Author Archive | Julie Sperling

From there to here: A mosaic about the driving forces behind the Anthropocene

How did we get here? That’s the question at the heart of my mosaic, “The Three Horsemen”. It’s not an angsty, existential question. It’s a specific question, where the “here” is the Anthropocene. So, how did we get here, to a point in geologic time that’s the equivalent of a dumpster fire for which humans are to blame?

I’ll be diving into the hallmarks of this new geological age in future mosaics, covering such uplifting topics as altered nutrient cycles, invasive species, mass extinctions, erosion, pollution of all kinds, sea-level rise, and so much more. But I figured that I should probably take a look at the journey first before immersing myself in the destination. Thus, “The Three Horsemen,” or, how we got here.

There are plenty of different combinations of factors that you could argue brought us to this point, and indeed, each article I read when researching this mosaic was sort of a variation on a theme. But the one that resonated with me, both intellectually and artistically, was from a 2016 article in Science by Colin Waters et al. The authors identify three “linked force multipliers” that produce many of the drivers associated with the hallmarks of the Anthropocene: (1) accelerated technological development, (2) population increase (and a shift to urbanization), and (3) increased consumption of resources (e.g., fossil fuels, minerals and metals, etc.).

These force multipliers really emerge onto the scene in a big way in the 1950s, just after WWII, in a period known as the Great Acceleration. It’s in this period that we see a rise in economic activity and resource consumption that prompts all the upswings in the global distress signals that are characteristic of the Anthropocene (see: list above of future mosaic plans).

“The Three Horsemen” (2018), 22″ diameter — Slag, lightbulb innards, shale, mortar tesserae, cement, marble, knob and tube, earphones, limestone, red dog, brick, architectural glass, ceramic, smalti, circuit board, resistors, coal, hard rubber, gears

“The Three Horsemen” (a nod to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse) takes these force multipliers and the Great Acceleration and turns them into an explosion. At the epicenter is a big chunk of slag that my dad brought back from his days working at Inco (a mine, mill, smelter, and refinery of all kinds of metals up in Sudbury, ON). Creeping out from under it are the innards of burnt-out incandescent lightbulbs (now relics of the past). From the start, these have always given me the heebie-jeebies; I find them very unsettling, though in a good way when put in context of this piece.

They’re coming to get you…

And then the impact ripples out in successive waves of Anthropocene materials. For technological development, there are circuit boards, resistors, two pairs of earbuds that (of course) broke far too soon, bits of hard rubber, gears from an old shredder, and the ends of bolts (which I saved each time I trimmed the hanging hardware on the back of a mosaic, you know, just in case…). For population increase and urbanization, we’ve got mortar and concrete, brick, some old dishes, and architectural glass samples. And for resource consumption (notably energy and metals), there’s the slag and incandescents, of course, but then there’s also knob and tube insulators, shale, coal, and a wee tiny bit of gold. (Click to embiggen any of the detail shots below!)

So this is how we got here: an explosion of people using things, aided and abetted by technology. Like all of my work, that tension between the sobering and the beautiful is here again, and I find that it is especially appropriate when talking about the Anthropocene. Thinking and talking about this issue will inevitably stir up conflicting feelings. I freely admit that I look at cities and their feats of architecture and engineering, and even at industrial sites, and often swoon at their hard lines and complex beauty. I appreciate the convenience of driving my car and having a house that’s neither too hot nor too cold. And don’t get me started on my phone and computer and all the other tech gadgets in my life. But there is always a little voice in my head, reminding me that all of this comes at a price. And that tension and dichotomy is what I try to channel in my work. Yep, these are good-looking mosaics. There’s a calmness and an elegance to them. But let them draw you in…look closer…and you’ll find a darker, more sobering side.

Side view of the rippling explosion

1

Come learn and get creative with me…online!

I’m super happy (and just a wee bit nervous) to share with you something a little different for me: an online course all about using constraint as a tool to push yourself further as a mosaic artist. The course just launched over on Mosaic Arts Online, and there’s a 10% discount (promo code: CREATIVITY10) until midnight on Monday, September 3 for all you early adopters. If you click through, you can watch a little promo video of me telling you all about the course.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, Mosaic Arts Online is a quickly growing learning platform for mosaic artists run by Tami Macala and it is nothing short of awesome. Interested in learning from a particular artist but the travel gets in the way? Or maybe that artist (like me!) doesn’t offer in-person workshops? Enter Mosaic Arts Online, where you get to learn “in your own space, at your own pace.”

So where did this class—Creativity Through Constraint—come from? Well, remember that mosaic I made from the infamous “bacon rock”? It was, hands down, one of the best creative experiences I’ve had in my career so far. I took one rock, chopped it up, and made a mosaic out of it using every last scrap, and in the process I learned so much about myself as an artist and it opened up so many possibilities in my andamento. I loved it so much that I did it again a little while later with an amazing piece of mookaite.

I knew this was an exercise that I wanted to keep doing periodically, but I also knew that the material I chose to work with was fundamental to my experience. Not just any material will do for this exercise. But there’s only so much bacon rock and mookaite on my shelves. How to get around that?

I turned the problem over in my head for months and months. Then, one day I was chopping up some multicoloured slabs of leftover thinset I had saved from my Artist in Residence workshops and it hit me: I could make my own “rock” out of thinset that would lend itself beautifully to this exercise. And since thinset is so readily available, and this exercise was such a game-changer for me, why not share it with the world? And thus the Mosaic Arts Online course was born.

I know it might seem like a simple exercise. I mean, how hard can it be to mix up a blob of thinset, chop it up, and put it all back together again? Trust me: it will make your brain hurt (in a good way). And it has so many applications beyond just the actual exercise. Some of the things you can learn / develop a greater appreciation for include:

  • Getting comfortable with thinset, if you aren’t already. And also never looking at thinset the same way again…especially if you pair this course with either/both of Erin Pankratz’ courses!
  • Building your hammer and hardie skills if you’re a beginner (thinset is a great material to learn on!) or going back to basics and chopping mindfully instead of on autopilot if you’re a pro.
  • Becoming a whiz at estimating the coverage of your material and also navigating your substrate strategically depending on how much material you have.
  • Learning to listen to your material and build a relationship with it, so that your work is a partnership between you and the material, not simply you imposing your will on it.
  • Taking your andamento to the next level by seeing the possibilities presented by size, shape, and surface topography, loosening up and being less precise, deepening your understanding of flow, and generally pushing yourself out of your comfort zone.

Yep, you really can take a weird blob of thinset and turn it into something special!

The beauty of this exercise is that you can do it at any point in your mosaic career and you’ll learn something new each time. YOU set the degree of difficulty for yourself. Maybe you start with two colours and a layered “rock”. I got cocky when filming this and thought: “I’ll roll all three different ways of making these thinset rocks into one!” I’ve never not been challenged by this exercise, but man, this was next-level challenging! So whether it’s your first time or your sixth, you’ll walk away a better mosaicist.

“More Organic Than Kale” (title credit goes to Sophie Drouin, who described the piece as that). Seriously, that’s what you can do with just two colours of thinset. It’s great fun!

While I really hate being in front of the camera (talk about stepping out of your comfort zone!), that is tempered by my excitement to share this exercise with you. It opens up so many possibilities and I can’t wait to see how those of you who take the course run with it.

Let’s make our brains hurt together!

0

Never tell them it’s art (Or: How I rid myself of the itch to show my art internationally in one not-so-easy step)

It is always a thrill to be invited to show your art. Even more of a thrill: being invited to show your art in a faraway country. For years now, I’ve watched the Big Dogs of the mosaic community put their work on display in countries all over the world (but predominantly Italy and France), thinking “It would be so very cool to be able to do that one day.” So when an invitation arrived from Martine Blanchard to exhibit my work in the quaint little town of Auray, France, I jumped at the chance.

This is Auray. It’s pretty darn cute.

Having shipped to the US and Australia before, I knew it would be expensive. And I knew there would be a degree of stress involved, both in hoping it arrived unscathed and hoping it would not get held up by customs. It turns out I underestimated the expense and the stress by several orders of magnitude.

I offer the following colour commentary about my experience in case it is helpful to anyone considering participating in a show where shipping and customs are involved. As I quickly learned, it is not for the faint of heart.


Early on, I think I’m off to a good start. I get tips from someone who has done this multiple times, I take my piece to a guy who makes me a box that’s small but strong (which will cut down on shipping costs), and I make inquiries trying to figure out what paperwork I need. I even make arrangements to be able to send my work via Canada Post, which is so much cheaper than a courier like FedEx or UPS.

After dropping my box off at the post office just before Easter, I begin the process of obsessively checking the tracking number to see where it is on its journey. The following Friday evening, more than a week after it has been sent, I check in, only to find that my mosaic has been blocked in the customs process since Wednesday. There’s some sort of document missing. Shit. This being after business hours and at the start of the weekend, there is nothing I can do but google and google some more, trying to figure out what document is missing and how I can fix it. I am very bad at just sitting and waiting.

Thanks to some very obscure message boards buried in the depths of the interwebs, I figure out what I need and the email address to send the documents to, because Chronopost, the French equivalent of Canada Post, helpfully doesn’t post this information on its website. Also, their only contact options for customer service are phone or Twitter / Facebook. Desperate, I tweet them.

Monday morning I actually get a reply to my weekend email saying that my document has been received and my shipment should be on its way soon. Tuesday they tweet back, confirming this. By Thursday it still hasn’t moved. I tweet them again. No reply. Friday morning—two plus weeks after sending my package—I wake up early, unable to sleep because of the worry, and decide I will need to bite the bullet and call them.

Calling Chronopost is no easy feat. First, there’s the language barrier. Thankfully, speaking French (however much I may butcher the language) is a requirement of my day job, so I can at least hold my own in a conversation. Then you have to be lucky enough that the call doesn’t drop. That happens about every second time I call them. And then you have to (patiently?) explain and re-explain your situation to every single person you talk to. By the third call I’ve got my spiel down pat.

By the time I start work at 8am, I know what is wrong. I have committed the cardinal sin of shipping artwork: I said it was art. It was a completely innocent mistake. I didn’t know that honesty was not the best policy. And because I said it was art, Chronopost tells me they are not authorized to move it through customs, nor are they authorized to deliver it. The only option, it seems, is to hire a customs broker to get it through customs and then complete the delivery. Through all of this, Martine is also valiantly trying to liaise with Chronopost on her end, but eventually she—quite understandably—has to give up and turn her attention to the million other things that need to be done for the show.

The first quote from a broker is ridiculously high (300+€, and that doesn’t even include delivery!). But I am so tempted to just accept it because I’m due to fly out in four days to attend the opening, and what’s the point of going if my piece isn’t even going to be there? Also, the alternative is to just let my mosaic languish there until the clock runs out and Chronopost ships it back to Canada, though this option feels somewhat risky, as if there would be a very good chance that it would get lost in the system, never to be seen again. Because of the time difference and the resulting lags in communication, this quote never gets acted on.

Then, on Sunday, two days before I’m supposed to fly out, I have to unexpectedly reschedule my flight to proactively avoid the Air France strike. Monday finds me scrambling to get ready to fly out a day early and freaking out that there is still no progress on liberating my mosaic.

Tuesday morning, 8am. I land in France and hit the ground running. I randomly go up to the first customs officer I see after collecting my luggage and explain my situation. He kindly escorts me to a customs office, where two lovely women proceed to phone different brokers they know in an attempt to find one who can move this quickly and at perhaps a cheaper price than that first exorbitantly high quote. They connect me with a broker who tells them she can help me, and I call her. (Keep in mind that this is all happening in French, on zero sleep, after an international flight…on top of weeks of stress-induced insomnia) In just two hours, she has what she needs from me, we connect with Chronopost, they acknowledge our email, and things seemed to be moving. Oh, and she quotes it at half the price of the first quote.

(Side note: If you ever need a customs broker in France, I highly recommend Amana Cargo and Sonia Difallah. She was efficient and effective, responsive in her communications, and patient in answering all my anxiety-ridden questions.)

Exhausted, I take a nap, with visions of success awaiting me upon my awakening. Alas. The afternoon rolls around and the broker is still waiting for two documents from Chronopost. More calls and emails to Chronopost follow (no tweets though—by that time I have given up on that method of contact).

End of Day 1, I take a walk to clear my head and find this elephant. The fact that its trunk is up does NOT bring me luck the next day.

The next day I am scheduled to pick up my rental car (oh yah, did I mention that I needed to rent a car because of the rail strike?) and drive to Chartres, then on to Auray the next day. Sensing that I will need more time at the airport to sort all of this out, I rejig all my hotels. More panicked calls and emails to Chronopost (from me and from my broker, who is also having phone trouble with them, which gives me some degree of comfort knowing it isn’t just me being inept / unlucky), but by the end of this second day in Paris, I am no further ahead.

So much time spent in the vicinity of the airport. Le sigh.

Day three dawns and I am pretty much resolved that I will not be getting my piece in time for the show. I send one more email to Chronopost, pleading with them to fast-track my documents. Just before lunch…an email from the broker! She has the last document she needs from Chronopost and she starts the customs process. She says it usually takes one or two hours to clear customs if all is in order, but “they’re on their lunch break now, so it’s not going anywhere for a while. ” More waiting, trying not to get my hopes up. Finally, at 4:30pm, I am resigned that it won’t happen. I email the broker, asking how late customs usually works (basically, asking for confirmation that, yes, now it is time to officially give up). And at that exact moment she emails me and our emails cross in cyberspace. My mosaic has cleared customs!!! She sends one of her guys to grab it from Chronopost and deliver it to my hotel. At 5:30pm, I hand over a giant wad of euros and take possession of my mosaic. I have never been so happy to see a cardboard box in my life.

IT’S A BOX! WITH A MOSAIC INSIDE!!! (PS No idea why it has a “heavy” sticker on it… it weighed less than 6 kg.)

Day four is the day of the show opening. Up at the crack of dawn, my mosaic and I set out for Auray, a six-hour drive away. The Périphérique fries my nerves, but I do enjoy the 130km/h speed limit once I reach the highway. I arrive in Auray and hang my mosaic on the wall just four hours before the show opens.

For four days, I have taken no pleasure in anything. It hasn’t even felt like I’m in France, as I’ve been entirely suspended in that limbo that is an airport hotel. The moment I walk into the exhibition space, though… I get chills. The venue is amazing. Breathtaking, really. The show is beautifully curated and thoughtfully hung. More than half the artists are there in person and I get to meet some of those big names I’ve admired for so long.

I feel proud, overwhelmed, frustrated, and exhausted all at the same time.

*gasp* The Chapelle du Saint-Esprit. Gorgeousness.

Proof that it actually made it there.


Now that I’ve been home for a bit, and have some distance between myself and that shipping shitshow, I can consider the fundamental question of: Was it worth it? The answer is not a simple yes or no. I am immensely honoured that my art has been chosen to hang in a space like that, alongside artists whose work I greatly admire. In terms of boosting my confidence and my ego? Yep, mission accomplished. In terms of making connections? Again, yes. In terms of being able to put that I’m an internationally exhibited artist on my CV? Check.

But in terms of expense and stress? I’m not so sure. I don’t love that these shows seem to be firmly a pay-to-play situation. The cost is not insignificant. I would estimate that participating in this show will have cost me nearly $1,000 by the time it’s all over, and that doesn’t include the trip I took to attend the opening (a trip without which I am certain that my mosaic would never have made it out of the airport). I can afford to pay thanks to my day job, but that’s beside the point. I know this is just “the way things are done” but that doesn’t mean I have to like or accept it.

As I shared frustrated updates about my misadventure on social media, I was shocked by the number of similar horror stories I heard. Art being held in customs for months, artists paying vast sums of money just to get their art out of customs, art being damaged or lost entirely. If this is such a common thing, why do we even do it at all? My own experience was enough to give me pause, but add to that all the similar (and worse!) stories I’ve heard, and it just doesn’t seem worth it to me. Surely there must be a better alternative.

So, will I participate in an international (not counting the US) show again? I won’t say never, but I will be very very selective and it won’t happen often. I’d say I can probably count on one hand (with plenty of room to spare) how many times I will do this in my entire career. I think I am better served trying to build my profile and my audience here at home (or at least closer to home), as these are the people who are probably more likely to buy my work. These are the people I can build relationships with, relationships that are so very important in selling people on the idea of investing in me, my art, and my vision.

But—and that’s a very big but!—if/when opportunity comes knocking and I actually work up the nerve to try this again, I will at least know the following and will roll the dice accordingly:

  • It will cost a LOT of money. Probably more than I think it will. These shows do not make financial sense, and my participation will be purely self-indulgent.
  • There will be stress. Probably more than I think there will be. (Not that knowing this will prevent me from having real honest-to-god heart palpitations again next time…)
  • I will be at the mercy of customs agents. I might get lucky, or I might not.
  • The worst-case scenario of never seeing my mosaic again is always a very real possibility.
  • Having someone on the ground who can troubleshoot and advocate on my behalf (especially if it’s a country where I don’t speak the language) will be essential.
  • Hand delivering work will always be the best option, if possible.

And finally…

  • Never ever tell them it’s art.

4

What’s black and white and is but isn’t a mosaic?

I have just quietly launched a product line that is and isn’t mosaic. “Trace Elements” are prints of tracings that I make of my own mosaics.

There are so many reasons why I’m doing this. Let’s get the most obvious one out of the way first: price. I know that not everyone has hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars to buy my art. Offering prints makes my art way more accessible, and that’s important to me. It’s also WAY easier and cheaper to ship than an actual mosaic, which is a big bonus.

I could just offer prints of photos I’ve taken of my work. Lots of people do that, and there’s nothing wrong with it. But personally, photos of mosaics always leave me unsatisfied. Every time I post photos online, I know that it’s just not the same as experiencing a mosaic in person. You can’t fully appreciate the texture, topography, scale, reflectivity, and all those other more tactile and experiential qualities that make mosaic so special. The challenge of adequately capturing a mosaic in a photo is one of the medium’s big Achilles heels. And if I’m constantly saying, “The photos don’t do it justice,” then why would I offer prints of those photos?

So the challenge for me was to find something reproducible that captures the essence of the mosaic. Enter the tracing. I did not invent tracing mosaics. Let’s be very clear about that. There are plenty of mosaicists out there who do it as they work to restore or reproduce ancient mosaics. There are others who use it as a learning tool to get right down to the building blocks of a mosaic. I just decided that I would make tracings that themselves are art.

Hand traced, hand printed

One of the things I love most about mosaic is the andamento. How those lines of tesserae are built and how they move. Especially how they move. A tracing strips away everything except the andamento. It lays it bare. For me, this is the essence of my work, which is why the simplicity of a tracing captures what’s at the heart of my work and never fails to make me feel just a wee bit exposed.

Every single tessera is traced by hand on vellum paper, to later be scanned and then printed. I tried a few different ways of printing them, and have settled on getting them screenprinted by hand at a local shop. I love the crispness of the lines paired with the fact that you can still see traces of evidence that they were made by hand, like the ink distribution not being 100% the same in each and every print. The perfection of the imperfect. It adds to their character and specialness.

There is a meditative aspect to the tracing, just as there is to actual mosaic-making. I also learn something about myself as a mosaicist with each tracing that I do. Any bad habits are clearly exposed, but I can just correct those Bob Ross happy accidents by nudging the outline of a tessera one way or the other. It’s not cheating, it’s learning! I’m also finding that tracing is giving me a new (cautious) appreciation for colour and the role it plays in my work. (Anyone who knows me well, knows that I am a colourphobe.)

I never trace the whole mosaic; instead, I select a favourite fragment, which always brings to mind the ancient mosaic fragments you see in museums. I love how it hints at the whole, but is enough on its own. It is complete yet mysterious.

My tracings are not exact replicas of my mosaics. While sometimes it’s because I fix things, but more often it’s because the image underneath the tracing paper isn’t perfectly clear, so I give it my best guess. I get to (re)invent some of the andamento as I trace, so there is a uniqueness to these tracings that goes beyond what a photo can offer.

The simplicity of a tracing kind of means that the sky’s the limit. I’ve already joked about making an adult colouring book, t-shirts, calendars, andamento workbooks, and postcards. Who knows where this tracing adventure will take me, but I’m really excited and I’d love for you to follow along on this ride.

How to buy a print

I’m still working on getting the storefront set up on my website, so for now just email me and we’ll go from there! Prints measure 9″ x 12″ and are screenprinted by hand on 100% cotton, 250 gsm, acid-free paper. They are $50 CAD each (plus postage) and payment can be by email transfer, PayPal, cash, or cheque.

I’m offering each print in small limited editions of 50. The first print available is “(More than) Enough“, which is quite possibly one of my favourite mosaics I’ve ever made, and thus an obvious choice as the first offering in this new venture.

 

 

2

Dear future: We tried and…

Who knew that plastic cutlery would be such an inspiring material? Certainly not me. This is one of the big things that keeps me coming back to mosaic: the surprise of new and unexpected materials.

After finishing “We Were Here Now“—the first mosaic in my Anthropocene series—I definitely wasn’t done with those plastic knives, forks, and spoons, and they weren’t done with me. I loved how they had taken on a sort of hieroglyphic appearance in that mosaic, so I thought: Why not just zero in on that and play with it for a minute? This intersected nicely with a beautiful comment left for me in the guestbook at my final residency show, which had been rattling around in my brain for months (in a good way): “What affected me most […] was the vision of mosaic and the actual materials used being a snapshot of what will be left of our current civilization, bits of rubber, bones, concrete. The idea that you are a distant future archaeologist reconstructing an image of your past / our now is compelling.

So I wrote a letter to future generations. Mosaic was my language, and the unholy Anthropocene trinity—concrete, plastic, and aluminum—was my material. For the aluminum, I thought nothing could be more representative of our throw-away, consumerist, globalized reality than a bright red can of Coke.

“By the time we realized…” (2018), 12.5″ x 10″ — concrete, plastic cutlery, aluminum Coke can

There are no secret coded messages in this mosaic. I didn’t go as far as to create my own actual language or script. It’s just me playing around, making writing-like lines, though you will find a few commas and periods.

The importance of punctuation: Comma after the opening salutation, slashes between the parts of the date above…

The title—“By The Time We Realized…”—leaves the ending open. By the time we realized…it was too late? By the time we realized…we had just enough time to get our act together and turn things around? We, collectively, still have time to decide what that ending will be, but that window is getting narrower. I, for one, am still fighting to turn this ship around. What about you?

Ripped and a bit crumpled. This letter has seen some wear.

0

Enough talk. It’s time for action.

This mosaic is junk. No, really. It is 100% scrap that any sane person would have tossed right into the trash. But not me. I just can’t help myself.

It all started with my artist in residence gig. At my events, the little ‘pancakes’ of thinset that people would make their climate-action mosaics out of were going like, well, like hotcakes. There was no time to be picky about how pretty and smooth their edges were as I was hurriedly spreading them. In the heat of the moment, that was definitely a problem for Future Julie. And so, after each event was done, faced with ugly cracked and chunky dried edges, I set about nipping them off to tidy the pieces up. After doing the first batch, I looked down at my little pile of offcuts and thought: Yep, I think I could make something out of that. So I dutifully saved every single scrap I nipped off the edges of all 244 community-made mosaics.

Over the months, as my pile grew, I daydreamed of what I’d make out of them. I could not get those scraps out of my head. But I couldn’t just dive into a project that used them, because there were other projects in the pipeline that needed to get made first. Ugh, deadlines. This, of course, only made me want to make this mosaic even more.

Finally it was time. I can’t even tell you how good this project felt. It was like I was playing the whole time. I’m sure the delayed gratification had something to do with this, but I think a large part of it was owing to the scraps themselves. As someone who normally struggles with being too precise and also with being terrified of colour, the wonkiness of those colourful little scraps set me free. And using the leftover colour mixes to adhere the scraps—the exact same mixes that the scraps themselves were made out of—just felt so over-the-top to my colour-fearing self that, of course, it was perfect.

“Enough (Talk)” (2018), 13.75″ x 12″ — thinset scraps

Now, you might be wondering about the title, “Enough (Talk)”. Well, I’ve decided that this definitely qualifies as one of my “Enough” pieces. Though I didn’t take one thing, chop it up, and put it back together again, like I did with “(More than) Enough” and “Enough (Size matters),” the spirit is the same. It is about a shrewd and thoughtful use of a material; it is about not wasting a single scrap. And the “talk” part? Where did that come from? I’ve previously written about how each of the community-made mosaics in “Baseline (We’re just getting started)” is like one voice in a big noisy conversation about climate change, each one nudging the dialogue forward. And if each individual community-made mosaic is one voice, then the scraps are snippets of those conversations.

But enough talk. It’s time for action.

The raggedy irregularities of the scraps were oh so good for me

 

4

I wish I had thought of that

A while back, someone—quite innocently, I’m sure—applauded my creativity and said about one of my mosaics: “I wish I’d thought of that!” I know the comment was well-intentioned, but there was something about it that sort of needled me. I’m not taking issue with this individual or the comment specifically, but rather the implied notion that I’m inherently creative and these ideas just come to me in a burst of inspiration and genius. Spoiler alert: that’s not how it happens.

I get these ideas because I do the work. I put in my time in the studio. I brainstorm. I come up with terrible ideas and I come up with great ideas (and often the former evolve into the latter). I am constantly thinking, observing, playing, reading, connecting the dots, finding my voice, and making (and unmaking). What you see is the product of more hours, weeks, months, and years spent working than I care to count. Hours spent alone in my studio, some blissful, some angst-ridden. Hours spent figuring stuff out, taking classes, seeking out information, and practicing.

This is all work. Work, work, work, work, work, and work.

Of course part of my development has been (and still is) watching other artists, mosaic and beyond. That’s a no-brainer. But when I see them doing something amazing, the script in my head is not a defeated “Damn, I wish I’d thought of that,” it’s more like “Man, that’s so cool! I’m going to go back to my studio now and see what sort of crazy stuff I can come up with!” I take it as a challenge, but not in a competitive way. It’s more of an opening of possibilities and a way to push myself forward into new territory. That’s the beauty and value of being part of a community.

I’m not naturally gifted in the creativity department, and that’s not just me being modest. So if I can do this, trust me, you can too. Something that has always resonated with me is Keri Smith‘s tips on how to be an explorer of the world, and I embrace many of them as I strive to hone my creativity and my art practice. I offer them to you here in case they are helpful. So please don’t look wistfully at what I do, wishing you had my creativity. I certainly don’t have that market cornered. You can make things that capture your unique voice in this world. You just have to be willing to do the work. I can’t do it for you.
I’ve always struggled with that last one, with doing other people’s work for them. It’s likely a deadly combination of pride, high standards, and a genuine desire to be helpful. I was always the kid in class who’d pick up the slack in group projects. I spend more time at work than I should fixing things that will ultimately make other people look good. And I also get easily sucked into answering mosaic questions from perfect strangers asking how I do X, Y, or Z. But I’m getting a bit tired of doing other people’s work for them—in all areas of my life—and in the end it really doesn’t help anyone. So my motto for 2018? Do your own work (and I will keep doing mine).

Yes, I will still help others, but I’m going to be selective and just a little bit selfish. Do we have a relationship based on trust, friendship, collegiality, and reciprocity? Yes? Well then I’m happy to help. But the one-sided helping—the doing of others’ work for them—is getting phased out. Don’t know me but still want me to answer all your questions? Nope, sorry, not for free anymore. Want to know more about my work? Do your homework and read my blog. I make a point of being quite open and generous in my writing, and I spend a lot of time carefully crafting posts that cover the what and the why of my work, but I don’t go into the how and there’s a reason for that. If you still have questions after reading, by all means reach out and ask. But show me that you’ve done / are willing to do the work. I will gladly work with you and help guide you, I will arm you with the tools you need to do the work, but I won’t do it for you (this will be especially true once I’m set up to be able to offer classes). I am no longer in the business of giving quick and easy answers because it’s easier for you to ask than to do the digging. You need to be there, be engaged, be getting dirty in the trenches doing the work. I don’t mean for this to sound harsh, but as my wise friend Deb Englebaugh likes to remind me: I am not required to set myself on fire to keep others warm.

I have so much more to learn and explore in this medium, so many more ideas to uncover and polish (and so many duds to sift through and discard), so I’m going to keep showing up and doing the work. Do you like or admire what I do? Wish you could do it? You can (in your own way and with your own voice, of course). You just have to put in the work.

 

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How they’ll know we were here: Plastic, concrete, aluminum

I’m so very excited to be diving into a new series. It feels like a really nice way to start a new year and also to shift gears after ending my residency. Please don’t worry: the climate change series lives on! I’ll keep adding to it indefinitely—there’s certainly more than enough material to keep me going for…ever—but this generalist Jill-of-all-trades is feeling the need to branch out a bit and tackle some other, albeit related, issues.

And so, it gives me great pleasure to introduce you to my new series, “By Our Own Hands,” a series that will explore the Anthropocene from all its terrifying angles.

“We Were Here Now” (2018), 16″ x 22.5″ — mortar, concrete, plastic, metal, ceramic, red dog, coal, limestone, shale

What is the Anthropocene? In short, it’s the new geological age we find ourselves in and we only have ourselves to blame for this new era. Yep, humans have exerted so much influence on the climate and the environment that our impact is the defining feature of this new era. And no, this isn’t a “yay us, look what we’ve accomplished” sort of thing. More like an “oh shit, look what we’ve destroyed” sort of thing. As R put it: it’s an “epoch-alypse.” Ha! Clever girl.

Way to go, humans!

Now of course there’s scientific debate over exactly where the Anthropocene starts and the Holocene ends, debate over what marker denotes that official shift. (The frontrunner is 1945-ish, with radioactive elements from nuclear bomb detonations being the identifier.) But it’s really just a matter of time before scientists come to an agreement and make it officially official.

There are lots of hallmarks of this new geological age, and I’ll be drawing inspiration from many of them over the course of this series. For the first mosaic in the series, however, I decided to tackle one key characteristic of the Anthropocene: the mind-blowing scale at which we produce concrete, plastic, and aluminum, all three of which are now firmly rooted in the geological record. Centuries and millennia from now, anthropologists and geologists (if humans are still around) will find a layer of these materials—and many other things, collectively known as technofossils—as they dig into the earth. This is our legacy. And some legacy it is. Consider these sobering facts:

  • We have produced about 500 million tonnes of aluminum since the 19th century.
  • We have produced about 50 billion tonnes of concrete and more than half of this was in the last 20 years. That’s enough concrete to spread a kilogram of the stuff on every square metre of the planet.
  • We now produce about 500 million tonnes of plastic a year.

Plastic utensils and bread bag tags getting cosy with metal scrap and concrete

The mosaic is divided (roughly) into thirds. The bottom is just plain rock, a nod to geological eras gone by. The middle is moving closer to the present day, with hints of human influence showing up with the inclusion of small ribbons of plastic, layers of ceramic, and, perhaps the most dominant feature of this layer: seams of coal and red dog, the latter being a by-product of coal extraction (for extra credit, read Rachel Sager’s blog about red dog, which is actually a really spectacular material to work with). Together they speak to transformation and the impending transition.

sperling mosaic about anthropocene using limestome and shale

The bottom: shale (dark brown) and limestone (greys and black)

mosaic detail of anthropocene using red dog, coal, ceramic, and plastic

Ceramic, red dog, and coal (and a fork for good measure)

Then there’s the big disruption: a chaotic jumble of concrete, plastic, and metal (I exercised my artistic license and didn’t restrict myself to aluminum here). And after that, a field of mortar (drawing that link to concrete) and plastic. The careful viewer will note that, while the colours and materials themselves are arranged into horizontal layers, the lines of the mosaic—those rows of piece after piece after piece—actually run vertically. This is by design, to give the tangle of that unholy trinity something more to disrupt.

We interrupt this timeline…

Almost like plastic morse code…

The plastic details are some of my favourites. I didn’t really know what to expect when I started cutting up the plastic utensils, or even as I started incorporating them. But as I placed more and more of them into the mosaic, it became increasingly obvious that they looked almost like some sort of hierogyph. I love this. I like to think of it as a sort of message to the future. I’m not sure what it says… “Sorry we screwed everything up”? Probably not. It’s likely something more along the lines of “MORE EVERYTHING!”

A message to the future

The title, “We were here now,” is partly inspired by those plastic messages to the future; it’s a reference to our inescapable need to leave our mark, to say we were there, to satisfy our ego. Think scratched initials in a bathroom stall or on camp bunk beds or in the bark of trees, but on a much larger scale. This new geological layer proclaims just that: We were here. The past tense is intentional. Not we are here. Were. Continue down the path we’re on and we, as a collective, are not long for this world. The “now” is meant to disrupt, to make you pause over the disconnect between “now” and the use of the past tense, and, ultimately, convey how quickly everything is changing and how we can lose it all in the blink of an eye (geologically speaking).

I look forward to sharing many more cheery, uplifting facts and thoughts about the Anthropocene with you, so stay tuned! And now, I need a drink. Anyone else?

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A good start, but we’ve got a ways to go: Final Kitchener artist-in-residence project

Eight months, ten events, and 244 community-made mosaics later, I am thrilled to show you the fruits of our collective labour, Kitchener: “Baseline (We’re Just Getting Started).”

sperling community climate change mosaic for city of Kitchener artist in residence project

“Baseline (We’re Just Getting Started)” (2017), 3 panels 48″ x 36″ each — 244 community-made mosaics, onyx, quartz, limestone, marble, thinset tesserae

This triptych is the culmination of my tenure as the City of Kitchener’s 2017 Artist in Residence. As a refresher, my project was all about climate action. I chose four themes—general areas where people could take action—and made a mosaic about each one: energy, food, transportation, and stormwater. Then, at a series of events over the summer, I asked community members to make a small mosaic to contribute to this final piece, each one symbolizing one action they were committing to take to address climate change.

I am grateful for the warm reception this project got from the community and for the thoughtfulness that went into so many of the contributions. The diversity of actions that people committed to was inspiring.

I tried not to play favourites, but I think this is probably my favourite commitment: towing a kayak on a bike!

sperling community climate change mosaic for city of Kitchener artist in residence project (panel 1 of 3)

Panel 1 of 3

One thing that surprised me was that the contributions ended up being relatively evenly distributed across the four themes (though I think stormwater may have won by just a hair). I’m not entirely sure what to make of this, but I’d like to think that it could give local governments, non-profits, and businesses a bit of encouragement knowing that our community’s willingness to act is diverse and well-distributed. No matter what angle they want to attack climate change from, they will find community members who are receptive and who might also be willing to act as champions.

A few notes about the composition of the piece. First, the material outlining the “clouds” of actions is a mixture of quartz and onyx, both donated. The quartz was a contribution from a community member who had found it with his son when they were camping (and who hauled it all the way to my house on his bike!). I love that it has a history. The onyx was donated by Ten Thousand Villages and was large (and beautiful) lamps that had sadly been broken during shipping.

Second, there’s a lot of empty space and that’s for a reason. The actions that people committed to are a great start, but we need more. So I have left space for more action (figuratively speaking—I won’t be adding to these particular mosaics).

And third, you’ll see dots around the edges of the clouds. These are made from the leftover mortar from each event, which I diligently saved, layering and swirling the four colours together into pancakes to later chop up. I like to think of these dots as sort of nascent actions. With more than one colour in them, they’re undefined in terms of which theme they’ll eventually belong to, so they’re full of potential.

sperling community climate change mosaic for city of Kitchener artist in residence project (detail)

Wide open spaces and dots full of potential…

sperling community climate change mosaic for city of Kitchener artist in residence project (panel 2 of 3)

Panel 2 of 3

I’m not naive enough to think that this project has resulted in a huge (or even measurable) reduction in greenhouse gas emissions or a noticeable increase in climate resilience. I know that not everyone will follow through on their commitments, and I also know that there is a good contingent of mosaics in these pieces that were made simply for fun, because people just wanted to stick some rocks in colourful mortar (to put it very bluntly). This made me quite anxious at first, especially the latter, but as the summer progressed I came to accept it and see how it was actually part of the project’s strength. Let me explain…

One of the things we know about climate change communication is that facts don’t cut it. In fact, they have a tendency to make people dig their heels in even more. So what does work? Talking to people. Connecting with them through actual human conversations. Finding common ground and building on that. And often times doing it more than once. This is a tortoise’s game, not a hare’s. (You can watch the brilliant Katharine Hayhoe explain this all in this great video.)

What’s great about this project (both the process and the final result) is that it’s like an ongoing conversation, giving people multiple opportunities to engage. First they hear about the project and make a conscious decision to come to an event (or happen to wander by my booth and decide to stop). So the conversation starts. Then they choose what they’re going to commit to doing. Another interaction. After that, they actually make their contribution—a deeper, more personal interaction.

sperling community climate change mosaic for city of Kitchener artist in residence project (panel 3 of 3)

Panel 3 of 3

But the conversation doesn’t stop there! It picks up again once the piece is displayed in public. People come and find their contributions. Maybe it’s a reminder that they haven’t made good on their promise. Maybe they think “Yeah, I’m doing a great job with that. I wonder what else I could commit to!” Those who perhaps didn’t quite get it the first time around now see their piece in context—think “Oh that’s what this was all about!”—and are encouraged to take action. And those who didn’t have a chance to contribute also get drawn into the conversation for the first time. And this happens every time people see the mosaic, whether it’s for the first time or the fifteenth.

Conversations about climate change work. And art can be a powerful secret weapon, because it connects with people on an individual level. It’s like the artist and the viewer are having an intimate conversation (in this case, about climate change). And it’s not just a conversation between me and the viewer. It’s a conversation between me (as the creator of the mosaic writ large) but also between each individual contributor and the viewer. Hundreds of little mini-dialogues all happening at the same time, each one nudging the conversation forward.

I’ll end with this: Thank you, Kitchener. For your enthusiasm, your creativity, and your willingness to get your hands a bit dirty. It’s been a fantastic experience being your Artist in Residence this year and none of it would have been possible without your participation. I am humbled and thankful and looking forward to my next adventure. Stay tuned!

Thanks Kitchener! And just so you know fair is fair: I also made a commitment to cycle and walk more. We’ll see how I do!

 

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Connection, dialogue, and diversity: My alma mater in mosaic

I recently had the pleasure of creating a mosaic with alumni of the University of Waterloo’s Faculty of Environment (FES) during Reunion Weekend (which just happened to also be UW’s 60th anniversary). This mosaic will eventually hang in a newly revamped student space in the Environment buildings.

Does this angle make it look like we’re working hard? (Because we are!)

Showing Dean Jean Andrey how to get her hammer on!

I graduated (twice) from the faculty. First with my Bachelor of Environmental Studies and then with my Masters in Geography. I always knew there was something special about the faculty, something that resonated deeply with me. But the years since I graduated (and that’s a lot of years…) have really helped me clearly see and appreciate what exactly it is that makes this place so unique. And it was this exact reason that both inspired the design of this mosaic and that also made me so proud to be involved in this project.

To me, anything to do with the environment is necessarily about diversity, connections, complexity, and conversations. The Faculty of Environment has always embodied this quality—has always embraced multi-disciplinarity—and this is even more apparent in the innovative ways it has grown and evolved over the years. While I don’t recognize many of the programs that have sprouted up since I graduated, I do recognize that central driving philosophy: If we are to tackle any of the environmental challenges facing us, we need to come at them from all angles, using all the tricks and tools in our toolbox, embracing the complexity and uncertainty of it all.

“Simultaneously a part and a whole” (2017), 24″ x 36″ — rock, architectural glass samples, e-waste, planning model houses, Marcellus shale, graffiti paint layers, marbles, smalti, safety glass, cardboard globe, ceramic, toy airplane

The Big (smalti) Banana – official mascot of the faculty (don’t ask me why because I actually don’t know!)

So what does this mosaic have to do with that? Well, let’s start with the design. There are five lines, each one representing one of the current schools and departments within the faculty, but these lines are connected. And what are they connected with? Those layers of graffiti paint that I so adore—the same material that I used in my mosaic about the challenges of communicating about climate change—paired here with Marcellus shale as a reminder of the importance of open and honest dialogue (always more productive than flame wars on Twitter). Those two materials were my special contributions to this project. The faculty also put out a call for people to contribute special materials that represent FES to them. And they sure came through! They threw lots of interesting materials at me: I got architectural glass samples from when the newest Environment building was constructed, marbles (because Knowledge Integration students apparently build a lot of Rube Goldberg machines!), little wooden planning model houses, a cardboard globe, lots of outdated technology, stones from around the Environment buildings (and even from all the way up in Iqaluit thanks to one alumnus!), a beer stein (because beer?), a toy airplane (there’s an aviation program after all), and so much more. And of course I couldn’t resist making a little smalti banana (the official faculty mascot, which, come to think of it, I have no idea how the Big Banana came to be…).

Graffiti paint and shale having a little tête-à-tête in amongst the other materials

The title of the piece, “Simultaneously a part and a whole,” is a nod to the concept of holons and complexity theory, which came up time after time as I made my way through my studies. Just like a mosaic (see, it was natural that I should gravitate to mosaic!), each piece—whether it’s a species or a lake or a community or an economic sector—is important in and of itself, but is also connected to all the others. You can’t just change one thing and you can never know all the things (and yet you still have to act!) and sometimes the system, which you thought you had a handle on, just up and resets the game board. Gosh the challenge set out in front of us enviro-folk is tough. Thank goodness those smart FES cookies are making sure we’re up to the challenge!

It’s a rock, it’s a plane, it’s…!

Close-up of some of the great materials, including that orange rock (with lichen still attached!) all the way from Iqaluit

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