Courtney Leonard, ARTIFICE Ellipse, 2016

A conversation with Courtney M. Leonard and Beth Harris in front of Courtney Leonard’s ARTIFICE Ellipse | Log: 18-3, coiled micaceous clay with glaze, 5 3/8 x 15 x 7 inches (Newark Museum of Art) © Courtney M. Leonard

Additional resources:

This work of art at the Newark Museum

The artist’s website

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:04] We’re standing in the Newark Museum with Courtney Leonard, looking at a work of hers called “Artifice.”

Courtney M. Leonard: [0:12] “Artifice” is a body of work that is inspired by looking at man-made artificial reef structures being deposited along our shorelines to protect us from our rising waters and coastal erosion.

Dr. Harris: [0:24] This form is borrowed from a form that is man-made out of concrete, and put in the sea to encourage the growth of a reef. But concrete is made with sand and that’s where the problem comes in.

Courtney: [0:37] It’s a non-sustainable material, and the majority of sand that is needed for concrete is being taken from coastal areas and shipped to China to make concrete, to then be shipped back to the States, to then be fashioned into coastal restoration projects.

Dr. Harris: [0:54] So as someone who grew up on the Shinnecock Reservation on eastern Long Island, clearly the relationship of land and water was very important to you.

Courtney: [1:04] “Shinnecock” in our language translates to, people of the level land, or people of the shore. We were whalers, but not in the sense that we had to go offshore. The whales would usually beach themselves as a gift to us, in our belief system. We would go and pray for them and finish them off. One whale would feed us through winter as a small coastal community.

[1:25] When the Dutch colonists came to settle on Long Island and then the English settlers, they began to pass laws that infringed on our ability to maintain ourselves. The US government banned whaling and we no longer had the ability to feed ourselves from the whale.

[1:44] Why do we need reefs? Why do we need our water to be clear and capable of growing healthy shellfish? The majority of our food systems and structures were related to the water. When you remove that, what is our relationship to food and sustenance?

Dr. Harris: [2:03] What was once a sustainable relationship for the Shinnecock people with the land, with whaling, because of the over-harvesting of whales, because of global warming, because of industrial pollutants, there’s a real challenge in sustaining a cultural way of life.

Courtney: [2:21] We’ve lived on our traditional territory for thousands of years. We have not been relocated. I’m trying to figure out a way to use art as a means of acknowledgement. By my work being within this collection and in the American Floor, I have now centered a place for our people and Shinnecock within history that no one can take away.

[2:44] [music]

Cite this page as: Courtney M. Leonard and Dr. Beth Harris, "Courtney Leonard, ARTIFICE Ellipse, 2016," in Smarthistory, March 11, 2020, accessed July 21, 2024,