Salem students crochet sea life for community coral reef

Reece McEntarffer originally wanted to crochet a starfish.

But the fifth grade student at Salem’s Eagle Charter School settled for making an array of jellyfish after the knots proved challenging.

“It was really fun,” the 10-year-old said of her participation in the school’s yarn club.

Her colorful renderings of marine life will be among thousands of pieces on display come September when a community art project depicting coral reefs is unveiled in Lincoln City.

Eagle students, under the guidance of teacher Carly Fuerst and school principal Marie Ballance, joined hundreds of fiber artists who contributed seaweed, fish, coral formations and more after learning about the project at school.

“Some of our kids really thought it was fascinating and really took to this whole idea,” Ballance said.

The Community Coral Reef Project is an effort led by a Corvallis artist to educate people about healthy coral reefs and their importance, drawing on the talents of fiber artists across the Pacific Northwest.

Christina Harkness drew inspiration for the project from a similar effort by two Australian sisters, the Crochet Coral Reef. She’s been a fiber artist for a few decades and has also studied marine biology. During the pandemic, she moved to Oregon and soon after went on a retreat with other artists where she fleshed out the idea for a Pacific Northwest coral reef project to educate and inspire people to care for oceans.

“Our project shows both healthy reefs and bleached reefs. We make things out of recycled items and we make things out of plastic,” she said.

After opening at the Lincoln City Cultural Center on Sept. 22, the exhibit is slated for display in Salem at Willamette Heritage Center in the spring of 2024.

Eagle students got involved this past spring as part of a special class the school does where students mix between grades for 30 minutes a day and take on projects focused on community service and outreach.

Ballance learned of the coral reef project through a local knitting guild and invited Harkness to speak to Eagle students virtually.

Fuerst, a fourth grade teacher and avid knitter, decided to lead a crocheting-focused class and after-school club, with the idea that some students would contribute items to the yarn reef.

“This room kind of became the yarn room,” she said of her classroom. Students crocheted on breaks, parents donated supplies and a crop of eager young artists made both jewelry and other fun items alongside marine creatures.

Knitting is popular among faculty at Eagle because it’s a passion of Ballance’s, and a weekly faculty knitting get-together helps teachers hone their skills. Fuerst said she took to knitting immediately, enjoying the relaxing feeling of having something to do with her hands.

“I like my hands to be busy. I like the feel of the yarn,” she said.

She was happy to share that joy with students, many of whom had never worked with yarn before. Her class focused on crocheting, which is often simpler to learn than knitting.

“They were kind of off to the races – they just helped each other,” she said.

Coral reef pieces crocheted by students and teachers at Eagle Charter School in Salem (Courtesy/Eagle Charter School)

Students had freedom to crochet what they were interested in. Some made jellyfish or seaweed chains for the project, while others focused on fabric jewelry for family members and friends.

Brady McCrae, 9, said he joined the club because he wanted to craft with his grandmother. He mostly made jewelry for friends and family, including a pink bracelet for his grandma.

“She appreciated it a lot,” he said.

The highlight was spending time after school with friends, he said, with an activity to keep his hands busy.

“Knitting wasn’t my jam, crocheting is more my jam,” he said.

Harkness said she hopes the reef project helps people learn about healthy coral, coral bleaching and how climate change and plastic pollution threaten reefs and ocean health.

She was delighted to learn about Eagle students contributing.

“Who are we doing this for? We’re doing it for the future generations. We don’t want to think about one day, these kids will grow up and only have a fiber art memory. We want the real thing: healthy reefs,” she said.

Fuerst’s class made 20 items to contribute to the coral reef project. She hopes to bring students to the heritage center in the spring to see the full reef on display.

“I’ll be excited to see some of our things. I hope I recognize them,” she said.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.