Coral gets collaborative


“Spun,” the textile-focused menu of exhibits at the Denver Art Museum, includes the Institute For Figuring's charming, mostly colorful, Crochet Coral Reef Project.

The little sculptural clusters are displayed on pedestals in both the Hamilton and the North buildings, leading the way from one gallery to the next.

Sisters Christine and Margaret Wertheim, who grew up in Australia, conscious of the coral reefs along the coast and concerned about their fragility, started the IFF in 2005.

The organization is now located in Los Angeles.

The IFF has about 40 contributors worldwide and has helped to raise concern about these endangered organisms.

The Wertheims have crocheted about half of the pieces themselves and curated the collection as it grew.

See how many cases you can locate throughout the museum. Look for the tiny critters that inhabit the reefs.

The inspiration came from “hyperbolic crochet,” discovered in 1997 by Cornell University mathematician Daina Taimina, according to the IFF website. The Wertheim sisters adopted Taimina's techniques and elaborated on them “to develop a whole taxonomy of reef-life forms.” Loopy “kelps,” fringed “anemones,” crenelated “sea slugs” and curlicued “corals” have all been modeled with these methods.”

Jenna Madison of the DAM Education Department said this is the largest collaborative art project in the world. It has been exhibited in many venues.

“It came on our radar screen and we thought, wouldn't it be great to have it here for SPUN,” Madison said. “So emails and calls went back and forth, as arrangements fell into place. Including this very contemporary work seems especially appropriate, especially since local crafters are now involved.”

She said that Christine Wertheim has a fine arts background and Margaret is a scientist.

A standard ingredient in the crocheted Coral Reef exhibits is a Satellite Coral Reef by local artists, and Denver's version is underway in a special space where local craftsmen appear on Saturdays and Sundays to add to the project. It will grow through the summer.

Christine Wertheim came to Denver to train the educational department and other area artists so they could, in turn, help the community crocheters get started.

“It's growing beautifully,” Madison said. People also work at home and bring in pieces. “It's open to anyone.”

It will be arranged and rearranged as more pieces come in. When the show closes in late September, the Satellite Coral Reef will be harvested and pieces given to museum visitors.

Note especially the bleached coral in the lobby of the Hamilton Building, a collective work by many IFF contributors, crocheted in white and off-white yarns to illustrate what happens to coral under environmental stress.

The color in coral comes from tiny microorganisms, zooanthellae, that live within the polyps. When environmental toxins or rising water temperatures stress corals, the polyps expel the zooanthellae, which they need for long-term survival.

In August, the local Ladies Handiwork Society will be creating a garden in the North Building complete with critters and surprise moments.


If you go

The Crochet Coral Reef Project will be exhibited at the Denver Art Museum through Sept. 21, with the rest of the SPUN exhibits. See for more information. Covered by general admission.


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