Archive | Fiddling while Rome burns

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)



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’… ;-)


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


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”


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!”


That’s enough! A mosaic about consumption and climate change

Climate change is fundamentally a consumption problem. This is not some sweeping, hyperbolic statement. Everything we consume—the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the phones in our pockets, the cars we drive, even the art on our walls—has a carbon footprint associated with its production and use (some larger than others, naturally). There’s a tendency to put the climate blame squarely on the shoulders of business and industry, but we, as individual consumers, are not blameless. Far from it. Recently, scientists quantified the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions stemming from household consumption: our consumption of stuff is responsible for 60% of global GHG emissions.

I’m going to tackle this issue in two parts mosaics: one on how much we consume (the current mosaic) and the second on what we consume.

"(More than) Enough"

“(More than) Enough” (2016), 12″ x 16″ — one single piece of limestone

This mosaic is about the notion of having enough—an odd notion in today’s society, where we want more, want it now, and want it for cheap. Recognizing that you have enough and actively consuming less is a very straightforward and simple way of reducing your impact on the climate (and the environment writ large); it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that ten pairs of jeans have a bigger footprint than four. To put this idea into practice, I decided to make a mosaic out of one single rock. I would chop it up and use every last scrap of it. It would be enough. Ironically, however, I quickly realized that I had more than enough.

The rock, pre-chopping.

The rock, pre-chopping.

First cut. Just look at those layers!

First cut. Just look at those layers!

I had already prepared my substrate before chopping the rock, which I didn’t think would be problematic because I’m normally quite good at estimating how much material I’ll need to complete a project. My chosen rock seemed about right to me. But when I looked at my pile of tesserae after chopping up the whole rock, I knew I had too much. It’s funny, but this realization immediately called to mind my almost weekly thought upon opening our organics box: “That will never be enough food for the week!” And yet it always is. And it is often too much.

All chopped and sorted by size and shape (and please note that I also saved the wee flakes and dust)

All chopped and sorted by size and shape (and please note that I also saved the wee flakes and dust)

Upon realizing that I had too much, I started to brainstorm options for dealing with the excess. The obvious solution would have been to just use a bigger substrate. Tempting, yes, but totally contrary to the point of the mosaic. If you have too much stuff, you don’t buy a bigger house (or rent a storage locker or three). I thought about displaying the leftovers in some sort of container or making a second mosaic that was more random and looked more like a scrap heap, but discarded these options because it didn’t feel like the best use of the material. It felt somewhat akin to throwing it out. It felt disrespectful. I think it was R (brilliant co-conspirator that she is) who suggested giving it away. Perfect! When you have too much, you don’t let it go to waste, you share the bounty. You let someone else get use and enjoyment out of it.

So I roped in two fellow mosaicists: Kelley Knickerbocker and Rachel Sager. Both were easy choices: Kelley because she’s already been working on pieces using other artist’s scraps / leftovers, and Rachel not only because of rocks and foraging, but also because of her mosaic where she used nothing but one kind of stone (I liked that sort-of parallel). I’ll be sending them care packages with my leftovers, with instructions to simply enjoy the rock and put it to good use. And fear not, I will report back on what they make from it—I’m eager to see what they create with this special rock that has oh-so-much character. It is definitely in good and capable hands with them. (If anyone’s wondering, here are the stats on this little experiment: Starting weight of rock = 1.7 kg. Weight of leftovers = 0.65 kg. So I definitely had MUCH more than I needed.)

Kelley Knickerbocker's "Stockpile" - made using discards from a floor installation by Erin Pankratz

Kelley Knickerbocker’s “Stockpile” – made using discards from a floor installation by Erin Pankratz

Rachel Sager's "Driveway" - made using only gravel from her driveway

Rachel Sager’s “Driveway” – made using only gravel from her driveway

I like to think that I am a relatively conscious consumer. I don’t buy blindly just for sport. No retail therapy here. I also like to think that in my mosaic work I do my best to honour the materials and not waste them. And yet this mosaic taught me so much. More than anything, I learned to really and truly appreciate the material and all its quirks. Because I was determined to use every last speck of the rock, there was no discarding of mis-cut tesserae, or shaving off a corner so it would be ‘just so’. I consciously tried to keep my cutting to a minimum. Barely any was done at the beginning (after the initial breakdown with the hammer and hardie), though I did have to resort to the nippers a bit more frequently near the end as my choices became more limited and I backed myself into corner after corner.

more than enough - detail 2

A close-up shot so you can appreciate this crazy amazing rock

I revelled in this chance to loosen up a bit, to let the imperfections (the rock’s and mine) shine, since this is typically one of the things I struggle with most in mosaic. Strike marks on the most interesting side of the tesserae? Welcome! Accidentally get a tiny spot of thinset on the top of a piece? That’s ok! Piece not lining up quite as it should with its neighbour? So be it, and hey, that’s just an opportunity to fill the gap with the little flakes that I otherwise wouldn’t know what to do with. Also, because I sensed I would have extra rock, I made an effort to not use all the choicest pieces. I wanted Kelley and Rachel to get some good bits too.

Strike marks and thinset and imperfections, oh my!

Strike marks and thinset and imperfections, oh my!

This was such a great exercise in restraint, mindfulness, strategy, and creativity. I am so eager to do it again that I think I will turn this into a little side series. The “Enough” series. I can see it becoming to me something akin to what Karen Dimit‘s “NYC Water Towers” collection is to her. She returns to the water tower as a subject over and over again to experiment with new techniques and materials. In my case, I can see myself returning to this exercise as a way of refocusing myself and returning to first principles. Because one rock is most definitely enough, and often more than enough. A good lesson for both mosaic and life.

more than enough - detail 1

Just one more shot of some of those bands of colour

Putting all the little flakes to use! (And the rock dust got mixed into the thinset that I used to finish the edges.)

Putting all the little flakes to use! (And the rock dust got mixed into the thinset that I used to finish the edges.)


The cost of doing business: A mosaic about destruction on the path to fossil fuel combustion

I know I have only just started exploring the solutions side of climate change, yet here I am already going back to the impacts. But I have a good reason! This piece was made specifically to take with me to San Diego for the Mosaic Art Salon at the SAMA conference. I wanted to do a piece that incorporated the graffiti paint layers so that it would have a connection to Dialogue, which will be hanging in the Mosaic Arts International exhibition in conjunction with the conference. As I played with the layers of paint, carving their surface, the resulting forms made me think of the colourful swirling you get with oil spills. And thus this piece was born.

(un)acceptable loss - paint detail 2

This mosaic is a sort of aside in the context of my Fiddling While Rome Burns series, in that it doesn’t deal directly with greenhouse gas emissions / climate change, though it is related. As I progress deeper into the series and also look to the future, I have started to think about leaving myself jumping-off points where I can branch out into new themes that will be connected to this initial series and create a cohesive overall body of work. “(Un)Acceptable Loss” is the first of these off-ramps. I might not end up circling back and taking all of these paths I’m setting out, but I’m enjoying this strategic long-term planning and the creation of possibility—it really reminds me that what I’m doing, and the issues with which I am engaging, are a life-long commitment.

(un)acceptable loss - side detail
While the point of departure for “(Un)Acceptable Loss” is an oil spill, this piece is about much more than that. My climate change work has been exclusively focused on the burning of fossil fuels and the impact on the planet—essentially, what happens at the end of the pipe—and the focus of the series will, on the whole, continue to be just that. But I thought it was important to at least acknowledge that there are myriad negative impacts throughout the entire process of getting fossil fuels to market and ultimately burning them. Oil spills are one, yes, but they are just the tip of the iceberg. There’s also (and this is not a comprehensive list): habitat fragmentation and destruction, wildlife deaths, air pollution, water contamination, shamefully high rates of energy and fresh water consumption, the displacement of communities and disruption of traditional ways of life, worrying health impacts, and an array of social problems that plague boomtowns.

"(Un)Acceptable Loss"

“(Un)Acceptable Loss” (2016), 11″ x 11″ — limestone, marble, unglazed porcelain, smalti, salvaged glass, graffiti paint layers

The name of the piece is a nod to the concept of acceptable loss, a term coined by the military to indicate a level of loss/casualty or destruction that is tolerable in order to achieve a desired outcome. The term has also been adopted by other disciplines, like medicine, politics, and business (as notions of acceptable risk, the cost of doing business, etc.).

In getting fossil fuels all the way from the ground to our vehicles, homes, and industries, both companies and society are prepared to accept a certain level of loss. Oil spills, like Deepwater Horizon, Kalamazoo River, and Cold Lake (to name just a few), and oil tanker explosions, like the disaster in Lac-Mégantic, are tragic and grab headlines for a time. But at the end of the day, this loss of life, livelihood, and environmental quality—not to mention profit, which, even when it reaches into the billions of dollars, is merely a blip on the balance sheet—is simply the accepted cost of doing business in our fossil-fuelled society. Which is (or should be) completely unacceptable.

(un)acceptable loss - full angle

(un)acceptable loss - over edge

Dripping over the edge


For better or worse: A mosaic about tipping points, thresholds, and nonlinear transformations

Until now, my Fiddling While Rome Burns series has focused mostly on the problem. I’ve covered climate science, impacts, and socio-cultural and political phenomena. But what about the other side of the equation? What about solutions? Well, this mosaic—“Flip the system (Amplified change)”—is meant to bridge the two halves of the series: the problem and its myriad solutions.

"Flip the system (Amplified change)" (2016), 21" x 21" -- limestone, marble, ceramic, petrified wood, conglomerate, pyrite, phyllite

“Flip the system (Amplified change)” (2016), 21″ x 21″ — limestone, marble, ceramic, petrified wood, conglomerate, pyrite, phyllite

The piece is based on the concept of positive feedback loops. Contrary to their name, these are not actually a good thing when you’re talking about climate change impacts. As one of my colleagues is fond of saying: “There’s nothing positive about positive feedback loops.” In a nutshell, positive feedback loops are runaway, self-reinforcing change. When we’re talking about climate change, it could go something like this: rising global temperatures lead to permafrost thaw in the Arctic, the thawing permafrost releases huge quantities of methane (a very potent greenhouse gas), which contributes to even more warming, triggering greater permafrost thaw, more methane release, and so on and so forth. Researchers have identified numerous positive feedback loops with respect to climate change—a range of ways in which things could quickly spiral out of control—which is pretty terrifying.

flip the system - bottom crop

But just as self-reinforcing feedback loops on the impacts side can amplify change for the worse, the same holds true for climate action: when individuals, organizations, and governments start taking action, these positive actions snowball, drive further change, and eventually become the norm. Change begets change. As some pretty smart people in the UK said:

The greatest risks of climate change arise when thresholds are crossed: what had been gradual becomes sudden; what had been inconvenient becomes intolerable. The greatest reductions in risk will be won in the same way. Gradual, incremental measures will not be enough: we must seek out non-linear, discontinuous, transformational change. […] To win this battle, we must set up our own cycles of positive feedback.

flip the system - front angle crop

Positive feedback loops (for the better) can work at the individual / household level right up to the national and even global level. The changes in each level are self-reinforcing, but because each part is nested within a larger whole, these changes also influence and are influenced by actions at other levels.

As an individual, I might choose any number of small, seemingly insignificant actions to reduce my carbon footprint: hanging my laundry to dry, buying green electricity, leaving the car at home one day a week, or cutting down on my meat consumption. When I realize that this change wasn’t actually onerous, that my quality of life was not harmed (and was likely improved), I’m likely to seek to make another—maybe even a bigger—change. As these changes become part of my daily life, I start talking about them with my friends and family. And perhaps this prompts them to take the first step toward reducing their carbon footprint. On a larger scale, this groundswell of action can send a signal to governments and businesses that there is support for this kind of change, and they then have motivation to get in on the action.

flip the system - focal

But these feedback loops of change don’t only happen in a bottom-up, grassroots sort of way. From a top-down perspective, government interventions (let’s say a price on carbon) can, for example, encourage investment in clean and low-carbon technology (everything from energy to transportation to buildings and more). As these products and services gain a foothold and become more mainstream—bolstered by actions and mind shifts at the individual level—there is an appetite (or at least a tolerance) for additional interventions. And as more and more countries undergo this shift, significant change on a global scale becomes possible.

Change might be slow at first—especially at the individual level, where you might feel like you’re getting nowhere—because there’s a lot of inertia in the system. However, once these changes gain traction and momentum, and once a critical mass is reached, a wholesale change in the system likely isn’t far off. What were once slight perturbations now become the new normal as the system reaches its tipping point and flips states. This new state won’t necessarily be predictable (i.e., it might not be the individual-level changes just on a grander scale): it will likely be a non-linear, discontinuous, and transformative change, and I, for one, find that kind of exciting.

“Flip the system (Amplified change)” is my mosaic version of self-reinforcing feedback loops. The lines at the centre are regular and relatively controlled, but their variations get amplified as you move outwards. They are laden with the potential for change, and there is a certain latent energy inherent in them.

flip the system - detail

And so, with this piece, I am now shifting into a new phase of my climate change series. This is not to say that the impacts / science side is officially closed—I suspect that I will add to it as inspiration strikes—but for now, I’m going to concentrate on balancing the existing pieces with ones focused on solutions and practical actions that individuals, communities, organizations, and governments can take in the fight against climate change. My list of topics to tackle is already quite long, and growing almost daily. I’m looking forward to rounding out this growing body of work and sharing the new pieces with you, with the hope that they might inspire you to take steps to reduce your carbon footprint and add your actions to a growing critical mass of climate action.

flip the system - front angle


Putting it out there: Lessons learned from my first solo show

I have recently opened my first solo show and given my first Artist Talk. For those of you in the Toronto area, you still have lots of time to go see it—it’s hanging at Evergreen Brick Works until March 6. It feels weird to say this, but this is very likely the only time these ten mosaics will all be hanging together, ever, because three are already set to go off to their forever homes after the show is over.

I feel extremely lucky to have found such a wonderful place to show my work. Not only is Brick Works an amazing place to explore in and of itself (it’s an old brick factory and quarry, teeming with old industrial infrastructure and graffiti, that has been turned into a community environmental space), but the alignment of its mandate and my climate change mosaics is perfect. Even more perfect is the timing of the show, which was intentionally scheduled to coincide with the big international climate change negotiations (COP21) that are about to get underway in Paris in just a few days. There is a city-wide art festival—ArtCOP21—set to take place in Paris during the talks, and there are also satellite events all over the world. I am proud to say that my show is part of that global movement. (Below are just a few photos of Brick Works itself, to pique your interest.)

I have learned an enormous amount going through the whole process of launching this show. In the event that this is helpful for anyone else who’s at the same point in their journey as me, I thought I’d share some of these lessons learned here on the blog.

1 – You need endurance in spades

When I first decided that it would be amazing to do a show of my climate change mosaics in conjunction with COP21, I had two mosaics done and just under eight months to do the rest (I envisioned a line-up of ten mosaics). Having only evenings and weekends to work, I already knew that averaging one mosaic per month was ambitious. But the timing was too tempting, so I decided to throw myself into it head first. I will be the first to admit that the pace for the next months was punishing. As I was working on one piece, I was not just thinking ahead to the next steps of that particular mosaic, but also mentally writing the associated blog post as I worked AND sketching out the next piece in my head. By the time I reached the halfway point, I felt like I was approaching burnout. Social obligations that took me away from the studio made me anxious—all I could think about was the work that I wasn’t doing. But your body and mind have a way of getting what they need. A planned working holiday at the cottage ended up being more relaxation holiday than working holiday, which, despite feeling a bit panicked by my lack of productivity, ended up being exactly what I needed in order to go back to work refreshed and focused. And when I could finally see the light at the end of the tunnel (around the eighth or ninth mosaic), I could feel my drive seriously flagging. I spent an entire Friday night on the couch with Dexter, binging on Netflix because, as I rationalized to myself, he was being sucky. In truth, I was the sucky one. But again, I needed that night of nothing. All of this to say: be prepared to work hard and know that it will take a physical, emotional, and mental toll, but listen to your body and your mind.

If you need a night or a week of nothing, try not to feel (too) guilty. Pictured here is what my week at the cottage consisted mainly of: hammock time.

If you need a night or a week of nothing, try not to feel (too) guilty. Pictured here is what my week at the cottage consisted mainly of: hammock time.

2 – You are not doing this alone

While those long hours in the studio are a solitary endeavour, rest assured that you are surrounded by people who want nothing more than to see you succeed. Let them give you a push when you’re dragging, reassure you when you’re doubting, distract you when you’re going squirrelly, forgive you when you’re snippy, and champion you out in the world when you’d rather just curl up in a ball. Accept help when it’s offered (seriously, don’t feel guilty about it—people only offer if they genuinely mean it) and ask for help when you need it. I reached out on occasion to mosaic friends who have walked this path many times before and asked to pick their brains about one thing or another. While I probably could have googled the answers to my questions (or gone with my gut instinct, or problem-solved on the fly), what it gave me was peace of mind from a trusted source, because, let’s be honest, how many times has the internet led us astray or at least sent us down the rabbit hole, wasting precious time?

3 – You might as well aim high

When I was first trying to find an environmental organization to partner with for the show, I was specifically looking for a small community-based organization (as opposed to a more high-profile organization), because this was my first show and that felt appropriate and safe. But when it seemed like the initial interest from one such organization was starting to wane, I decided I needed a Plan B. So on a whim, I emailed my dream location / partner. Imagine my surprise when Brick Works said yes! While a “no” might sting for a moment, the possibility of that momentary disappointment is totally worth it on the off chance that a huge “YES” might come your way. So why not aim high? There’s no harm in asking for what you want, even if you don’t think you’re ready for it.

I never ever thought I'd be showing my work in such an amazing place. (It is truly an oasis in the heart of the city, just check out these walking trails out back!)

I never ever thought I’d be showing my work in such an amazing place. (It is truly an oasis in the heart of the city, just check out these walking trails out back!)

4 – Don’t be afraid to ask lots of questions

I was at a bit of a disadvantage going into the show, because I had never visited Brick Works, so I was walking in blind. (To her credit, R really really tried to convince me to take a weekend to go visit the space beforehand, but I honestly didn’t have a weekend to spare—I was working right down to the wire.) So, I had to ask a lot of questions to try to situate myself (and also because it was my first time feeling my way through this whole process). Most of the time I felt like I was being pretty annoying, pestering them with so many questions and asking for clarification when things were a bit fuzzy, but it had to be done.

Don’t feel bad about asking questions. It’s better to have the information you need in advance than to have several surprises at the last minute (although there will inevitably be those unpleasant surprises). For non-traditional venues in particular, make sure you ask questions about things like access to the space, supervision, and any other activities that will take place where your work is being displayed. And if, in this process, something doesn’t feel right, speak up. If there’s one lesson that was the hardest for me to learn during this whole experience, it was that I needed to stick up for myself because nobody else was going to do it for me.

My mosaics chilling with some apples at the Saturday market. (See? This is why I say ask about access.)

My mosaics chilling with some apples at the Saturday market. (See? This is why I say ask about access.)

My mosaics look on as one of the Chocosol guys whips up some Mexican drinking chocolate.

My mosaics look on as one of the Chocosol guys whips up some Mexican drinking chocolate at the Sunday market.

5 – Lists and timelines are your friends

My fellow list-makers will think this one’s a no-brainer, but I think it deserves to be mentioned. When I was a little less than halfway there, I decided I should make myself a timeline. It did two things: it scared the shit out of me because it made things very real in terms of how little time I had and how quickly I had to work, but it also comforted me because even though time was short, I could see that it was doable if I worked smart and worked hard. On the days when I didn’t feel like working at all, it kept me accountable; and when I managed to finish a piece ahead of time, it gave me a huge feeling of satisfaction (and those little wins were so important in maintaining my motivation). And at the end, when the mosaic work was done but the logistical / administrative work was ramping up, lists kept me sane. By that point I was frazzled and emotional—I think I freaked R out on more than one occasion because it’s rare for her to see me like that—so making lists was comforting and reassured me that something wouldn’t get accidentally forgotten (even if I made the same list three times in three different places).

6 – Have a plan, but be ready to adjust on the fly

As much as you try to plan ahead, at least one thing (and most likely many things) will go wrong. Take it in stride and adjust. For example, I went in with a really good idea of where I wanted to hang my mosaics based on the wall measurements I had been sent. I had scale drawings and everything—my graph paper and I had a hot date one Saturday night. But when I saw the lighting situation, I immediately knew that I would have to scrap that plan, and I can honestly say that the new configuration is probably better than my original one would have been (even without factoring in the lighting).

The layout in the Foreman's Shed

The final layout in the Foreman’s Shed

7 – Pick your battles

Not only will there will be unanticipated problems that you’ll have to solve, but there will also be things that you’ll just have to accept as imperfect. This will help you stay (relatively) sane and will help you make good use of the time you have. I quickly learned that I had to be quite firm with myself and with others about those things that I was going to let go and choose to not get upset about. As mentioned in #2 above, chances are that if you’re embarking on an undertaking like this, you are surrounded by lots of fantastic people who are genuinely invested in your success, so when a wrench gets thrown into the works, they will get outraged on your behalf. They will want to find a solution, or push you to find a solution. This, sometimes, will cause you stress, which is why I’m saying it’s a good idea to know what you’re willing to fight for and what you’re willing to let slide, and then clearly communicate to your circle of cheerleaders and champions when you’ve decided that something is not worth getting worked up about.

8 – When it comes to hanging, trust the interwebs and do the math

I hung one wall of my show three times. Thankfully it was just using S hooks, so it was easy to adjust and I wasn’t wasting anyone’s time but my own. I knew, thanks to Google, that I should be hanging it so the centres of the mosaics were somewhere around 56″ to 58″. But at 5’10”, it felt really really low, so I hung it at 63″ and immediately regretted it. For those of you who are not of average height, trust the collective wisdom of the interwebs. I also messed up the calculation for how much space to leave between the pieces so they’d be evenly spaced on the wall…twice. By the time I got all the measurements—horizontal and vertical—right, I had hung the wall three times and had wasted at least an hour. So, trust Google and also take the time to do the math right the first time.

Also, know how much space you have and how much you need. When I was told which wall my mosaics would be hanging on, I thought, “Great! Thanks!” and didn’t give it any more thought. But then a few days later, I came to the realization that the wall was 14′ wide and if I lined up all my mosaics side by side with no spaces between them, they were almost exactly 14′ wide too. Eek! So I highly suggest knowing how much space you need in order to hang your work properly and then going from there (e.g., by adjusting spacing, revisiting your line-up, negotiating more hanging space, etc.).

Measure, measure, and then measure again.

Measure, measure, and then measure again. (Photo courtesy of Liz George, Evergreen Brick Works)

Figuring out the spacing in the Foreman's Shed.

Figuring out the spacing in the Foreman’s Shed. (Photo courtesy of Liz George, Evergreen Brick Works.)

9 – It feels very weird when it’s all over

When I got back home, it felt very strange to have so much time on my hands and to see the walls of my apartment bare. (With very limited space, I basically have to store all my mosaics on our walls.) As a wise friend assured me, this is completely normal and the best solution is just to get right back to work. Another friend advised me to be gentle with myself. I plan on doing both of those things: I have the perfect (non-climate) project to ease myself back into it. And after that, stay tuned, because the Fiddling While Rome Burns series isn’t over yet—I’ve got lots more to say about climate change, and I’m planning on turning my attention to exploring solutions and actions over the next little while. I hope you’ll join me on this next phase of the journey.

Thank you to everyone who cheered me on and/or helped make this possible. Stay tuned...

Thank you to everyone who cheered me on and/or helped make this possible. Stay tuned…


Abandon all hope, ye who study climate change: Mosaics about candour, heartbreak, and hope

The rusty nails in this one were proudly presented to me one day by a colleague who knew I would love them

The rusty nails in this one were proudly presented to me one day by a colleague who knew I would love them

For anyone even half listening to what scientists are saying about climate change, it’s evident that the picture is pretty bleak. Rising temperatures, thawing permafrost, increasingly acidic oceans, disappearing glaciers, wild fires, flooding, pests and diseases…and the list goes on and on.

Yet despite the high stakes and the urgency of the challenge before us, those advocating for climate action are told to keep the messaging positive and not to be Debbie Downers lest people find that offputting. When a scientist occasionally dares to give us some straight talk, he or she almost inevitably gets labelled an alarmist and is publicly discredited simply for speaking frankly and truthfully. Take, for instance, the case of climatologist Jason Box, who experienced a great deal of backlash in response to his tweet: “If even a small fraction of Arctic sea floor carbon is released to the atmosphere, we’re f’d.” So great is our denial that scientists are being forced to build increasingly unrealistic assumptions into their models in order to produce results that are palatable to political decision-makers. (Side note: You really should read this article about model assumptions by David Roberts, my favourite climate and energy blogger. It was one of two articles this year that scared the crap out of me, the other article being this one about self-reinforcing feedback loops.)

Why does that coal have to be so awful yet so beautiful?

Why does that coal have to be so awful yet so beautiful?

The near-apocalyptic future scenarios, the pressure to put a positive spin on even the most terrifying research findings, and society’s continued willful ignorance and inaction in the face of climate change create somewhat of a perfect storm (or perhaps a perfect superstorm is a more appropriate term in this age of climate change) for an increasingly common phenomenon among climate scientists: “pre-traumatic stress disorder.” The term was coined by forensic psychiatrist Lise Van Susteren to describe the mental anguish caused by anticipating and preparing for the worst, long before it happens. Slowly, and against convention, scientists are bravely beginning to speak out about their frustration and worry and the emotional toll that their work (and society’s collective response to it, which is basically a shrug and a “meh”) takes on them. Is This How You Feel?, a website that collects handwritten letters from scientists in which they honestly and heartbreakingly express how they feel about climate change, is one really excellent example of this.

So far, throughout my climate change series, I’ve tried to keep things from sliding into sky-is-falling territory. The blog posts are factual, with a hint of pessimism, but usually countered with some light-hearted humour. And the mosaics themselves are not aggressive or confrontational. They are, on the whole, rather inviting. But there’s always been a nagging question in the back of my mind: is it right to make something beautiful about a subject that is so ugly? I waffle on that. The answer I am comfortable with lies somewhere in the range of “It depends” and “Yes and no.” Do you try to draw people gently into a conversation? Or do you unsettle people and make them uncomfortable? I have largely (exclusively?) done the former.

"We're screwed!" -- I can't resist a lame joke

“We’re screwed!” — I can’t resist a lame joke

But after reading about the personal challenges that scientists are faced with, I knew I had to get just a bit darker, even if only briefly. And so, the idea for the three small mosaics comprising “Shouting into the wind” was born. The materials choice began with a single rusty screw (“We’re all screwed,” I said to myself, jokingly), which became a few carefully chosen pieces of rusty metal, and to which I added coal and shale to represent some of the climate bad guys. And then one small line of gold in each piece, as a glimmer of hope. The mosaics are intentionally small and thin. I didn’t want them to have as much of a presence as the other pieces in the series. Not because these dark days and their emotional turmoil are unimportant and should be swept under a rug (they are very real and important and should be openly acknowledged), but rather as a nod to the fact that the overwhelming message from society to scientists is to not talk about our climate reality openly and bluntly.

May these three mosaics serve as a reminder to us that scientists shouldn’t have to censor or sugar-coat things because we can’t handle or refuse to accept the truth. They aren’t making dire predictions and electing to be harbingers of doom and gloom just for the heck of it. It’s not a question of beliefs or some elaborate attention-grabbing scheme, it’s a question of fact. By making scientists tell us what we want to hear, or by ignoring or ridiculing them when they speak frankly, we are placing a great burden on their shoulders, as they are forced to watch us continue down our self-destructive path, their hands effectively tied, their mouths muzzled, and their hearts breaking.

"Shouting into the wind" climate change mosaic by Julie Sperling

“Shouting into the wind” (2015), 6″ x 5.25″ each — rusty metal, coal, shale, 24-karat gold smalti


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