New AAAS Art Exhibit Looks “Beneath the Surface” of Earth’s Oceans


Artist Courtney Mattison explains her piece, “Our Changing Seas: A Coral Reef Story.”
Video by Carla Schaffer

As a student, Courtney Mattison was inspired by a study abroad experience in Australia to sculpt the organisms she had seen in the Great Barrier Reef. The sculptures turned into a piece of art two feet by three feet—but Mattison’s classmates said that it wasn’t big enough.

“You couldn’t see the transition from living, happy coral to degraded, bleached coral and I wanted to show something about coral bleaching in contrast to what healthy corals look like,” Mattison said. “So, they told me, ‘You need to go big if you want to show this,’ and so I kind of took that to heart and I just went bigger and bigger.”

The sculpture ultimately grew to become a massive work of art—15 feet tall, 11 feet wide, and 1500 pounds—and was the centerpiece of “Our Changing Seas: A Coral Reef Story,” Mattison’s master’s thesis at the Brown University Center for Environmental Studies. Made up of 24 individual pieces weighing between 40 and 70 pounds, the sculpture currently resides in the AAAS Gallery where it served as the inspiration for a new exhibit, “Beneath the Surface: Rediscovering a World Worth Conserving.”

A public opening reception for the exhibit will be held on Thursday 17 November from 6 to 8:30 p.m. at AAAS.

“Dr. Jane Lubchenco—under secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere, administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and former AAAS president—told us that the coral reef sculpture was leaving the Commerce Building and needed a new home,” said AAAS Chief Financial Officer Phillip Blair, who is also a member of the AAAS Art Committee that organized the show.

“Within weeks, the piece was installed here at our headquarters. It’s so impressive that the committee was inspired to create a larger show looking at how Mattison and others are using art as a vehicle to encourage good stewardship of the ocean. This is just the kind of issue—where science and social challenges intersect—that can be addressed so effectively through art.”

The exhibit features more than 60 works of photography, sculpture, paintings, drawings and mixed media by seven artists including Mattison, Karen Hackenberg, Dana Robson, Rachel Simmons, Brian Skerry, Cleo Vilett, and Wyland. Interviews with some of the featured artists are on a computer in the gallery, complementing the collection.

The opening reception will feature gallery talks with Simmons, Vilett, Hackenberg, and Mattison, preceded by drinks and hors d’oeuvres.

The exhibit runs through 2 March, and “Our Changing Seas” will be on display through August 2012. The AAAS Gallery is located at 12th and H Streets, N.W., in Washington, D.C. It is open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m.

Watch interviews with Rachel Simmons and Karen Hackenberg, artists whose work is featured in the new exhibit in the AAAS Gallery.