sculptor, ocean advocate
Los Angeles, CA
“we have a chance now to rethink what's important.”
Courtney Mattison’s art is like like nothing you’ve ever seen before. except, of course, in nature. the LA-based artist creates dizzyingly beautiful sculptures of coral reefs, with the intent of uniting art and science to conserve the changing seas. here, she shares the fascinating — and very intentional — process behind her work, and what life looks like for her now.
you’re an artist and an ocean advocate. tell us more.
coral reefs have captivated my imagination for as long as i can remember. i love reefs for the mysteries they hold, and for the tiny plant-like animals that are the faceless architects of some of the world’s largest living things. i fell in love with them as a college student doing fieldwork on the Great Barrier Reef. but, as i was falling in love, i was heartbroken to learn of the ominous impacts of climate change, ocean acidification, overfishing and pollution. understanding that something as exquisite and otherworldly as the Great Barrier Reef could be deteriorating so rapidly because of human activities motivated me to dedicate my life’s work to inspiring people to care and act to prevent these impacts.
…and what is your life’s work?
i construct large-scale, intricately detailed ceramic sculptural works inspired by the beauty and fragility of life in the oceans, particularly in response to climate change.
what’s your process like?
i sculpt hollow forms by pinching together coils of clay, and use simple tools like chopsticks and wire brushes to texture each piece by hand, often poking thousands of holes to mimic the repetitive growth of coral colonies. i finish and fire the individual pieces using a color palette of glazes that i developed to reflect the vibrant tones and textures of healthy marine invertebrate communities, often juxtaposed against white glazes to emphasize the stark contrast of coral bleaching on reefs stricken by climate change. it feels essential that the medium of my work be ceramic, as calcium carbonate happens to be both a glaze ingredient and the compound precipitated by corals and mollusks to sculpt their stony structures. not only does the chemical makeup of my work parallel that of a natural reef, but porcelain tentacles and the bodies of living corals share a sense of fragility that compels observers to look but not touch. by experiencing my work on a large wall, viewers may feel as if they are hovering over the seafloor and discovering details from every angle.
you live and work in Los Angeles. what is life like right now for you?
i always work from my home studio, so i’m used to being cooped up. that said, i do usually travel quite a bit for work, so i’m getting used to being “grounded." i’m also keenly aware of the sacrifices made by healthcare workers because my husband is a physician. it’s scary to know how vulnerable we all are to this virus, and i’ve been disheartened to hear the political spin that some people put on the situation. more than anything, i feel more aware than ever before of how interconnected we all are to each other, and how responsible we are for one another’s wellbeing. it’s an important reminder that i think translates to the environmental movement as well. we have a chance now to rethink what's important to us and reconsider our habits and decisions going forward.
what’s important to your daily routine (and sanity)?
i spend hours each day working in the studio — and listening to WAY too much news. i’ve started reshaping my routine to make sure i can maintain a sense of positivity and emotional health without completely disconnecting from what’s happening in the world. walking and playing with my goofball studio pup, Noodle, helps clear my head.
what are you wearing everyday?
my work is very physical and generates a lot of dust, so my studio garb consists of easy-to-wash jeans, t-shirts and slip-ons. when i’m not in the dust, and especially when I’m traveling, i love wearing what my husband calls my ninja wardrobe: stretchy, simple, dark pieces — like époque’s jet set trouser — that fit perfectly, are super comfy, and i can wear absolutely anywhere.
how do you stay connected with the outside world?
honestly, i feel more connected to family and friends now than i usually do. we all have a bit more time to look after one another these days, and it’s so easy to meet up online. i hope Zoom dates become a regular thing that lasts beyond the pandemic!
advice to other women navigating it all?
eccentricity is a virtue, and dedication pays off. If you're truly passionate about something, no matter how unusual it is, do everything you can to become an expert in that subject and don’t give up! you never know where that path will take you.
Tiger King! (LOL.)
pressure makes diamonds.