Artists for the Earth

Artist Courtney Mattison details beauty, and bleaching, of coral reefs

Climate change is here and now, disrupting natural systems and wiping out species. And nowhere is this destruction more apparent than in coral reefs.

Warming and more acidic waters from climate change are pushing corals to their collective breaking point, with corals expected to face reductions of 70–90 percent in the next 20 years, according to research presented last week at the American Geophysical Union’s Ocean Sciences Meeting.

Through her large-scale ceramic wall structures, Los Angeles-based artist Courtney Mattison draws awareness to the plight of coral reefs, and the delicate ecosystems they support.

“Everyone can play a role in [restoring our planet],” says Mattison, who recently joined Earth Day Network’s Artists for the Earth campaign. “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.”

Courtney Mattison poses in front of her wall installation, “Our Changing Seas IV.” Photo courtesy: Courtney Mattison

Part of the appeal of Mattison’s works is the scale. Her installations, which resemble coral reefs, comprise hundreds of individual porcelain and clay pieces that cover entire walls. And with eccentric shapes and colors, they create intricate portraits and landscapes of marine life.

But as aesthetically striking as these delicate installations are, what they represent is even more compelling. In her works, Mattison pairs colorful installations with white and gray objects, detailing one of the most common indicators, and reminders, of stressed corals: bleaching.

“It’s really hard to visualize climate change unless you can see its impact,” she says. “Corals offer a really stark visualization of climate change because they bleach.”

Coral reefs are sensitive to warming temperatures, and with an increase in the number of global heatwaves, climate change is throwing off a delicate balance. Corals have a symbiotic relationship with zooxanthellae — a photosynthetic algae that lives within the tissues of corals. These microscopic algae provide their hosts with most of the energy corals need to survive and are responsible for the incredible colors of the reef.

Courtney Mattison’s installations, which resemble coral reefs, comprise hundreds of individual porcelain and clay pieces that cover entire walls. Pictured above is her work, “Confluence (Our Changing Seas V).” Photo courtesy: Courtney Mattison

When corals are stressed however, they expel their zooxanthellae, exposing what’s left: white coral tissue and the skeleton underneath. Many of Mattison’s works reflect this absence of color that she calls “ghostly and ominous.”

In spite of the existential threats that corals face, Mattison still sees hope in the work of countless scientists, artists and activists, especially youth, to use their platforms and voices to promote environmentalism and inspire change.

“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,” Mattison says.

Just as individual coral polyps build up coral reef, so too can individual voices merge to create a movement. Learn more at Artist for the Earth, and join EARTHRISE, the largest, most diverse mobilization in history. Together, we can fight climate change.

Image at top: Courtney Mattison views her work, “Our Changing Seas III.” Photo courtesy: Courtney Mattison.