Groundbreaking Environmental Artists: Courtney Mattison, Alejandro Duran, and Agnes Denes
Read on to learn about ceramic artist Courtney Mattison, multimedia artist Alejandro Duran, and conceptual and earth artist Agnes Denes, and how they are using their artwork to spread awareness around a variety of environmental issues.
Courtney Mattison is a locally-based sculptural ceramic artist, born and raised in SF and currently living in LA, who uses her artwork to spread awareness around the global issue of coral bleaching as a result of climate change, pollution, and overfishing. Because most people know very little about coral reefs and are largely unaffected by their bleaching, Courtney hopes that her giant reef sculptures can help people understand and feel more connected to reefs because, as she says, “we protect what we care about, and we care about what we know and understand.” Courtney hand-builds enormous, intricate reefs from clay using small tools such as chopsticks to give each piece a unique texture, sometimes poking thousands of holes in a singular coral piece to achieve a desired pattern and texture. Courtney also creates her own colorful glazes that reflect the vibrancy of reefs which she will often contrast with white glazes to represent bleaching. The fragility of porcelain and the fact that glaze contains calcium carbonate, the primary component of coral skeletons, makes ceramics the perfect medium to imitate and spread awareness around coral reefs.
Recently, Courtney partnered with Mission Blue, an initiative of the Sylvia Earle Alliance dedicated to eliciting support and protection for a global network of marine protected areas called “Hope Spots,” creating a “Hope Spot” sculpture series with each piece dedicated to one of these unique marine protected areas. A few of Courtney’s other projects include her five part “Our Changing Seas” installation, a series of five enormous coral sculptures that contrast vibrant corals with stark white ones to represent bleaching, and her “Fossil Fuels” series where she painted fossil fuel containers such as gas cans and oil drums bright red and decorated them with bleached ceramic coral pieces to show how the fossil fuel industry contributes directly to reef bleaching.
Courtney’s work has been exhibited at a number of prominent art and science centers including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art, and the Washington DC headquarters of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Her work has been featured in a number of magazines including the Smithsonian Magazine, British Vogue, and Smithsonian Magazine. In 2015 she was named artist of the year by the international seakeepers society and one of the top 100 “Ocean Heroes” by Origin Magazine. To see more of Courtney’s work visit her website or follow her on instagram, twitter, and/or facebook @courtneycoral.
Alejandro Duran is a video producer, photographer, sculpture artist, environmentalist, and educator. He splits his time between Brooklyn, New York and Sian Ka’an, Mexico where he collects the international trash that washes up on the shores of this federally-protected nature reserve and UNESCO World Heritage Sight to then transform into beautiful, yet disturbing, pieces of art for his longtime project “Washed Up.” By showing that even the most natural and undeveloped landscapes are being affected by our wasteful, consumerist culture, Alejandro hopes to spread awareness around the global issue of plastic pollution and inspire us to change our relationships with consumption and waste. Alejandro’s work has been featured in several prominent magazines including National Geographic, Time, and The Huffington Post as well as a number of books including Art and Ecology Now, ABC News, New York Daily News, Unexpected Art, and Photo Viz.
In addition to his work with “Washed Up,” Alejandro has taught youth and adult classes in photography and video at the MOMA and International Center of Photography. He also founded the media production company Luma Projects and frequently hosts community-based art making and speaking events to engage people in the issues of plastic pollution, consumerism, and waste. To learn more about Alejandro Duran and his “Washed Up” project, visit his website or check out his instagram or facebook @washedupproject.
Born in Budapest, Hungary in 1931, Agnes Denes has had a long and successful artistic career spanning roughly six decades and continuing to the present day. In the 1960s, Agnes emerged as a pioneer in the conceptual, environmental, and ecological arts, quickly becoming well-known for her artwork which explored philosophy, history, psychology, science, poetry, linguistics, and music and often dealt with complicated socio-political ideas. Since her exhibition career began in the 1960s, she has taken part in over 450 exhibitions at museums and galleries around the world including at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington DC (1974,) the Institute of Contemporary Art in London (1979,) the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University in NY 1992,) and the Ludwig Museum in Budapest, Hungary (2008.)
Perhaps her most famous piece of work, and one still extremely relevant today, is her environmental piece Wheatfield — A Confrontation. For this piece, created over 4 months in the Spring and Summer of 1982 with the support of the Public Art Fund, Agnes planted a field of golden wheat in the Battery Park Landfill, a 2 acre space of trashed land near Wall Street in lower Manhattan. When writing about the meaning and purpose behind this project, Agnes said: “Planting and harvesting a field of wheat on land worth $4.5 billion created a powerful paradox. Wheatfield was a symbol, a universal concept; it represented food, energy, commerce, world trade, and economics. It referred to mismanagement, waste, world hunger and ecological concerns. It called attention to our misplaced priorities.” Today, as the fossil fuel industry continues to expand and play an influential role in politics despite global climate change wreaking havoc around the globe, this piece with its message of “misplaced priorities” feels more relevant than ever. Two of Agnes’s other most well known works include Rice/Tree/Burial, a 4 part project commissioned by Artpark, Lewiston, NY in which she planted a rice field 200 ft above the Niagara gorge, buried a time capsule, filmed Niagara Falls from its edge, and chained trees in a sacred Indian forest, and Tree Mountain — A Living Time Capsule, a project co-sponsored by the the Ministry of the Environment, Government of Finland and the United Nations Environment Program where 11,000 trees were planted by 11,000 different individuals from around the world in an intricate pattern to be protected for 400 years. This area was later declared a protected national forest.
Agnes has received many honors and awards for her lifelong work including 4 fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, 4 grants from the New York State Council on the Arts, the Rome Prize from the American Academy in Rome, the American Academy of Arts and Letter Purchase Award, and many others. To learn more about Agnes and her incredible work, visit her website here!
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