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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!


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


Calling out the laggards and obstructionists: A mosaic ode to the Fossil of the Day award

Every year, the world’s nations—well, the 196 countries that are party to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)—congregate to hammer out global agreements designed to stabilize and reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. If you’ve heard of the Kyoto Protocol (you know, the one Canada famously and embarrassingly withdrew from a few years ago), then you’re familiar with the UNFCCC and its work.

fossil of the day logoAs global agreements like Kyoto are negotiated, it’s only natural that there are varying degrees of foot-dragging by countries that perceive themselves to be at risk from a shift to a low-carbon economy. I’m looking at my own country (Canada) here, what with our tar sands and all, but we’re not the only ones; the cast of characters is long and includes heavy hitters like the US, Australia, Russia, India, China, and many more, depending on the particular issue being debated. With the intense flurry of activity that comes with each Conference of the Parties (COP), aka that big annual climate meeting, it’s easy for this evasiveness and obstruction to go unnoticed. Thankfully, the Climate Action Network hands out daily Fossil of the Day awards during each COP to make sure those parties who are trying to impede progress get called out. I’m so appreciative of their efforts that I decided to make a mosaic about it, with the central elements being, you guessed it, fossils. Big clunky fossils that have a certain inertia to them, yet hint at the possibility of movement (there’s got to be some tiny bit of hope, right?).

"Fossil of the day" climate change mosaic by Julie Sperling

“Fossil of the day (From leader to laggard)” (2015), 28″ x 12″ — various fossils, slate, shale, brick, terracotta, limestone, sandstone, Eramosa marble, cement parging

In recent years Canada has won an embarrassing number of these awards. I couldn’t find an exact number anywhere, but doing a quick tally by skimming CAN International’s blog about the awards, I counted at least 36 Fossil of the Day awards (either 1st, 2nd, or 3rd place, or sometimes all three in the same day), plus 5 Colossal Fossil awards (even worse than a Fossil of the Day award), and even a lifetime achievement award, all since 2009. I cringed with shame as I went through all those blog posts that recounted the various ways Canada, under the leadership of Stephen Harper (who came to power in 2006, so all of these awards were on his watch), had been a giant pain in the negotiations’ butt. Where we used to be held up and admired as good environmental stewards, we have now lost all credibility and are an international environmental pariah and laggard. But there is a glimmer of hope.

fossils in mosaic, Julie Sperling

Shell fossils, found around Ottawa and also at the Rock Farm in Bancroft

As some of you might know, Canada recently elected a new government. It’s no coincidence that I left this piece until close to the election. I even put the finishing touches on it on election night, just as Justin Trudeau made his victory speech, as I felt there was something poetic and fitting about that. I instinctively knew that how I was going to title the piece and blog about it was directly tied to the election outcome. Had Stephen Harper—who was not particularly fond of environmentalists and public servants (both of which I am) and scientists—formed another government, this post would likely be very very short. The title of the piece has always been “Fossil of the Day” in my mind, but the bracket was up for debate, depending on the election results. Or so I thought. If it had been another Conservative government, I had hoped that I would have the courage to make “From leader to laggard” the bracketed subtitle. But I was convinced that I would change it to something more hopeful (or at least neutral) if the outcome was more favourable. That is, until the day after the election. With the mosaic finished and this blog post half written, I turned my mind to the title. After much debate and careful consideration, I finally decided that the piece had to be called “Fossil of the Day (From leader to laggard)” no matter what. Because Canada has fallen so far. Because there is so much damage to repair. And because, while promises of hope and change are nice, I need to see this borne out in concrete action. So “From leader to laggard” remains, as a reminder of what has happened to my country and its standing on the world stage, and as a challenge to the new Liberal government to step up and make good on its promises.

honeycomb fossil in mosaic by Julie Sperling

Apparently that stuff that looks like a honeycomb is coral! It is hands down my favourite. These were all found up at the cottage (Bruce Peninsula, Ontario)

The Paris climate conference (COP21, happening November 30 to December 11) will be one of the first indications Canadians get of the true intentions of this government with respect to climate change. I will admit that I am somewhat skeptical of the utility of global climate change agreements on the whole—they are painstakingly negotiated to the point where they represent the lowest common denominator and can really only go as far as the least ambitious party in the room. They’re also slow moving and not legally binding. But they can send a message and set the tone for action at all levels. So while I will always advocate for local solutions implemented sooner rather than later (as opposed to unwieldy international agreements), I will also be keeping my fingers crossed for a meaningful agreement coming out of COP21, where it’s expected that parties will pen the follow-up to the Kyoto Protocol, which ends in 2020. And I will also be desperately hoping that Canada will clean up its act and not come home with so much “recognition” this year.

I'm going to say that the orange stuff is some sort of coral or sponge, but I really have no idea. Found at the Rock Farm in Bancroft.

I’m going to say that the orange stuff is some sort of coral or sponge, but I really have no idea. Found at the Rock Farm in Bancroft.



Mosaic workout challenge, week 20: Artist’s choice

Week 20! The END! Wow. It’s been an interesting ride, but also an increasingly tough slog as the weeks wore on. I’m happy and proud that I stuck with it, and I will be doing a post in the coming weeks with some thoughts on the whole experience. But, for now, let’s take a look at what I made for this final challenge. The theme actually didn’t come as a surprise to me. I had a sneaking suspicion that we’d get to do something of our own choosing for the big finale, and I like the way Sophia worded the challenge prompt:

“Look at the work you’ve done over the past 4 months, think about what you’ve enjoyed, what you’ve hated, what you are capable of accomplishing given a week and a few hours in the studio. Use the materials you love, choose a design that plays to your strengths, make something that reminds you why you fell for mosaic in the first place.”

So here’s what I did…

Just doing what I do. Rocks from my mom, my better half's mom, and a fellow mosaicist.

Just doing what I do. Rocks from my mom, my better half’s mom, and a fellow mosaicist.

Title: “Wayfinding”

Size: 6″ x 6″

Materials: Nothing but rocks!

How long did it take to complete? About 7 hours, I think… I lost count

Thoughts: This, in theory, should’ve been the easiest prompt: just do what you do. Instead, it was the hardest (but I guess the things that are closest to your heart usually are). The one phrase in the challenge prompt that really resonated with me was the one about making something that reminds you of why you fell for mosaic in the first place. And the reason I fell in love with mosaic (at least the way I do it now) was the rocks. I love knowing where my materials come from and having a very direct hand in their sourcing and processing. I also love how rocks are imbued with history and meaning; they have stories, whether they are unspoken geologic stories or tales of modern-day adventure. Who hasn’t picked up a stone while on vacation as a memento? People connect with stones, and I love that. To honour that connection, I made this mosaic entirely out of stones—all from Canada—that had been given to me by various rock fairies (and people very dear to my heart), who chose these stones specifically for me to use in my art. In terms of composition and process, I get no greater pleasure than when I let the tesserae and the lines take me on a journey, so with this piece I just followed their lead and went wherever they decided to take me. Overall, this feels like a fitting end to this 20-week challenge.


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