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What a difference a year makes: My second foray into the SAMA vortex

My second SAMA conference has come and gone, and wow, what a difference compared to last year. I had a slightly better idea of what to expect and that helped me feel a bit more at ease and better manage my energy and sanity throughout the week.

I knew a few more people than when I went last year—those friendly faces are such a safe haven for an introvert!—and made so many more connections this time around. Whereas in Philadelphia nobody knew who I was, this year people were actually starting to recognize me. It felt both weird and kind of neat to hear the odd person exclaim, “You’re Julie Sperling!” And people were enthusiastic not only about my work but also about my blog. It’s really encouraging to know that there is an appetite for both aspects of what I do—the work and the words.

Hey look! That's me in Marian Shapiro's talk!

Hey look, that’s me in Marian Shapiro’s talk! (Not a great photo, I know. Sorry!)

One of the highlights for me was getting shout-outs in two of the presentations. Marian Shapiro referenced the blog post I had written a while back about getting the most out of a mosaic workshop in her talk on teaching, and Karen Dimit included some images of my work in her talk on how SAMA has shaped her practice. It was a big honour to be included in her talk alongside artists I’ve looked up to and admired for such a long time (and still do).

The other highlight, of course, was having a piece in Mosaic Arts International and getting to talk to people about it and see it hanging with such a strong showing of the incredible diversity of work in the mosaic community. As an aside, I was heartened to see so many works with an environmental message; I counted five of the thirty-five mosaics in the show, including my own.

In good company (with Atsuko Laskaris and Angela Sanders)

In good company (with Atsuko Laskaris and Angela Sanders)

It was also really lovely meeting Sherri Warner Hunter, the juror who chose my piece for her Juror’s Choice award (and who also ended up buying my Salon piece, (Un)Acceptable Loss—I couldn’t have asked for a better home for it). Here’s what Sherri had to say about choosing Dialogue:

My Juror’s Choice was Julie Sperling’s “Dialogue (The Burden of the Message)”. Language was one of the recurring themes in the works that were submitted. I was particularly drawn to the random coloration of the tesserae, only to discover they were created from spray paint chips and shale. Both materials carry connotations of our misuse of the environment, however here, they are elevated to a thing of beauty.

Me and Sherri Warner Hunter---she is so lovely!

Me and Sherri Warner Hunter—she is so lovely!

The other big highlight for me was taking Marian Shapiro’s “Bend, fold, and undulate” class. If you ever have a chance to take her class, don’t hesitate—she’s a fantastic instructor and you will learn a tonne. I’m really excited to put what I learned into practice, so keep your eyes peeled for future additions to my Fiddling While Rome Burns series that incorporate some of these techniques.

I will say that I find these conferences physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausting. My theory is that the physical and mental toll will never go away—for example, there will always be lack of sleep to contend with and conversations and presentations that stretch you and get your neurons firing—but the emotional exhaustion will lessen. I think the emotional toll is largely tied to the newness of each experience. Right now, everything is a first for me (e.g., first SAMA, first MAI, first time being recognized by strangers, first important missed opportunity / connection, etc.) and so I feel them more intensely. The highs are higher because I’ve never experienced them before and same with the lows. My hypothesis is that things will start to even out as I go further down this path and the experiences become more familiar.

This SAMA really pointed out to me that I’m in a bit of a transition phase, and this transition seems to be happening quicker than I had anticipated. In one year, I’ve gone from flying under the radar in near-complete anonymity to now adjusting to the fact that people are watching. That idea—and the anxiety and self-imposed pressure that come with it—is taking some getting used to. It’s proving to be very difficult to shake the feeling that I’m the annoying kid sister struggling to keep up on my trike while the big kids speed along on their bikes. I still very much feel like a student and find myself deferring all the time, but every once in a while I can see hints of a not-too-distant future where I’ll finally feel like a peer / colleague.

Anyway, as with last year, I’ve picked a little personal anthem for SAMA 2016. This one was chosen a bit very cheekily:



Reflections of a SAMA newbie

Mosaic sculpture with moss in Philadelphia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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