Your grandmother’s lace doilies, bleached bones, a white Rorschach test, these are some of the things you might “see” when you look at Courtney Mattison’s “Turn The Tide” exhibit, on view upstairs in the Beebe Gallery at Highfield Hall & Gardens through the end of the month.
The largest work on view in the show, covering an entire wall in the gallery, is only part of Ms. Mattison’s larger piece “Malum Geminos” (20 feet by seven feet and almost two feet of three-dimension relief), which was on view in 2019 at the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme, Connecticut. Segments from “Malum Geminos” are on view at Highfield along with selections from Ms. Mattison’s Fossil Fuels and Hope Spots series. The exhibit also includes Ms. Mattison’s 2016 work, “Aqueduct.”
Both scientist and sculptor, Ms. Mattison earned an interdisciplinary bachelor of arts degree in marine ecology and ceramic sculpture from Skidmore College in 2008 and a master of arts degree in environmental studies from Brown University with thesis credits at the Rhode Island School of Design in 2011.
In pursuing art rather than furthering her science research, Ms. Mattison’s goal was to educate more people with her message of conservation. “She decided she could reach more people through art than by staying in the lab,” said Joanne Ingersoll, director of exhibitions and interpretation at Highfield. “Art is more accessible than science,” she added.
An avid diver, Ms. Mattison has spent time beneath the surface of the oceans, diving at coral reefs and witnessing firsthand their increasing decay and poor health.
“Malum Geminos” is Latin for evil twins, a title that pays homage to American scientist Jane Lubchenco, who referred to ocean acidification as the “equally evil twin” of climate change at the 2009 United National Climate Change Conference.
Ocean acidification is a chemical process that changes the properties of seawater, causing it to become more acidic, which in turn speeds up the rate at which skeletons and shells dissolve, putting corals, oysters, sea urchins, crabs and other creatures at risk. You can see this breakdown process happen for yourself if you’ve ever put a clamshell into a glass of vinegar.
With over 70 percent of the Earth covered by water, the majority of us don’t see what’s beneath the surface. In her artist statement, Ms. Mattison observes, “We protect what we care about and we care about what we know and understand.” The exhibit is an attempt to illustrate what’s going on underwater where we can’t see it, in hopes we might be inspired to take action.
Ms. Ingersoll said that she was first introduced to Ms. Mattison’s work by Susan Morse of the Marine Biological Laboratory, traveling to the Griswold Museum to see Ms. Mattison’s 2019 installation.
The large “Malum Geminos” is symmetrical, growing out from its center. Are the ghostly, white tendrils reaching out menacingly to grab us or rather reaching out in a plea for help? Perhaps it’s both?
“The more you look at the work, the more you see,” Ms. Ingersoll said. “It does what art is supposed to do—affect one’s emotions. It’s so complex, both the living organism itself and the art.”
In a nod to the late Edward Gorey, Cape Codders familiar and partial to Mr. Gorey’s work might see the creature “fig bash” in some of Ms. Mattison’s forms.
Across from the largest portion of “Malum Geminos” to be included in the show are smaller segments of the piece, arranged in a way that’s reminiscent of antlers that might be hung as a trophy in a hunting lodge. That trophy element is no coincidence, since for years coral was pulled up from the sea and taken home, if not as a trophy, at least as a souvenir.
In her Hope Spots series Ms. Mattison creates sculptural representations of some of the ecosystems identified by scientist Sylvia Earle as places in the ocean that either need protection or that, while already marine-protected areas, need more protections put in place.
Areas identified by Dr. Earle include Cape Hatteras in North Carolina, the Humboldt Archipelago off the Chilean coast, the Atlantic Bank off the coast of Madagascar and the Coral Sea, home of the Great Barrier Reef. “They are all environmentally critical areas internationally, places related to the sea that are in danger,” Ms. Ingersoll said. “What Courtney does is create these circular ‘hope spots’ featuring compilations of different types of species that are specific to a particular area.”
“Aquaduct” features newer species of coral, both real and imagined by Ms. Mattison, that are more mobile. “They’re smaller and they are moving to cooler waters,” Ms. Ingersoll said. “They are adapting.” In the piece tiny, colorful coral appear to be crawling out from an air vent, marching down one wall of the gallery on their way to populate the space. While the air vent is almost a perfect match to those in the historic mansion, it, too, was created entirely of clay by Ms. Mattison.
The show includes three pieces from Ms. Mattison’s “Fossil Fuel” series: bleached coral growing on manmade objects including an oil drum and an oil can along with the cleverly titled “Catch of the Day,” which shows different types of coral growing and wrapping themselves around what’s meant to look like a polystyrene dinner setting. All three pieces were created in glazed stoneware and porcelain, with the oil drum and oil can glazed a rusty-red color. Despite some implied whimsey in “Catch of the Day,” the hyper-realism of the works makes them look as if the objects could have been pulled up from the ocean floor with the sea creatures growing on them. It’s reminiscent of photographs of the Titanic, taken when it was first discovered in the mid-1980s: murky photos showing rusticles growing off the ship’s rails and over her portals.
Ms. Mattison was onsite at Highfield for two weeks to install the show. Because artwork can’t be screwed into the wall at Highfield, the large wall containing the biggest segment of “Malum Geminos” was attached separately to a movable wall that was painted to match the gallery. “She did all the placement of the pieces using a large template,” Ms. Ingersoll said. “She was so methodical, it was inspiring to watch.”
In addition to the Marine Biological Laboratory, the show is also supported by the Brabson Library and Education Foundation, the Martha’s Vineyard Bank Charitable Foundation and the Woods Hole Foundation. “Turn the Tide” is on view in conjunction with another show with its roots in the environmental activism: “SEAchange: Meditations on Sustainability,” works in encaustic by Debra Claffey, Patricia Gerkin, Donna Hemil Talman and Charyl Weissbach.
Also on view is Falmouth artist Sue Beardsley’s colorful fiber art sculpture of a fanciful coral reef. The oversized work was part of the 2020 exhibit “60 over 60.” It was loaned back to Highfield to complement both of the summer shows.
In the gallery’s education room, along with the “SEAchange” exhibit, Highfield has set up an area for visitors to both take action and make a pledge to future changes. “There is a video and information on what people can do to make a difference,” said Cedith Copenhaver, Highfield’s program director. Actions include everything from educating oneself to making a lifestyle change or supporting local businesses. “When you get people excited about a cause, you need to get them to take action in the moment and not wait for them to go home,” Ms. Copenhaver said. “Our action table is hopefully a way to accomplish that.”
“It’s beautiful art,” Ms. Copenhaver said, “you could look at it and just admire it, but there is a point to it: the artists want you to take something away from it.”
“Turn the Tide” and “SEAchange” will be on view through October 31 at Highfield. The hall is open Tuesdays through Fridays from 10 AM to 4 PM, and Saturdays and Sundays from 10 AM to 2 PM.