It’s not easy to build a coral reef, which is why it usually takes millions of coral polyps and sponges and other organisms decades to build them up. Artist Courtney Mattison took on the job solo, while she was studying conservation biology in grad school at Brown and moonlighting in ceramics at Rhode Island School of Design. Her thesis project became the first sculpture in a series called Our Changing Seas, which highlights the dangers facing reefs on a massive scale by building them on a (slightly less) massive scale. (We’re talking 15 by 11 feet and not much lighter than a Smart Car.)

Mattison’s newest piece, Our Changing Seas III, depicts a hurricane-spiral of bleached corals coalescing to a bright center. You can read it as a message of hope or one of impending doom, depending on your disposition, but Mattison tries to stay on the cautiously sunny side. “I really hope I’m not building monuments to reefs, memorials of their demise,” she told Grist over the phone. “I would really like these to be celebrations of them — but time will tell.”

Mattison has an Etsy shop and also sells sea-licious art objects from her website. A portion of the profits go toward and Mission Blue.

If you’re near Saratoga Springs, N.Y., you can see Our Changing Seas III at the Tang Museum (Skidmore College, 815 North Broadway) until June 15. On June 14, Courtney Mattison will speak at the closing reception for the show. Our Changing Seas I is on display at the AAAS gallery in Washington, D.C., where Mattison will also be speaking on May 1