Networks of crafters around the world are creating crocheted coral reefs to advocate for climate action

Two different crocheted coral installations in a museum, with colorful hand-stitched details

For craftivists who love to use their passion for fiber arts to do good, there is no holier grail than the Crochet Coral Reef.

The wildly detailed art and geometry project by sisters Christine and Margaret Wertheim uses unwieldy, colorful, hand-stitched coral to respond to climate change and has been brought to life in museums around the world over the past two decades. 

It started with what is now called the “Core Collection,” or a mass of crocheted reefs created by the Wertheims that has traveled to the globe’s most esteemed museums and galleries.

But the other strand of the project, which invites thousands of handicrafters to contribute, exists in a poetic contrast to the real-world state of the planet’s reefs; it’s growing rapidly.

“At a time when living reefs are dying from heat exhaustion and our oceans are awash in plastic, the Crochet Coral Reef offers a tender impassioned response,” the project’s website reads.

“This is a crafty retort to climate change, a one-stitch-at-a-time meditation on the Anthropocene.”

A rainbow colored wall of crocheted coral in a Pittsburgh gallery
Photo courtesy of Carnegie Museum of Art

Described as the “environmental version of the AIDS quilt,” per the New York Times, the Crochet Coral Reef is a work of grief and action — an attempt to convey the beauty of the natural world, made by the hands of humans.

“Like the organic creatures they emulate, these handmade sculptures take time to make – time that is condensed in the millions of stitches on display, time that is running out for earthly critters,” the website continues.

According to the Wertheims, the project — which has been supported by over 25,000 volunteer crocheters — also speaks to the feminist arm of the environmental movement.

“The Crochet Coral Reef project is a condensation of human labor – particularly female labor – hundreds of thousands of hours of stitching quietly performed,” the artists write.

“Handicrafts have always been aesthetic tools rich in symbolism and expressive possibility, and ‘ladies’ doing their embroideries have long been artists, even if they are rarely acknowledged as such.”

A series of crocheted coral reefs in a German museum
Photo courtesy of Nickolay Kazakov for Museum Frieder Burda

The “reefers” who have contributed their handiworks to the project have responded with zeal to create “satellite reefs.” The biggest community piece, completed in 2022, is a reef at the Museum Frieder Burda in Germany — consisting of over 40,000 coral pieces by 4,000 contributors. 

Two other recent satellite projects were completed in 2023 and are still on display in Austria and Pittsburgh

But the satellite reefs are not limited to the fine art world. Some have been made in science centers, colleges, civic centers — and even women’s prisons and juvenile detention centers.

“Each new site adds further layers of social complexity, extending an experience of art making to citizens in diverse communities and settings,” the website says.

Three people use flash lights to look at a crocheted coral reef in a museum
Photo courtesy of Institute for the Arts and Sciences, UCSC

The best part? All contributors are credited in formal exhibitions.

“Just as living reefs are created by the efforts of billions of tiny coral polyps working together, so the Crochet Coral Reef is constructed by communities, thousands of people working together,” the artists explained on their website. 

“Every crafter who contributes to the project is free to create new species of crochet reef organisms by changing the pattern of stitches or working with novel materials. What started from simple seeds is now an ever-evolving, artifactual, hand-made ‘tree of life.’”

While these projects can’t necessarily save the earth’s reefs from the devastating impacts of climate change, some include collected plastics from reefs themselves, as well. 

A screenshot of the Crochet Coral Reef website, showing a number of exhibitions
Screenshot of the Crochet Coral Reef website, courtesy of the Institute for Figuring

Above all, what the Wertheims have accomplished is a deeper understanding of humanity’s connection to the natural world — and its desire to protect it.

“These crochet reefs are time-laden rejoinders to a culture of doom, quietly asserting … a message of hope. What can we humans do when we work together, not ignoring ecological problems?” the artists write. 

“By insisting on the value of the hand-made, the Crochet Coral Reef project makes a claim about history and the importance of material labor to prospects for human survival.”

In other words? The project does what all climate movements dream of: bringing people together to do the most important work on the planet — saving it.

“The Crochet Coral Reef has its utopian quality above all in the fact that a positive project emerges from joint work,” reviewer Ann-Katrin Gunzel said of the German satellite reef in 2022. “It shows the beauty and power of collective action.”

Header images courtesy of Stephanie Veto for LUAG and Margaret Wertheim/Facebook

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February 19, 2024 11:04 AM
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