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PNW Community Coral Reef Project uses soft sculpture to share hard truths about endangered ecosystem

The installation by Christina Harkness and Shanna Smith Suttner opens March 22 at the Willamette Heritage Center in Salem, before returning to Lincoln City in August.

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Visitors roam among the crocheted coral at the Lincoln City Cultural Center last fall. The PNW Community Coral Reef Project will open at the Willamette Heritage Center in Salem this month, before returning to Lincoln City in August. Photo courtesy: Christina Harkness
Visitors roam the crocheted coral reef at the Lincoln City Cultural Center last fall. The PNW Community Coral Reef Project will open at the Willamette Heritage Center in Salem this month, before returning to Lincoln City in August. Photo courtesy: Christina Harkness

At first glance, the exhibit of soft, colorful pieces looks almost like child’s play – albeit expertly crafted child’s play. The thousands of crocheted and knitted forms are hardly toys but the PNW Community Coral Reef Project, a fiber art creation representing the world’s coral reefs. It’s Christina Harkness and fiber arts partner Shanna Smith Suttner’s way of educating people about the threats endangering coral reefs. 

“I believe that in order to care about something, to understand something, that it helps to experience it yourself,” said Harkness. “I sailed with the Merchant Marines and was able to dive on coral reefs around Indonesia. I got to see it in person, and not many people get to have that experience. Being able to walk into a room and being able to feel you are experiencing one yourself, I think that helps to educate people how important they are.”

The exhibit opens March 22 at the Willamette Heritage Center in Salem, where it runs through June 22. It was recently at the Lincoln City Cultural Center and will be back for a return engagement at the Cultural Center Aug. 9.

Christina Harkness hopes her coral reef will educate viewers about the importance of coral to the environment. "Being able to walk into a room and being able to feel you are experiencing one yourself, I think that helps to educate people how important they are.”
Christina Harkness hopes her coral reef will educate viewers about the importance of coral to the environment. “Being able to walk into a room and being able to feel you are experiencing one yourself, I think that helps to educate people how important they are.”

Harkness, who lives in Corvallis, was inspired to create the room-sized installation by sisters Margaret and Christine Wertheim, Australian scientists who came up with the original concept in 2005 when they “began crocheting hyperbolic forms to highlight the threat of climate change on the Great Barrier Reef.” Their project, recently featured in the New York Times, has spawned 50 satellite fiber coral reefs with more than 20,000 people participating, according to the Wertheims’ Crochet Coral Reef website.

The PNW Community Coral Reef is not connected to the Wertheims’ but is based on similar concepts. Harkness, who learned to knit at about age 10 and took up crocheting years later, started small, creating first an aquarium-sized coral reef. In 2020, she moved from Wisconsin to Oregon and knowing no one, attended a fiber arts retreat, where she met Suttner.

“She walked in with this aquarium, and I said, ‘Coral reef!’ and she said, ‘Yes,’” recalled Suttner, a blueberry farmer from Springfield. “I thought, wow, here is someone who knows something about what I’m talking about. It was a shot in the dark. I was doing smaller coral reefs. She works larger.”

As the two got to know each other, “We hatched a plan,” Harkness said. From there, the pair began visiting yarn stores and fiber arts festivals, talking about their plans as they crocheted ever more corals for the reef. Three years later, they opened their first full installation in Lincoln City.

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The coral reef created by Christina Harkness and Shanna Smith Suttner goes beyond fish to include turtles, crabs, and other ocean life. “I want to show the entire ecosystem around corals and what everything is as far as the coral reef,” Harkness says. Photo courtesy: Christina Harkness
The coral reef created by Christina Harkness and Shanna Smith Suttner goes beyond fish to include turtles, crabs, and other ocean life. “I want to show the entire ecosystem around corals and what everything is as far as the coral reef,” Harkness says. Photo courtesy: Christina Harkness

One thing that differentiates their reef from the Wertheims’, Harkness said, is that the Australians have only corals, “whereas in our reef, we do have fish and different creatures. The Wertheims don’t want people to be distracted by anything. They want them just to see the corals. I want to show the entire ecosystem around corals and what everything is as far as the coral reef.”

To that end, Harkness’ exhibit shows the vibrant, healthy corals of different, rich colors that “really, really catch people’s attention.” But not only are the bright colors eye-catching, they highlight the grim contrast to bleached corals.

“The reason corals bleach is that there’s a symbiotic relationship between these marine animals that live inside the corals … that’s what gives the corals color,” Harkness said.

“So, when the temperatures increase, these animals leave and the corals lose their color, and if it happens for a long enough period, the corals will die.”

The PNW Community Coral Reef includes a bleached reef. Small animals live inside the coral, and when they die, the reefs lose their color, says Christina Harkness.
The PNW Community Coral Reef includes a bleached reef. Small animals live inside the coral, and when they die, the reefs lose their color, says Christina Harkness. Photo courtesy: Christina Harkness

The corals can recover, if the water temperature goes down, she said, but bleaching is happening more frequently, and the corals can’t recover between episodes. “If that’s the case, then they do eventually die.”

The PNW Community Coral Reef also features fiber-art plastic pollution, a fishing net, and other abandoned fishing gear. People visiting the exhibit are generally surprised, said Suttner. “They are just amazed and say they had no idea. It really is enormous and overwhelming.”

But they are also touched and troubled by the exhibit, not unlike Harkness herself some days. A bereavement coordinator for hospice care, Harkness sometimes finds the fiber art project a welcome respite from her job, but other days, it’s just more sorrow, she said.

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“There is a kind of crossover. We’re dealing with big issues of grief over our environment and what is happening to the planet and our oceans. The bleached fiber art reef is actually beautiful, but also the reality is heartbreaking. It’s a definite mood that I feel when I am working on it. Some days I don’t have the chutzpah…. It’s so emotionally overwhelming.”

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Lori Tobias is a journalist of many years, and was a staff writer for The Oregonian for more than a decade, and a columnist and features writer for the Rocky Mountain News. Her memoir “Storm Beat – A Journalist Reports from the Oregon Coast” was published in 2020 by Oregon State University press. She is also the author of the novel Wander, winner of the 2017 Nancy Pearl Book Award for literary fiction and a finalist for the 2017 International Book Awards for new fiction. She lives on the Oregon Coast with her husband Chan and rescue pup Gus.

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