Interdisciplinary Artist Mary Mattingly's Eco-Conscious Activism - Imagined Futures in Bloom interview with Jejune Magazine
The innovative New York artist Mary Mattingly has emerged as a true beacon of environmental consciousness in the art world. With the recent debut of her piece Ebb of a Spring Tide at Socrates Sculpture Park in New York, Mattingly has carved a unique path that seamlessly blends art, activism, and our connection to water. As the world continues to evolve, Mattingly remains at the forefront of championing climate awareness. Her art serves as a reminder that creativity can be a force of change, transcending traditional boundaries and inspiring us to reimagine how we interact with our planet. Continue reading to learn more about Mary Mattingly.
Where are you based?
New York City
How would you define your art style?
Dreamy. I create photographs and large-scale sculptures of imagined futures.
What inspired you to concentrate on socio-ecological issues?
Growing up in a place teeming with nature but without healthy drinking water, and one that flooded often. Learning later that I had an auto-immune disease.
We've heard that your project, Swale, will reopen in the summer of 2024. Could you tell us more about that project?
Swale was a floating food forest built on a barge that circumnavigated New York City’s harbor, allowing anyone access to pick fresh foods for free. It came out of a need to focus on water and its vitality, on commons management systems, and on access to different food sources. It docked adjacent to New York City’s public land, using the common laws of the water as a loophole to do what was illegal on public land: Swale was a public platform where anyone could pick fresh foods for free, an illegal act when committed on parkland due to New York City’s public land laws. Swale was imaginative. The vision for Swale was to increase access to local food and clean water through commons governance systems in a largely privatized city. Through its existence, it empowered people to become stewards and take control of local food systems to improve access to alternative options. Swale was meant to model a commons governance system, characterized by reciprocity, resource pooling, and stewardship. It provided opportunities for individuals to engage in collective action toward food justice. Through Swale, in 2017, the New York City Parks Department felt enough pressure and support to open their first land-based pilot – a public “foodway” at Concrete Plant Park in the Bronx that the Swale team continues to help steward. If there is enough additional interest from residents in stewarding edible plants from people in communities near other public parks, the Parks system will work with groups to do more. The next iteration of Swale will have another name and will focus on salt-tolerant farming.
What serves as the inspiration behind your works?
I’m inspired by other people, and by water. Water is my teacher. My art is inspired by a practice of making proposals for alternative futures, for other ways of living and being in the world. They may be proposals for small ecosystems, that are large enough to feel human in scale but still small enough to comprehend because the large scale evokes imagination and the small-scale, more detailed workings of a human-assembled ecosystem compel something more practical.
In your project, Vanishing Point, you brilliantly combined science and art. Could you briefly describe the importance of this project?
Vanishing Point consisted of two distinct elements: a learning center situated on Southend Pier and a floating sculpture anchored in the nearby waters. This installation contemplated the evolutionary journey of plant life in the Thames Estuary, spanning millions of years, and its adaptation to a shifting climate. It also explored how this knowledge could inspire speculations about the future that lay ahead. In the Cenozoic Era, the planet sustained a concentration of approximately 1000 parts per million of Co2 in the Atmosphere. Our planet currently sustains a concentration of approximately 419 parts per million of Co2 — the highest recorded level in human history. However, recent climate models foretell that unless industrialized nations took substantial measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, this figure could reach one thousand parts per million by the end of this century.
Vanishing Point delved into the plant life that had thrived in Southend during that era. Visible from both the Pier and the Southend shore, a temporary inhabitant emerged from the depths of the Estuary mud, rising and falling with the rhythm of the tides. This sculpture depicted the Nipa palm, a plant familiar to those waters during the Cenozoic Era. Supported by scaffolding, it symbolized regeneration and support. By delving into the fossil records of plants that had endured significant climate shifts in the past, we gained valuable insights into similar processes transpiring at that time. Through this exploration, I could imagine a future teeming with regenerative fauna, spurred by collective efforts to comprehend tomorrow.
What does being sustainable mean to you?
Sustainability refers to the practice of using resources in a way that meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It involves finding a balance between social, economic, and environmental aspects to ensure long-term well-being. To me, being sustainable means adopting practices and lifestyles that minimize negative impacts on the environment, conserve resources, and promote social equity. It means making choices that take into consideration the broader consequences of industrial and post-industrial actions and striving for more harmonious coexistence.
Your artwork touches on several issues, including overconsumption and the water crisis. What do you want people to take away from your work?
That there is an interconnectivity between people and places through these objects and these water systems. That something that affects one place inevitably affects a place far away when they are connected through these systems, and that no matter where people are in the chain, they need to be aware that living systems are a collaborative project, and everyone needs to care.
What are your hopes for the future?
That a disposability-mindset changes, and that there is wild regeneration.
Through your artwork and talks, you have devoted yourself to promoting awareness. What is one piece of advice would you provide aspiring artists?
Artists have the power to co-create the cultures that they want to see and be a part of.
What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from working on your projects?
That people often do profound things together, and usually not alone, and that people have so much to learn from each other, we just have to be open to listening.
Do you have any exciting new projects you would like to share?
I just launched Ebb of a Spring Tide at Socrates Sculpture Park in New York, and I’m so excited to share it. It’s based on a dream I had when I was living in an apartment that flooded last year. It’s so healing to see it working in the park. Here’s some writing I just did about it: As the rain events became more extreme there, the floors in my ground-floor apartment would get wet. When the high tide aligned with a rain event in 2022, the flooding was substantial. This dream in particular was about navigating the maze of a deconstructed apartment building that was dripping, leaking, and overgrown.
Ebb of a Spring Tide is contemplative. People can listen to the salt water from the Water Clock dripping into the sink, tubs, barrels, and vessels, and be engulfed in the powerful scents of salt-tolerant herbs, vegetables, and flowers: plants that can persist with sea level rise. Saltwater from the water clock teaches me about time.
I’ve always considered water, food, and home to be my crucial investigations. I grew up outside of New York City and had a mixed relationship with water. The water available there was contaminated with agricultural runoff, which made me aware of the negative impact farming practices could have on drinking water and human health.
Are there any non-profits you would like to highlight or those you are currently working with that you want to shout out?
I love the work of the Grassroots Global Justice Alliance and always want to mention the work they do. I have a print series with a direct 50% donation to them, because I really believe in what they are doing.
It has been a crazy past few years, how have you been staying positive?
Honestly, I had to stop reading the news first thing. Now I read poetry before I start my day and am more lucid.
What is your motto in life?
Hmm, I don’t think I have one, although I try to be an attentive and enthusiastic learner and teacher each day.