CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Community members can crochet sea creatures that will become part of a crochet coral reef to be displayed next spring at the new Siebel Center for Design.
Their corals, anemones and sea sponges will be a satellite of the worldwide “Crochet Coral Reef” project that is described as “an artwork responding to climate change, an exercise in applied mathematics and a wooly experiment in evolutionary theory.” The Urbana-Champaign Satellite Reef project launches at 5:30 p.m. Thursday with a Zoom talk by science writer and artist Margaret Wertheim, who created “Crochet Coral Reef” with her twin sister, poet and artist Christine Wertheim.
The local satellite reef project is being organized by Guen Montgomery and Jennifer Bergmark, both art professors at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
Montgomery, who teaches a textiles and soft sculpture class, said she was interested in the communal practice element of the project, particularly in the context of the pandemic.
“While we as a community make coral for this reef, all over the world there are other satellite reefs growing through these community efforts. It’s an amazing opportunity for people to work together on one unified goal separately. In this moment when we need to physically distance ourselves, we can be emotionally connected in the effort to create something beautiful together,” Montgomery said.
“Crochet Coral Reef” originated in 2005, when scientists were just realizing the threat that global warming poses to coral reefs. The Wertheims are from Queensland, Australia, and they wanted to bring attention to the threatened Great Barrier Reef nearby.
Their work focuses on increasing the public understanding of the aesthetic dimensions of science and mathematics. They are interested in the making and use of material objects to understand abstract or theoretical ideas, including hyperbolic geometry – a surface of negative curvature where parallel lines diverge.
Crochet is the best way to emulate hyperbolic forms found in nature, such as the frilly or crenellated surfaces of coral reefs.
“You can make beautiful models of these very difficult-to-understand mathematical surfaces, and make sense of this difficult geometry with something in your hands. It makes abstract ideas very tangible and concrete,” Margaret Wertheim said.
The Wertheims crocheted an enormous coral reef that was first shown in 2007 at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh and at the Chicago Humanities Festival, both in exhibitions focused on global warming. It has been exhibited worldwide, including at the 2019 Venice Bieannale.
Margaret Wertheim in the Fohr Satellite Reef at the Museum Kunste der Westkust, Germany. The Urbana-Champaign Satellite Reef will be exhibited at the Siebel Center for Design.
Courtesy The Institute for Figuring
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The communal, participatory nature of the project is important to the Wertheims. The first satellite reef was created in Chicago in 2007, and more than 40 satellite reefs have been created by communities around the world, including two underway in Helsinki and Toronto.
“That’s one of the real beauties of this project, especially when people spend so much time in front of a computer screen. It’s physical. You’re doing something with your body. You’re engaged in dynamic activity. It’s one of the things of great value with craft, especially in a time when people are so much tied to their screens,” Wertheim said.
Part of the reason the project has been so successful is that crochet is very easy to learn and easily lends itself to making sculptural 3D objects, Wertheim said. She’s pleased to see the value being placed on crafts as cultural objects as much as painting or other art forms.
Although “Crochet Coral Reef” originated to call attention to an environmental crisis, and the devastation of coral reefs has happened at a much faster rate than was predicted, Wertheim considers it a hopeful project. She said the coral reef, with thousands of tiny coral polyps building a giant reef, is a metaphor for what humans can do together.
“When humans do things collectively, we can produce change,” Wertheim said. “We need to stop thinking as individuals and start thinking of ourselves as a collective species that can do enormous damage, but also positive construction if we choose to take that path. It’s a demonstration of a more collective way of being.”
Montgomery and Bergmark are contacting public libraries, retirement communities and other organizations to encourage local participation. They hope to do two socially distanced, in-person crochet workshops on Oct. 2 and Oct. 8. The workshops will be outdoors if possible, and Montgomery said they also will organize some Zoom workshops.
The deadline to submit crocheted coral is March 26, and those interested in being involved should visit the project site. The Urbana-Champaign Satellite Reef will be displayed in early April at the Siebel Center for Design. Montgomery and Bergmark hope to bring Margaret Wertheim to the university for the opening.