What lies beneath our feet: Just the facts

I’ve just come back from participating in Rachel Sager’s inaugural run of her “What lies beneath our feet” workshop and I can say that it was, without a doubt, the most amazing and pivotal experience of my mosaic journey so far. It was a bit overwhelming (in a good way) and I’m still kind of processing, but I have lots to tell you. So much, in fact, that I think I’m going to break it down into three blog posts. This one will focus on the workshop itself – the who, what, where, when, why, and how of it. In the next post I’ll show you what I made and how I approached it. The third post will inevitably be the most challenging to write: I want to tell you about what this experience has meant to me in terms of where I am (a budding mosaic artist just starting out on my journey) and where I’m (hopefully) going.

But for now, let’s talk about the workshop!

SAMA vs. Sager
Since I don’t do mosaics full time, I can only justify about one big mosaic-related hoorah each year. This year, I had my sights set on attending my first SAMA conference. That was the plan. I was determined. But then I saw a posting for Rachel’s workshop on Pam Goode’s Mosaic Art Retreats blog. I immediately knew that this was the class for me and my plans for SAMA flew right out the window. A few months later, as I saw updates and pictures trickling out from SAMA, I got a bit jealous and started wondering if I had made the right decision. I needn’t have worried; it was absolutely the right decision. So my advice to you: If you get a chance to take a workshop with Rachel, do it. Don’t hesitate for even a second. She is a wonderful teacher and you will learn a tonne and grow as an artist.

Logistics
Determined to do this on the cheap, I cashed in some of my hard-earned frequent flyer miles that I had accumulated from three years’ worth of flights between Ottawa and LA. I had originally planned to try carpooling with a local to get from Pittsburgh to Farmington (where Touchstone is located), but I ended up renting a car instead because (1) I was too shy to put myself out there and ask and (2) I really really really didn’t want to miss seeing Fallingwater (a Frank Lloyd Wright house in the area). And boy, am I glad I visited – it was SO cool. My jaw was just hanging open the entire visit. After that I popped over to visit the Laurel Caverns, which was more than slightly disappointing (read: supremely cheesy). I’m kicking myself for choosing that over Kentuck Knob (the other FLW house in the area). Oh well, you know what they say about hindsight.

Touchstone is like the camp you remember from your childhood, only better (especially in terms of the food – sooooo delicious). I chose to stay in a shared quad cabin, but the camp wasn’t full that particular weekend, so I actually didn’t have any cabin mates. I was a bit sad about that – I kept racing back to my cabin periodically during the check-in period to see if other people had arrived, only to be disappointed each time. Part of the reason I wanted other people in my cabin was because I’m painfully shy, so it’s an easy way to meet people. Instant friends! In a cabin on my own, I thought I risked being a hermit. But everything turned out OK, because all my classmates were super open and warm and friendly and we quickly became a tight-knit group and I never lacked people to eat with or sit by the campfire chatting with.

The workshop itself
Our class ran from Friday night to Monday afternoon. On Friday night, we started by putting the finishing touches on the substrates that Rachel had graciously prepped for us so they could dry overnight. And then Saturday morning…we hunted for rocks! WOO!! I totally loved walking through the woods, scanning for potential treasure troves, and getting my hands dirty – pushing aside leaves, rummaging through the stream bed, digging in the soil. So much more satisfying than ordering materials online with the click of a button.

Back in the studio, after a quick hammer and hardie lesson, we got to work cracking the stones open. The bigger / tougher ones were subjected to the blows of a sledgehammer, but the smaller, easier ones were broken down directly with our H&H. It was so neat to see the variations in colour and striation that were revealed once each rock was broken open, because they really looked quite similar from the outside. While others sorted their colours very carefully (as per Rachel’s instructions), I disobeyed. I was too excited to see what was on the inside of each stone I had collected, so I would chop one open, cut a few pieces from it, and then move on to the next one and the next one. Everything went into the same pile and it was a beautiful, disorganized mess. Luckily, I didn’t get scolded :-)

It felt really good to get my hammer swinging for a nice chunk of time and to feel the differences between the stones as they yielded under my hammer. What I found challenging was all the noise – 11 people wailing on rocks with steel hammers is not exactly quiet. A big part of finding the ‘sweet spot’ for me is the sound – like finding a stud in the wall. I had to focus on using my eyes (in addition to muscle memory) a lot more with all the background din. It’s interesting, the cues that you come to rely on.

And then, we created. (More on this in post #2.) It was fascinating to walk around the room and see how radically different people’s approaches and visions were, considering we had all started with the same basic ingredients. Talking about everyone’s piece at the end of the workshop – how they approached it, what others saw in it and responded to in its design – was a valuable and interesting exercise.

Outside of class
I tended to wake up early and would spend the time before breakfast just enjoying the quietness and the early morning sun (and checking my email). I had hooked up R’s old cellphone (from the California days) so I’d be able to communicate with her while I was there, but I ended up having no reception and wifi was only available in the main lodge. The funny thing is, I’m glad it worked out that way. While I really missed hearing her voice every day, it was nice to untether myself to some extent and let myself be completely absorbed in the experience.

And at night…there were campfires. Just sitting around, enjoying the flames and the night air, talking with interesting and creative people. That was one of my favourite parts (other than whacking the crap out of rocks with my hammer, obviously). The residential aspect of the weekend was part of what made it so special. People didn’t scatter back to their various hotels after class. You could really get to know people and continue the interesting discussions that had started during the day.

Four hours in Pittsburgh
The day after the workshop, I found myself with four hours to kill in Pittsburgh before heading to the airport. I decided to prolong the artsy creative high I was riding from the weekend by visiting the Mattress Factory and the Society for Contemporary Craft. Each place had pieces that absolutely blew me away, like Parastou Forouhar’s “Written Room”, Julie Abijanac’s “Disease mapping”, and Eszter Bornemisza’s “Lung of the city”.  I love walking – anywhere, anytime – and I think it’s a great way to experience the city, so instead of hopping the bus to get from MF to SCC, I walked. A long, hot walk (nearly 3.5km – I was sweating!!), but definitely worth it because I got to soak in that incredible Pittsburgh architecture.

And then it was time to go home to R (yay! I had missed her so!) and Dex (who gave me a very enthusiastic-bordering-on-scandalous welcome on the deserted streets of Ottawa at midnight) and my buckwheat hull pillow. I arrived exhausted, but in a good way, with a huge, persistent grin on my face.

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  1. Still trying new things: The story behind “Punctuated equilibrium” | julie sperling mosaics - July 25, 2013

    […] back to the monotony of right angles and office towers. The solution didn’t hit me until after Rachel Sager’s workshop at Touchstone – I could use irregular chunks of stone (rather than cubes) to introduce that chaotic […]

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