One of the best things about living in a university town, even in the middle of a pandemic, is the access to groundbreaking initiatives in both the arts and the sciences. Through the conduits of visiting lectures, profound ideas and significant interdisciplinary explorations find their way to us right here in Chambana. And once in a while, we are lucky enough to have an artist invite us into their work. And that's what's about to happen this week, when Margaret Wertheim, co-creator of the worldwide Crochet Coral Reef project, will follow her Zoom lecture with the launch of the Urbana-Champaign Satellite Reef project in conjunction with the Illinois School of Art + Design.


So let's start at the beginning. What exactly is The Crochet Coral Reef?

"The Crochet Coral Reef  is a project by Australian-born twin-sisters Margaret Wertheim and Christine Wertheim and their Los Angeles based Institute For Figuring. Responding to anthropogenic crisis, the work simulates living reefs using techniques of crochet to mimic in yarn the curling crenelated forms of actual reef organisms. Corals and other frilly reef creatures are biological manifestations of “hyperbolic” geometry. Through an unlikely fusion of mathematics, marine biology, handicraft and collective art practice, the Wertheims and their contributors produce large-scale coralline landscapes both beautiful and blighted. At once figurative, fantastical, worldly and dispersed, the Crochet Coral Reef offers a beautiful impassioned response to dual calamities devastating marine life: climate change and plastic trash." — from Margaret Wertheim's website

Art + hyperbolic geometry + Darwinian evolution + environmentalism. Yes, this can seem like pretty heady stuff. But it's also handicraft + community, which means it's tangible and accessible. And with the climate crisis raging as never before, it's a pretty damn important message and we need to amplify it. 

Lawrence Weschler of the Virginia Quarterly Review called it "the AIDS quilt of global warming.” Christopher Knight of the Los Angles Times said "The sculptures are like force fields drawing you into their orbit, catalysts for a network of social interactions that mimics a reef's ... Gorgeous, absurd and socially productive, these are rare works of art."

Much more has been said about this global phenomenon. And rightly so. Thoughtful reviews have come from a wide range of publications, including everything from The Washington Post to Science to Crochet Fantasy. And I encourage you to read them here.  Instead I'll focus on what being a Satellite Reef means and how you can get involved. 

What is a Satellite Reef and how is different from Wertheim's "core" Crochet Coral Reef? 

"In addition to the Core Collection of reefs constructed by Christine and Margaret Wertheim, the Crochet Coral Reef project encompasses a community program in which citizens of various cities and countries create their own local Satellite Reefs reefs. As of early 2020, more than 40 Satellite Reefs have been made worldwide, including in Chicago, New York, London, Melbourne, Santa Cruz (California), Scottsdale (Arizona), Madison (Wisconsin), Asheville (North Carolina), England, Ireland, Latvia, Germany, and the United Arab Emirates. More than 10,000 people – mostly women – have contributed to this ever-growing woolen archipelago. The first Satellite Reef was constructed in 2007 by the citizens of Chicago, hosted by the Jane Addams Hull House Museum and the Chicago Humanities Festival. 
— from the Crochet Coral Reef website."

Where and when will the final Urbana-Champaign Satellite Reef be exhibited? Our Satellite Reef will be exhibited at the Seibel Center for Design in April 2021. In the meantime, Illinois School of Art + Design faculty members and project organizers Guen Montgomery and Jennifer Bergmark will provide a series of tutorials to teach participants how to begin crocheting their own corals. These will also be made available online here (along with downloadable/printable instructions). 

Photo of purple crochet octopus-like creature. Photo courtesy of the Institute of Figuring.

And finally, the why. There are the obvious reasons to co-create our Satellite Reef. You're bored. You can't face another jigsaw puzzle. You've already been crocheting up a storm this pandemic, so why not put those skills to good use. You feel isolated. Why not become a part of something bigger than yourself? The climate crisis impacts us all, so it's only right we should all be part of the solution. Art speaks volumes, and so can handicrafts. Margaret Wertheim's "work on science and gender aims to help illuminate the obstacles women face to full participation in STEM fields, while also celebrating science and math as domains of wonder to which women can have access, often through methodologies and subjects neglected by canonical forms of science outreach and journalism." Is it any wonder that she has chosen crochet as the means to her larger artistic and scientific goals? So join the Wertheims and the Satellite co-creators around the world to help elevate this seemingly simple form of "women's work" to new heights of art, education, and peaceful protest.

The Crochet Coral Reef: Intersections of Math, Science and Art
through Hyperbolic Crochet

Margaret Wertheim
Thursday, September 17th, 5:30 p.m.
Zoom, registration required

Watch Maragaret Wertheim's TED Talk on The Crochet Coral Reef here.


Top image: Margaret Wertheim in the Fohr Satellite Reef at the Museum Kunste der Westkust. Germany. All images courtesy of the Institute of Figuring