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

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

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

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

1 – You need endurance in spades

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

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

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

2 – You are not doing this alone

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

3 – You might as well aim high

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5 – Lists and timelines are your friends

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

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

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

The layout in the Foreman's Shed

The final layout in the Foreman’s Shed

7 – Pick your battles

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

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

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

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

Measure, measure, and then measure again.

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

Figuring out the spacing in the Foreman's Shed.

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

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

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

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

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


Places vs. names: Making peace with my lack of interest in nomenclature

Back in high school, I loved science. More specifically, I loved naming and classifying things. Inorganic chemistry nomenclature? Oh baby. Kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species? Yes please! I was damn good at memorization and I liked structure and rules.

So imagine my surprise when, after discovering that I wanted to make mosaics from rocks I foraged for myself, I came to the realization that I had very little interest in learning their names and boning up on geology. At first this really bothered me and I was disappointed in myself. Even now, I still feel a bit guilty when people ask me what type of rock I used in a particular mosaic and I have to answer “I don’t know.” Don’t get me wrong, I love it when people identify my rocks for me, but I’m just not that motivated to search out the information myself (although if there were a compelling reason to do so, I would certainly do my homework). I think this is partly because I’m not great at learning this sort of stuff on my own from a book or a website—I’d much rather learn it from someone. But even more fundamentally, what I’ve come to realize is that what’s more significant and meaningful to me is where the rocks come from, not what they’re called.

Loading up on a family hike

I take such pleasure in recalling where I was, who I was with, and the whole experience of gathering the rock. There’s the batch of rock that was scavenged at lunchtime on the bank of the Ottawa river, when I ripped my pants scrambling back up the retaining wall. Or the haul from the cottage, gathered on a beautiful September day while hiking with my family for my parents’ 40th wedding anniversary. Or the flakes of weathered rock sitting abandoned on the lawn of an apartment building that I passed every day on my way to work for the better part of a year until one day I finally said, “Enough!” and stopped to scoop them up. Or there’s the rock I grabbed on the way back from the monastery in Quebec’s Eastern Townships after pulling the car over to the side of the road on a whim on a misty Saturday afternoon.

A perfect window onto the roadside jackpot in the Eastern Townships

A perfect window onto the roadside jackpot in the Eastern Townships

My naming system, if you can call it that, is simple. There’s black rock, off-white rock, blueish rock, grey rock with sparkly layers that smells like gas when cut. To be fair, I have learned some of their actual names (like mudstone and bituminous dolomite), but that’s secondary to me. There’s rock that cuts effortlessly in neat little cubes, rock that has a satisfying snap, and rock that is unpredictably wonderful. I don’t need to get any fancier in my classification than that, because rocks for me are more about place. They are a moment in space and time—a memory—and they carry stories. That’s what’s important and interesting to me. That’s why I love using them.

So next time you ask me what kind of rock I’m using, please don’t be surprised when I say, unapologetically, “I don’t know, but I found it on the shore of this lake when I was out for a hike with so-and-so, and it cuts like a dream.” (And if you’re able to identify any of my rocks, I’m all ears!)


The rock fairy

Ever since I was bitten by the rock bug, people have been giving me stones (and, increasingly, rusty bits of metal) to use in my mosaics. Sometimes it’s a negotiated exchange (“I’ll send you some of mine if you send me some of yours”), sometimes people are lovely enough to think of me while they’re travelling, sometimes rocks pass through many hands before I get them (like the chunk of quartz that was from my mom’s friend’s friend), and sometimes the rock fairy just randomly shows up at my office (which ends in me going around the floor, checking with the usual suspects to see whether they were responsible for whatever goodies were left on my desk).

Sometimes friends enlist the help of their kids in gathering materials for me on their roadtrips

Sometimes friends enlist the help of their kids in gathering materials for me on their roadtrips

It’s always interesting to see what other people think will be perfect for incorporating into my work. The rocks that non-mosaic people give me are usually much different than what I would normally pick up—they tend to be rounder, smoother, and typically more aesthetically pleasing or interesting as is (think of the souvenir rocks you squirrel away in your pocket on vacation and then promptly forget about)—as opposed to the usual “workhorse” rocks that I pick up with the intention of smashing to bits. That said, I eventually find a use for the vast majority of them, which is neat because it forces me to push myself a little bit and consider new possibilities. I also love that these rocks almost always come with stories, whether spoken or unspoken, and I enjoy knowing that people have connected with them in some way—in a particular place and at a particular moment in time—before they give them to me.

"Workhorse" sandstone by way of a mosaic friend in Pennsylvania -- this is definitely more in my wheelhouse

“Workhorse” sandstone by way of a mosaic friend in Pennsylvania — this is definitely more in my wheelhouse

I have also loved putting together packages of rocks that I’ve sent off to mosaic pals and sharing a little bit of home with them. It’s fun to think that the rocks I think are perfect aren’t necessarily the ones that they’d choose for themselves, even if we both make mosaics.

Drool-worthy petrified wood from a fellow Canadian mosaic nut, which was just one of the many treasures I received in our swap

Drool-worthy petrified wood from a fellow Canadian mosaic nut, which was just one of the many treasures I received in our swap

While I may occasionally get stumped—damn you, large, perfectly round rock, you will not defeat me!—I always love it when the rock (or rusty metal) fairy visits. I get a warm fuzzy feeling when non-mosaic people go out of their way to indulge my habit, and there’s a sense of kinship, community, and connection when fellow mosaic people swap rocks with me. Either way, the rock fairy is always welcome at my place!

This perfectly round rock was the first thing to ever mysteriously appear on my desk at work

This perfectly round rock was the first thing to ever mysteriously appear on my desk at work



On ritual and reflection

It has now been two years since I travelled to Touchstone to take Rachel Sager‘s class. Unbeknownst to me at the time, that would be the pivotal experience that set me on the path down which I am now travelling. Since then, for whatever reason, I have taken to celebrating this ‘anniversary’ of sorts.

At first I thought I was being silly and sentimental (and I probably am, to some degree), but I like the ritual and tradition of it. I also like that it clearly establishes a marker against which I can measure my progress and serves as a reminder to stop and take stock of how far I’ve come and how far I have yet to go.

This year, in addition to listening to Josh Ritter’s “Lark” (my Touchstone theme song), I celebrated by going on my first foraging outing of the year. It was still a bit early in the season and the waters were high at my favourite scavenging spot, but they had receded just enough that there was a thin strip of shoreline for me to explore.

This is my favourite foraging spot. An appropriate place to celebrate my Touchstone anniversary.

This is my favourite foraging spot. An appropriate place to celebrate my Touchstone anniversary.

While down at the river’s edge, I sat down on a big boulder and took a moment to reflect. No deep or revelatory thoughts in particular, just a general feeling of satisfaction when, in my mind’s eye, I set “Grounded” (that first piece) and “Quod erat demonstrandum” (my latest piece) side by side and saw that, yes, in fact, I have made progress. And also a feeling of excitement when I started to think about all that potentially lies in store for me if I keep showing up and doing the work.

I'd say I've made some progress!

I’d say I’ve made some progress!

I think it’s important to occasionally step back and assess. Whether you do it once a year or just on an ad hoc basis, it’s a good exercise: it helps put things in perspective and it gives you a little motivating push (or a kick in the pants if you’ve been slacking). I’ve tried doing it by calendar year, but it just doesn’t hold as much meaning for me and seems rather arbitrary. So I will continue to celebrate my Touchstone anniversary and use it as a prompt to pause and reflect. And if nothing else, it’s a good excuse to go foraging…!


In search of balance

I’ve juggled work-work and fun-work (aka mosaics) long enough to know my standard response to a mosaic event: (1) be trucking along, office work by day, picking away at mosaics at night and on weekends in a fairly fluid, no-pressure sort of way, (2) attend a mosaic class or conference, (3) come back all excited and have my head in the clouds for a week or so, and (4) settle back into my normal non-routine of getting into the studio as time and energy permit.

Well, something’s different this time. Since coming back from my first SAMA, I’ve been unusually fired up and that head-in-the-clouds feeling hasn’t gone away yet, even a month later. And with this shift, I found myself falling into a pretty unhealthy routine. I would daydream at work, then come home and hastily prepare some dinner and inhale it at a very embarrassing pace, and then dive right into the studio and stay up far too late for a work night. I felt anxious and frantic—not at all normal for me—and any time that I wasn’t in the studio felt like wasted time. It wasn’t good mentally; I was feeling resentful and scattered and wasn’t truly present in most non-mosaic situations. And it wasn’t good physically, especially because the first thing that always gets sacrificed for me is exercise (and I know for a fact that I work better—I pay better attention and I can sit for longer at my work table—if I am active).

I knew it was an unsustainable pace, especially if I added other non-work commitments and not neglecting my family and friends (and dog) into the mix. So I turned my thoughts to finding some sort of routine and self-imposed rules / structure that would help me balance it all.

While it’s still a work in progress, here’s what seems to be working for me at this point:

  • I’ve allocated days for me (where I work in the studio) and days for others. The studio days, conveniently, correspond with when R is away teaching in Montreal, so the only one being neglected is poor Dexter. In addition, I am trying to be realistic about what I can accomplish during my studio days. Sunday afternoons / evenings are the longest stretch of time I get to spend in there. They are glorious. But Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday nights? I get maybe three hours at best, or, as I have come to measure a weekday work session: one batch of thinset. I mix up a set quantity (1 ice cream scoop) and when it’s gone, it’s gone. That’s the rule.
  • I am maximizing and repurposing chunks of “unproductive” time.
    • My usual ~2km, 25-minute walk home from work? Well, now I run it once or twice a week and I stretch it to 5km, and I still get home at about the same time but with some exercise under my belt and a clearer head.
    • That 10-minute slaking time for thinset? Why, it’s just the perfect amount of time to do up the dinner dishes and put together my lunch for the next day.
  • I try to cook good meals in advance on my non-studio days.
  • I take an hour for dinner and watch one episode of some show or another while I eat and have my coffee. Yes, I know, tisk tisk for eating in front of the TV, but hey, R isn’t there and Dex is a terrible dinner conversationalist, plus that little bit of TV gives my head some time to gently switch gears (and Dex gets some cuddles out of it, which he appreciates).
He's great for snuggles, but can't hold up his end of a conversation

He’s great for snuggles, but can’t hold up his end of a conversation

This is the solution that I have come up with so far. It’s still being tweaked as I find new strategies to be even more efficient with my time, but thus far I can tell you that I am feeling less pressure and guilt and a whole lot healthier and happier. The drive is still there. Very much so. But it is being tempered by my recognition and acceptance of what I can realistically accomplish in the time I have and is being channelled through this new routine.

I know there are many of us who work day jobs and do mosaic on the side. I would love to hear about other people’s strategies for balancing it all in the comments if you want to share!


Reflections of a SAMA newbie

Mosaic sculpture with moss in Philadelphia

I didn’t get to do too much touristing around, but I did find this fun “moss”aic :-)

I just got back from my very first American Mosaic Summit of the Society of American Mosaic Artists (which everyone just calls SAMA for short). It was so fantastic to be surrounded by my tribe, connecting with old friends, making new ones, talking shop or just joking around, being inspired by top-notch speakers, and getting up close and personal with some really beautiful and impressive mosaic art.

I really didn’t know what to expect as I made my way to Philadelphia for the conference, but I had a sense that this would be an important experience for me, given that it was my first real foray into the broader mosaic community. And SAMA 2015 did not disappoint. Being able to really explore the pieces in Mosaic Arts International in person was such a pleasure and it really got the ol’ cogs turning. In addition, several of the talks got me all fired up (chief among them Carrie Reichardt’s, Rachel Sager’s, and the panel put on by Kelley Knickerbocker, Erin Pankratz-Smith, Jo Braun, and Kate Jessup).

While I’m pretty sure I came home with more questions than answers as a result of these talks, I’m really looking forward to working my way through them and slowly and steadily figuring it all out as I move forward. Thanks to Carrie, I will be contemplating how I can perhaps take a more activist tack in my climate change work. From Rachel, I now have thoughts of Place swirling around in my head (it’s like being a geography student all over again!) and I’m doing a lot of thinking about how I can embrace the “imperfect whole” and the inherent messiness of myself, my work, and my place (in every sense of the word), and leverage those imperfections and quirks going forward. And the panel discussion has me in search of my “Why?” and on a mission to create with intent and embrace that which makes me uncomfortable (or give my fear a bear hug, as Kate Jessup put it).

And as if all this food for thought wasn’t enough, the cherry on top was the fact that I managed to sell my mosaic in the annual silent auction and I came home with a commission, both of which definitely gave me a little boost of confidence. Oh, and I snagged some very lovely materials in the vendor marketplace and also won a raffle prize (mmmmm…gold smalti)!

Julie Sperling "Weather is not climate" mosaic at SAMA salon 2015

All set up and ready for the bidding to begin at the mosaic art salon silent auction!

Overall, the conference was amazing. Reflecting on it, I am struck by how full of weird contradictions it was for me. I felt very at home and part of a community, and yet simultaneously felt quite insignificant (it was a classic small-fish-in-a-big-pond experience). Being surrounded by mosaics and the people who love and make them for four days was certainly motivating and I can feel my drive deepening, and yet it also came with a healthy dose of insecurity and doubt. Thankfully, when those feelings settled in after I came down off my conference high, some good friends who are much further into their mosaic journey than I am reassured me that it was completely normal, and I quickly got past that short-lived yet intense funk. All in all, SAMA certainly served to put things in perspective and remind me that I’ve got a long way to go. Luckily, patience is one of my strengths and long ago I committed to playing the long game when it comes to my future (whatever that may be) in mosaic. I walked away from SAMA with renewed energy and a reaffirmed commitment to just buckle down, do the work, and see where it takes me.

Finally, as you may know, sometimes I like to choose a song to serve as a little soundtrack to these big life events. So here’s my anthem to my first SAMA and to owning my messy, imperfect whole: Mavis Staples’ I like the things about me.


What I’m aiming for in 2014

After much reflection I have finally decided on a set of goals for 2014. Most of them aren’t ‘check box’ goals (either I achieve them or I don’t); rather, they’re more about making progress in a certain area, which makes sense, given that my growth in these areas won’t be restricted to just one calendar year. But I think highlighting a few things that I want to focus on will help me be more mindful of what I’m doing and will help push me out of my comfort zone (a little bit, at least).

The motto for the year is: Just ask. Admittedly, this will probably be the hardest part for me. All too often, I’m content to sit back and let the universe propel me forward, taking a kind of “if it happens, it happens” attitude. But really, at some point I have to start making things happen for myself. Hence the motto. If I’m successful in applying it, I expect I will hear “No” quite a lot, but hopefully “Yes” at least a few times.

Drastically easier than sticking to my motto will be my only tangible, measurable goal: Keep good records. I am committed to making 2014 the first year that I diligently track all the money coming in and going out, and set up a good inventory system for my finished pieces. Tracking my time… well, that might wait until 2015…

My artistic goals (or perhaps more accurately: the areas I want to work on) stem from a growing awareness of my emerging style. Looking back at the work I have produced over the past 8 months or so, I’m starting to see some patterns or characteristics emerging. I find that I am developing a style that is quite calm and gentle, as well as being simple and stripped down. This doesn’t really surprise me, because it’s quite in line with my personality. I have also noticed that I have a bit of a ‘middling’ tendency – I tend to work within a narrow range of size and colour (if my mosaics were a statistical distribution, they’d be seriously clumped around the mean). Again, this reflects my personality and my tendency to avoid ‘rocking the boat’ at all costs. Finally, I know that I tend to privilege ‘line’ above all else. I like building lines and pathways, and that is reflected in the work I do.

collage of recent mosaics

What I’ve done since the Touchstone workshop. When you look at them all together, it’s easier to see commonalities and an emerging style.

So given my emergent style, I would like to work on finding ways to augment or complement my strengths / preferences. I don’t want to change them – they are, after all, the core of my artistic voice and what make me unique. But I think I can work on enhancing them and drawing them out so that they are more effective. This could include (but is not limited to) working on varying the size and spacing of the tesserae I use, or playing more with colour, negative space, texture, or reflectivity.

The last thing that I want to do this year is rekindle my appreciation for glass. I have fallen fast and hard out of love with glass – I’m all about the rocks these days (as you might have noticed). While I don’t have any aspirations of becoming a glass aficionado or anything of the like, I would like to be able to at least enjoy using glass when it makes sense to do so.

And that’s it! These are the goals that I hope will push me just a bit farther down my artistic path this year and I’m excited about this continuing journey.


Looking back on 2013

Different kinds of ‘years’ come and go around me all the time – calendar years, school years, fiscal years…  Even though I set goals for myself last January, it feels weird to be doing a ‘year in review’ post now, a full calendar year later. I actually feel like I should be writing this post next May on the anniversary of the Touchstone workshop, when I truly found my path. It’s almost like time should now be measured Before Sager and After Sager.

But if I look back on the 2013 calendar year, I still managed to accomplish most of the goals I set out for myself, despite not really getting going until halfway through. First of all, I fully transitioned from stained glass to rocks, rocks, and more rocks. In line with that, I shed my “Red Squirrel Mosaics” moniker and started just using my own name. In terms of branding and engagement, I also made an effort to maintain a consistent social media presence – here on my blog, as well as on Facebook and Twitter. I even started a mailing list, although it’s been kind of dormant so far, and I’m experimenting with Tumblr and Instagram (although I’m still unconvinced as to whether Tumblr is worth the effort).

Beyond that, I’ve been slowly acquiring more skills, and not just mosaic ones. Yes, there was Rachel Sager’s course at Touchstone (have I told you how pivotal that was?), but I also attended ARTpreneur and a panel discussion on local business, brushed up on my WordPress skills thanks to Ladies Learning Code, and tried to learn a thing or two about taking better photos of my work.

I had my work in a real brick and mortar store (and the owner even approached me, not the other way around!). Sadly, the store has since closed, so I’ve set up shop over on Etsy again while I explore other options. I even got accepted into my first juried show! To top it off, I started to get noticed in small ways (which were exciting nonetheless). First it was by the guy who designed the software that makes chord diagrams, then it was one of my blog posts that got shared by Mosaic Art Now on its Facebook and Twitter channels.

Total day-maker! That's me! That's ME!!

Total day-maker! That’s me! That’s ME!!

So even though I may have only gotten started in earnest in May, I still feel like I’ve made good headway and I’m excited about 2014. I haven’t set any goals for next year yet, but I think I will – I actually found it to be a useful exercise.

Thanks to all of you who pop by every now and then to keep up with my mosaic adventures – I can’t wait to share both the hiccups and milestones that 2014 has in store for me. And with that, I wish you all a happy New Year … may it be filled with creativity and happiness (and pretty rocks, if you like that sort of thing).


Embracing criticism

Getting physical in the arena in Coimbra, Portugal

Getting physical in the arena in Conímbriga, Portugal

I’ve never really had to think about criticism much before. Not because I’m so good that I don’t need it, but because I’ve never really shown my work to the world. Mostly it’s just family and friends who have seen what I create and who have been unfailingly supportive (as they should be!). So far, I think the biggest critic I’ve had to face is myself.

Recently, however, a few posts by design superwoman Tina Roth Eisenberg about critics and criticism have prompted me to start thinking about the topic. (By the way, if you don’t already know about Tina’s site – – you’re really missing out!)

The first was a quote from a blog post entitled “The Generous Skeptic” by Seth Godin:

“The generous skeptic has insight into your field, your strengths and weaknesses. She wants you to succeed, but maybe, just maybe, sees something you don’t.

When the generous skeptic speaks up, she’s taking a risk. If you respond to her generosity by arguing, by shutting down, by avoiding eye contact or becoming defensive, you’ve blown it. You’ve taken a gift and wasted it, and disrespected the gift giver at the same time.”

I’m not terribly bad at taking criticism, but, like everyone, there are times when I get my back up. Inevitably, this happens when whatever is being criticized is something that is the result of a big investment of my time, energy, and heart. I can think of nothing more personal than my art – nothing that makes me more vulnerable – so this quote serves as a good reminder to embrace criticism that’s given with the best of intentions.

The second post that got me thinking about criticism was this fantastic lecture by Brené Brown, who researches vulnerability. It’s rare that I will have the patience to watch any video that’s over 2 minutes long, but this one, which clocks in at 22 minutes, absolutely captivated me. I even watched it twice.

I really appreciate what she says about the inevitability of getting your ass kicked when you put yourself out there. It’s kind of comforting to know that it happens (and happens repeatedly) to all artists, whether emerging or established.

“If you’re going to show up and be seen, there is only one guarantee, and that is: you will get your ass kicked. That is the guarantee. That’s the only certainty you have. If you’re going to go in the arena and spend any time in there whatsoever, especially if you’ve committed to creating in your life, you will get your ass kicked.”

But there’s a certain power that comes with willingly accepting your ass kicking, and that is that you are now in a position to tune out all the unhelpful critics who are sitting on the sidelines, playing it safe:

“If you’re not in the arena also getting your ass kicked, I’m not interested in your feedback. […] If you’re in the cheap seats, not putting yourself on the line, and just talking about how I could do it better, I’m in no way interested in your feedback.

So, as I aspire to have my work seen by more and more people – as I prepare to “enter the arena” – I recognize that I am opening myself up to more criticism. Some from people who genuinely want to be helpful, and some from people who are just being jerks. But I’ll just keep reminding myself to brush off the comments that aren’t important and embrace the ones that are, and hopefully even start a dialogue with those generous skeptics. Because in the end, showing up day after day and getting my ass kicked, staying vulnerable, and embracing the criticism of fellow warriors will only make me better and help me grow.

And now, one more quote from Brené Brown for the road:

“The fear is this: I’m scared, a lot of self-doubt, comparison, anxiety, uncertainty. And so what do most people do when they’re walking into the arena and those things are going to greet them up top? What do you do? You armor up, right? This is where I would imagine the old days, that they got all their stuff on. But god that stuff is heavy, and that stuff is suffocating. And the problem is: when you armor up against vulnerability, you shut yourself off. […] Without vulnerability, you cannot create.”


How to hang a mosaic in a pinch

Here it is, all ready to be hung (I'm just a bit nervous, so I'm delaying a bit...)

Here it is, all ready to be hung (I’m just a bit nervous, so I’m delaying a bit…)

If you’re working with wediboard or your own handmade substrate (like the kind we used at Touchstone), you typically install the hanging hardware before you start and then just mosaic right over top of the fronts of the screws and washers. But what happens if you can’t / don’t install the hardware first? Well, you could take it to a framer and let him or her sort it all out, but what if you’re (a) cheap or (b) don’t want to frame the piece or (c) both? You can’t drill the screws and d-rings into the back of the mosaic, because it’s just foam covered in mesh and thinset – that would just be a disaster.

This is the situation I found myself in with “Grounded” – there was a mix-up with the hanging hardware and we weren’t able to install it before getting down to business. So my mosaic has lived for months on a shelf, just waiting for me to find a solution. Thankfully, Pinterest came to the rescue. I saw a photo of a mirror (or maybe it was a clock?) hung using old belts and thought to myself, “Hmmmm, that might just work!” Now, belts were out of the question because, at 12” x 12”, I’d need one pretty long belt (in excess of 40”). So I decided on strips of leather. As luck would have it, R’s dad likes to work with leather, so I was able to snag some from him.

Leather in hand, I only had 2 more hurdles: (1) How the heck to attach the leather to the mosaic and (2) how to attach the ends of the leather at the top so it could be hung on the wall.

At first I thought I could tack the leather onto the sides of the mosaic with upholstery nails or something, but then I got worried that I’d either really crack the thinset on the edges trying to get the nails in, or the nails would slip right out of the substrate and the mosaic would plunge to its death. So my thoughts turned to glue. What the heck would bond leather to thinset? I did an unfair / inaccurate test with 5-minute epoxy, sticking a little piece of leather to a piece of plastic. Terrible results. The leather just kind of soaked up all the epoxy. It’s quite possible that the plastic threw off my results and that epoxy would have worked just fine, but I didn’t trust it. My next thought: Weldbond (hello, old friend!). This time I did a real test — leather to thinset — and within minutes the bond was forming and it seemed pretty strong.

With the three sides glued, I just need to decide how I would join the two ends so that it could be hung. I was going to try sewing them together, but yah… my sewing skills are sub-par (and that’s putting it nicely). So instead I took it to a cobbler (do people still say cobbler?) and got him to put in a grommet, so I could just slip it over a nail.

So two strips of leather, some glue, and a grommet later, my mosaic is now hanging (safely, fingers crossed) in my workspace where I can look up any time and see the mosaic that really got the ball rolling for me.

Looks perfect hanging next to my trusty red colander!

Looks perfect hanging next to my trusty red colander!



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