Pictured: Our Changing Seas IV (2019). By Courtney Mattison. Glazed stoneware and porcelain. 335 x 518 x 55 cm (132 x 204 x 22 in). Image by the artist.

Megan Hall: Welcome to Possibly, where we take on huge problems like the future of our planet and break them down into small questions with unexpected answers. I’m Megan Hall. 

Megan Hall: On our show, we tell stories to make climate change seem less overwhelming. We know that our episodes are no replacement for massive policy changes, but we hope that they help to shift your perspective or at least make the path forward seem a little clearer. 

Megan Hall: Today, we’re going to talk to an artist who also tries to unpack climate change, but using a very different medium.

Megan Hall: Here to tell us more are Isha Chawla and Fatima Husain from our Possibly team. Welcome, Isha and Fatima!

Isha Chawla: Hello!

Fatima Husain: Hi, Megan!

Megan Hall: So, who are we meeting today? 

Isha Chawla: Let me introduce you to Courtney Mattison. She’s a ceramic sculptor who also has a master’s degree in environmental studies. She says art and science aren’t really all that different. 

Courtney Mattison: I think art and science have a lot in common in terms of having a shared sense of curiosity and a shared sense of trying to figure out the world and explain it.

Fatima Husain: Courtney is particularly interested in coral reefs— those colorful, underwater structures sometimes known as the “rainforests of the ocean.” She says they’re breathtaking…

Courtney Mattison: A lot of people have never been so lucky to go scuba diving on a really healthy coral reef. And so I want to share that with everyone. 

Isha Chawla: So, Courtney creates massive installations that replicate the many shapes and textures that make up a coral reef.

Fatima Husain: In the center of her sculptures, the corals are often rich, complex, and colorful. But then, closer to the edge, those colors fade and turn to white. 

Isha Chawla: Courtney hopes these dramatic objects draw people in to look closer and start thinking…

Courtney Mattison: ….about what it means, what does the white mean, compared to the colorful corals.

Fatima Husain: The white isn’t symbolic — it illustrates something that’s happening to coral reefs around the world. 

Isha Chawla: Rising sea temperatures and increasing levels of acid in the water are bleaching these coral reefs. 

Fatima Husain: More and more often, the bleaching is bad enough that the coral reefs don’t come back…  

Megan Hall: Why should we worry about coral bleaching?

Fatima Husain: Well, about a quarter of the ocean’s fish depend on these reefs for their habitat even though they’re found in just 1% of the ocean.

Isha Chawla: So, these dying reefs lead to fewer fish. That’s bad for the ocean, and for the millions and millions of people who depend on fish for their livelihoods.  

Fatima Husain: Courtney says you can talk about coral bleaching using facts and figures, but she thinks art can be more effective.

Courtney Mattison: Art can impact our emotions and connect us to concepts of the natural environment in ways that are less cerebral than just sort of looking at a graph or reading a textbook. I think a lot of people’s eyes glaze over when they are exposed to that kind of material.

Isha Chawla: Some researchers from Yale University say that most of us learn about climate change using the analytical part of our brain, which learns through logic.

Fatima Husain: But, it’s the experiential part of our brain, which learns through emotions, images, and associations that has the most power over our daily decisions. 

Megan Hall: So, you’re saying that seeing art, like the kind Courtney makes, is more likely to make us want to take action than if we read a scientific report? 

Fatima Husain: That’s the theory. And, researchers say that art does more than that— it might also help us change our minds. 

Isha Chawla: That’s because, when we look at art, we tend to suspend our disbelief. And that might open us up to ideas that we may have otherwise rejected.

Megan Hall: Does the power of this art extend to things you listen to, like podcasts? 

Isha Chawla: I think you can count audio stories in that category too, as long as they’re not too analytical!

Megan Hall: That’s all I needed to hear. Thanks, Isha and Fatima! 

That’s it for today. For more information, or to ask a question about the way you recycle, use energy, or make any other choice that affects the planet, go to the public’s radio dot org slash possibly. Or subscribe to us wherever you get your podcasts. 

Possibly is a co-production of the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society, Brown’s Climate Solutions Initiative, and the Public’s Radio.

Pictured: Our Changing Seas IV (2019). By Courtney Mattison. Glazed stoneware and porcelain. 335 x 518 x 55 cm (132 x 204 x 22 in). Image by the artist.

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