Courtney Mattison creates intricately detailed ceramic sculptural works inspired by the fragile beauty of coral reefs and the human-caused threats they face. Her work raises awareness for the protection of our blue planet, urging policy makers and the public to conserve our changing seas. Mattison’s delicate and large-scale ceramic sculptural installations have been commissioned for permanent collections including those of the U.S. Department of State’s Office of Art in Embassies, the Nova Southeastern University Oceanographic Center and private patrons. Her work has been exhibited at prominent venues including the U.S. Department of Commerce headquarters, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the Whatcom Museum and the Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art. Born in 1985 and raised in San Francisco, Mattison received an interdisciplinary Bachelor of Arts degree in marine ecology and ceramic sculpture from Skidmore College in 2008 and a Master of Arts degree in environmental studies from Brown University with coursework at the Rhode Island School of Design in 2011. Her work has been featured by international outlets including Smithsonian Magazine; Good Morning America; Oprah Magazine; British Vogue; CNN Indonesia; BBC World Service and Science Magazine. She lives and works in Los Angeles.
I love coral reefs for being exotic, diverse and often venomous. Perhaps it’s because I’m relatively small and I respect small creatures that build big beautiful things, but I feel like I relate to corals—arguably one of the least relatable animals—on a very deep level. Sadly, reefs are so threatened by our greenhouse gas emissions, pollution and overfishing that scientists agree that they may cease to function by the end of this century. As an ocean “artivist” (artist-activist) with a background in marine ecology, I believe art impacts our emotions and can move us to value the blue planet we live on in ways that scientific data often cannot. We protect what we care about and we care about what we know and understand. Art can bring the beauty and peril of reefs above the surface and into view and can inspire us to protect the ocean.
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. 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.
The production of ceramic sculptural works requires a significant amount of energy to fire kilns, power and ventilate the studio and transport pieces. Courtney makes every effort to recycle, reduce waste, purchase bulk and local materials and only fire full kilns. She also supports Mission Blue, an initiative of the Sylvia Earle Alliance founded by legendary oceanographer Dr. Sylvia Earle to inspire “a sea change in public awareness and support for a global network of marine protected areas—Hope Spots—ranging from the deepest ocean to sunlit reefs and from the seamounts of the high seas to coastal seagrass meadows." By raising awareness about the importance of Hope Spots, Mission Blue inspires action to explore and protect the ocean.