “in-land studio” in Denver, Colorado. “It’s kind of a running joke in my career right now; it’s pretty ironic to live in the middle of the United States, a mile above sea level, and to be sculpting ocean organisms all day long from so far away.”

She works in ceramics, a very static matter, which may seem like an odd choice seeing that coral reefs usually move fluidly with the currents of the sea. However, ceramics’ frail nature reminds Courtney of the threats ocean life face everyday. “Coral animals are so tiny and fragile; if you touch them by accident they break really easily. This is also true for my sculptures; they’re very delicate.”

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Her explorations of coral in art began as an individual creative challenge, but throughout her studies in marine ecology she learned about the effects climate change has on coral reefs. “I realized that art was more than art for art’s sake. Art for me really has a job to do; I can use my sculptural work to inspire coral reef conservation.”

With her background, Courtney could have easily chosen to work on protecting oceans in the scientific field, but she decided to move into art instead. “I didn’t feel like I could contribute as uniquely sitting behind a lab bench doing research on different coral species and solutions to coral bleaching,” she says.

“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.”

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