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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An ode to champions, cheerleaders, and enablers

This blog post has been sitting in my drafts folder for years, just a kernel of an idea and a title. But now, with R recovering from surgery, it seems like the perfect time to write it, because I am acutely aware of how much I miss having my partner in crime around and involved in my creative process. In fact, I just had the biggest false start on a project that I’ve ever had. There were hammers and chisels involved in an attempt to chip three days’ worth of work off my substrate, and in the end I just cut the whole offending section off. Was it simply a coincidence that this happened at exactly the same time that R was out of commission and unable to question me and act as my sober second thought? Could be, but I don’t think so.

Anyway, let’s start from the beginning…

All throughout my life, I’ve been fortunate to have lots of people around me who believed in me and supported me no matter what. But I have found that creating takes a special kind of supportive community, compared to, say, the type of support I got when playing sports, practicing music, or working to ace that test or nail that essay. This is almost surely not a universal truth, but it is the case for me. The work of creating—of baring one’s soul, of taking that leap of faith time and time again—takes a special kind of champion. And I’ve got lots of them. 

The brilliant Wendy MacNaughton illustrates the recipe for greatness

The illustration above actually sums it up pretty perfectly for me (not that I have reached greatness, of course, but you know what I mean). It has resonated with me completely since the first time I saw it, years ago, before I was even fully immersed in this path. I would perhaps add one more circle to the diagram: the Cheering Section. You know, that host of supportive family members and friends who feed you or show up to events or just say “yay!” when you need it. I am very blessed to have an unwavering—and at times rowdy—crowd behind me, enabling me and cheering me on…and sometimes doing their best to embarrass little ol’ introverted me by causing a scene (but only “because they love me”). 

Of course there’s the role of Uncompromising Colleague (several, in fact), who bring that critical eye along with the support that can only come from shared experience. Same with Solid Mentors, who have always tended to come into my life at just the right time to push me one step further but who have thankfully not spoon-fed me. 

But the focus of this blog post is of course the Generous, Whip-Smart Wife. I cannot tell you how fortunate I am to have R as my number one champion, cheerleader, and oftentimes co-conspirator. Having spoken to a number of my Uncompromising Colleagues, I know that the role she plays is pretty special. 

Of course there’s the obvious: walking the dog when I lose track of time in the studio, bringing me fancy drinks for motivation, telling me she’s proud of me, helping out at events, making sure I saw that rusty piece of metal or that chunk of rock or whatever on the street over there, and talking about my art to other people.

But it’s more than that, and that’s what sets her apart. She is fully invested, to the point where sometimes she uses the pronoun “we” when talking about my mosaic work. Not in a claiming-credit-for-my-art / horning-in-on-my-act sort of way, but just in a walking-right-beside-me-through-this-process-and-being-willing-to-do-anything-to-help-me-succeed sort of way. 

I often use her as a sounding board (because of that whip-smart quality) and I always value her input, even if I end up ignoring it. And when I do ignore it, she respects my decision and usually later admits that it’s a good thing I listened to my gut and not to her. 

She is the good influence who is always pushing me toward the abstract and away from my on-the-nose comfort zone. Sometimes her input even completely changes the trajectory of a mosaic. Some examples that readily spring to mind are Dialogue, Fossil of the Day, and The Paths Most Travelled. Those three mosaics would be radically different (and weaker) had it not been for her input. In fact, she was so invested in Dialogue (for a variety of reasons, including the fact that she made a pivotal suggestion) that two years later she’s still mad at me for selling “her” mosaic.  

Can you imagine “Dialogue” and “The Paths Most Travelled” with mosaic cluttering the background? What about “Fossil of the Day” with the lines running vertically instead of horizontally? Yeah, me neither. Thank goodness for R’s good influence!

She is also the undisputed title queen in our household. I always look forward to the (almost) ritual of finishing a piece and then having a brainstorming session with her, usually with a celebratory drink in hand. She pushes me, making me dig deeper, until we come to the essence of the piece and then, eventually, its name. 

But perhaps what I value most is her big ol’ academic brain. I love it when she ‘reads’ my mosaics, interprets them from her brainiac literary perspective, and just generally says really smart things about them. She 100% understands and respects my artistic intent and product, but she sees things in them from a broader cultural / smarty pants perspective that I’ve never considered. I find it fascinating and it helps me understand my own work better and place it in a bigger context. 

So yes, I make the art. I do the substrate-building and the chopping and the sticking and the blogging. But please please never think that this is a one-woman endeavour: behind all of this is a Generous, Whip-Smart Wife without whom my art wouldn’t have nearly as much depth or be nearly as well thought-out. I am a lucky gal and I know it. 

Oh, and she’s also the world’s best travelling companion and humours me with detours and stops to see mosaics.

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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)

 

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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

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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’… ;-)

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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

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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”

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