It is rare, but not inconceivable, to encounter a tropical, underwater paradise in an art gallery in Baltimore. Currently, the white walls at the City Arts Gallery in Station North have been replaced with undulating layers of cerulean blue. The track lighting beams downward, simulating the effect of submerged sunlight. There's a burbling aquarium with a turtle named Brobee, a swarm of brightly colored jellyfish suspended in midair, and lots of educational text and maps on the walls. Dominating the space are several low ridges and stalactites, formed from an accumulation of crystalline structures in a loud rainbow of hues.
While the Baltimore Satellite Reef may initially remind you of a gaudy grandma's afghan, this new exhibition is actually a complex junction of post-Euclidian geometry, traditional feminine handicrafts, environmental activism, and public art outreach. The effort is a collaboration between City Arts resident Karida Collins, a professional yarn dyer and businesswoman, and Deana Haggag, a MICA curatorial practice student, as well as the Los Angeles-based Institute for Figuring and numerous students and crochet enthusiasts from the Baltimore area.
The seeds for this project were actually planted in 1997*, when Dr. Daina Taimina, a Cornell University mathematician, discovered that the concept of hyperbolic space could be physically realized through crocheting. The curvy, three-dimensional forms her students created literally illustrated the warped relationship between parallel lines and rectilinear space: The doilies resembled different types of organic structures, especially kelp and coral, and, on a larger scale, the cosmos.
Besides being an effective way to teach complex mathematics, hyperbolic crocheting offers* the opportunity to educate participants about global climate change and environmental conservation. That's where the sisters Margaret and Christine Wertheim at the IFF, a nonprofit organization devoted to unorthodox combinations of science, mathematics, and visual art. Together, they created the Crochet Coral Reef, a beloved international project which teaches hyperbolic crochet techniques and combines yarny products into giant, amalgamated coral reefs.
The Wertheims are originally from Australia, the home of the Great Barrier Reef, so expansive that it is the only organic structure on Earth that can be seen from outer space. These days, the Great Barrier Reef, and all coral reefs, are under attack from global warming-the structures and one-quarter of all marine species that reside in and around them can only survive in specific water chemistries and temperatures-so the IFF began hosting a number of educational workshops where knitters can create hyperbolic kelps, mollusks, sponges, and corals. They exhibit them in museums and galleries across the world to generate a public dialogue on global warming and environmental pollution of the ocean.
The project at City Arts started after Karida Collins saw an exhibition of the IFF's Crochet Reef at the Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. and saw the potential for a similar project in Baltimore. Collins, a full-time yarn dyer and the owner of Neighborhood Fiber Company, lives in City Arts in Station North. Although Collins considers herself a crafts and businessperson first, she cites living in a community of artists as the impetus for realizing this crochet installation in a Baltimore gallery.
"We started working on this project more than a year ago, contacting the IFF and brainstorming ways to involve the community," she explains. "Looking back on it, I can appreciate that it was a pretty insane undertaking. The other groups that worked to put together satellite reefs are so much larger than we are. It is mostly sponsored by universities and museums."
Collins worked with Deana Haggag, the City Arts Gallery curator-in-residence since January 2012, to complete an extensive contract with the IFF and to raise money for the project. Collins also began teaching crochet at Baltimore's Midtown Academy in August 2012, before the IFF contract had even been finalized. "Once I saw the first few pieces of completed coral that the kids made, I knew that I had to find a way to make it all come together," says Collins.
Over the past year, Collins has hosted a number of crochet workshops at City Arts for residents and members of the larger community; the most successful events have combined crochet marathons with slumber parties, where participants ate pizza, drank beer, and watched movies in the City Arts lounge. The party lasted into the wee hours of the night, and much crocheting was accomplished. Since finished pieces tend to be small, even a novice to the practice can feel a sense of accomplishment from a completed form. According to Collins, additional empowerment comes from the prospect of being part of an exhibition in a gallery.
For Haggag, in the process of completing her MFA thesis, the crochet reef presented a perfect blend of community-building and artistic outreach, two key elements in her personal curatorial mission. A goal of her tenure at City Arts was to empower the residents to utilize the gallery in ways that enhance their own creative practices.
"People all over the world-curators in Honolulu and Melbourne, math nerds and crochet freaks-are all obsessed with this project," says Haggag. However, the curator was shocked by the amount of effort required to adopt a global project on a local level.
"The reef has the backing of a worldwide, universal community, but we had to reintroduce the idea locally, to research and consider: What are coral reefs? What does hyperbolic mean? What is crocheting?"
Like an actual coral reef, the hyperbolic Baltimore Satellite Reef at City Arts Gallery is an ongoing project, and community members are encouraged to contribute to it for the length of the exhibit, culminating on June 28. Additional community workshops are scheduled at City Arts, with one on June 5 from 6-8 p.m., and another crochet slumber party on June 14.
For Collins, the most unexpected and exciting discovery of this project was the public response to it. "People are excited about it and want to participate," says Collins. "I met a high school science teacher at the opening reception who was so excited she was near tears. The marriage of feminine handicraft to science really moved her, and within two days she had contributed two more pieces of coral for the reef."
* An earlier version of this article mistakenly stated that Daina Taimina started the Coral Reef Project with the Wertheim sisters. Though Taimina discovered hyperbolic crochet, the Crochet Coral Reef project was actually created solely by Chistine and Margaret Wertheim and the IFF. The story has been revised to correct the error, which City Paper regrets.