For one week only, you won’t need to invest in scuba gear or a vacation to the tropics to see a coral reef. One will spring up right here in Maine.
When the Fryeburg Fair opens next Sunday, Sept. 30, the fairground’s Fiber Center will be overflowing with brain corals, sea sponges, polyps, jellyfish, seahorses, giant clams, anemones, stingrays, sea urchins and more, all crocheted, knitted or needle felted by crafters from throughout the state and beyond.
Gale Bellew, who has served as superintendent of the Fiber Center since its beginnings in 1991, will curate the installation, officially known as the Maine Reef Project.
Since 2004, when the West Oxford Agricultural Society, which sponsors the fair, first built a dedicated 2,000-square-foot post-and-beam structure for fiber exposition and education, Bellew has worked to showcase pieces that rise above the level of ordinary handicraft to that of fine art.
In the past, that has meant selecting one fiber artist to feature, gallery-style, each year, creating a mini-museum right in the heart of the pig scrambles, ox-pulling demonstrations and fried dough vendors more commonly associated with Maine’s largest agricultural fair.
This year’s exhibition is much more ambitious, not only because it brings together the work of dozens of individual crafters united by a single theme, but also because Bellew intends to transform the space into an under-sea paradise for the mostly crocheted coral creations she has been collecting since last summer.
The Maine Reef Project is a satellite of the Worldwide Hyperbolic Crochet Reef Project, created by Margaret and Christine Wertheim of the Institute for Figuring in Los Angeles.
The sisters, who were born in Queensland, Australia, created the project in 2005, in part to pay tribute to the Great Barrier Reef, which is threatened by the dual specter of pollution and climate change.
In addition, they were fascinated by the geometry of hyperbolic crochet, a practice developed in 1997 by mathematician Dr. Daina Taimina to demonstrate a difficult-to-explain geometric concept of how certain kinds of curves are formed in nature. By adding stitches to each row of a crochet piece in a geometrically prescribed pattern, Taimina found that she could produce pieces with wild curves and curlicues.
It was Christine Wertheim who first noticed the resemblance of these crocheted pieces to corals.
Over time, the two sisters and a core group of other fiber artists from around the world crocheted thousands of undersea creature look-alikes. The original collection, referred to as “the mother reef,” has been exhibited in museums across the United States and Europe, including the Smithsonian Institution, the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York, the Science Gallery in Dublin, Ireland, the Hayward Gallery in London and the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh, Penn.
Beginning in 2007, satellite reefs began cropping up when spectators wanted to try it for themselves. To date, there have been about two dozen satellite reefs, all sanctioned and licensed by the Institute for Figuring.
That’s how the Maine Reef Project began. When a friend told Bellew about the crocheted coral reef about two years ago, she immediately knew she wanted to bring one to life in Maine.
“I said, ‘Oh my God, we have to do this at Fryeburg!’” recalls Bellew.
“I wasn’t as inspired by the nexus of art, science and math so much as just looking at it from a purely artistic perspective and thinking: ‘I want to be able to make some of these myself.’ For me, it was an unbelievably amazing art project that could be accomplished by a community.”
She took her idea to the West Oxford Agricultural Society in January 2011, before rolling it out to the general public at last year’s fair, inviting as many of the fair’s 400,000 annual visitors as possible to participate in the project.
In addition, Bellew has promoted the reef at monthly art walks in Biddeford, among students at the University of New England, at public libraries in Gorham and Scarborough, on Ravelry, a social networking site for the fiber arts community, and through her blog, www.themainereef.blogspot.com.
Friends have helped to promote the project, too. Fiber artists and teachers Jan Windsor and Jeff Carpenter have taught workshops for both children and adults in the lead-up to the main event. Workshops have focused on everything from hyperbolic crochet to a basic jellyfish class for kids.
So far, Bellew has received hundreds of submissions from more than 125 people. Most of the submissions come from Maine, but participants represent 13 states. The youngest are Wyatt Laprise of Buxton, Maine, and Hannah Kaspereen of Gorham, Maine, both just 9 years old. The oldest is Catherine Mullin, 94, of Naples, Fla.
“I have no idea how she even heard about it,” said Bellew, who resides part-time in Biddeford.
Bellew has made dozens of corals and other sea creatures of her own since the project began.
“I spent hours online on Google image search looking at sea anemones or polyps or sea urchins. I would look at the pictures and think, ‘Oh, wow, I could make this,’ working out in my head what stitch I could use to make it,” she said.
One such piece, a giant clam she exhibited publicly to help build excitement for the project, got the attention of a scuba diver.
“He had his camera with him and called up a photo he’d taken of a giant clam. He showed me and said, ‘Look, the colors are even right,’” she said.
Though there are some other impressively complex pieces in the mix, the project is open to absolute beginners, too.
“I wanted to make it really clear that you did not have to do something amazing,” said Bellew.
“Many of the individual pieces might not look like much on their own, but once they come together we’re going to have a slice of the ocean." Bellew added. "That’s going to be the 'a-ha moment' of this whole thing.”