Friday, January 19, 2018
Features and More

At Florida Craftsmen Gallery, a 'reef' grows stitch by stitch

BY LENNIE BENNETT

Times Art Critic

Wonky whimsy is going on at Florida Craftsmen Gallery and other spots in the Tampa Bay area. From the hands of hundreds of women, men and children, a coral reef arts installation is emerging, made entirely of individually crocheted pieces. It will be completed in a few months and exhibited at Florida Craftsmen from June 8 through Sept. 1.

That's the whimsy part.

The collage of colorful crocheted shapes resembles a fiber version of Dale Chihuly's famous glass ceiling installations. It will be pretty spectacular, filling up most of the exhibition gallery, which is generally devoted to the work of fine professional craftsmen.

The Crochet Coral Reef Project is different — a collective effort of the pros and any interested amateur. Which means that you, too, can be part of its creation, even if you have never held a crochet hook.

It is a "satellite reef" of the worldwide Hyperbolic Crochet Reef Project based in Los Angeles created by Margaret and Christine Wertheim.

In the early 2000s, the twin sisters, one a scientist and the other an artist, melded their talents. Margaret, the scientist, was trying to create a hyperbolic space model.

That's the wonky part.

And I defer to Smithsonian magazine's elegant explanation of it:

"Whereas conventional geometry describes shapes on a flat plane, hyperbolic geometry is set on a curved surface — creating configurations that defy the mathematical theorems discovered by Euclid some 2,000 years ago. Variations of hyperbolic space can be found in nature (the wavy edges of sea kelp, for example), but mathematicians scratched their heads trying to find a simple way to fabricate a physical model. Finally, in 1997, mathematician Daina Taimina realized that the crochet stitch that women have used for centuries to create ruffled garments represents this complex geometry."

When the Wertheims began their own crochet model, with Christine, the artistic one, guiding its aesthetic, they realized the individual components they were creating resembled the corals found on the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, where they grew up. They thought their project could also be used to raise awareness of marine conservation and endangered areas such as the reef. So they kept crocheting and their "reef" kept growing. They made part of it vibrantly colored like a healthy reef, part of it in pale colors like a dying reef and part of it from plastic bags and other materials to symbolize the trash that pollutes the oceans. It became famous and then, when it was exhibited in museums beginning in 2007, more famous.

The sisters now personally participate in Reef projects around the world as well, making information available to communities who want to create their own satellite reefs. They always encourage a lot of community participation and some kind of tie-in with an ocean or marine life conservation program. All of which is happening at Florida Craftsmen, with collaborations with marine science organizations including the Pier Aquarium, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, USF College of Marine Science, Eckerd College and Tampa Bay Watch.

Even if you already know how to crochet, you still need to use one of the "recipes" developed by the project that have been created to replicate real reef formations and sea creatures. If you don't know how to crochet but want to contribute to the reef, the folks at the gallery will teach you and it's really easy. They have crocheting get-togethers every Friday from noon to 12:30 p.m. at Florida Craftsmen Gallery, 501 Central Ave., St. Petersburg, supplies provided, no reservations necessary, all are welcome. Same deal at other times and places. Contact Florida Craftsmen for more venues. (727) 821-7391 or floridacraftsmen.net.

Lennie Bennett can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8293.

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