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Taking a break

I wanted to just take a minute to let you know that I’m going to be going fairly quiet over the next few months. There are a few reasons for this hiatus. 

First: I’m getting a new studio! I’ll probably write more about this in a future post, but the general plan is to knock down some walls to join my small basement studio with the rec room, making it one big(ger) studio. I’ve already packed everything up, so the hiatus has officially started.

Second: I am exhausted. I’ve been going almost non-stop for a year, pulling together the line-up for my solo show while also working full-time at my day job. It felt like a gruelling pace, getting up early, staying up late, working weekends, and barely pausing between projects. I need to do non-work things. I need to recharge. 

Opening reception for “By Our Own Hands” … looking a bit frazzled and just thankful everything is on the walls

Third: Two weeks before my show opened, we had to put down our beloved dog, Dexter. I am heartbroken, even now after a few weeks have passed. Even if I had a studio to work in and the energy to actually do the work, I feel like I have completely lost my mojo. He was a huge part of our life, was my best photo assistant and studio companion, and walking with him was an integral part of my creative process. Life is not the same without him and my heart needs time to heal.  

So I’m stepping away for a bit. I’ve got some mosaic-adjacent projects to tackle (like a sorely needed website overhaul) and a lot of non-mosaic things to do, like just having a life. I’ll be back after this fallow period, likely with ideas just bursting out of me and the energy (and new studio!) I need to make them happen. And don’t worry, I’ve packed a go bag with some essential mosaic supplies in case I get itchy fingers before my studio re-opens. 

Thanks for understanding and I’ll see you on the flip side.


Running on fumes: The push to finish “Punctuated Equilibrium II”

The second mosaic in my Punctuated Equilibrium series was created during the holiday rush, which also coincided with a crazy busy time at work. My intention was to get it finished before the New Year in order to start 2014 with a clean slate, but I didn’t meet my self-imposed deadline. Between putting in long hours at work, then long hours in the evening in my studio, plus doing an insane amount of Christmas prep (virtually all our gifts are of the edible homemade variety, which, although fun, is very time consuming), there was a stretch of at least 2 weeks when I didn’t get to bed before midnight. By the time Christmas vacation rolled around, I was running on fumes. And then, as is usually the case, just as I started to relax, I got sick. Ugh. But I finally put the finishing touches on this bad boy last night, and I’m so excited to be able to take you on a little tour of it and point out all my favourite details.

"Punctuated Equilibrium II" mosaic by Julie Sperling (2014, 18" x 12", glass rods, local stone, skateboard)

“Punctuated Equilibrium II” (2014) — stone from Ontario’s Bruce Peninsula, glass rods, and skateboard, 18″ x 12″

As you may recall, the Punctuated Equilibrium series is inspired by graffiti and how it can add life and energy to public spaces. This time, I decided to use glass rods rather than smalti for the graffiti portion, to better approximate that stippled spray paint effect. I used the cream-coloured rock I gathered at the cottage, and as I was chopping it into cubes I also saved some of the thinner edges to use as the ‘sparks’ coming off the graffiti.

"Punctuated Equilibrium II" - detail shot (Julie Sperling, 2014)

The spines of the rock radiating from the graffiti

I really had fun creating the crazy lines that curve and weave over and under each other throughout that bottom section. It was a good little challenge and I like the energy and chaos it brings to the area around the graffiti. Order is then restored as the lines gradually straighten out into a nice gentle flow and transition to a greyish-brown rock that has strong horizontal layers to it (and, oddly enough, smells like gasoline when you cut it).

"Punctuated Equilibrium II" - detail (Julie Sperling, 2014)

A closer look at those curvy weaving lines (and a peek at that little bit of skateboard tucked into the corner).

In pretty much every mosaic I make, I tend to have a favourite stone or two. My favourite one in this piece is one of the spines because it has a hole in it (which I didn’t even realize until after placing it into the thinset). My other favourite detail is how the grain of the grey-brown rock all runs the same way (that is, vertically). It was a pain to do, but worth it.

"Punctuated Equilibrium II" - favourite stone (Julie Sperling, 2014)

My absolute favourite stone in the entire piece. I just love that little hole in it!

"Punctuated Equilibrium II" detail (Julie Sperling, 2014)

See how all the grain runs up? Yup.

Anyway, that’s it! I’ve already got some ideas percolating for the third in the series, which were prompted by some comments on Facebook. It has to do with a new material for the graffiti portion, but that’s all I’m going to say for now, because it’ll require some experimentation. But if it works, I’m going to be pretty excited! Until then…


Craving colour: The urge to create “Incendio”

The fire hose cap that helped satisfy my craving for colour. (Found in Ottawa's Chinatown.)

The fire hose cap that helped satisfy my craving for colour. (Found in Ottawa’s Chinatown.)

Lines of colour and energy

Lines of colour and energy

Every once in a while, I’ll come across some fun little trinket that I think has the potential to be incorporated into a future mosaic. Such was the case with the fire hose cap that was the starting point for “Incendio,” which I found on the street one sunny day around Thanksgiving when R and I were out with Dexter for a walk.

Most of these little doodads sit for months (or even years) on my shelf, waiting for just the right concept to pop into my head. Not the case with the hose cap. When I picked it up, I thought I’d just pop it in the bin with all the other interesting finds until I had a use for it. But after finishing “Lifecycle”, which eased me into a much-needed calm, zen-like state and helped me find my centre again, I was suddenly craving colour and energy.

And thus emerged “Incendio”. I grabbed some smalti from the shelf, chopped up some of that fabulous matte black stone from the banks of the Ottawa River (man, I love that stuff!), and away I went. I didn’t have much of a plan. Just followed my gut. Colour and energy.

Full credit for the name goes to R. We were sitting on the couch, just bouncing names around, and I was having such trouble coming up with something. All of a sudden she just said, “Why not ‘Incendio’?” It’s funny how you just know when you hit on the right name – it just clicks. (And thank goodness, because this piece was dangerously close to being called “Solar flare”, which was the best I could do.)

"Incendio" (2013) -- stone from the banks of the Ottawa River, smalti, and a fire hose cap, 12" x 12"

“Incendio” (2013) — stone from the banks of the Ottawa River, smalti, and a fire hose cap, 12″ x 12″


“Lifecycle” – the mosaic that brightened a crummy week

"Lifecycle" mosaic by Julie Sperling

“Lifecycle” (2013) – stones and fossil from the Bruce Peninsula, 8″ x 22″

I’ve always heard about how art can be therapeutic, and while I’ve always believed it, I’ve never actually experienced it. I guess I’ve been quite lucky so far in my life to have only mosaicked in the good times, not the bad. Well, recently I had a pretty crummy week. I won’t bore you with all the details, but it really was a “terrible, horrible, no good, very bad” week. I kept thinking, “Man, I bet sitting down in my studio and immersing myself in art would make me feel better.” But inertia and exhaustion kept getting the better of me. Finally, after a few days, I managed to drag myself into the studio and this mosaic is what emerged. And then I emerged, feeling more clear-headed, light-hearted, and energized.

The stones are the ones I gathered at the cottage and were really fun to use. The red and blue ones were a bit challenging to work with. They cut fairly easily (in terms of the power required), but there were lots of hidden fault lines in them, so they had a tendency to break in unexpected places.

I took my inspiration from wood grain. The name is kind of hard to explain. Maybe I don’t need to. Something about the fossil and how it seems to be nested, like a little seed, in the folds of time. Something about the contrast of the organic, living nature of wood and the life once contained in whatever that fossil once was…

Anyway, writing this post, I was reminded of the following passage from Neil Gaiman’s brilliant commencement address to the 2012 graduating class of The University of the Arts:

“You have the ability to make art.

And for me, and for so many of the people I have known, that’s been a lifesaver. The ultimate lifesaver. It gets you through good times and it gets you through the other ones.

Life is sometimes hard. Things go wrong, in life and in love and in business and in friendship and in health and in all the other ways that life can go wrong. And when things get tough, this is what you should do.

Make good art.

I’m serious. Husband runs off with a politician? Make good art. Leg crushed and then eaten by mutated boa constrictor? Make good art. IRS on your trail? Make good art. Cat exploded? Make good art. Somebody on the Internet thinks what you do is stupid or evil or it’s all been done before? Make good art. Probably things will work out somehow, and eventually time will take the sting away, but that doesn’t matter. Do what only you do best. Make good art.

Make it on the good days too.”

"Lifecycle" mosaic by Julie Sperling - detail shot

I just love this fossil. Love it.


1-day quickies: “Pulse” and “Fault Line”

I did these two mosaics — “Pulse” and “Fault Line” — in a mad sprint to the finish. I wanted to finish them quickly so I could drop them off, along with “Thaw” and “Harvest“, at The Studio : Boutique as we were passing through Carleton Place on our way to Kitchener for R’s brother’s wedding. So I banged these out over the course of two consecutive weekends, each one taking a few hours of concentrated work.

“Pulse” is made of marble subway tiles from the ReStore, as well as leftover smalti from “Punctuated Equilibrium” (just used on its side rather than standing on end). “Fault Line” used up all the rusty blue stone that I brought back from Pennsylvania (Booo! Wish I had more of that stuff!), and then some brick that had sheered off one of the houses on my block. Neither mosaic was the result of extensive planning — I let the pieces determine the path of the focal line of each mosaic, and then just built the rest from there. This is one of the things I love most about mosaics, just letting the tesserae take me on an adventure. It’s like reading a really good book, in that you’re always itching to turn the page, lay down the next tesserae, in order to find out what happens next.



Introducing “River bend” … finally!

"River bend" mosaic by Julie Sperling

Nothing says “congrats on your wedding” like a mosaic

It seems that when friends and family get married, having me make a mosaic for them is a popular request. This particular wedding gift mosaic was for R’s brother and his wife, which R commissioned me to do (although I have yet to see the pay cheque…). The bride and groom gave me a list of earlier pieces of mine that they enjoyed, but essentially gave me free rein in terms of design, colours, and materials. Since the “Mississippi Meander” was on their list, I decided to go with a river theme. I’ve been planning to build a series around rivers for a while now, so this was a good chance to start doing that.

I chose a section of the Grand River that runs through Kitchener (where they live) and then stretched it to cover the substrate I was planning to use, so it’s definitely a loose interpretation of that part of the Grand. Originally, I had wanted to get rocks from their area to use, but time did not permit; instead, I used ones I had gathered here in Ottawa. I absolutely love the grey pieces that have lines in them and the ones that have a bit of orangey-brown at one end.

It was weird working on a project and not being able to post pictures / updates. I kept wanting to tell people (and by people, I mean Facebook): “I’m working, really I am! You just can’t see what I’m working on!” But now the mosaic – which I named “River bend” – is in their possession, so I can safely share pictures of it with you without ruining their surprise. Phewf!


Still trying new things: The story behind “Punctuated equilibrium”

"Punctuated Equilibrium" mosaic by Julie Sperling

“Punctuated Equilibrium” (2013) — smalti, local stone, skateboard (12″ x 18″)

The concept for this piece, which I’m actually planning to turn into a series, had been nagging at me for months; I say ‘nagging’ because – try as I might (and there were countless sketches, trust me) – I just couldn’t figure out how to execute it.

I’ve always thought that graffiti art (the artistic stuff, not just the random tags that are more vandalism than art) injects a certain vibrancy into what is sometimes the otherwise dull, structured mass of concrete and glass that is the city. I wanted to somehow depict the ripples of energy and life that emanate from the graffiti, fading slowly back to the monotony of right angles and office towers. The solution didn’t hit me until after Rachel Sager’s workshop at Touchstone – I could use irregular chunks of stone (rather than cubes) to introduce that chaotic energy!

Solution in hand, I scribbled a graffiti-inspired doodle down in my sketchbook and picked my palette. I knew I wanted to do the graffiti section in long, skinny bits of smalti to evoke the idea of spray paint. Nice idea in theory, but in practice cutting those long, skinny pieces did a number on my fingertips. Thank goodness for butterfly bandaids! I eventually took to protectively covering my fingertips with masking tape before starting to cut (it was all I had on hand!). But I got through it and, in the end I think it was worth it.

The chunky rock bit came next. The stone I used came from two places: the lovely subtle green ones were scavenged by my parents up by their cottage (around the Lion’s Head area). The greyish-blue ones came from one block away from my apartment – they were just randomly lying there in the middle of the street, so of course I stopped to scoop them up! Both were perfect for the job, because they didn’t break neatly into cubes anyway. I also threw in some lines of smalti, almost like sparks coming off the graffiti. I originally wanted to use marble at the top in the opus regulatum section (and use the polished side too, not the riven edge) to depict that bland regularity, but when I got to that point it just didn’t feel right. So instead I opted for this really cool matte black stone from around here. I also couldn’t resist throwing in one of those fun little bits of skateboard that I made.

I’m still having fun with playing around and trying new things. I’ve never worked with smalti in this style before, nor have I worked with chunky rock. It was exhilarating (and more than a wee bit nerve-racking) to try these new things on a bigger piece and have no idea if the investment of time and materials (and heart) would actually pay off or not.

I had settled on the name of the piece (and eventual series) long before I even stuck the first piece of smalti into the thinset. As a former science nerd, I thought the evolutionary concept of punctuated equilibrium suited my purpose perfectly. So there you have it: “Punctuated Equilibrium I” — “I” because there will be more!

"Punctuated Equilibrium" mosaic - side view (by Julie Sperling)

Get a little peak from the side

"Punctuated Equilibrium" mosaic - detail shot (by Julie Sperling)

Mmmm look at that texture!



Clearing my shelves: How “Harvest” came to be

harvest mosaic - smalti beach glass

“Harvest” (2013) — Mexican smalti, Bermuda beach glass (4-1/2″ x 7-3/8″)

One of the drawbacks of reinventing yourself, in any art or craft, is that you end up with a bunch of older materials from previous phases of your artistic development. Such is the case with me. Primarily, I have a heck of a lot of stained glass that I’d like to move off my shelves (and I’m working on hatching a plan – more details to follow). This particular mosaic started by looking at my shelves to see what had been kicking around for far too long and should be used up in order to make room for new materials. And what did my eyes land on? The very first smalti I ever bought – a pound of “confetti” nails (a mix of offcuts and leftovers in a variety of colours). When I bought them I thought they would be the perfect thing to practice on because they gave me a range of colour and weren’t particularly expensive (as far as smalti go). As soon as they arrived, I sorted them into warm and cool colours, and that’s how they’ve sat on my shelf for the better part of 2 years (I did dip into them to make both bike mosaics).

So it was high time I made a dent in that batch. I went with the warm colours because they suited the frame, and tossed a little beach glass from Bermuda into the mix. I didn’t have a plan for the mosaic at all; I just did whatever felt right at the time. For me, this piece was a bit of a ‘palate cleanser’ after the very controlled graffiti piece. I just wanted to have some fun.

What’s neat is that I started this piece before leaving for mosaic camp, and I definitely felt my approach (or maybe my eye) change when I went back to finish it this past week. I love that I can notice myself evolving.

I hate naming my pieces. Well, I like it when they have names, but I suck at coming up with them. Some of them come to me so easily (as was the case with “Grounded“), but most times it’s like pulling teeth. Luckily, R is the master of names and titles. I was describing to her what the piece reminded me of, and she suggested “Harvest”, which is funny, because that was one of the titles I had been kicking around in my head. Maybe I’m not as hopeless, naming-wise, as I thought!

smalti mosaic

Just some unstructured, free-flowing fun



Finding my groove with the “Doodle bug”

This was a nice little transition piece to do. The simple design and small size gave me a chance to get reacquainted with my hammer and hardie and nippers, as well as get some practice using thinset. I’ll be honest, I was NOT loving the thinset and could frequently be heard pining for my Weldbond (oh Weldbond, Weldbond, wherefore art thou Weldbond?).

The piece was inspired by a little graffiti doodle I saw on the mean streets of Gatineau, Québec (where I work), hence the name “Doodle bug.” The original doodle disappeared long ago, as graffiti is wont to do, but this little stone and glass rendition is here to stay. I’m also pleased to report that this guy quickly found a new home with a young couple expecting their first child.

"Doodle bug" (2013) - Mexican smalti, marble, and vitragota on a repurposed cabinet face

“Doodle bug” (2013) – Mexican smalti, marble, and vitragota on a repurposed cabinet face


The doodle bug is ready for his close-up!

The doodle bug is ready for his close-up!



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