Vassar College Crochet Coral Reef nurtures community among students and faculty of intersecting disciplines

Juliette Pope/The Miscellany News.

If you enter the Bridge, you can see that a new ecosystem has taken over. An array of colors and textures intertwine with each other, spilling out over the building’s platforms, with parts even adhering to the stone walls. It is fluffy, ridged, soft and wrinkly, it is every color of the rainbow, and it wraps around itself countless times. It belongs in an ocean, but it’s made entirely out of yarn. This is the Vassar College Crochet Coral Reef.

The Crochet Coral Reef is a collaborative art piece made by about 40 Vassar students and faculty members and organized by the Grand Challenges Program. According to their website, “The Grand Challenges Program is an opportunity for students to actively shape our Vassar experience, to equip ourselves and future students to critically understand climate change and its accompanying injustices, and to use our distinct perspectives to collaboratively construct solutions.” Lab Coordinator for the Earth Science and Geography Department Rick Jones and Environmental Studies major Maya Pelletier ’22 led the project; they reached out to students, mailed yarn to participants, facilitated meetings and webinars and worked on piecing together individual corals into the finished product. Participants crocheted their corals during winter break and connected with one another online. The reef was designed to create an opportunity for intersection between different disciplines. “We hoped that an art major would get some math out of it and understand a little bit more about their world, and maybe a math major would start to groove on the art a little bit, and the biologists would figure out how math and art intersect with their stuff,” Jones explained.

Amber Huang ’23 appreciated how participating in this project made complex topics more accessible. “I learned a lot about corals and the math behind corals,” she said. “I am a math correlate, but I am [specifically] a stats correlate, so the theoretical math behind it isn’t really what I’m into, but it was really cool learning about how corals and especially crochet are ways to replicate this super complicated math. I also love that crochet is the way to do it, because math seems so sterile.”

In addition to having Zoom meetings where people could hang out and chat about their crocheting, Grand Challenges also hosted webinars where participants could learn more about different topics related to the project. These subjects ranged from hyperbolic math to fiber arts as a form of political expression. Anjali Krishna ’23, a biology major who participated in the project, liked getting to learn more about corals through a lecture by Associate Professor of Biology Jodi Schwarz. “That was really cool, to learn what we were replicating,” Krishna said. 

Krishna used to know how to crochet, but had forgotten by the beginning of the coral project. She quickly picked it back up again, though, by watching video tutorials. “I watched two of them and kind of taught myself, and did troubleshooting from there,” she said. “It was pretty easy to learn.” Krishna ended up making five corals for the reef.

The instructions for the crochet reef were meant as inspiration rather than strict direction; participants were allowed to take creative license with their pieces. Because of this, the corals that people made varied in size, shape, texture and color. “It’ll look brighter than a coral reef would,” Jones said of the installation. “But in the impression of form and life, it’ll feel a lot like it.”

The piece that is currently on display at the Bridge also includes creations from 2011, when Vassar did a similar project as part of a greater global network of crocheted coral reefs. Margaret and Christine Wertheim, two artists who wanted to creatively represent science concepts and bring awareness to environmental issues, were the first to create such a reef, and their project was exhibited in the Smithsonian and other galleries around the world. They were inspired by Daina Taimina, a mathematician who had discovered the ability to model hyperbolic curves by crocheting corals. In addition to the Wertheims’ project, communities in any location could create “satellite reefs” crocheted collaboratively by local individuals, and Vassar became one of them.

Ten years ago, the project looked very different—students learned their stitches at in-person events, and there were no limits on how many people could gather together to do so. But part of the reason Grand Challenges decided to revisit this project was precisely because of the pandemic and the newfound difficulties in fostering relationships with others. Jones and the others who spearheaded the project wanted a way to develop a sense of community that people might otherwise be lacking during this year’s extra-long winter break.

Nandeeta Bala ’22, an intern for Grand Challenges, appreciated this aspect of the experience. “It really was a great way to create community in this time where we were all so isolated, without making it too centered on the virtual,” she said. “It was a very concrete project that had a virtual element to bring out the best in it.” 

The project culminated in the Coral Expo on April 1, the grand opening of the installation. Open to anyone at Vassar, the event included live sea anemones from Schwarz’s lab that attendees could feed and observe under a microscope, seaweed snacks for visitors and instructional handouts on how to crochet your own corals. Of course, though, the reef itself was the main attraction. “It was so pretty,” said Huang. “I loved trying to figure out which ones I made.”

While the event was only open to those on campus, the project was also accessible to those who are remote. “It was so easy to participate remotely,” said Bala. “I just sent photos in, and [Jones] printed them out on thicker paper, and cut it out, and put it with the rest of it, and sent me photos of that. It was really sweet.”

The project is a beautiful work of art, but it is also a tool to raise environmental awareness. Coral reefs are incredibly important ecosystems, and they are in danger. A poster next to the installation calls attention to this issue, explaining, “The biggest threat to corals is rising ocean temperature, which causes coral symbiosis to break down.” When the ocean becomes warmer, corals can lose the algae that they have a crucial symbiotic relationship with, causing what is known as coral bleaching. Other threats, according to a visual on the poster, include overfishing, tourism and poor water quality. It is an important reminder that the Crochet Coral Reef represents one of the many biological communities threatened by climate change.

The accessible, collaborative nature of the project makes its message of awareness particularly powerful. “You don’t have to have had 10 years of painting in order to make a statement,” said Jones. “You can use a traditional hand craft, or what’s thought of as ‘women’s work’ as a tool for expression and as a tool for circumventing normal artistic boundaries.”  The vibrant Crochet Coral Reef lives up to this, both fostering community and delivering an impactful message.

The VC Crochet Coral Reef is at the Bridge through the end of April.

One Comment

  1. This is Margaret Wertheim, creator of the Crochet Coral Reef project and director of the Institute For Figuring. I request that someone at Vassar formally reply to this email. You have done a Crochet Coral Reef project without authorization from myself as the artist, and the IFF as the non-profit organization that owns the IP to this project. Vassar’s unauthorized use of the Crochet Coral Reef project is a violation of our intellectual work and of 15-years of our artistic and pedagogical research. 10 years ago (in 2011) Vassar was given permission to do a Crochet Reef for a specific time. If you wanted to do another Crochet Reef you were required to get a new permission from the IFF and pay a new programming rights fee – as it states clearly on our website. See links below. The fact that Vassar has gone ahead and done this without permission from myself and the Institute For Figuring is a violation of standard academic principles and practices regarding artistic and intellectual accreditation and rights. I request the email address of the person responsible for the Vassar 2021 project. I will send a formal notice from the IFF.
    Margaret Wertheim

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *