Archive | Ramblings

Never tell them it’s art (Or: How I rid myself of the itch to show my art internationally in one not-so-easy step)

It is always a thrill to be invited to show your art. Even more of a thrill: being invited to show your art in a faraway country. For years now, I’ve watched the Big Dogs of the mosaic community put their work on display in countries all over the world (but predominantly Italy and France), thinking “It would be so very cool to be able to do that one day.” So when an invitation arrived from Martine Blanchard to exhibit my work in the quaint little town of Auray, France, I jumped at the chance.

This is Auray. It’s pretty darn cute.

Having shipped to the US and Australia before, I knew it would be expensive. And I knew there would be a degree of stress involved, both in hoping it arrived unscathed and hoping it would not get held up by customs. It turns out I underestimated the expense and the stress by several orders of magnitude.

I offer the following colour commentary about my experience in case it is helpful to anyone considering participating in a show where shipping and customs are involved. As I quickly learned, it is not for the faint of heart.


Early on, I think I’m off to a good start. I get tips from someone who has done this multiple times, I take my piece to a guy who makes me a box that’s small but strong (which will cut down on shipping costs), and I make inquiries trying to figure out what paperwork I need. I even make arrangements to be able to send my work via Canada Post, which is so much cheaper than a courier like FedEx or UPS.

After dropping my box off at the post office just before Easter, I begin the process of obsessively checking the tracking number to see where it is on its journey. The following Friday evening, more than a week after it has been sent, I check in, only to find that my mosaic has been blocked in the customs process since Wednesday. There’s some sort of document missing. Shit. This being after business hours and at the start of the weekend, there is nothing I can do but google and google some more, trying to figure out what document is missing and how I can fix it. I am very bad at just sitting and waiting.

Thanks to some very obscure message boards buried in the depths of the interwebs, I figure out what I need and the email address to send the documents to, because Chronopost, the French equivalent of Canada Post, helpfully doesn’t post this information on its website. Also, their only contact options for customer service are phone or Twitter / Facebook. Desperate, I tweet them.

Monday morning I actually get a reply to my weekend email saying that my document has been received and my shipment should be on its way soon. Tuesday they tweet back, confirming this. By Thursday it still hasn’t moved. I tweet them again. No reply. Friday morning—two plus weeks after sending my package—I wake up early, unable to sleep because of the worry, and decide I will need to bite the bullet and call them.

Calling Chronopost is no easy feat. First, there’s the language barrier. Thankfully, speaking French (however much I may butcher the language) is a requirement of my day job, so I can at least hold my own in a conversation. Then you have to be lucky enough that the call doesn’t drop. That happens about every second time I call them. And then you have to (patiently?) explain and re-explain your situation to every single person you talk to. By the third call I’ve got my spiel down pat.

By the time I start work at 8am, I know what is wrong. I have committed the cardinal sin of shipping artwork: I said it was art. It was a completely innocent mistake. I didn’t know that honesty was not the best policy. And because I said it was art, Chronopost tells me they are not authorized to move it through customs, nor are they authorized to deliver it. The only option, it seems, is to hire a customs broker to get it through customs and then complete the delivery. Through all of this, Martine is also valiantly trying to liaise with Chronopost on her end, but eventually she—quite understandably—has to give up and turn her attention to the million other things that need to be done for the show.

The first quote from a broker is ridiculously high (300+€, and that doesn’t even include delivery!). But I am so tempted to just accept it because I’m due to fly out in four days to attend the opening, and what’s the point of going if my piece isn’t even going to be there? Also, the alternative is to just let my mosaic languish there until the clock runs out and Chronopost ships it back to Canada, though this option feels somewhat risky, as if there would be a very good chance that it would get lost in the system, never to be seen again. Because of the time difference and the resulting lags in communication, this quote never gets acted on.

Then, on Sunday, two days before I’m supposed to fly out, I have to unexpectedly reschedule my flight to proactively avoid the Air France strike. Monday finds me scrambling to get ready to fly out a day early and freaking out that there is still no progress on liberating my mosaic.

Tuesday morning, 8am. I land in France and hit the ground running. I randomly go up to the first customs officer I see after collecting my luggage and explain my situation. He kindly escorts me to a customs office, where two lovely women proceed to phone different brokers they know in an attempt to find one who can move this quickly and at perhaps a cheaper price than that first exorbitantly high quote. They connect me with a broker who tells them she can help me, and I call her. (Keep in mind that this is all happening in French, on zero sleep, after an international flight…on top of weeks of stress-induced insomnia) In just two hours, she has what she needs from me, we connect with Chronopost, they acknowledge our email, and things seemed to be moving. Oh, and she quotes it at half the price of the first quote.

(Side note: If you ever need a customs broker in France, I highly recommend Amana Cargo and Sonia Difallah. She was efficient and effective, responsive in her communications, and patient in answering all my anxiety-ridden questions.)

Exhausted, I take a nap, with visions of success awaiting me upon my awakening. Alas. The afternoon rolls around and the broker is still waiting for two documents from Chronopost. More calls and emails to Chronopost follow (no tweets though—by that time I have given up on that method of contact).

End of Day 1, I take a walk to clear my head and find this elephant. The fact that its trunk is up does NOT bring me luck the next day.

The next day I am scheduled to pick up my rental car (oh yah, did I mention that I needed to rent a car because of the rail strike?) and drive to Chartres, then on to Auray the next day. Sensing that I will need more time at the airport to sort all of this out, I rejig all my hotels. More panicked calls and emails to Chronopost (from me and from my broker, who is also having phone trouble with them, which gives me some degree of comfort knowing it isn’t just me being inept / unlucky), but by the end of this second day in Paris, I am no further ahead.

So much time spent in the vicinity of the airport. Le sigh.

Day three dawns and I am pretty much resolved that I will not be getting my piece in time for the show. I send one more email to Chronopost, pleading with them to fast-track my documents. Just before lunch…an email from the broker! She has the last document she needs from Chronopost and she starts the customs process. She says it usually takes one or two hours to clear customs if all is in order, but “they’re on their lunch break now, so it’s not going anywhere for a while. ” More waiting, trying not to get my hopes up. Finally, at 4:30pm, I am resigned that it won’t happen. I email the broker, asking how late customs usually works (basically, asking for confirmation that, yes, now it is time to officially give up). And at that exact moment she emails me and our emails cross in cyberspace. My mosaic has cleared customs!!! She sends one of her guys to grab it from Chronopost and deliver it to my hotel. At 5:30pm, I hand over a giant wad of euros and take possession of my mosaic. I have never been so happy to see a cardboard box in my life.

IT’S A BOX! WITH A MOSAIC INSIDE!!! (PS No idea why it has a “heavy” sticker on it… it weighed less than 6 kg.)

Day four is the day of the show opening. Up at the crack of dawn, my mosaic and I set out for Auray, a six-hour drive away. The Périphérique fries my nerves, but I do enjoy the 130km/h speed limit once I reach the highway. I arrive in Auray and hang my mosaic on the wall just four hours before the show opens.

For four days, I have taken no pleasure in anything. It hasn’t even felt like I’m in France, as I’ve been entirely suspended in that limbo that is an airport hotel. The moment I walk into the exhibition space, though… I get chills. The venue is amazing. Breathtaking, really. The show is beautifully curated and thoughtfully hung. More than half the artists are there in person and I get to meet some of those big names I’ve admired for so long.

I feel proud, overwhelmed, frustrated, and exhausted all at the same time.

*gasp* The Chapelle du Saint-Esprit. Gorgeousness.

Proof that it actually made it there.


Now that I’ve been home for a bit, and have some distance between myself and that shipping shitshow, I can consider the fundamental question of: Was it worth it? The answer is not a simple yes or no. I am immensely honoured that my art has been chosen to hang in a space like that, alongside artists whose work I greatly admire. In terms of boosting my confidence and my ego? Yep, mission accomplished. In terms of making connections? Again, yes. In terms of being able to put that I’m an internationally exhibited artist on my CV? Check.

But in terms of expense and stress? I’m not so sure. I don’t love that these shows seem to be firmly a pay-to-play situation. The cost is not insignificant. I would estimate that participating in this show will have cost me nearly $1,000 by the time it’s all over, and that doesn’t include the trip I took to attend the opening (a trip without which I am certain that my mosaic would never have made it out of the airport). I can afford to pay thanks to my day job, but that’s beside the point. I know this is just “the way things are done” but that doesn’t mean I have to like or accept it.

As I shared frustrated updates about my misadventure on social media, I was shocked by the number of similar horror stories I heard. Art being held in customs for months, artists paying vast sums of money just to get their art out of customs, art being damaged or lost entirely. If this is such a common thing, why do we even do it at all? My own experience was enough to give me pause, but add to that all the similar (and worse!) stories I’ve heard, and it just doesn’t seem worth it to me. Surely there must be a better alternative.

So, will I participate in an international (not counting the US) show again? I won’t say never, but I will be very very selective and it won’t happen often. I’d say I can probably count on one hand (with plenty of room to spare) how many times I will do this in my entire career. I think I am better served trying to build my profile and my audience here at home (or at least closer to home), as these are the people who are probably more likely to buy my work. These are the people I can build relationships with, relationships that are so very important in selling people on the idea of investing in me, my art, and my vision.

But—and that’s a very big but!—if/when opportunity comes knocking and I actually work up the nerve to try this again, I will at least know the following and will roll the dice accordingly:

  • It will cost a LOT of money. Probably more than I think it will. These shows do not make financial sense, and my participation will be purely self-indulgent.
  • There will be stress. Probably more than I think there will be. (Not that knowing this will prevent me from having real honest-to-god heart palpitations again next time…)
  • I will be at the mercy of customs agents. I might get lucky, or I might not.
  • The worst-case scenario of never seeing my mosaic again is always a very real possibility.
  • Having someone on the ground who can troubleshoot and advocate on my behalf (especially if it’s a country where I don’t speak the language) will be essential.
  • Hand delivering work will always be the best option, if possible.

And finally…

  • Never ever tell them it’s art.

2

What’s black and white and is but isn’t a mosaic?

I have just quietly launched a product line that is and isn’t mosaic. “Trace Elements” are prints of tracings that I make of my own mosaics.

There are so many reasons why I’m doing this. Let’s get the most obvious one out of the way first: price. I know that not everyone has hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars to buy my art. Offering prints makes my art way more accessible, and that’s important to me. It’s also WAY easier and cheaper to ship than an actual mosaic, which is a big bonus.

I could just offer prints of photos I’ve taken of my work. Lots of people do that, and there’s nothing wrong with it. But personally, photos of mosaics always leave me unsatisfied. Every time I post photos online, I know that it’s just not the same as experiencing a mosaic in person. You can’t fully appreciate the texture, topography, scale, reflectivity, and all those other more tactile and experiential qualities that make mosaic so special. The challenge of adequately capturing a mosaic in a photo is one of the medium’s big Achilles heels. And if I’m constantly saying, “The photos don’t do it justice,” then why would I offer prints of those photos?

So the challenge for me was to find something reproducible that captures the essence of the mosaic. Enter the tracing. I did not invent tracing mosaics. Let’s be very clear about that. There are plenty of mosaicists out there who do it as they work to restore or reproduce ancient mosaics. There are others who use it as a learning tool to get right down to the building blocks of a mosaic. I just decided that I would make tracings that themselves are art.

Hand traced, hand printed

One of the things I love most about mosaic is the andamento. How those lines of tesserae are built and how they move. Especially how they move. A tracing strips away everything except the andamento. It lays it bare. For me, this is the essence of my work, which is why the simplicity of a tracing captures what’s at the heart of my work and never fails to make me feel just a wee bit exposed.

Every single tessera is traced by hand on vellum paper, to later be scanned and then printed. I tried a few different ways of printing them, and have settled on getting them screenprinted by hand at a local shop. I love the crispness of the lines paired with the fact that you can still see traces of evidence that they were made by hand, like the ink distribution not being 100% the same in each and every print. The perfection of the imperfect. It adds to their character and specialness.

There is a meditative aspect to the tracing, just as there is to actual mosaic-making. I also learn something about myself as a mosaicist with each tracing that I do. Any bad habits are clearly exposed, but I can just correct those Bob Ross happy accidents by nudging the outline of a tessera one way or the other. It’s not cheating, it’s learning! I’m also finding that tracing is giving me a new (cautious) appreciation for colour and the role it plays in my work. (Anyone who knows me well, knows that I am a colourphobe.)

I never trace the whole mosaic; instead, I select a favourite fragment, which always brings to mind the ancient mosaic fragments you see in museums. I love how it hints at the whole, but is enough on its own. It is complete yet mysterious.

My tracings are not exact replicas of my mosaics. While sometimes it’s because I fix things, but more often it’s because the image underneath the tracing paper isn’t perfectly clear, so I give it my best guess. I get to (re)invent some of the andamento as I trace, so there is a uniqueness to these tracings that goes beyond what a photo can offer.

The simplicity of a tracing kind of means that the sky’s the limit. I’ve already joked about making an adult colouring book, t-shirts, calendars, andamento workbooks, and postcards. Who knows where this tracing adventure will take me, but I’m really excited and I’d love for you to follow along on this ride.

How to buy a print

I’m still working on getting the storefront set up on my website, so for now just email me and we’ll go from there! Prints measure 9″ x 12″ and are screenprinted by hand on 100% cotton, 250 gsm, acid-free paper. They are $50 CAD each (plus postage) and payment can be by email transfer, PayPal, cash, or cheque.

I’m offering each print in small limited editions of 50. The first print available is “(More than) Enough“, which is quite possibly one of my favourite mosaics I’ve ever made, and thus an obvious choice as the first offering in this new venture.

 

 

2

I wish I had thought of that

A while back, someone—quite innocently, I’m sure—applauded my creativity and said about one of my mosaics: “I wish I’d thought of that!” I know the comment was well-intentioned, but there was something about it that sort of needled me. I’m not taking issue with this individual or the comment specifically, but rather the implied notion that I’m inherently creative and these ideas just come to me in a burst of inspiration and genius. Spoiler alert: that’s not how it happens.

I get these ideas because I do the work. I put in my time in the studio. I brainstorm. I come up with terrible ideas and I come up with great ideas (and often the former evolve into the latter). I am constantly thinking, observing, playing, reading, connecting the dots, finding my voice, and making (and unmaking). What you see is the product of more hours, weeks, months, and years spent working than I care to count. Hours spent alone in my studio, some blissful, some angst-ridden. Hours spent figuring stuff out, taking classes, seeking out information, and practicing.

This is all work. Work, work, work, work, work, and work.

Of course part of my development has been (and still is) watching other artists, mosaic and beyond. That’s a no-brainer. But when I see them doing something amazing, the script in my head is not a defeated “Damn, I wish I’d thought of that,” it’s more like “Man, that’s so cool! I’m going to go back to my studio now and see what sort of crazy stuff I can come up with!” I take it as a challenge, but not in a competitive way. It’s more of an opening of possibilities and a way to push myself forward into new territory. That’s the beauty and value of being part of a community.

I’m not naturally gifted in the creativity department, and that’s not just me being modest. So if I can do this, trust me, you can too. Something that has always resonated with me is Keri Smith‘s tips on how to be an explorer of the world, and I embrace many of them as I strive to hone my creativity and my art practice. I offer them to you here in case they are helpful. So please don’t look wistfully at what I do, wishing you had my creativity. I certainly don’t have that market cornered. You can make things that capture your unique voice in this world. You just have to be willing to do the work. I can’t do it for you.
I’ve always struggled with that last one, with doing other people’s work for them. It’s likely a deadly combination of pride, high standards, and a genuine desire to be helpful. I was always the kid in class who’d pick up the slack in group projects. I spend more time at work than I should fixing things that will ultimately make other people look good. And I also get easily sucked into answering mosaic questions from perfect strangers asking how I do X, Y, or Z. But I’m getting a bit tired of doing other people’s work for them—in all areas of my life—and in the end it really doesn’t help anyone. So my motto for 2018? Do your own work (and I will keep doing mine).

Yes, I will still help others, but I’m going to be selective and just a little bit selfish. Do we have a relationship based on trust, friendship, collegiality, and reciprocity? Yes? Well then I’m happy to help. But the one-sided helping—the doing of others’ work for them—is getting phased out. Don’t know me but still want me to answer all your questions? Nope, sorry, not for free anymore. Want to know more about my work? Do your homework and read my blog. I make a point of being quite open and generous in my writing, and I spend a lot of time carefully crafting posts that cover the what and the why of my work, but I don’t go into the how and there’s a reason for that. If you still have questions after reading, by all means reach out and ask. But show me that you’ve done / are willing to do the work. I will gladly work with you and help guide you, I will arm you with the tools you need to do the work, but I won’t do it for you (this will be especially true once I’m set up to be able to offer classes). I am no longer in the business of giving quick and easy answers because it’s easier for you to ask than to do the digging. You need to be there, be engaged, be getting dirty in the trenches doing the work. I don’t mean for this to sound harsh, but as my wise friend Deb Englebaugh likes to remind me: I am not required to set myself on fire to keep others warm.

I have so much more to learn and explore in this medium, so many more ideas to uncover and polish (and so many duds to sift through and discard), so I’m going to keep showing up and doing the work. Do you like or admire what I do? Wish you could do it? You can (in your own way and with your own voice, of course). You just have to put in the work.

 

16

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The structure in varying states of (in)completeness

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

When: 9 long days in July 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WE did that!!!

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

Just look at that beautiful curl of Youghiogheny glass!

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

An intense feeling of satisfaction seeing it all done

14

An ode to champions, cheerleaders, and enablers

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

Anyway, let’s start from the beginning…

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

The brilliant Wendy MacNaughton illustrates the recipe for greatness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

0

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

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

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

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

Listening intently to questions, hoping I can answer them

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

The snail-ISH thing I carved

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

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

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

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

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

4

An (im)permanent goodbye to Ottawa

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

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

Daddy supervising the installation

Daddy supervising the installation

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

graffiti wall installation - with paint can

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

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

Six hours later and already the landscape has shifted

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

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

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

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

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

This material never ceases to thrill me.

This material never ceases to thrill me.

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

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

graffiti wall installation - in context

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

5

When life gets crazy, make pet rocks

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

Julie Sperling - pet rock with air plant

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

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

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

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

Sperling, pet rock

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

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

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

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

10

Complementarity and cross-pollination: Celebrating the day job

Day jobs. It seems that we love to hate them. For years I resented my office job. I wanted nothing more than to quit and make mosaics all day. If I could do that, I thought, it would mean I was a success. Life would be perfect. (Ha!)  I think Mark Manson dispels this myth perfectly when he says:

“[W]ho says you need to make money doing what you love? Since when does everyone feel entitled to love every fucking second of their job? Really, what is so wrong with working an OK normal job with some cool people you like, and then pursuing your passion in your free time on the side? […]

Look, here’s another slap in the face for you: every job sucks sometimes. There’s no such thing as some passionate activity that you will never get tired of, never get stressed over, never complain about. It doesn’t exist.”

Slowly, over the past year or so, I have been undergoing a shift in mindset. A shift to contentment. To finding joy and satisfaction with where I am in life, rather than obsessing about where I think I want to be and constantly feeling frustrated by where I’m not. Don’t get me wrong: I still have very high expectations for myself with respect to my mosaic work, but I have decoupled my measure of success from whether or not I make my living at mosaic.

I think it’s interesting that this mental shift has come at exactly the same time that my mosaic work seems to be picking up steam and starting to enjoy a VERY small inkling of traction. In other words: it happened at precisely the moment when you’d think that this progress on the mosaic front would be fuelling my resentment of my day job because the dream seems even more within my grasp. But it’s completely the opposite.

This gradual mental shift (which, looking back, seems embarrassingly obvious) culminated a few months ago when I read Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. There were so many sections in that book that resonated with me (far more than I had anticipated)—it was certainly a case of the right book at the right time—and one of them was a chapter on day jobs. In it, Gilbert tells her readers how she stuck with her day job even after having published three well-received novels, and that it wasn’t until her fourth—Eat, Pray, Love—that she finally allowed herself to quit her day job and dedicate herself to writing full time.

“I held on to those other sources of income for so long because I never wanted to burden my writing with the responsibility of paying for my life. […] I have watched so many other people murder their creativity by demanding that their art pay the bills. I’ve seen artists drive themselves broke and crazy because of this insistence that they are not legitimate creators unless they can exclusively live off their creativity. […]

I’ve always felt like this is so cruel to your work—to demand a regular paycheck from it, as if creativity were a government job, or a trust fund. Look, if you can manage to live comfortably off your inspiration forever, that’s fantastic. That’s everyone’s dream, right? But don’t let that dream turn into a nightmare. Financial demands can put so much pressure on the delicacies and vagaries of inspiration.”

Cuddly dog and cozy afghan: Perfect accompaniments to reading "Big Magic" over the holidays

Cuddly dog and cozy afghan: Perfect accompaniments to reading “Big Magic” over the holidays

Those words of hers (and others in the book) were a lightbulb moment for me. Things clicked into place. With this outlook fully and firmly entrenched in my way of thinking, I started considering all the interesting and positive ways that my day job actually influenced and supported my art. And the list was not insignificant. It was in this context that I decided to write this post.

As a first step, I put out a call via various social media channels to my fellow mosaicists with day jobs, soliciting their input. (A big thank you to all those who participated!) Very quickly I started receiving a steady stream of replies from people who bemoaned their day jobs, wishing desperately they could quit and do mosaic full time.

“I work as a seasonal tax preparer and told my boss I only wanted part time this year but now I regret going back at all! Going to quit after the peak […] because all I think about is mosaics!!! I even dream about it. Total addict.” (Robin Moyher)

“I work a full-time job and try to work on mosaics at night and weekends. However, it’s very, very hard as when I come home at night […], I am so tired. I want to quit […]!” (Becki Miles Whittington)

“All I ever learnt from my crappy admin day jobs was how much I preferred making mosaics. I found my succession of part-time jobs gave me the perfect excuse for not being successful as an artist – I could always say ‘Well, I would make that but I don’t really have time.'” (Heather Stevenson)

I was disappointed, thinking that they had obviously missed the point. But the more I read these replies and thought about them, the more it motivated me to write this blog post. So this post goes out to all those who are feeling frustrated or stuck or less than (i.e., not a Real Artist) because they don’t make art full time. The compilation below is my small attempt at encouraging those with 9-to-5 gigs to not sneer at their jobs with contempt, but to think about the various ways these jobs allow them to bring some pretty neat skills, perspectives, and knowledge to the table.

Escape and satisfaction

While not exactly a way that day jobs benefit mosaic work, enough people mentioned this that I think it’s a good place to start: the obvious benefit of art being an escape or release from the drudgery of the 9-to-5 grind. A place to exercise your autonomy and creativity, replenish your soul, and give yourself a feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction.

“It makes me slower at finishing everything! But it certainly relieves any stress from Mr. Corporate America.” (Michelle Lowe)

“I work with numbers all day. The mosaics use the other side of my brain.” (Kim Caine Rexford)

“I started making mosaics when my three children were very young. Every day seemed exactly like the last—a stream of dressing, meal times, changing, cleaning, re-dressing, more cleaning, dealing with childish quarrels and frustrations, bathtimes and bedtimes. I had little time for mosaics, which were new to me but immediately became a source of great pleasure and excitement. One of the things that I found most satisfying at that stage is that mosaics gave me a sense of achievement. I might get through a long, difficult, lonely day of childcare and feel as if nothing had happened except that we’d all survived, but if I also managed to add a few tesserae to a piece that I was working on, the sense of progress that gave me was a source of huge satisfaction.” (Helen Miles)

Helen Miles' very first mosaic, made in stolen moments when her children were still very young

Helen Miles’ very first mosaic (the letter ‘m’ in Arabic), made in stolen moments when her children were still very young

Materials

Sometimes our day jobs are sources of mosaic materials, be they unusual or simply useful. I have written before about how some of my colleagues are rock fairies, leaving random gifts of rocks, sticks, and rusty metal on my desk. But others have jobs where their actual work materials can be translated into a mosaic context.

“I have a technical job, so it makes me look at the scraps at work in different ways. I am looking at […] doing a tech piece, with pieces of old memory sticks, cat5 cable, etc… It makes me really look at how I can recycle things.” (Lorie Redding)

“I was an operating theatre nurse…amazing the amount of mosaic-friendly stuff to use that would otherwise get thrown away…I really miss those abdominal sponges!” (Jane Silk)

Discipline

Time is, arguably without question, the limiting factor for those of us who have day jobs. Even with my new outlook, I will admit to getting frustrated over my lack of time. As such, we quickly learn to make smart decisions about how we spend our time (I’ve written about this before)—the activities in which we engage, how we structure our day, and the projects we undertake (oftentimes editing them down to their fundamental essence, resulting in tighter, more focused work than we might otherwise produce). We also become, out of sheer necessity, highly disciplined if we hope to accomplish anything substantial. And discipline is never a bad trait to have.

In Tami Zweig Macala’s case, her former day job as a costumer emphasized the need for “a really strong work ethic and a need to be constantly doing something,” and Ronni Polfer’s thinking was along the same lines: “I have to learn to discipline my time and finish one project before beginning another.” Donna Van Hooser felt similarly:

“I think the most important thing I learned being in [a corporate] environment was discipline and time management, especially being aware of my capabilities and adjusting the process to fit the deadline. […] One thing that I would tell myself while working was, ‘If you have one day to make a card, make a card that takes one day.’ I know that sounds obvious, but you won’t believe how many people would get behind or not meet deadlines because they didn’t adjust. They would spend half the time complaining about not having enough time. When I have a certain amount of time to make a mosaic, I need to adjust how I do it in order to get it done in time. I have learned to trust my instincts, and to try not to over-think or over-work a project.”

Skills and knowledge

Given that we nine-to-fivers spend a big chunk of our time at our day jobs, it’s almost inevitable that what we do there—the skills we master and the knowledge we gain—will in some way infiltrate and inform our mosaic work.

In my case, obviously the knowledge I have gained (and continue to gain) in my work on the climate change file has directly influenced my mosaic work on the subject (more on that in the Inspiration section below). But I have also acquired or honed more practical skills at my job that have served me well so far in my mosaic pursuits. The best example I can think of is my ability to write. As a policy analyst, I write a lot. I have to be able to explain often complex issues in plain language. The writing skills that I have developed at work have absolutely benefited my blogging, especially the posts that accompany each mosaic in the Fiddling While Rome Burns series (which I see as an essential complement to communicating the full message of my climate mosaic work).

Stacia Fink Goldman also spoke of how the writing and marketing skills she uses at work have benefited her mosaic work: “I’m a freelance marketing/advertising/PR writer. My skills have ABSOLUTELY benefitted my ability to make my mosaics a business and promote it—and write awesome proposals.” Some of the other tangible skills and traits that fellow mosaicists with day jobs were able to identify included patience (Kathleen Stewart) and team work (Donna Van Hooser). In the case of yoga teacher and naturopath Patricia Laura Sobrado, her yoga practice helps her see the world differently and reinforces the importance of doing art without expectations, whether people like it or not or buy it or not.

Rachel Sager had some thoughts on how her earlier incarnation as a massage therapist gave her valuable business insight:

“If you must have a day job to sustain your lifestyle as an artist, I highly recommend massage therapy as a career choice. After twenty years of doing both art and massage, I have a healthy appreciation for what each does for the other to support me. […] I will always be grateful for the serendipity of landing my first massage job at a high-end private club that put me into direct contact with a demographic of clients who 1. were genuinely interested in art, 2. could afford to invest in my art, and  3. had unique business experience and were willing to share it. The biggest takeaway I hold dear from those years is that business, any business, is about relationships. Your success in any field is directly connected to the strength and quality of the relationships that you sustain. My active massage days are mostly behind me now, but I continue to benefit from and foster those relationships, several of which even became mentors.”

Finally, Marian Shapiro spoke of how her experience as a self-employed computer consultant has informed her mosaic commission process:

“In a previous life I […] made my living making custom databases for not-for-profit organisations. For the past 12 years I have been making mosaics, with about 70% of the work being on commission: private, public, and commercial. One of the key things when making databases for people was to ensure that what was in my head, the client’s head, and what came out at the end of the process were as much as possible all the same thing with no unpleasant surprises on either side.

It’s exactly the same with commission work. You get the odd client who wants a surprise but most people want to be involved at some level and know what they are getting. After a few unpleasant experiences, including spending three days designing something for someone who then decided they didn’t want to go forward, and buying materials for projects that then didn’t happen, I worked out a structured commission process that includes charging a design fee, proper payment schedules, regular reporting to the client, and so on. I have a page on my website about commissioning work and a standard document I send to clients when they first inquire and that is also downloadable from my website. Over the years I have made amendments to it as situations arose that I hadn’t foreseen, but the principle of having a standard process (and sticking to it with no exceptions) has served me well.”

Marian Shapiro's "Field of Poppies"---a commission she nearly didn’t take because she was unsure about how to work with the clients after the initial site visit. The piece has appeared in books and magazines and was a finalist in the architectural section of Mosaic Arts International in 2013.

Marian Shapiro’s “Field of Poppies”—a commission she nearly didn’t take because she was unsure about how to work with the clients after the initial site visit. The piece has appeared in books and magazines and was a finalist in the architectural section of Mosaic Arts International in 2013.

Freedom

I may be the only one to mention this angle, but I think it deserves to be included: my day job gives me an immense amount of freedom and latitude in my mosaic work to explore the issues of my choosing. If I had to make my living from my art, I very much doubt that I would have thrown myself head first into a series about climate change. Because, let’s be honest, one wouldn’t intuitively think that there’s a booming market out there for mosaics about such a sobering topic. But because my work as a policy analyst keeps me fed, sheltered, and clothed, I have the freedom to work on a subject like climate change, simply because it’s important to me to speak out about it, without worrying about the consumer demand (or lack thereof) for this sort of art.

breaking the hand - start of breakdown

Because of my day job, I have the freedom to make mosaics about light and happy topics like ocean acidification

Inspiration

In my case, the file that I work on as a federal public servant (climate change adaptation) is directly related to my climate change series. Over the course of a normal work week, I am in constant contact with the issue, building my knowledge through a steady work-related diet of news articles and reports, some of which generate a little spark of inspiration and I tuck away as ideas for future mosaics in the series. My job is the source of so much inspiration, in fact, that my list of future climate-related mosaics far outstrips the time I have to make them. I will never lack for ideas or inspiration.

For Rachel Sager, it was the actual work environment that served as a source of inspiration:

“[Massage] puts me in a dark, quiet room on a regular basis. That simple reality has resulted in scores of artistic conversations that I have had with myself. I can makes lists of the art that was inspired and shaped in my head while I am quietly working with my hands on another human being. The cave-like atmosphere of a massage environment, the slowing down of breath and speech, has done more to further my art career than any business class. As an introvert, the hibernation of the cave and the one-on-one format of social interaction is where I thrive and recharge.”

Rachel Sager's "Allegory of Free Will" -- one example of her work that was shaped in her head in the cave-like massage environment

Rachel Sager’s “Allegory of Free Will” — one example of her work that was shaped in her head in the cave-like massage environment

For others, there was an even more direct link to inspiration, as they were already engaged in creative day jobs. Donna Van Hooser, who worked for 27 years as a designer/illustrator at Hallmark Cards, had this to say:

“Working daily with so many creative people, it was easy to get inspiration for my mosaic work. I feel very fortunate to have had the corporate experience, but I would be lying if I said I didn’t wish I was home working on my mosaics during the day. […] It’s funny, because I did primarily kids’ cards during my time there (lots of bunnies, bears, and mice wearing clothes), so a little bit of whimsy snuck into my mosaic work. Storytelling was very important to me. If I had to pick one of my mosaics that was mostly influenced by this, it would be “What, This Old Thing?”, which is a robin dressed as Queen Elizabeth. So much of my personal work was conceived at my day job…”

Donna Van Hooser's "What, This Old Thing?"

Donna Van Hooser’s “What, This Old Thing?”

And Siovhan Hutcherson and Heather Vollans had the following to say:

“I work full time in an Italian lighting company now, 8 – 5+, to keep the roof over the head. I dream of being a full time artist! In my day-to-day reality, the press of the daily slog does slow me down, production wise, with my mosaic art […]. One project could take weeks because I can only dedicate evenings and weekends (and sometimes I do have other things to do!). But at the same time, working in a company that’s business is designing unique and high-end light fixtures from the heart of Italy, I do get exposed to the publications of the field of interior design, and I find that very inspirational. The color palettes of the layouts in these magazines, patterns and such, do wash through me… Moreover, it shows me what’s possible.” (Siovhan Hutcherson)

“I worked as a decorative painter for years doing faux finishes and such – great influence in what I do now!” (Heather Vollans)

Some final thoughts

So, my fellow nine-to-fivers, here’s what I’m hoping you’ll take away from this post:

  • It’s absolutely OK to be frustrated with your day job and to want to make mosaics full time, but please resist the temptation to construct some idealized view of what it would be like, where everything will be 100% perfect and sunny. As Mark Manson says, every job comes with a shit sandwich.
  • Be ambitious and driven, but cultivate contentment. Dream big, but don’t focus on where you’re not, because the resentment and frustration that comes with doing so is toxic (and I am very much speaking from experience here). Sometimes it helps to focus on the pleasure of creating, as Siovhan Hutcherson wrote: “[R]eality is hard, but I do what I love for the love of the art, the mosaic process itself, so I make as I can, and rest when I need to. […] We all hope to sell and make at least SOME income from it […], but if i never sell another thing, I will still create…because it’s a very basic part of who I am.”
  • Find something to appreciate about your day job, even if it’s as simple as putting food on the table while you work toward your dream. Think about what transferable skills, knowledge, or experiences you can acquire while you’re there that will serve you well in the long run.

Remember: We day jobbers are a tenacious, disciplined bunch and we have a lot of interesting perspectives and skills to offer. And we can, without question, live a creative life, make beautiful, impactful art in the evenings and on weekends, and we can actively contribute to the dialogue within the mosaic community and to pushing our medium’s boundaries. So there. Pep talk over. Carry on!

PS For extra credit, read Elizabeth Gilbert’s take on hobbies, jobs, careers, and vocations. You’ll be glad you did.

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Travelling feet: Half of my contribution to Rachel Sager’s Ruins Project

Done and ready to be shipped to its new home!

Done and ready to be shipped to its new home!

This past summer, while on vacation at my family’s cottage, I finally got around to making a contribution to send to Rachel Sager for The Ruins Project. (If you don’t know about this undertaking of hers yet, read this—it’s basically amazing.) Well, technically I made half of a contribution. What did I send her? My left footprint. I intend to make and install the right footprint in situ when I finally get myself to The Ruins one of these days. You might be asking why on earth I would make a footprint, particularly given that it’s a bit out of character for me since I tend heavily toward the abstract, but trust me, it makes perfect sense. Bear with me as I explain…

When I started thinking about what I wanted to do, I knew it somehow had to be tied to Place. If you’re familiar with Rachel’s work, you know this theme figures prominently for her, and her Ruins promise to be one gloriously sprawling, mosaic-laden tribute to Place. Luckily, notions of Place are also near and dear to my geographer’s heart, so this was a natural fit for me.

All installed in The Ruins!

All installed in The Ruins! (Photo courtesy of Rachel Sager)

So what connects Place and a footprint for me? Easy: walking. I am an avid walker and, like the lines in my mosaics, I take such pleasure in wandering and meandering, letting my feet and my curiosity carry me where they will. There’s something about walking’s repetition, rhythm, and simplicity that really resonates with me. Walking is how I connect best with my Place; it forces me to slow down and notice little details and really get to know my surroundings as I move through the landscape at a human pace. The best walks are unhurried and unfold at their own pace, similar to mosaic, which defies being rushed.

For me, mosaics, Place, and walking are all inextricably intertwined. There are so many 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. That’s why I decided to make a footprint (well, an eventual set of footprints) for Rachel’s Ruins.

C'mon, that's a pretty nice footprint (hanging in the studio, just waiting for the trip to the cottage).

C’mon, that’s a pretty nice footprint (hanging in the studio, just waiting for the trip to the cottage).

The footprint really is mine—I actually painted the sole of my foot to make the template, then hopped on one foot to the bathroom to wash it off (don’t ask me why it didn’t occur to me to do the whole process in the bathroom). For a long time, I didn’t like my feet. They’re too wide (like, really wide), the toes are stubby, and the left foot is a whole half size bigger than the right. Mine are not elegant feet. But the more in love I’ve fallen with walking, the more I’ve come to appreciate my feet. They are a solid, sturdy base, they are practical and made for exploration, and they ground me in my Place. And, as it turns out, they make for really good, classic-looking footprints.

The left foot that now calls The Ruins home is made from pieces of my Place. The black rock is my favourite rock from where I live (Ottawa) and this particular batch was foraged in celebration of my second Touchstone anniversary. The big chunks of off-white rock with the beautiful pockets and pits are from the cottage, which is a very special place for me and full of lots of good memories. The right foot will eventually be made from stones and other materials found in and around The Ruins, as that place (with Rachel’s class at Touchstone serving as a proxy) has left its mark on me and influenced how I am navigating the various twists and turns of the mosaic path down which I am now travelling.

My foot and its neighbour (by Kelley Knickerbocker)

My foot and its neighbour (by Kelley Knickerbocker). Photo courtesy of Rachel Sager.

This was a really fun project for me and I was so happy to be able to contribute to this fabulous (and massive) undertaking of Rachel’s. I can’t wait to head down and complete the pair. Stay tuned! And keep your eye on her website and social media channels (there’s even a hashtag: #TheRuinsProject) for updates as the project picks up steam.

Zoomed out for a bit of perspective. Look how tiny my foot is compared to the stairs. And those stairs themselves are dwarfed by the Ruins writ large...

Zoomed out for a bit of perspective. Look how tiny my foot is compared to the stairs. And those stairs themselves are dwarfed by the Ruins writ large… (Photo courtesy of Rachel Sager)

A side note: When I told my parents that I was on the hunt for nice pitted chunks of the limestone from the cottage, which are tougher to come by than you’d think (at least in manageable sizes), my dad offered up one particularly beautiful specimen. It had been sitting on a shelf where he displays lots of interesting little objects that he randomly finds here and there, and I knew immediately that it had to remain at the cottage. So I turned it into a little mosaic that I later installed on the side of the cottage.

Freshly installed, thinset not even dry yet!

Freshly installed, thinset not even dry yet!

**Update!**

In October 2016 I actually visited Rachel’s Ruins and got to finish my pair of feet, the second of which I made out of materials I found right there, under foot, in the Ruins.

My right foot, made with my special “Ruins mix” of materials

The pair of them, with more work popping up around them

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