Latest Lux artist showcases ‘Our Changing Seas’


As she studied coral reefs and the ecosystems of the ocean, Courtney Mattison would create sculptures of the habitats to help her learn. Now, the artist continues to make the work to educate others about what lies beneath the surface of water.

Mattison, who lives in Los Angeles, is the Lux Art Institute's latest artist in residence. She showcases a variety of ceramic displays, symbolizing oceanic ecosystems, through March 23.

The artist, who is in the Lux Art Institute studio in Encinitas through Feb. 23, recently spoke about her work and how the ocean inspires her.

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Q: What can you share with us about what you brought to the Lux?

A: I have more work in this gallery than I've had in another show. It's really fun for me to have three really large-scale installations and then smaller work all together in the same space. I have three large installations from my 'Our Changing Seas' series, which I started in 2011. ... It's all hand-built ceramic. I build everything on the floor of my studio in LA, including the smaller pieces that I have here also. These [smaller pieces] are called 'Hope Spots' and they each represent a different ecosystem around the world. I also have my series called 'Fossil Fuels' that kind of touches on the relationship between fossil fuel use and coral bleaching.

Q: What got you so interested in creating art around the ocean? Is that the only type of art you focus on?

A: I really am endlessly inspired by the ocean. It's like my muse, and coral reefs are my true love. I kind of fell in love with them back in 2007 when I got scuba certified and was studying marine biology as a transfer student in Australia at James Cook University. I got to dive on the Great Barrier Reef like every weekend for months and months. I was falling in love with the reef and taking classes, learning about how threatened coral reefs are by climate change and other human activities. I realized while I was there that art can be kind of a vector for information that impacts people emotionally rather than just reading the scientific literature and kind of getting beat over the head with all these depressing facts about climate change and stuff. I think art can actually inspire people and give them hope and maybe spark a sense of joy and wonder in people that makes them want to learn how they can help.

Q: What is your process like for creating these pieces?

A: I am really meticulous. I have a total scientist brain, even though I work as an artist. I usually start with a sketch that I do freeform by hand. I then digitize the sketch in Photoshop and I make everything to scale and create a really intricate map of where everything fits together. My big installations really are like three-dimensional puzzles on the wall, so everything has to fit together perfectly for it to work. Even though they look really organic and freeform, there's a lot of measuring involved. Once I have designed that piece and have the whole map, then I can start building. I have a grid on the floor of my studio, so I can start from the middle and just basically work my way around and build the different puzzle pieces. ... They're hollow, so they're really lightweight compared to how they look. I use really simple tools for the most part, like chopsticks and paintbrushes. Sometimes I use dissection tools that I used to use as a biology student, but it's mostly just sitting for hours and hours in my studio listening to podcasts and repetitively creating these textures. Corals have so many amazing, cool textures that I'm always challenged to invent a new tool or a new technique to make that.

Q: How long does it take you to put these together?

A: It depends how big and complex the work is. For a larger piece, it can take me up to a year. I just finished the largest work I've ever done. It's 28 feet tall by 18 feet wide. That was a commission for the U.S. embassy in Jakarta, Indonesia. That took me over a year to make. It was 400 different pieces and really gigantic. ... I've been working on one on and off, but overall it's probably going to end up taking me about nine months to make. This one is going to be 11 by 17 feet. ... With these types of installations, what I really try to go for is making corals look like they're swept up into the galaxy and they're spinning around. It's sort of trying to emphasize how they're at this turning point with a lot of change going on in the ocean.

Q: Is everything accurately placed where they would be in the ocean?

A: Actually, no. I don't think about that too literally. I could. I know how to do that, but I feel like it would be too much like a natural history diorama if I was so literal and trying to show this species relates to this species. What I really care about is evoking that sense of just sheer wonder and curiosity that I find when scuba diving on a really healthy coral reef. So few people are lucky enough to get to do that in real life, so I wanted to bring that above the surface for people and let them feel like they're hovering over the reef.

A ‘Hope Spot’ by Courtney Mattison

Q: What can you tell us about the ‘Hope Spots’?

A: These are smaller vignettes that are each representative of a different ecosystem in the ocean. 'Hope Spots' is a term that was coined by this famous oceanographer named Sylvia Earle, who started an organization called Mission Blue, which is based in Napa. Sylvia won the TED Prize in 2009 and got to make a wish when she won the prize. Her wish was for people to use all the skills at their disposal to help save the ocean. I was in grad school when she won it, and that just really inspired me because I had already looked up to her for a long time at that point. That idea just really got me excited about using my art skills to kind of communicate ocean conservation issues. I decided to make a piece that was representative of each of the 'Hope Spots' that she had identified in the ocean as places that are really special and important to protect.

Q: What is your history as an artist?

A: I was always an artistic kid. I grew up in San Francisco, and my mom was a docent at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. I was exposed to modern art as a really young kid, and I just loved going to the museum. San Francisco has so many great natural history museums and science museums, too, so that art and science connection was always really natural for me. When I got into high school, I got to take my first marine biology class, and I was already sculpting in ceramics classes. I think I'm like a three-dimensional learner, so I just felt like I could understand the creatures I was studying if I sculpted them. That connection between art and science was there from the beginning. I continued doing art through college and graduate school but consistently focused on coral reefs the entire time.

Q: What do you hope people take away when they walk in here and see these pieces?

A: I really want everyone to explore for themselves. I don't want to tell people what to think when they look at my work, but I do hope that it just sparks some sense of interest and curiosity about our personal connections to the ocean. I think people protect what they care about. Even if you surf every day or are somehow connected to the ocean otherwise, you may not get to see below the surface very often. I really hope people are reminded to kind of explore the ocean more and think about how it connects to them personally and how they impact it and can help protect it.