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Coral Sculptures Show How The World's Reefs Are Dying Out

"There is still time for corals to recover even from the point of bleaching if we act quickly," says artist Courtney Mattison.

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With the Great Barrier Reef suffering the worst mass bleaching event in history, climate change could kill off the world's coral reefs for good by the end of the century. When that happens, Courtney Mattison's coral reef art might be the closest thing to the reefs we have left.

Called Our Changing Seas, Mattison's series of massive, intricately detailed ceramic sculptures were created by hand to represent coral reefs in the midst of being bleached. Bleaching is what happens to reefs when their sensitive zooxanthellae—a symbiotic algae that gives coral its pigmentation—die, usually due to environmental factors like pollution or temperature. And when the zooxanthellae die, so do the reefs.

To recreate these reefs in ceramic, Mattison pokes thousands of holes into the clay with her fingers to mimic the sponge-like cavities of a coral colony, while sculpting coral's more tubular polyps with the aid of simple tools like paintbrushes and chopsticks. Each of her sculptures takes between seven and ten months to create in her Denver studio. There, they are sculpted and fired in as many as 100 separate pieces, which combined will make up the finished reefs, weighing 900 to 1,500 pounds each.

Even the glaze Mattison uses has something in common with coral. Calcium carbonate is a common ingredient in both coral reefs and clay and glaze materials. "Not only does the chemical structure of my work parallel that of a natural reef," the artist writes, "but brittle ceramic anemone tentacles and coral branches break easily if improperly handled, similar to the delicate bodies of living reef organisms."

Mattison hopes that her Our Changing Seas series will help inspire people to save the coral reefs before they're just as inanimate as her sculptures are. "There is still time for corals to recover even from the point of bleaching if we act quickly to decrease the threats we impose," she says. "Perhaps if my work can influence viewers to appreciate the fragile beauty of our endangered coral reef ecosystems, we will act more wholeheartedly to help them recover and even thrive."

All three of Mattison's Our Changing Seas sculptures are currently on display. The latest can be seen at an exhibition running at the Palo Alto Art Center running from June 18 to August 28.

Photos: Arthur Evans for the Tang Museum via Behance

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