Archive | Travel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The structure in varying states of (in)completeness

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

When: 9 long days in July 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WE did that!!!

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

Just look at that beautiful curl of Youghiogheny glass!

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

An intense feeling of satisfaction seeing it all done

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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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Mosaic-spotting in Chicago

I was recently in Chicago for a few days, just for fun. I loved the city so so much and was really impressed by its commitment to both public art and fantastic public spaces. While I usually stumble upon at least one mosaic in every city I travel to, I didn’t really expect to find so many in Chicago. Maybe it was just the areas we chose to explore, but it seemed like there was a mosaic hidden around almost every corner (and I’m sure what I saw was only the tip of the iceberg). So I figured I’d show you a few of my favourites. You know, so you can put them on your ‘to do’ list for when you visit Chicago :-)

‘El’ train stations — I know there are plenty more that I didn’t see, but I did manage to see the mosaics at the Damen (“Vida Simple”), Irving Park (“Commonplaces”), and 18th Street stations.

Miró’s “Chicago” — I know this isn’t all mosaic, but I love Miró, I love sculpture, and I love mosaic, and this has all three, so indulge me!

Chagall’s “The Four Seasons” — I knew about the Chagall mosaic before going to Chicago and I was super excited to be able to see it in person. In preparation (anticipation?) I watched a really retro ‘making of’ video that showed how Chagall worked with the mosaic artisans to achieve his vision. It was incredibly fascinating and it made seeing it in person all the better.

Jim Bachor pothole repair — R and I were on our way to the Museum of Contemporary Art, and I knew Jim Bachor had recently installed one of his mosaic pothole repairs in the area, so we took a little detour to find it. R was the one who spotted it first (she’ll be angry if I don’t give her credit), and she then played traffic-lookout while I took a closer look and snapped some pictures. Such fun! This particular mosaic has the number of a local car repair shop in it, while others have a random sequence of numbers (a nod to how many potholes there are in the city).

The Art Institute of Chicago — I actually didn’t expect to find any mosaics at the Art Institute. I’m not sure why – maybe because I didn’t realize how extensive their collection of antiquities is. So imagine my delight when I came upon a bunch of Byzantine mosaics AND some amazing Mesoamerican mosaics. The Mixtec mosaic disk, in particular, took my breath away. I was also very fond of the knobby-kneed camel.

Interstizi (at the Chicago Mosaic School) — I was so pleased that my trip coincided with the dates for this exhibition. It was actually the first time that I’d ever been in a room full of professional fine art mosaics. It was quite the experience being surrounded by the work of artists who, for me, are the stuff of legend. Among them were two pieces by Verdiano Marzi, which only served to make me way more excited about returning to Chicago to take his workshop in August. Can’t wait!

You know the drill – click to embiggen any of the photos below!

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What lies beneath our feet: Look what I made!

I’m super excited to show you guys what I made at mosaic camp. It is decidedly better than what I used to make at camp – anyone remember gimp bracelets?? Of all the mosaics I’ve made before, this one is the purest and most accurate expression of me. I felt completely connected to this piece as I was making it. Is it perfect? Nope, not by any stretch of the imagination. And yet I love it. It might actually be my favourite piece to date, not because of how it looks, but because I love what it represents (more on that in Post #3).

sandstone mosaic

“Grounded” – made during Rachel Sager’s “What lies beneath our feet” workshop at Touchstone Center for Crafts

So how did this piece come to be? Well, the palette was determined by the rocks I collected. I had no idea what I’d have to work with until we got back to the studio and started breaking them open. A lot of my classmates had quite the range of colours in the rocks they had picked up, but I happened to end up with a bit more of a subtle palette. (Not complaining at all about that – just stating a fact.) I had also brought some stones from home to play with, which I had collected from a pocket park just around the corner from where I work in Gatineau, QC.

There were lots of extra goodies available to use in our mosaics – smalti, shale, coal, tile, etc., but I made the decision early on that I only wanted to work with materials I had gathered myself. This was a workshop about sourcing your own local stone, so I wanted to take that quite literally and really connect with the materials. The other rule I set for myself was that I wanted to use only my hammer and hardie. No nippers.

I had no plan for this mosaic; it was completely an intuitive exploration. All I knew was that I wanted to work on ‘line’. Everything flowed from the focal point I chose – that lovely red stone. I have no idea what kind of stone it is, but I loved it from the instant I found it. I decided there was no point in trying to chop it up because it looked quite layered and was harder than the sandstone (it almost looked clay-like). Definitely wouldn’t break well. So…instant focal point!

I started working down from the red stone, using the slant of its outer edges as my general directional guide but letting the lines split and meander as they wanted to. I was immediately drawn to this greenish-grey stone (that had been particularly unwilling to break open for me), which I paired with a subtle yellow I had found. Of course, other colours worked their way in here and there, not really because of any conscious aesthetic choice, but more to do with the fact that I had previously mixed all my different stones together (oops!). I left the edges uneven and loose (a) because I had never done that before and (b) because I thought it went well with the organic feel that was emerging in the piece.

I had no idea where I was going to go after I finished that initial section. Would I switch directions and add in some horizonal(ish) lines? Have everything just radiate from that red stone? Introduce more focal points? And what about colours? Gah! Too much thinking. I just went with my gut, which was telling me: strip it down, keep it simple. So I just let everything keep running diagonally, but introduced some red at the top (because there were some red/white stones in my pile that I thought were quite beautiful) and black at the bottom, which is the stuff that came from Canada. [Side note: it was neat to feel the difference between the two kinds of stone when I was cutting them. The stuff from home was much harder and had a nice clean (and entirely satisfying) snap to it when it broke, whereas the sandstone was like butter.] There were some very jagged and irregular blue stones with a nice rusty orange-red that I really really wanted to incorporate, but no matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t make it work. Anything I tried just felt forced. But fear not, I did bring them home with me (the only ones that made the journey back) and hopefully they’ll make their way into a future piece.

This mosaic was all about simplicity and understatedness. There’s a quietness and calmness about it that I think really reflects both my personality and the meditative space I was in when I was creating it. I felt both rooted and connected while making it, so I’ve decided to title it “Grounded.” Like I said, this is the most ‘me’ piece I have ever made. Expect more things like this from me in the future, because this just felt right.

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What lies beneath our feet: Just the facts

I’ve just come back from participating in Rachel Sager’s inaugural run of her “What lies beneath our feet” workshop and I can say that it was, without a doubt, the most amazing and pivotal experience of my mosaic journey so far. It was a bit overwhelming (in a good way) and I’m still kind of processing, but I have lots to tell you. So much, in fact, that I think I’m going to break it down into three blog posts. This one will focus on the workshop itself – the who, what, where, when, why, and how of it. In the next post I’ll show you what I made and how I approached it. The third post will inevitably be the most challenging to write: I want to tell you about what this experience has meant to me in terms of where I am (a budding mosaic artist just starting out on my journey) and where I’m (hopefully) going.

But for now, let’s talk about the workshop!

SAMA vs. Sager
Since I don’t do mosaics full time, I can only justify about one big mosaic-related hoorah each year. This year, I had my sights set on attending my first SAMA conference. That was the plan. I was determined. But then I saw a posting for Rachel’s workshop on Pam Goode’s Mosaic Art Retreats blog. I immediately knew that this was the class for me and my plans for SAMA flew right out the window. A few months later, as I saw updates and pictures trickling out from SAMA, I got a bit jealous and started wondering if I had made the right decision. I needn’t have worried; it was absolutely the right decision. So my advice to you: If you get a chance to take a workshop with Rachel, do it. Don’t hesitate for even a second. She is a wonderful teacher and you will learn a tonne and grow as an artist.

Logistics
Determined to do this on the cheap, I cashed in some of my hard-earned frequent flyer miles that I had accumulated from three years’ worth of flights between Ottawa and LA. I had originally planned to try carpooling with a local to get from Pittsburgh to Farmington (where Touchstone is located), but I ended up renting a car instead because (1) I was too shy to put myself out there and ask and (2) I really really really didn’t want to miss seeing Fallingwater (a Frank Lloyd Wright house in the area). And boy, am I glad I visited – it was SO cool. My jaw was just hanging open the entire visit. After that I popped over to visit the Laurel Caverns, which was more than slightly disappointing (read: supremely cheesy). I’m kicking myself for choosing that over Kentuck Knob (the other FLW house in the area). Oh well, you know what they say about hindsight.

Touchstone is like the camp you remember from your childhood, only better (especially in terms of the food – sooooo delicious). I chose to stay in a shared quad cabin, but the camp wasn’t full that particular weekend, so I actually didn’t have any cabin mates. I was a bit sad about that – I kept racing back to my cabin periodically during the check-in period to see if other people had arrived, only to be disappointed each time. Part of the reason I wanted other people in my cabin was because I’m painfully shy, so it’s an easy way to meet people. Instant friends! In a cabin on my own, I thought I risked being a hermit. But everything turned out OK, because all my classmates were super open and warm and friendly and we quickly became a tight-knit group and I never lacked people to eat with or sit by the campfire chatting with.

The workshop itself
Our class ran from Friday night to Monday afternoon. On Friday night, we started by putting the finishing touches on the substrates that Rachel had graciously prepped for us so they could dry overnight. And then Saturday morning…we hunted for rocks! WOO!! I totally loved walking through the woods, scanning for potential treasure troves, and getting my hands dirty – pushing aside leaves, rummaging through the stream bed, digging in the soil. So much more satisfying than ordering materials online with the click of a button.

Back in the studio, after a quick hammer and hardie lesson, we got to work cracking the stones open. The bigger / tougher ones were subjected to the blows of a sledgehammer, but the smaller, easier ones were broken down directly with our H&H. It was so neat to see the variations in colour and striation that were revealed once each rock was broken open, because they really looked quite similar from the outside. While others sorted their colours very carefully (as per Rachel’s instructions), I disobeyed. I was too excited to see what was on the inside of each stone I had collected, so I would chop one open, cut a few pieces from it, and then move on to the next one and the next one. Everything went into the same pile and it was a beautiful, disorganized mess. Luckily, I didn’t get scolded :-)

It felt really good to get my hammer swinging for a nice chunk of time and to feel the differences between the stones as they yielded under my hammer. What I found challenging was all the noise – 11 people wailing on rocks with steel hammers is not exactly quiet. A big part of finding the ‘sweet spot’ for me is the sound – like finding a stud in the wall. I had to focus on using my eyes (in addition to muscle memory) a lot more with all the background din. It’s interesting, the cues that you come to rely on.

And then, we created. (More on this in post #2.) It was fascinating to walk around the room and see how radically different people’s approaches and visions were, considering we had all started with the same basic ingredients. Talking about everyone’s piece at the end of the workshop – how they approached it, what others saw in it and responded to in its design – was a valuable and interesting exercise.

Outside of class
I tended to wake up early and would spend the time before breakfast just enjoying the quietness and the early morning sun (and checking my email). I had hooked up R’s old cellphone (from the California days) so I’d be able to communicate with her while I was there, but I ended up having no reception and wifi was only available in the main lodge. The funny thing is, I’m glad it worked out that way. While I really missed hearing her voice every day, it was nice to untether myself to some extent and let myself be completely absorbed in the experience.

And at night…there were campfires. Just sitting around, enjoying the flames and the night air, talking with interesting and creative people. That was one of my favourite parts (other than whacking the crap out of rocks with my hammer, obviously). The residential aspect of the weekend was part of what made it so special. People didn’t scatter back to their various hotels after class. You could really get to know people and continue the interesting discussions that had started during the day.

Four hours in Pittsburgh
The day after the workshop, I found myself with four hours to kill in Pittsburgh before heading to the airport. I decided to prolong the artsy creative high I was riding from the weekend by visiting the Mattress Factory and the Society for Contemporary Craft. Each place had pieces that absolutely blew me away, like Parastou Forouhar’s “Written Room”, Julie Abijanac’s “Disease mapping”, and Eszter Bornemisza’s “Lung of the city”.  I love walking – anywhere, anytime – and I think it’s a great way to experience the city, so instead of hopping the bus to get from MF to SCC, I walked. A long, hot walk (nearly 3.5km – I was sweating!!), but definitely worth it because I got to soak in that incredible Pittsburgh architecture.

And then it was time to go home to R (yay! I had missed her so!) and Dex (who gave me a very enthusiastic-bordering-on-scandalous welcome on the deserted streets of Ottawa at midnight) and my buckwheat hull pillow. I arrived exhausted, but in a good way, with a huge, persistent grin on my face.

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The mosaic murals of Jingletown’s “Rue de Merde” (and more!)

Last weekend I took my first of two classes at the Institute of Mosaic Art in Oakland. I definitely added to my arsenal of fundamental skills and knowledge, which is always a good thing. We created a few quick and dirty pieces that were focused on process and technique rather than aesthetics. Needless to say, none of them came home with me.

On Sunday morning I arrived a bit early and took advantage of the chance to wander the neighbourhood surrounding IMA. I’m sure glad I did, because I got to see the “Rue de Merde” – a little strip of gravel path and vegetation (presumably where all the neighbourhood dogs go to do their business?) that is decorated with a long wall of murals, both painted and mosaicked.

So, without further ado, here is a brief photographic tour of the Rue de Merde and more!

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Costa Rica and Guatemala highlights reel

I know we were only away for a little over a week, but it seriously felt like way longer than that. For some reason, our relatively short trip to Costa Rica and Guatemala felt gloriously long.

We totally relaxed in Costa Rica and kept a pretty slow, low-key pace, which is unusual for us. We only spent one day in San José and that was definitely enough. It’s not a very pretty city, but we did manage to find a few cool things, like the Museum of Contemporary Art and Design and TEOR/éTica.

And we managed to catch one of the performances associated with San José’s International Festival of Arts, despite the fact that they switched the location at the last minute and we had to cab it all the way across the city to a huge park (La Sabana) where nobody had any idea where the performance we were interested in was taking place. After wandering around for close to an hour, we just happened to stumble upon it. And it was good that we did, because the show was absolutely fantastic! It was a theatrical dance performance entitled “Oxlaju B’aktun” by a group of Maya-Kaqchikel performers from Guatemala (Grupo Sotz’il). I didn’t understand a word of it, but it was powerful nonetheless. And, oddly enough, R and I both came away with the same basic storyline (a testament, I’m sure, to the choreography, acting, and costuming).

The next day we headed for the mountains (Santa Elena / Monteverde) to explore the cloud forest. We saw a fair bit of wildlife during our hikes (we did both day and night hikes). Most of what we saw was birds (toucans, song birds, hummingbirds, etc.), but we also few small mammals (kinkajus, agouti, monkeys). We didn’t see any sloths in the wild, much to my chagrin, but we did spot the elusive quetzal (a pair of them, actually), which more than made up for the lack of sloths. While in Monteverde we also did a tour of a small coffee and sugar cane farm, where we got to make our own candy out of the sugar cane juice and even tried some liquor made from the distilled outer fruity casing of the coffee berry. As my dad would say, that one would “put hair on your chest.”

From Monteverde we headed to Heredia, where R was participating in a conference. So while she worked, I had a day to myself. I joined up with a tour going to the Poas volcano and a few other locations, but Poas was really the main draw for me. Too bad though, because it was completely cloudy and I didn’t get to see the crater or the lagoon. Bah! I guess the up-side to that was that I really got to see the cloud forest in action (which, oddly enough, we didn’t see in Monteverde, as we had two very dry days there, without a hint of cloud).

After Costa Rica, we jetted over to Guatemala (to the capital) to visit with some of R’s family and take in the Huelga de Dolores. What an experience!

[Quick Huelga primer: It started in 1898 as a protest against the government of the day and has been held every year since then. The Huelga coincides with Lent, culminating in a march on the Friday before Good Friday (viernes de dolores). It criticizes and satirizes Guatemalan politics using a variety of forms of expression (e.g. songs, pamphlets, dances, etc.).]

We were there for the march (which lasts for HOURS…seriously, you’ve never been to a longer march) where all the faculties from the University of San Carlos march through downtown Guatemala City in costume, singing and dancing and carrying banners and floats. We also had the privilege of attending an event the night before the march known as Juebebes, which is put on by R’s aunt and uncle and the Huelga group (known as a “comparsa”) that they’ve performed with for years. The highlight of the night was when their comparsa performed several songs (popular songs whose lyrics had been changed to denounce various aspects of Guatemalan society and politics). My favourite, by far, was one called “Blackberry”, which was about the rampant violence plaguing the country (muggings, shootings, etc.) and was penned by two of R’s cousins.

And that’s it! As a souvenir, I brought back a case of laryngitis. Fun times.

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3 weeks in and still loving it!

So three weeks of my California sabbatical have already flown by. The time is going by way too quickly! I’m absolutely loving it. I’m not bored at all, and my only regret is that I haven’t made as much progress on my mosaic work as I had hoped. But I guess I’ll chalk that one up to being busy getting ready for our trip to Costa Rica and Guatemala (we leave in a few short hours!!). Once we get back though, I promise to be a mosaic machine! (After I power through the laundry and edit the gazillion photos I’m sure we’ll take, that is.)

Aside from picking away at my Mississippi piece, I’ve been doing some tinkering with my website, so if you see any bugs, let me know. Not that I’ll know how to fix them, of course… All this stuff just goes right over my head. While working, I’ve been devouring episode after episode of Downton Abbey and Friday Night Lights.

I’ve also been enjoying walks along the beach, which is literally right across the road. My favourite destination is the dog beach – I firmly believe it’s one of the happiest places on earth, all those happy puppies bounding around, enjoying the sand and surf. I just borrowed a bike from a friend, so once I get back I’m looking forward to venturing a bit farther afield.

In terms of adventures, we did a few little day trips just after I arrived: one to soak up some inspiration at the LA County Museum of Art (we hit the women surrealist artists exhibit, where I fell head over heels in love with the art of Kay Sage and Dorr Bothwell) and another to go hiking in Griffith Park. We chose the route that took us right up behind the big Hollywood sign, you know, for maximum tourist value.

Anyway, that’s about it! Once we get back, it will only be a few short weeks until my first course at the Institute of Mosaic Art. YAY!

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Portugal: Moustaches, mosaics, and merriment

This summer my partner and I travelled to Portugal to attend the wedding of some very dear friends. We tacked on a bit of extra time so that we could explore a bit of the country too. We managed to hit Porto, Coimbra, Ericeira, Sintra, and Lisbon – not bad for 10 days!

One thing that really impressed me (aside from the obvious: the delicious food and drink, the beautiful architecture, and the luxurious moustaches) was the street art. It was everywhere and it was beautiful. Oh, and the tiles (azulejos). Wow. So much variety! I’ve included some of my favourites here – who knows, they may serve as inspiration for future mosaics!

But the highlight for me was probably the Roman ruins of Conimbriga, which is a really impressive site and well worth a visit if you’re ever in the area. The Conimbriga ruins are also home to some really impressive Roman mosaics. The sheer size and intricacy of them absolutely blew me away. I think one day I would like to try my hand at a Roman-style mosaic. It’s so different from my own style and I’m sure it would be quite a challenge!

And finally, what post about Portugal would be complete without a moustache? You’re welcome.

 

 

 

 

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