These boots: A personal mosaic geography of life on foot in Ottawa

I have gone the vast majority—we’re talking 98% majority—of my life without owning a car. I loved our car-free lifestyle, and it was a bit of a source of pride. But when we moved from Ottawa to Kitchener, we finally had to cave and buy our first car, since Kitchener, as a whole, is far more car-centric than Ottawa.

Year 1 of car ownership has been a bit of a difficult transition for me. Walking used to be my primary mode of transportation, with public transit, biking, and car sharing also thrown in for good measure. On any given weekday, my feet would carry me a minimum of 6 kilometres from home to the office and back. That’s at least 30 km per week, 120 km per month, and well over 1,000 km per year.

I walked in the glaring sun, the pouring rain, and the bitter cold. Walking the same path day after day, I got to know my landscape, my Place, intimately. I also got time to think. Walking for me is meditative and, as an introvert, is one of my favourite ways to recharge. It also doesn’t hurt that I stumble upon some pretty neat mosaic materials when walking.

I now telework and my commute is much shorter. Just the 14 stairs from the bedroom down to the office. I still get to walk the dog, but he’s gotten older and isn’t as spry, so the walks are slower and we don’t range as far afield anymore. And then there’s this confession: it is SO easy to fall into the trap of driving everywhere.

I’ve noticed a difference in myself, in both my fitness (no more exercise built into my daily routine by default) and in my mental state (no more automatic recharge and quietening of the mind while walking). So I’ve decided to work on rectifying the situation. Since I’m asking Kitchener residents to commit to taking one action to address climate change and then make a mosaic about it for my project, I figured I should lead by example. So one of my personal commitments is to walk/bike more (really, to drive less).

This will, of course, help reduce my carbon footprint significantly, especially given that nearly one quarter (24%) of Canada’s GHG emissions come from transportation. The transportation sector is second only to the oil and gas sector (*cough* tar sands *cough*) in terms of total emissions nationally. And here in Waterloo Region, it’s actually Number One. So there’s a lot of room for improvement. I can certainly do my part.

This mosaic is actually a map of my walking routes from my last few years in Ottawa, with some of the most important places marked: home, work (x2), the grocery store, the gym, the bus station (for those weekend trips to Montreal to visit R), the graffiti wall (one of my favourite foraging places in Ottawa), and, of course, Parliament Hill.

“The paths most travelled” (2017), 26.5″ x 24.25″ — Redback boot (right), Bogs boot (left), cement, shale, limestone

To build the map, I used urban-sourced materials, like cement, my favourite black limestone from Ottawa, and bits of stone that had flaked off a landscaping rock around the corner from our apartment. I also used my own boots, which I had worn out completely walking these and other paths.

The boots before they went under the knife…

The Bogs kept my feet toasty warm on those frigid winter walks, even when the temperature dipped below -40oC. They began and ended their life on the paths in this mosaic map. I wore them until they had a hole in the sole and water started seeping in (and even then, I put a bag on my foot to get a few more kilometres out of them!). Yes, they were good boots.

A close-up of one of the place markers, which are actually rolled-up strips of the pull tabs from the Redbacks

The Redbacks never actually set foot on these paths, having been retired years before but kept for sentimental reasons (I had bought them when on exchange in Australia in my undergrad and they had a special place in my heart). They saw me through lots of adventures, including my weekend at Touchstone, which is actually probably one of the very last times I wore them. I get a kick out of knowing that these boots, which had travelled so many paths, were there when I took my first tentative steps toward “walking the line” (as Rachel Sager would say) in the Pennsylvania countryside. I could think of no better send-off for both of these boots than to be immortalized in mosaic.

Here’s home base (the place marker on the upper right)

Rubber, stone, and even leather!

I’ve written before about the connection that I see between walking and mosaic, about the “parallels between what I experience when I’m moving through my landscape on foot and what I experience when I’m simultaneously creating and discovering the pathways of my own mosaics.” But this piece, where walking and mosaic came together completely, was one of the purest forms of line-building I’ve ever experienced in my years of working in mosaic. I don’t think that’s a coincidence.

The pure joy of line-building

Making this mosaic was a reminder: of all the places these boots have been, of my time in Ottawa, of the joys of walking, and of the fact that I can (and need to) do better to fight the pull of the car.

Looking out across the map, towards Gatineau

Made in Aust(ralia)

 

9

Third time’s the charm: Finding my place in the SAMA community

Each time I go to SAMA (the annual gathering of the mosaic tribe, for you non-mosaic readers), it gets a bit easier. The first year I just soaked it all in and came away excited, overwhelmed, and exhausted. The second year I knew more people, some people actually knew of me, and I even got to show “Dialogue” in MAI. And again I came away excited, overwhelmed, and exhausted. This year—my third SAMA—I got to give a talk at the Cafe Evening and show “(More than) Enough” in MAI. And this year I only came away excited and exhausted! That overwhelmed feeling magically disappeared, and I think it’s because I finally feel like I’ve found my place in this crazy, diverse, supportive, and talented creative community.

A VERY unexpected standing ovation at the end of my talk didn’t hurt, of course

I am very lucky to have had the opportunity to stand up on that stage and tell my colleagues and peers about my climate change work—why I do what I do, how I navigate the choices I have to make, why I think this kind of work is important, and what I’ve learned along the way. More than anything else, talking about my work in this way really helped me feel like I had found my niche within my community and somehow gave me a feeling of legitimacy (weird, I know, but that’s how it felt).

Listening intently to questions, hoping I can answer them

I’m grateful to have had such a wonderful, warm, and receptive audience. It certainly helped (a bit) with the nerves, which I was definitely having trouble keeping in check, but it was more than that. People set aside their skepticism and apprehensions about my subject and came with an open mind, and I appreciated that. (I know this because I had more than one person come up to me and tell me as much afterwards.) When I was writing my talk, I was very conscious about trying to set the right tone—one that would encourage dialogue and not alienate people—and I’m glad that I appear to have succeeded in that respect. People also asked great questions and made thoughtful comments, both in the Q&A session and also throughout the rest of the conference. I am eager to continue this conversation, so please feel free to reach out if you have thoughts or questions or just want to bat ideas around. I’m always on the hunt for co-conspirators!

The snail-ISH thing I carved

After surviving my talk, I got to unwind and have fun (and get dirty!) in Sherri Warner Hunter‘s concrete and styrofoam class. I went in thinking I would sculpt something abstract, because (1) I can’t draw to save my life and (2) I plan on doing abstract things with what I learned. When I told Sherri this, she said, in the loveliest way possible, that that was fine, as long as I realized that she couldn’t really help me execute it since only I knew what it looked like in my head (versus doing, say, a fish, where she would be able to help me figure out where to cut). Reluctant to waste this learning opportunity, I threw caution to the wind, stepped outside my comfort zone, and made a snail-ISH thing. And yes, I know it has a short neck/head, thankyouverymuch. Playing with all the different tools was a blast, meshing was the bane of my existence (as usual), and I’m super excited to apply what I learned in my climate series in the very near future. Side note: Sherri is a fantastic instructor and you shouldn’t hesitate for even one second to sign up for a class with her. I still have dreams of travelling to Bell Buckle, TN, to take her concrete bootcamp.

Other than that, it was all the usual SAMA awesomeness: visiting and talking shop with friends old and new; listening to thought-provoking, entertaining, and inspiring presentations (with the added fun of having my mosaic feet included in Rachel Sager‘s Ruins presentation); getting up close and personal with amazing mosaic art in the MAI exhibition; buying fun tools and yummy supplies at the vendor market; getting swept up in the insanity of the Mosaic Art Salon silent auction; and road-tripping there and back with Sophie Drouin, mosaic force of nature and fellow Kitchener resident (watch out, world, we’re scheming…).

Left: Absolutely THRILLED to have been the winning bidder on Kelley Knickerbocker’s salon piece
Right: Tami Zweig Macala, the happy winner of the bidding war on my salon piece (and me the happy seller!)

I’m really excited for future conferences now that I’ve hit my stride, found my place, and ditched the feeling of overwhelmedness. All is right with the world… And now, back to work.

Proud to be able to show “(More than) Enough” as part of MAI 2017

4

Right-size your life, reduce your climate footprint: A mosaic about how size matters

Once upon a time, I made a mosaic about the idea of having “enough” as part of my Fiddling While Rome Burns climate change series. I decided I was going to use one rock and only one rock (and every last scrap of it) to prove that it could be enough. Well, we all know how that turned out: I had too much.

Since that piece—(More than) Enoughis being shown in this year’s Mosaic Arts International exhibition in Detroit, I thought it would be appropriate to make my piece for the Mosaic Art Salon (a silent auction during the annual conference) in the same vein.

Swoon-worthy mookaite, pre-chopping

I chose a beautiful piece of mookaite courtesy of Marian Shapiro that had been sitting on my shelf since last year’s conference, knowing that this would be the right way to do justice to this gorgeous material. One of the reasons I love this “enough” approach to making a mosaic is that it really allows you to celebrate the material and its unique personality. For instance, the mookaite cut very differently compared to the limestone that I used for (More than) Enough—it was so much more irregular, which definitely forced me out of my comfort zone.

“Enough (Size matters)” (2017), 12″ x 12″ — one single piece of mookaite

The substrate was too big for the size of the mookaite. I knew this from the start. By the title, Enough (Size matters), you might think that this is a commentary on the rock being too small. You would be wrong. This is about the substrate being too large. It is about resisting the urge to fill the space with stuff for stuff’s sake. It’s about looking at your lifestyle and evaluating what’s really necessary to meet your needs. Do you have three extra bedrooms because the kids have left home and now you’re empty-nesters? Does each adult in the house really need his or her own SUV just to go to the office and back? Do you really need to buy another pair of shoes just because there’s still room in your closet? This about making sure your stuff, broadly speaking, is the right size for your life. Those offering advice on weight loss often tell us to use smaller plates and bowls to help control portion size. It’s a nifty mind trick, and it also works with consumption in general.

So, this mosaic’s message in a nutshell: use quality things, use them to their best and fullest, embrace minimalism and the space to breathe, relish what you have rather than fixate on what you lack, and, if you can, downsize where it makes sense.  It’s as simple as that and the climate will thank you for it.

Quite possibly my favourite pair of tesserae in the whole piece. Look at those triangles!

Cropped to the ‘right size’… ;-)

3

You emit what you eat: A mosaic about food choices and climate change

This is not a mosaic about cow farts. I mean, sure, that’s part of it, but the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that result from our food choices are far more complex than just some passed gas. There are all sorts of ways to reduce the climate impact of our eating habits, but this mosaic focuses on meat consumption. Please rest assured: I am not trying to pry your steaks out of your cold dead hands. I am not saying it’s vegan or bust. I am simply advocating for moderation. For a wee bit of restraint.

There are GHG emissions associated with everything we eat, from lentils to sirloin to apple pie. More than one quarter of the world’s emissions come from our food system—growing and harvesting the food, transporting and storing it, processing it, and then disposing of it—and about 80% of these emissions come from raising livestock. Among the biggest culprits is red meat: on a serving-to-serving basis, beef has a carbon footprint 6 times larger than poultry (though cheese is also pretty emissions-intensive). Essentially, the higher up on the food chain you eat, the more you emit. Of course, there are all sorts of qualifiers, like how your meat is raised (e.g., factory farm vs. small-scale pastured), how far it travels, how much of it you eat, and yes, how much it farts, but the simple fact remains: when it comes to meat, it takes calories to make calories. And as those calories move up the food chain, there is always waste. There is never a perfect transfer of energy from grain to animal to our plates—animals “waste” energy by doing animal things like frolicking in the pasture (if they’re lucky enough to live in one and not in a feedlot).

Emissions from food are projected to increase as consumption rises and as more people adopt a more meat-based diet. But opportunities abound to reduce food-related emissions. A 2016 study estimated the emission reductions possible under four different scenarios: (1) business as usual, (2) most people abstain from red meat and poultry, (3) most go vegan, and (4) people follow food guidelines set out by the World Health Organization and eat only the calories they require, focusing on fruits and vegetables and small portions of meat. If everyone just followed those sensible food guidelines, emissions in 2050 would be 29% lower. If they skipped the red meat and poultry, the decrease would be 55%, and it would be a whopping 70% if we all went vegan.

But like I said at the beginning, I’m not going to take a hardcore stance and insist that we all become vegans. Heck, I’m not even a vegan. I’m not even 100% vegetarian! I guess I’d call myself a flexitarian, but I “flex” only very occasionally, and generally only for “happy meat” (meat that’s been raised sustainably). To me, Michael Pollan said it best when he said: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

Julie Sperling mosaic about climate change and meat consumption

“Pollan’s Rule (Mostly Plants)” (2017), 20.25″ x 15.25″ — bones, shale, dishes, gold smalti

This mosaic is about the third part of that quote. The bones were sourced from meat-eating friends. Before they made their way to me, they were used to make beef and turkey stock, a rack of lamb, pork chops, and even chicken wings. Here you’ll see them surrounded by shale as a nod to the emissions associated with them. And it’s important to note that on the central “plate” there are still bones, just not all that many. Like I (well, Pollan) said, mostly plants.

There is something fascinating and beautiful but oddly unsettling and a bit macabre about the bones. In this context, they are thoughtfully used and treated with respect, which is basically how we should treat the meat in our diet: with care and reverence.

Julie Sperling mosaic about climate change and meat consumption -detail of bone

Oooooh! Eeewww!

The dishes that make up the rest of the mosaic were ours. Two plates from our university days, a favourite mug that took an unfortunate tumble in the dishwasher, and a chipped creamer that we finally replaced. It was important to me to use our dishes. They represent various points in our lives, dietarily speaking. They represent the progress we’ve made. They were with us when we phased out most of the meat in our diet. They were with us as we gradually became more and more committed to buying local and organic and cooking our food from scratch (as Pollan would say, “Eat food.”). They were there when I quit taking milk in my coffee, cold turkey. Over the years, our diets have become much more climate friendly, which we feel pretty darn good about.

Julie Sperling mosaic about climate change and meat consumption -detail

Cherished dishes that have seen our eating habits change, now being used in a mosaic that will hopefully inspire others to make a change

I’m not asking you to become a vegan overnight. Just to cut back a bit. Try Meatless Mondays. Commit to buying “happy meat”. Treat meat as a side dish, not the star attraction. And gosh darn it, eat some lentils.

Julie Sperling mosaic about climate change and meat consumption - angle detail

2

Powering change: Energy production and consumption as seen through mosaic

Energy is, in large part, what got us into this climate change mess in the first place. The burning of fossil fuels like coal, natural gas, and oil has not been kind to the climate. So naturally, changing how we produce and consume energy—shifting to sustainable energy sources and reducing our consumption—will be an important part of taking action to reduce our climate footprint.

Let me be clear: when I’m talking about green or sustainable energy, I am not talking about things like “clean coal” (which is total greenwashing) or fracked natural gas (as much as some would like to tout this as a ‘transition fuel’ and celebrate its contribution to energy independence). No, when I talk about green energy, I am talking about truly renewable forms, like solar, wind, tidal, hydro (but more in the realm of micro-hydro and run-of-river than large-scale hydro), geothermal, and, in some cases, biomass. Yes, these all have an environmental footprint, as (fossil fuel industry–funded) opponents are fond of pointing out. There are impacts associated with the sourcing materials (e.g., mining) and production, with its transportation and construction, operation (e.g., impacts on wildlife like birds and bats), maintenance, and decommissioning. But anything we do—any form of energy we produce—has an environmental footprint, and the environmental footprint of renewable forms of energy is substantially smaller than that of fossil fuel energy. Of course, the greenest form of energy is the energy we don’t use at all and therefore don’t have to produce in the first place, also known as negawatts (‘negative megawatts’—a term coined by Amory Lovins in the 1980s).

Mosaic about renewable energy by Julie Sperling

“Power dynamic (Renewable production, mindful consumption)” (2017), 22″ x 11″ — marble, litovi, smalti, knob and tube, solar panel, shell, shale, limestone, sandstone, ceramic, miscellaneous stone

This mosaic tackles both renewable energy and sustainable consumption. Starting at the top, there is wind power, complete with clouds made of broken tubes from old knob and tube wiring (which were found in my dad’s garage, of course). Next up is solar power in the form of shiny rays of gold smalti. After that is all water-related forms of energy, but note that there’s lots of motion in the water (thanks to some waves made out of some really amazing shells)—no large problematic dams and reservoirs here!

Wind power and solar power detail of mosaic about renewable energy by Julie Sperling

Knob and tube clouds and golden sunny rays! (Plus negawatts. They’re everywhere!)

Mosaic about renewable energy (tidal and hydro section) by Julie Sperling

The sweetest little pebble stuck in a piece of shell in the water section

Sitting on the ground, there are solar panels ready to catch the sun’s rays above. These were originally part of solar-powered plastic flowers that decorated my grandma’s planter box, but when they broke I scooped them up rather than send them to the landfill. Around the solar panels is a layer of biomass, which, if done properly, is another source of green power (‘properly’ meaning not displacing food production or leading to deforestation, among other factors).

mosaic about renewable energy by Julie Sperling (solar, conservation, biomass, tidal, hydro)

Some negawatts mixed into the biomass section

Mosaic about renewable energy by Julie Sperling (solar, tidal, hydro, biomass)

Water, solar, and biomass. Check, check, and check!

And finally, down into the earth for geothermal energy, with hints of the heated groundwater that will be tapped into to produce energy. And we can’t forget the negawatts! You’ll see small sections throughout the mosaic where there are just the impressions left by missing pieces. If we consider each individual piece in this mosaic as a megawatt (a unit of power), then those missing pieces are the negawatts: integrated throughout and an essential part of a comprehensive energy strategy.

Mosaic about renewable energy (geothermal detail) by Julie Sperling

The geothermal portion — the heat from the earth’s core and the hot water that will be tapped into

Energy is a really easy area to take action on. You can buy green energy, you can install solar panels on your home, and you can also make your home more energy efficient through renovations (e.g., putting in extra insulation, sealing cracks, planting shade trees, etc.), technology upgrades (e.g., installing a smart thermostat, getting rid of that inefficient beer fridge), and behavioural changes (e.g., hanging your clothes to dry, turning off lights when they’re not in use, putting on a sweater and keeping your house a little cooler in the winter). There are usually incentive programs around to encourage you to implement these actions, so check with your local utility company or various levels of government. The nice thing about reducing your energy consumption is that it usually saves you money in addition to helping you feel very virtuous. Bonus!

And with that, I’m off to my renewable energy–powered studio to create my next climate change mosaic…

Mosaic about renewable energy by Julie Sperling

Parting shot of “Power dynamic”

0

Art, engagement, action: Connecting with the community, creating change

I am beyond thrilled to finally be able to tell you that I have been selected as the City of Kitchener’s Artist in Residence for 2017 (media release here). I’ve known for a few months now, but it has only recently been approved by city council, so now it is officially official.

This is the first time we have a mosaic artist as our artist in residence. We’re thrilled Sperling will bring the community together to open a discussion about an important topic that touches all citizens who can get involved and share their efforts through visually stunning mosaic art.

Silvia DiDonato, manager, arts and creative industries

Through my art, I will be engaging Kitchener residents in a dialogue about concrete actions they can take on the path to sustainability. To start, I’ll be creating a few mosaics to spark this dialogue. The themes I’m planning to tackle are energy, food, transportation, and natural stormwater management (or perhaps just green space more generally).

Then it’ll be time to engage the community. This is perhaps what I’m most excited about, as it’s an opportunity to connect my art more directly with advocacy and action. So, using these mosaics as a backdrop, and in collaboration with municipal departments and community partners, I’ll be running a series of workshops where Kitchener residents can come learn about environmental solutions through art and conversation. Participants will also have the opportunity to make a small mosaic symbolizing their commitment to taking one practical action (in one of the four theme areas) to reduce their environmental footprint.

The final piece of the puzzle will be to use these small community-made mosaics to create a larger mosaic symbolizing Kitchener’s collective commitment to taking environmental action. The mosaics created over the course of the residency will be on display in Kitchener City Hall during two exhibitions: an interim show in August and a final show in December.

So, if you live in the Kitchener area, stay tuned over the next couple of months. I’ll be reporting on my progress and announcing events and workshops here on my website and on my social media channels. I’d love to see you there!

julie sperling kitchener artist in residence

Who’s excited to be Artist in Residence? This gal!!!

4

My new workshop: A space full of love, history, and good energy

I made my first mosaic crouched on my brother’s old twin bed in his childhood room after he’d gone off to culinary school. My next few mosaics were made on my living room floor. Then I upgraded to a little nook in our kitchen, then a table (and shelf!) in our entryway. With each new apartment came a slightly better work space. Never a room to myself, but always at least a small corner to call my own. None of these spaces were ours for keeps—we always knew we’d move on in a few years—so I never wanted to invest (either money or soul) in making my work space a sacred space. It was functional and that was pretty much all.

With this recent move from Ottawa to Kitchener, I feel like I’ve won the lottery in terms of work space (regardless of the fact that the bar is set pretty low). We bought our first house and we’re here to stay. Finally, we can put down roots and I feel like I can get attached to my studio and make it my own. The previous owner of our house was a handyman, so there was already a small workshop in the basement. It has four walls, a door, and a small window, which all seems like such a luxury after years spent camped out on floors and in nooks and hallways.

My sacred space (complete with extra room for future hammer acquisitions)

My sacred space (complete with extra room for future hammer acquisitions)

My new studio is a patchwork of items of various origins, many of which come with their own backstory. Although I did haul a lot of what was there before off to the dump, some of it was salvageable. I kept the pegboard and the unsightly wood panelling, as well as one set of shelves, although I spruced all of this up with a few coats of fresh paint. I like that keeping these items maintains a link to the space’s past.

My dad, handyman extraordinaire, played a huge role in shaping my studio. My beautiful work tables—the heart of the room—are a product of his talent (and his predilection for salvaging things “just in case” they could be useful…I truly come by my foraging ways honestly). They’re made completely out of salvaged wood from three different sources:

  1. Tops: pine from old window frames from my parents’ house. (Some are from my childhood bedroom and have the remnants of gold paint on them—a relic of my sun and moon phase. Those of you who came of age in the 90s will understand.)
  2. Bases: cedar from the deck that was at my aunt and uncle’s cottage when they bought it. They ripped it out and it was all destined for the dump until my dad decided to save the pieces that were still good and store them in his garage for the next 15 to 20 years, “just in case”.
  3. Bottom shelves: cabinets from my parents’ kitchen, which my dad originally made, then salvaged, then brilliantly repurposed for my studio.
The heart of the workshop: the tables. And you can see I'm already filling up the shelves below...

The heart of the workshop: the tables. And you can see I’m already filling up the shelves below…

When I varnished the table tops, I didn’t erase the pencil marks my dad had left while he was making them. They’re a testament to the love and skill that went into making these tables.

There are other bits of history in this room, which I adore. The clock on the wall was in my maternal grandma’s kitchen when my mom was growing up, and the green stool was in my paternal grandma’s kitchen when my dad was growing up. The tool holder was (again) courtesy of my dad. I asked him if he had any PVC pipe “in stock” (which is code for “squirrelled away in the garage”) and he came back with something even better. The pictures tacked up on the naked ceiling beams and the back of the shelf once adorned my office cube walls, and were originally pages from a homemade calendar. The tea tins holding the plants on my windowsill are from a lovely day spent with friends at a community garage sale outside of Ottawa. There are also words of encouragement from colleagues, fun tokens of affection from fellow mosaicists, and, of course, the mosaic I made in the class that changed my life, there as a reminder of where I started and how far I’ve come. Oh, and there’s a big empty space on the pegboard for all the hammers I have yet to acquire.

My new space might be small, and my studio mate might be a water heater, but it is all mine. It is filled with love, with history, and with good energy, and I grin ear to ear every time I open the door. It is a sanctuary and it already feels sacred to me. I am very excited to make meaningful art in this space. I will do good things here. I promise.

 

2

An (im)permanent goodbye to Ottawa

I’ve lived in Ottawa for nearly ten years. I came for work—government, obviously—and am now leaving for work (albeit R’s, not mine). We didn’t think we’d be in Ottawa for very long, maybe a year or two, tops. But as our respective career paths (and locations) diverged and converged and twisted and turned, Ottawa became our home base. It was the one constant in all those years (the California years, the Montreal years…), and it really did grow on us once we let it. We came to love its quiet, its green space, its community feel. Even the brutalist architecture grew on us. And once we decided to let ourselves get attached to this place, we made some really really amazing friends.

All the big things that have happened on my mosaic adventure so far have happened while I’ve been in Ottawa, so I decided that before I left, I wanted to leave my mosaic mark on the city in some way. For me, the choice of where and what was easy: I would do it at the graffiti wall with pieces of the graffiti wall. This was a no-brainer for all sorts of reasons. First, it would be legal. This was important, because I’m quite risk averse and law abiding! Second, this wall was the source of one of my favourite and most prized materials, and this material (and one of the first pieces I made from it) was a real game-changer for me and has played an important role in my growth as a mosaicist. And finally, the wall was three blocks from our apartment, so it was on my home turf, which felt appropriate.

Daddy supervising the installation

Daddy supervising the installation

I made this little mosaic with materials sourced from the few blocks around where we lived: graffiti paint (obviously!), a broken pot from the end of the block, cement parging from around the corner, and flakes from a landscaping rock. I was originally also going to include broken windshield from the street that always has cars getting their windows broken, but it just didn’t work for me—glass just isn’t my jam.

graffiti wall installation - with paint can

“Farewell Ottawa” guerilla mosaic installation at the legal graffiti wall at Albert and Bronson (September 3, 2016)

When I went to scout out a spot on the wall to install this, I found myself wanting to tuck it away in a corner where it would be protected. I really had to fight that urge and put it right out in the open, knowing full well it wouldn’t last for long. It had to be part of the dynamic landscape of the graffiti wall. As a mosaicist, I work in a medium whose durability is one of its hallmarks. Diving into the world of the impermanent was very foreign to me.

Six hours later and already the landscape has shifted

Six hours later and already the landscape has shifted (my piece is there by the step, in amongst the cans of spray paint)

I’m very curious to know how long this will last on the wall, and what will do it in. Will it be the elements? Animals (it is a dog park, after all)? Or artists? I will likely never know, and I am (somewhat reluctantly) embracing that unknown, just like I am having to embrace the unknown of moving to a different city and leaving my job behind.

End of day 1 and already there are flecks of paint on the surrounding thinset and outer tesserae from an artist working above

End of day 1 and already there are flecks of paint on the surrounding thinset and outer tesserae from an artist working above

In addition to being a fond farewell to Ottawa, this little mosaic is also a thank you to the very talented artists whose short-lived works contribute so much to my more permanent ones. Without the constant churn of art on that graffiti wall, this most special of materials wouldn’t exist.

This material never ceases to thrill me.

This material never ceases to thrill me.

While my leaving Ottawa is most likely permanent, the mark I am leaving behind is impermanent, which is a good reminder to me, as someone who thrives on stability and routine, to be more like one of my mosaics and just go with the flow.

So long, Ottawa! I’ll miss you. And Kitchener, I’ll be seeing you soon.

graffiti wall installation - in context

In context, shortly after the installation. By afternoon, that mural would be replaced by another.

5

When life gets crazy, make pet rocks

What happens when you give a mosaicist a bit of leftover thinset, a scrap bin, and rocks that are too big to use whole (and too hard to chop by hand) but too nice to get rid of? You get pet rocks. I made the first of these little guys on a whim. It was more fun than I expected—especially figuring out which of the rock’s curves or dents or lines I was going to play off of—so I decided to make more.

Julie Sperling - pet rock with air plant

The first pet rock I made. How cute would these guys look with an air plant in a terrarium?

These are the perfect little diversion when life gets crazy. There’s no pressure, no big commitment. And right now, life is more than a little bit crazy. Work is really busy—big project, ridiculously short deadlines—and my life outside of work is also busy. R got a permanent job in a new city, so we’re packing up and moving, and it’s all happening very quickly (we bought a house and a car in less than three weeks *gulp*). Big changes are on the horizon, which, while exciting, will also demand a lot of my time and be pretty stressful, as major transitions inevitably are.

Made on one of many rocks friends brought me from the Gaspé Peninsula: too hard to cut, too big to use as is, too lovely to cast aside.

Made on one of many rocks friends brought me from the Gaspé Peninsula: too hard to cut, too big to use as is, too lovely to cast aside.

Sperling, pet rock

Wee bits of marble—scraps from some previous project—adorning one of my favourite rocks of the bunch

I’ll be going dark on the mosaic front for a few months—in fact, I’ve already packed up the majority of my workspace—but I’m hoping I’ll still be able to find the time to make the occasional pet rock. I’ve already set aside a little supply kit that I’ll be sure to keep close at hand during the topsy-turvy months ahead. And I can’t wait to show you my new studio once I’m all settled in. It’ll be a bigger space (no more table in a hallway for me!) and I’m really excited about it.

The first cluster, all on Gaspé rocks. It won't be the last.

The first cluster, all on Gaspé rocks. It won’t be the last.

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Two sides of the same coin: A mosaic about climate change adaptation and mitigation

There are two sides to the climate action coin: adaptation (dealing with the impacts of climate change) and mitigation (reducing greenhouse gas emissions). While working hard to reduce our emissions can help us avoid unmanageable situations in the future, equally strong efforts to adapt will help us manage the unavoidable impacts we’re currently facing and will continue to face.

You would be forgiven for not knowing much about adaptation, because we just don’t talk about it (except after a major disaster, like the Fort McMurray fires or Hurricane Sandy). The public discourse around climate change usually goes like this: Climate change impacts are already happening, so we need to reduce our emissions. There’s an immediate leap from impacts to mitigation, with no talk of adaptation. Why? Partly, I think it’s because talking about adaptation feels like an admission of defeat—as if our efforts to reduce emissions have failed and any further attempts will be futile. But I think it’s also because, on the whole, adaptation is a bit of a snoozefest (at least comparatively speaking). At its essence, adaptation is about common sense and making good decisions, and that sort of thing doesn’t exactly grab headlines. Solving problems before they occur—proactive adaptation—is boring. But it is smart.

In contrast, mitigation is easier to sell to the public. We talk about carbon taxes and windmills and electric cars. We talk about targets for 2020 and 2050 and how we’re going to get there. Capturing the public’s imagination with adaptation is much more challenging. There are no targets, no clear end point. It’s a process and, while it’s not exactly sexy, it’s just as important and urgent as mitigation. No matter how much we reduce our emissions—even if we manage to be carbon-neutral or even carbon-negative—there will still be impacts. That’s because there’s a lag in the climate system; the impacts we’re experiencing today are a result of the emissions of past decades, and these impacts are projected to become more severe (because emissions over the last few decades have skyrocketed). Impacts are here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future, so we’d best get to adapting.

What, exactly, does adaptation look like? Well, to start, it’s more of a journey than a destination, and the path travelled will look different for every community because the impacts vary across space and time. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to building resilience in our homes, communities, businesses, and landscapes. There’s a tendency—when we actually do talk about adaptation and climate resilience—to only talk about infrastructure solutions, like bigger stormwater pipes, new permanent roads to substitute ice roads lost due to warming temperatures, and seawalls to deal with sea-level rise and storm surge. And I get it. Infrastructure is concrete (no pun intended). It’s easy to wrap your head around and easy to throw money at. But adaptation is about more than that; it’s about how we build healthy, liveable, resilient communities in every sense.

So how else can we build resilience? Well, homeowners can create rain gardens to soak up more intense downpours (so that the water neither floods their basements, nor overwhelms the city’s stormwater system). Farmers can plant crop varieties that are better suited to our new normal (e.g., can better cope with drought). Cities can keep public pools open longer, operate cooling centres, and put in place heat alert systems to warn citizens and help them cope during more frequent and severe heat waves. And provinces can work to preserve our natural assets, like wetlands, that buffer us from climate impacts like flooding and drought.

One of the best ways to ensure we’re adapting is to integrate climate change considerations (temperature increases, changes in precipitation, increased risk of drought, flood, or wildfire, the arrival of new pests and diseases, etc.) into every decision we make. That means taking climate change into consideration when we’re planning our transportation systems, when we’re establishing our parks and protected areas, when we’re figuring out how to manage our water resources, when we’re managing and expanding our healthcare system, and on and on. This kind of work often goes unrecognized—there are no ribbon-cutting ceremonies for incorporating climate considerations—but it is fundamentally important.

So now that you know a bit about adaptation, what is it about this mosaic that speaks to the relationship between adaptation and mitigation? Well, it’s subtle, but if you look closely you’ll see that the left-hand side of the mosaic (the adaptation half) was made with only the rough faces of the marble, while the right-hand side (the mitigation half) was made with the polished face of the same kinds of marble. Two sides of the same coin stone. The choice of rough side for adaptation and shiny side for mitigation was very deliberate: shiny for mitigation because that’s what grabs our attention, rough for adaptation because it’s humble and ordinary, but oh-so-interesting and full of possibilities when you look closer.

"Both / and" - Mosaic about climate change adaptation and mitigation by Julie Sperling

“Both / and” (2016), 14″ x 14″ — marble and shale

When I first came up with the concept for this mosaic, I thought the difference between the two halves would be more apparent. But it actually makes sense that it is so subtle and that there is also some blurring between the two sides, in that some of the polished faces are quite matte and blend in with the adaptation half, while some of the cut faces of the adaptation half are so cleanly cleaved that they look almost polished. And this blurring also happens in real life. There are actions that both increase your resilience and reduce emissions; climate twofers, if you will. Things like increasing the energy efficiency of homes, or expanding our urban forests. It’s easy to see how these actions reduce emissions, but how do they help us adapt? Well, more energy efficient homes put less strain on the grid during heat waves (which will become more frequent and intense) when everyone has their air conditioners going full blast, and urban forests, in addition to acting as carbon sinks, can also cool our cities and soak up water from extreme downpours.

"Both / and" - detail (Julie Sperling)

If you look closely, you can see the difference between the two sides

I have also deliberately left the strike marks on the marble where it didn’t break with the first hit of the hammer, just as a reminder that we’re in uncharted territory in terms of dealing with climate change, and we’re going to have to do a lot of experimenting and learning by doing. While it will be important to talk about our successes so that others can take them and replicate them and scale them up, we also need to be open about our failures and learn from them (to “fail forward”).

"Both / and" (detail) - climate change mosaic by Julie Sperling

Check out the shiny grey marble for an example of the strike marks. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.

And there you have it. My mosaic plea to not forget about adaptation; my attempt to give it the space it deserves alongside mitigation. So, my friends, go forth and adapt and mitigate.

Final word: When I started this mosaic, I had no idea that I would be leaving my job to move home to Kitchener-Waterloo. While the move is a very good thing, I would be lying if I said I wasn’t going to miss my job and, more specifically, my adaptation colleagues (affectionately known as the A-Team). These guys are fun beyond belief, they always have your back, and they are really really good at what they do. I know I’ve learned a tonne in the short time I’ve worked with them and am a better policy analyst for it. I guess it’s kind of fitting that the last climate change mosaic I make while still gainfully employed (with the federal government, anyway) is about the file that I work on. So this one is dedicated to the A-Team, the best colleagues a gal could ever ask for.

Dedicated to the A-Team. Truly the best colleagues I will probably ever have.

Dedicated to the A-Team. Truly the best colleagues I will probably ever have. “We’re climate change too!”

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