Sculpting Hope: An Artist’s Quest to Inspire Action

This story originally appeared in the Earth Island Journal and is repurposed here as part of a third-party collaboration. ‘Our Changing Seas III’, the third in a series of large ceramic installations that depict the vulnerability of coral reefs, highlights the threat posed by warming waters. According to NOAA, we are currently experiencing the most widespread coral bleaching event in recorded history.


Our Changing Seas II (detail): A patch of bleached coral calls attention to warming ocean waters.

In a world dominated by unsettling environmental news, beauty and hope can be hard to come by. But in Courtney Mattison’s largescale, ceramic coral reef installations, that is exactly what one finds – a tragic message accompanied by a hopeful one, all in one mesmerizing package.

The sponges, anemones, and corals of Mattison’s Our Changing Seas series seem to pull at their wall mountings, demanding careful attention and conveying both the beauty and the vulnerability of the world’s coral reefs. Our Changing Seas I tells a story of transition and peril. At eye level, the ceramic reef is healthy and diverse. It virtually comes alive with vibrant colors. But as the viewers’ eyes are drawn upward, they are confronted with bleached corals, and then with a reef covered in algae, fed by nutrient pollution and overfishing. But there is hope yet – a patch of bright red coral peeks out from the algae-covered wreckage at the very top of the piece.

Our Changing Seas III throws corals into the “eye of the storm,” where they face unrelenting stress from human-caused climate change and the resulting coral bleaching. “At its heart, this piece celebrates my favorite aesthetic aspects of a healthy coral reef surrounded by the sterile white skeletons of bleached corals swirling like the rotating winds of a cyclone,” Mattison writes in her artist’s statement. Aqueduct takes the concept a step further, exploring the idea of climate-induced species migration as sea life invades the exhibit space from an air duct.


Hope Spots Micronesian Islands II: The Hope Spots series is based on oceanographer Sylvia Earle’s concept of a network of marine protected areas.

Mattison’s thoughtfulness in creating this series runs deep. The use of ceramic as a medium is a hat tip to the “stony” corals that pull calcium carbonate from seawater to create the rigid skeletons of reefs. As she puts it: “It therefore feels essential that the medium of my work be ceramic, as calcium carbonate also happens to be a common ingredient in clay and glaze materials.” Similarly, the fragility of her intricate sculptures parallels the “delicate bodies of living reef organisms.”

Mattison is equal parts artist and advocate, and a driving force behind her work is the hope that it will inspire others to take on the cause of healthy, thriving coral reefs. As the world’s corals continue to suffer through an unprecedented bleaching event, this action cannot come soon enough. It is hard to view Mattison’s installations without feeling inspired to act.

Aqueduct (detail)

Aqueduct (detail)


Working on the artwork.

Hope Spots Coral Triangle II: Each Hope Spot sculpture represents a vital marine ecosystem identified by Earle.

Hope Spots Coral Triangle II: Each Hope Spot sculpture represents a vital marine ecosystem identified by Earle.

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