Author Archive | Julie Sperling

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.

2

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.

 

16

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?

4

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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The Fishers of Men: A mosaic adventure in trust, place, dialogue, and balance

I have just returned from what will likely prove to be one of the most important and formative experiences in my mosaic career. I was fortunate enough to be invited to be part of a five-woman team with the daunting yet exciting challenge of creating a significant mosaic presence to be incorporated into a meditation / sacred space or sanctuary (not really sure what the official term is) in what felt like an enchanted forest in Cong, Ireland.

Cong Woods. You really couldn’t pick a dreamier outdoor studio location.

Before delving into the experience of it all (which is what is most significant, in my opinion), let’s get the boilerplate details out of the way.

What: A site-specific sacred space (official title: “The Fishers of Men”) built out of stone, steel, and glass as a tribute to / meditation on both pagan and Christian traditions. (For a short 360o video of the interior, go here.)

Where: Cong Woods (Cong, Ireland), surrounded by towering moss- and ivy-covered trees where the sounds of the river and the wind meet.

Who (structure): Designed by US architect Travis Price and a group of students from Catholic University of America (and a few other institutions) as part of a growing body of “Spirit of Place” installations, built by those same students alongside a small but mighty crew of Irish tradesmen.

The structure in varying states of (in)completeness

Who (mosaic): An incredibly high-functioning, well-balanced team of five kick-ass mosaic artists (Rachel Sager, Meghan Walsh, Deb Englebaugh, Lee-Ann Taylor, and me). Rachel Sager picked the team and did a phenomenal job. Seriously, we had all the personalities and skills we needed in spades: we had enablers, advocates, organizers, big-picture thinkers, detail-oriented people, work horses, quality assurers, troubleshooters, entertainers, those who could work in glass, those who lived for stone, and every other strength you can imagine. The fact that we spent 12 hours a day working together (and then more time together after hours) for 9 days straight and are still friends speaks volumes.

When: 9 long days in July 2017

Why: Because we’re crazy. Ha, kidding. But really, that’s a bigger question, and for the answer (and other excellent musings) I will direct you to Rachel Sager’s beautiful blog post about the whole undertaking.

For those who want to nerd out over the more technical mosaic details: The mosaics were designed to be an integral part of the structure from the start; they were not merely add-ons, decoration, or an after-thought. All bands running around the inner perimeter of the structure (312 individual pieces, to be exact) were made on mesh and then installed during the 9 days, with an additional 78 individual mosaics made in place in the lowest and narrowest band. They were made from US stained glass (Youghiogheny Glass), Irish limestone and sandstone, Pennsylvania and Ontario limestone, a few plates sourced from local Cong establishments, and a small amount of smalti—all cut by hand on site. The concept was to move from dark to light as your eye moves up toward the ceiling, mimicking an emerging from the depths. (Again, Rachel’s blog post has a much better and more in-depth description of all of this.) Below are a few process shots (click to embiggen).

The group of 6: Abby Dos Santos (our newest convert), Lee-Ann Taylor, Meghan Walsh, Julie Sperling, Rachel Sager, Deb Englebaugh

The heart of it all: The emergence of a shared mosaic language

So those are the facts, but there’s a story here that I think is even more interesting, and that’s how five very different mosaic artists came together to create a cohesive product, pretty much on the fly. Naturally we all “speak mosaic”, but we have our own styles, our own andamenti, our own personal dialects, that we needed to merge into a shared language.

At the start of the trip, I jokingly termed our yet-to-be-created collective language “congdamento,” but a few days in I realized that it wasn’t actually a joke. We really were creating congdamento: a specific andamento created by the navigation and convergence of five different styles of mosaic in response to each other, our materials, and our surroundings. Congdamento is both a thing and an action. It is a thing in that it is the product of our work (it’s the lines we built; it’s what you see). But it is also an action in that it is the act or process of negotiating and creating that shared mosaic language, which has a hugely performative aspect (like a dance or improv of any kind) and also a major social aspect (it is all about relationships). Because of this dual nature, congdamento exists in a specific place and a specific moment in time and will never be repeated or recreated. No single one of us could reproduce congdamento, and I would also argue that you could even get the five of us together again, but it would inevitably be under different circumstances (a different place, different materials, different points in our artistic and/or life journeys). Although we would certainly be able to create a shared language again, it would not be congdamento.

Congdamento: a specific andamento created by the navigation and convergence of five different styles of mosaic in response to each other, our materials, and our surroundings

The crew hard at work (clockwise from front left: Deb Englebaugh, me, Lee-Ann Taylor, Meghan Walsh, Rachel Sager)
Photo credit: Abby Dos Santos

So let’s focus on congdamento as an action—a dance, maybe?—since that’s really what makes this so incredibly unique. The starting place for this dialogue and dance was a few ground rules (size range of tesserae, ratio of stone to glass in each band, etc.), though those faded into the background as we became immersed in our making. To help us blend our styles, we decided to set a timer—45 minutes—and rotate the pieces we were working on, so it was rare that one person ever completed a whole section. This involved a huge element of trust.

We had to trust that the artist before us would leave us with something interesting to riff off of and that we would be able to do the same for the person following us. We had to trust that we would do justice to what had been started and that what we had started would be respected, listened to, and made better. Trust and letting go, those were constants.

A “cityscape” made of eramosa marble by Rachel Sager that I got the pleasure of playing with

We also really had to trust that our instincts would kick in and that we could listen to our guts more than our brains, which was a very big shift for many of us, but absolutely essential when working so quickly and also so collaboratively. I think it’s easier for gut feelings to converge than it is for things that have been over-thought or second-guessed. It is really comforting to know that those fundamental skills and instincts are solidly there to fall back on and that even at our most rushed and exhausted, we can still produce good work. One of our keywords for the whole endeavour was “ish”, meaning that things didn’t have to be perfect or to the same exacting standards to which we all hold ourselves in our respective studio practices. This was not studio andamento, this was congdamento and congdamento was heavy on the “ish”. The pace, scale, and collaborative nature of the project demanded it. With respect to the latter, I believe it’s much easier to blend a Julie-ish andamento into the mix than it is to blend a pure Julie andamento. Embracing that “ish” was quite freeing and I’m actually hoping that this approach will filter its way, in some form, into my studio practice.

We also had to be open and responsive. Open to possibility and to different ways of doing things and responsive to what came before us (mosaic), what surrounded us (place), and what was at hand (materials). Being open and responsive is probably where so much of the learning, at least for me, came from. I consider it a great privilege to have been able to observe how my teammates were working—to get inside their heads a little, see how they approach their work, and interact so intimately with their andamento—and I know that even though I can’t quite articulate it right now, this will influence my own work going forward.

That yellow line is one of the few where I can definitively say “I did that!!”

The further we got into the project, the more fluent we became in the language we were collectively creating, and the easier it was to let go and also the harder it was to go back and identify your own work. Sometimes it was easy if you had used a particular material in a particular way or had included a single special tessera. There are definitely parts where I can say unequivocally, “I did that!” But there are far more instances where it’s more like “Did I do that…?” or, even closer to the truth, “We did that!!” Being unable to definitively say whether or not I made something was an unusual experience, especially for mosaicists, whose artistic identity is so rooted in our own personal pathways of expression.

WE did that!!!

Congdamento involved striking a balance between the self and the collective. We all allowed ourselves moments of getting lost in our own andamento, of lingering in the sheer pleasure of a line or two, of letting our identities shine through just a wee bit. That was necessary to keep our sanity. But it was also about checking your ego and blending in. There is a certain generosity and selflessness that is inherent in something like congdamento.

Just look at that beautiful curl of Youghiogheny glass!

I really had no idea what I was getting myself into when I signed up for this adventure. Even at the airport, I still didn’t fully grasp what I was about to do. Yes, it was difficult both mentally and physically and was certainly an exercise in endurance and resilience, but I expected that part. I actually joked with R that I would be coming home broken in body and maybe spirit. Lee-Ann, the wise one of our group, turned this on its head and said, “We’re not coming home broken, we’re coming home broken open.” Writing this blog post has helped me realize just how true that is. When you consider everything that went into the project—the trust, the openness, the generosity, the push and pull, the observation—and the beautiful dialogue and dance that created our shared language (that singular andamento experience anchored in place and time), you realize just how powerful this experience was. How could this not leave its mark on me? How could it not break me open? I don’t know what the result of this being broken open will be, but I have faith that it will be good and that it will have been one of the biggest gifts that I could have given to my artistic self and that I could have received from those with whom I shared this experience.

An intense feeling of satisfaction seeing it all done

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How does your (rain) garden grow? A mosaic about really green infrastructure

You might recall that climate change is going to mess with precipitation trends (I made a mosaic about it a while back) and, as a result, some areas of the world will experience more intense downpours. In cities, which tend to be covered with a high percentage of impermeable surfaces (think roads, rooftops, parking lots, etc.), this water can’t soak in, so we have to direct it somewhere using man-made solutions, like storm sewers. When our storm sewers get overwhelmed by a big rainfall event, we can end up with flooding in our streets and our basements.

As these downpours become more intense and cities continue to expand (thereby increasing the surface area covered by concrete, asphalt, and the like), local officials are finding that they’re having to deal with increasing stormwater runoff. One option is to build bigger and bigger storm sewers, but that sort of hard infrastructure can get pretty expensive and you’ll always be playing catch-up as the climate continues to change. A better (and complementary) option is to manage the rain where it falls. Slow it down. Let it soak in. And what’s naturally built to do that? Plants are! Leaves slow down the falling rain, while roots and the soil let it soak in. Not only does this help redirect water away from our storm sewers and avoid overburdening them, but it also helps recharge our groundwater.

julie sperling mosaic about rain gardens green infrastructure bioswale

“Bioswale (Slow it down, soak it up)” (2017) 20″ x 18″ approx. — asphalt, limestone, sandstone, marble, litovi, smalti

Back when I worked on adaptation (which seems like ages ago but in reality was less than a year ago), I had a huge crush on green infrastructure. It just makes sense: it’s cheaper, it comes with a whole bundle of co-benefits, and it actually gets stronger / appreciates with age. Now, when I say “green infrastructure” I’m talking about really green infrastructure (natural infrastructure), like trees and plants and things, not “green infrastructure” the way the current federal government is using the term (to mean environmentally beneficial infrastructure, like public transit or energy efficient housing). Not that there’s anything wrong with the latter definition, I just find coopting an already-established term a bit…confusing. Anyway, we’re talking plants here and using them to solve a problem we’ve created by letting them just do what they do.

There are lots of ways to team up with nature to deal with climate change impacts, like extreme precipitation, heatwaves, and drought, as well as reaping other benefits, like expanding wildlife habitat, creating recreation opportunities, improving air quality, etc. But the specific focus of this mosaic was how rain gardens (and bioswales, which are kind of just big rain gardens but with a much cooler sounding name) can help deal with extreme precipitation.

Rain gardens are pretty much what you think they are: gardens designed to soak up rain. They’re typically located in lower-lying spots / depressions in your yard where the rain would tend to pool naturally and/or in line with your downspout so they can catch the water coming off your roof (rain barrels are also good for this). You can dig the area out and add soil or other filler that will allow it to better soak up the rainwater like a sponge, and then you add plants that are water-loving. It’s as easy as that! (The City of Guelph has a good little primer / guide here.)

Water swirling around and around…

In this mosaic, these low-lying areas—prime candidates for rain gardens—are represented through an undulating surface full of swells and valleys. The lines swirl away from the asphalt sections at the tops of the undulations (where the water can’t soak in), running downhill and getting greener and wetter as you move toward the pools at the bottoms of the depressions.

A better look at the asphalt (which was NOT fun to work with)

In the KW area, if you’re looking for help with this sort of undertaking, check out REEP Green Solutions. They offer information and workshops on building your own rain garden and on other green living solutions. They’re a fantastic local resource and you can actually see many sustainable solutions in action at the REEP House for Sustainable Living. And, if you live in Kitchener or Waterloo (and a growing number of other municipalities), you can even reduce the stormwater charge you pay to the city if you install a rain garden (or other stormwater management features).

In short: rain gardens look pretty, help your community deal with stormwater (including keeping your basement dry), and save you money. Not a bad deal!

Looking out across the rain gardens, with glints of gold smalti catching the sun

A close-up of some of the smaller pools

Mmmmmm topography

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