Tag Archives | coal

Abandon all hope, ye who study climate change: Mosaics about candour, heartbreak, and hope

The rusty nails in this one were proudly presented to me one day by a colleague who knew I would love them

The rusty nails in this one were proudly presented to me one day by a colleague who knew I would love them

For anyone even half listening to what scientists are saying about climate change, it’s evident that the picture is pretty bleak. Rising temperatures, thawing permafrost, increasingly acidic oceans, disappearing glaciers, wild fires, flooding, pests and diseases…and the list goes on and on.

Yet despite the high stakes and the urgency of the challenge before us, those advocating for climate action are told to keep the messaging positive and not to be Debbie Downers lest people find that offputting. When a scientist occasionally dares to give us some straight talk, he or she almost inevitably gets labelled an alarmist and is publicly discredited simply for speaking frankly and truthfully. Take, for instance, the case of climatologist Jason Box, who experienced a great deal of backlash in response to his tweet: “If even a small fraction of Arctic sea floor carbon is released to the atmosphere, we’re f’d.” So great is our denial that scientists are being forced to build increasingly unrealistic assumptions into their models in order to produce results that are palatable to political decision-makers. (Side note: You really should read this article about model assumptions by David Roberts, my favourite climate and energy blogger. It was one of two articles this year that scared the crap out of me, the other article being this one about self-reinforcing feedback loops.)

Why does that coal have to be so awful yet so beautiful?

Why does that coal have to be so awful yet so beautiful?

The near-apocalyptic future scenarios, the pressure to put a positive spin on even the most terrifying research findings, and society’s continued willful ignorance and inaction in the face of climate change create somewhat of a perfect storm (or perhaps a perfect superstorm is a more appropriate term in this age of climate change) for an increasingly common phenomenon among climate scientists: “pre-traumatic stress disorder.” The term was coined by forensic psychiatrist Lise Van Susteren to describe the mental anguish caused by anticipating and preparing for the worst, long before it happens. Slowly, and against convention, scientists are bravely beginning to speak out about their frustration and worry and the emotional toll that their work (and society’s collective response to it, which is basically a shrug and a “meh”) takes on them. Is This How You Feel?, a website that collects handwritten letters from scientists in which they honestly and heartbreakingly express how they feel about climate change, is one really excellent example of this.

So far, throughout my climate change series, I’ve tried to keep things from sliding into sky-is-falling territory. The blog posts are factual, with a hint of pessimism, but usually countered with some light-hearted humour. And the mosaics themselves are not aggressive or confrontational. They are, on the whole, rather inviting. But there’s always been a nagging question in the back of my mind: is it right to make something beautiful about a subject that is so ugly? I waffle on that. The answer I am comfortable with lies somewhere in the range of “It depends” and “Yes and no.” Do you try to draw people gently into a conversation? Or do you unsettle people and make them uncomfortable? I have largely (exclusively?) done the former.

"We're screwed!" -- I can't resist a lame joke

“We’re screwed!” — I can’t resist a lame joke

But after reading about the personal challenges that scientists are faced with, I knew I had to get just a bit darker, even if only briefly. And so, the idea for the three small mosaics comprising “Shouting into the wind” was born. The materials choice began with a single rusty screw (“We’re all screwed,” I said to myself, jokingly), which became a few carefully chosen pieces of rusty metal, and to which I added coal and shale to represent some of the climate bad guys. And then one small line of gold in each piece, as a glimmer of hope. The mosaics are intentionally small and thin. I didn’t want them to have as much of a presence as the other pieces in the series. Not because these dark days and their emotional turmoil are unimportant and should be swept under a rug (they are very real and important and should be openly acknowledged), but rather as a nod to the fact that the overwhelming message from society to scientists is to not talk about our climate reality openly and bluntly.

May these three mosaics serve as a reminder to us that scientists shouldn’t have to censor or sugar-coat things because we can’t handle or refuse to accept the truth. They aren’t making dire predictions and electing to be harbingers of doom and gloom just for the heck of it. It’s not a question of beliefs or some elaborate attention-grabbing scheme, it’s a question of fact. By making scientists tell us what we want to hear, or by ignoring or ridiculing them when they speak frankly, we are placing a great burden on their shoulders, as they are forced to watch us continue down our self-destructive path, their hands effectively tied, their mouths muzzled, and their hearts breaking.

"Shouting into the wind" climate change mosaic by Julie Sperling

“Shouting into the wind” (2015), 6″ x 5.25″ each — rusty metal, coal, shale, 24-karat gold smalti

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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

 

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False debate: A mosaic celebrating the scientific consensus on climate change

Scientists overwhelmingly agree that climate change is happening and that it is caused by humans. In the words of the latest IPCC report: “Human influence on the climate system is clear, and recent anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases are the highest in history.” And yet people still seem to think there’s a debate about whether or not climate change is (a) occurring and (b) caused by human activity. This manufactured debate is courtesy of a handful of powerful corporations whose wealth is inextricably tied to the fossil fuel industry and who are able to exert a disproportionate amount of influence on the media and politicians. The result is public confusion. This whole situation frustrates me to no end. By all means, let’s debate. But let’s not debate about whether or not climate change is happening. (Spoiler alert: It is.) Instead, let’s talk about what we should do about it, which policy instruments we should employ. Now there’s a debate I’d welcome with open arms (as long as it actually leads to action).

climate science consensus pie graph mosaic by Julie Sperling

“Quod erat demonstrandum (All else is junk science)” (2015), 24″ diameter
Stone (limestone, sandstone, Eramosa marble, coal, shale, concretions), cement parging, salvaged tile, brick, ceramic, Italian smalti, rusted metal, vintage 24-karat gold smalti

climate consensus pie chartThis so-called ‘debate’ about climate change is what inspired this mosaic. A 2013 study by John Cook of The Consensus Project examined a whopping 12,000 peer-reviewed journal articles about climate change published between 1991 and 2011. Of the roughly 4,000 that stated a position on anthropogenic climate change, 97% of these articles endorsed the scientific consensus that humans are causing climate change. The rest? Well, that’s just junk science. (You can watch Cook explain his study in this 3-minute video.) Even with the scientific consensus sitting around 97% and growing, public perception of scientific agreement is far lower (people believe that about 50% of scientists support anthropogenic climate change). And this ‘consensus gap’ between scientific reality and public perception prevents us from taking meaningful action to address climate change as we go around in circles, debating something that has actually been settled for years.

And so I decided to turn this convincing pie graph into a mosaic. The outlying 3%—the junk science—is quite fittingly represented by a bunch of rusty bits of metal (scavenged a year ago on the streets of Ottawa during the spring thaw) and coal sent to me by one of my Touchstone classmates. It’s funny, I very nearly got the math wrong on this when I was sketching it out. For some reason, my brain hopped instantly from 3% to 3º. Luckily, just before I was about to start sticking stuff down, I realized 3% is actually closer to 11º. Glad I caught that one!

Scooping up those two little red rocks (and one bit of rusty metal) in Lachine, QC.

Scooping up those two little red rocks (and one bit of rusty metal) in Lachine, QC.

This piece is so full of different materials that I had a hard time coming up with a list! There are stones, of course: shale, limestone, sandstone, coal, and Eramosa marble (and probably others that I can’t identify). There are two roundish red rocks I picked up along the banks of the St. Lawrence while out for a sunny Thanksgiving stroll. There are concretions given to me by friends in Alberta and Pennsylvania. There’s cement parging fallen from various walls around my neighbourhood—always in ample supply in the spring. There’s a variety of floor tiles (some even salvaged from my parents’ recent renovation, which my feet and my family’s feet have walked over a thousand times), brick that the Ottawa winter kindly liberated from a neighbouring house, and one of my favourite plates from my university days. And there is Italian smalti and hints of vintage 24-karat gold smalti (a splurge when I was in Chicago).

I had a heck of a time naming this piece. When I originally conceived of it, I got used to just referring to it as my “Junk Science” piece. I liked the ring of it and I was very close to actually naming it that. But then it struck me: why should the 3% minority get naming rights? Unacceptable. And so, “Quod erat demonstrandum (All else is junk science)” was born. The title comes from the only thing I managed to retain from the two weeks I spent in high school Algebra and Geometry before dropping the class (let’s just say that word problems are not my strength); QED is what you put at the end of a mathematical proof to indicate that it is complete (it roughly translates as “that which was to be demonstrated”). I guess it’s kind of the mathematical equivalent to dropping the mic? Anyway, I like how it lends a certain seriousness / formality to the piece, which is appropriate given that we’re really talking about one of the most fundamental concepts that I will ever deal with in this series.

Julie Sperling climate change mosaic pie graph scientific consensus

Check out how it dips over the edge of the substrate in places

As a final note, I wanted to mention that I’m really excited about this piece and how it turned out. There’s something about it that feels different, like something in me has shifted in some way (though I’m still working on putting my finger on what, exactly, that is and harnessing it going forward). I have a feeling that this mosaic will be an important marker in my evolution and growth as an artist, and this has me grinning a big ol’ stupid grin!

Bonus video: If you like sensible and funny commentary, you’ll love this John Oliver segment on the climate change ‘debate’. It is so perfectly bang on.

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Mosaic workout challenge, week 15: String theory

Fifteen weeks down, five to go. I’m definitely starting to feel the fatigue. I’ve recovered from the Verdiano Marzi workshop, but now I’m elbows deep in prepping for my next climate change mosaic, so I can feel my interest in these challenges waning as I embark on exciting new projects. But I will not give up! I’ve come this far, might as well finish (and I am still learning stuff, so it’s definitely not a waste of time).

Week 15’s prompt—“string theory”—was from Kelley Knickerbocker. We had to doodle a line and then use tesserae to define the negative space of the line. It was a great challenge and much harder than I initially thought it would be!

"Metropolis" (6" x 4.25"), shale, cinca, stone, flint, coal

“Metropolis” (6″ x 4.25″), shale, cinca, stone, flint, coal

Title: “Metropolis” (note: differs from the name submitted to IMA, which was done in a hurry…I later exercised my right to a sober second thought)

Size: 6″ x 4.25″

Materials: Stone, cinca, coal, shale, flint

How long did it take to complete? About 2.5 hours (and another 2.5 hours for the one I did and then promptly threw in the garbage)

Thoughts: I had some trouble this week because, while I loved the challenge prompt, none of my materials were really speaking to me. Eventually I just grabbed a few random jars from my shelf and dove in head first. That attempt was so bad that I couldn’t bring myself to submit it, even though I know that there is no pressure to create a masterpiece in these challenges and that there are really no expectations other than to spend some time in the studio. Yes, it was that bad: the materials were wrong, the colours were off, the doodled line was wonky…*sigh* So I tried again, and the second attempt was a huge improvement on the first one. Had I not been under the gun to finish this in a hurry (I started on Sunday at 2pm), I would’ve spent a lot more time tapering the ends of the lines so they didn’t end so abruptly.

I learned two things this week, both completely unrelated to the challenge prompt. First, I learned that I really need to wait until I “feel it” before I start. If I force myself to just crank something out, chances are the results will be terrible. It is not unusual for me to leave a blank substrate and some half-chopped piles of materials on my table for a few days (or even weeks) while I putter and ponder until I’ve got it straight in my head. That is how I work and this challenge reinforced that I should do what works for me, even if it sometimes feels like I’m wasting time. Second, I learned what it feels like to create a complete flop and to recognize that and be ok with it going straight into the garbage.

Tough to capture the varying textures and heights in a photo

Tough to capture the varying textures and heights in a photo

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Mosaic workout challenge, week 3: Black and white

Week 3—working in black and white—was challenging, but in a good way. After last week’s painful foray into the world of ceramic and vitreous tile, it felt really good to get back to using rocks! (By the way, make sure you check out what all the participants made during Week 2.)

Selecting the materials for this challenge was a breeze. I went with limestone (?) from the cottage and some coal from Pennsylvania (sent to me by one of my Touchstone classmates). The most time-consuming part was figuring out where I wanted to go in terms of design, and I think that’s because I don’t tend to work with extremes (in terms of colour, size, flow, etc.), so working with black and white threw me off my game a little, but again, in a good way! And yes, I know that the lines of coal are eerily reminiscent of a ghoulish charred skeleton hand… Not intentional, but no matter how I curved them and rearranged them, they just kept looking like that, so I decided not to fight it.

"Black carbon (study)" -- playing around in black and white, testing ideas for a bigger project

“Black carbon (study)” — playing around in black and white, testing ideas for a bigger project

Title: Black carbon (study)

Size: 6″ x 4.75″

How long did it take to complete? Roughly 4 hours

Love or hate this workout? I thought this workout was great. It pushed me out of my comfort zone just enough (because I rarely use big contrasts, like black and white, in my work), but I still felt relatively in control and comfortable because I could work with materials and tools that I knew and liked.

Happy with the result? Yep, I’m pretty happy with the result, although when I get around to making the larger piece there are definitely things that I will change based on what I learned here.

What did I learn? I used this challenge as a chance to try out some ideas that I’ve got kicking around in my head for a larger piece that would be part of the climate change series I’m working on. I’ve never done a test piece / study before, so I found it challenging figuring out how to approach it (i.e., determining what, specifically, I wanted to test out for the bigger piece): Am I supposed to replicate the whole thing, just in miniature? Do just one portion of it? Take some materials and styles for a spin? I opted for the last one, taking the opportunity to work with coal for the first time and play around with size and spacing a bit. The coal wasn’t nearly as difficult to work with as I anticipated (although it was just as messy as I thought it would be!), and I’m looking forward to using it again when I do the larger mosaic. Because I favour gradual, easy transitions, I found it quite challenging to work in black and white, particularly on such a small scale. I’m not sure I really learned how to navigate these contrasts in a confined space, but I did learn that it’s tough and that it’s something I can work on in the future.

Coal is actually kind of pretty, isn't it?

Coal is actually kind of pretty, isn’t it?

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