BY LENNIE BENNETT
Times Art Critic
Divers know how beautiful a coral reef is, a complex life pulsing with colors and components. Replicas of them fill Florida Craftsmen's gallery in an extravagant riot of crochet that doesn't try to duplicate the real thing exactly but certainly has lots of fun suggesting it.
The "St. Petersburg Crochet Coral Reef" is more than whimsy, though; it has a lot of marine science underpinning it, including a tank containing a real reef, on loan from the Pier Aquarium. But the explosion of form and color is the big attraction, and teasing out the scientifically correct details adds to the fun. One look in the window of the gallery on Central Avenue and you'll have a hard time not going in to see the whole show.
Two large and two smaller reefs are composed of thousands of crocheted plants and animals positioned on forms designed by marine scientists from the University of South Florida St. Petersburg who also lent their expertise in other ways. The objects were made by almost 300 volunteers, mostly local, but some came from other parts of the world by people who read about the project online.
It's a "satellite reef" of the worldwide Hyperbolic Crochet Reef Project, based in Los Angeles and 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, a geometric concept similar to a crochet pattern.
When the Wertheims began their own crochet model, with Christine 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 participate in Reef Projects around the world as well, making information available to communities that want to create satellite reefs.
Florida Craftsmen Gallery has two healthy reefs occupying most of the space. Among the many sea creatures on one is a beautiful lionfish that, we learn from wall text, is the scourge of Caribbean reefs, not native to them and with no known predators.
One of the most fascinating components is the "cleaning station" on the other large reef. A reef cleaning station is home to small shrimp and fish that eat the parasites that collect on larger fish that know where the stations are and never eat the cleaners, even when they crawl into the larger fish's mouth.
A third reef is, ironically, the most aesthetically lovely with its monochromatic tones ranging from white to gray, representing a dying reef. Another is composed of black plant life. It references a BP oil spill reef.
The day I visited, the gallery teemed with kids ages 9 to 12 with a summer camp, and they seemed to have a jolly time. I certainly did.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8293.