Archive | Fiddling while Rome burns

Enough talk. It’s time for action.

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

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

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

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

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

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

But enough talk. It’s time for action.

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

 

4

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!

 

1

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

1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The boots before they went under the knife…

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

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

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

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

Rubber, stone, and even leather!

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

The pure joy of line-building

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

Looking out across the map, towards Gatineau

Made in Aust(ralia)

 

9

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

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

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

Swoon-worthy mookaite, pre-chopping

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

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

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

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

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

Cropped to the ‘right size’… ;-)

3

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

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

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

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

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

Julie Sperling mosaic about climate change and meat consumption

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

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

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

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

Oooooh! Eeewww!

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

Julie Sperling mosaic about climate change and meat consumption -detail

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

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

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

4

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”

3

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!”

4

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.)

7

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

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