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Never tell them it’s art (Or: How I rid myself of the itch to show my art internationally in one not-so-easy step)

It is always a thrill to be invited to show your art. Even more of a thrill: being invited to show your art in a faraway country. For years now, I’ve watched the Big Dogs of the mosaic community put their work on display in countries all over the world (but predominantly Italy and France), thinking “It would be so very cool to be able to do that one day.” So when an invitation arrived from Martine Blanchard to exhibit my work in the quaint little town of Auray, France, I jumped at the chance.

This is Auray. It’s pretty darn cute.

Having shipped to the US and Australia before, I knew it would be expensive. And I knew there would be a degree of stress involved, both in hoping it arrived unscathed and hoping it would not get held up by customs. It turns out I underestimated the expense and the stress by several orders of magnitude.

I offer the following colour commentary about my experience in case it is helpful to anyone considering participating in a show where shipping and customs are involved. As I quickly learned, it is not for the faint of heart.


Early on, I think I’m off to a good start. I get tips from someone who has done this multiple times, I take my piece to a guy who makes me a box that’s small but strong (which will cut down on shipping costs), and I make inquiries trying to figure out what paperwork I need. I even make arrangements to be able to send my work via Canada Post, which is so much cheaper than a courier like FedEx or UPS.

After dropping my box off at the post office just before Easter, I begin the process of obsessively checking the tracking number to see where it is on its journey. The following Friday evening, more than a week after it has been sent, I check in, only to find that my mosaic has been blocked in the customs process since Wednesday. There’s some sort of document missing. Shit. This being after business hours and at the start of the weekend, there is nothing I can do but google and google some more, trying to figure out what document is missing and how I can fix it. I am very bad at just sitting and waiting.

Thanks to some very obscure message boards buried in the depths of the interwebs, I figure out what I need and the email address to send the documents to, because Chronopost, the French equivalent of Canada Post, helpfully doesn’t post this information on its website. Also, their only contact options for customer service are phone or Twitter / Facebook. Desperate, I tweet them.

Monday morning I actually get a reply to my weekend email saying that my document has been received and my shipment should be on its way soon. Tuesday they tweet back, confirming this. By Thursday it still hasn’t moved. I tweet them again. No reply. Friday morning—two plus weeks after sending my package—I wake up early, unable to sleep because of the worry, and decide I will need to bite the bullet and call them.

Calling Chronopost is no easy feat. First, there’s the language barrier. Thankfully, speaking French (however much I may butcher the language) is a requirement of my day job, so I can at least hold my own in a conversation. Then you have to be lucky enough that the call doesn’t drop. That happens about every second time I call them. And then you have to (patiently?) explain and re-explain your situation to every single person you talk to. By the third call I’ve got my spiel down pat.

By the time I start work at 8am, I know what is wrong. I have committed the cardinal sin of shipping artwork: I said it was art. It was a completely innocent mistake. I didn’t know that honesty was not the best policy. And because I said it was art, Chronopost tells me they are not authorized to move it through customs, nor are they authorized to deliver it. The only option, it seems, is to hire a customs broker to get it through customs and then complete the delivery. Through all of this, Martine is also valiantly trying to liaise with Chronopost on her end, but eventually she—quite understandably—has to give up and turn her attention to the million other things that need to be done for the show.

The first quote from a broker is ridiculously high (300+€, and that doesn’t even include delivery!). But I am so tempted to just accept it because I’m due to fly out in four days to attend the opening, and what’s the point of going if my piece isn’t even going to be there? Also, the alternative is to just let my mosaic languish there until the clock runs out and Chronopost ships it back to Canada, though this option feels somewhat risky, as if there would be a very good chance that it would get lost in the system, never to be seen again. Because of the time difference and the resulting lags in communication, this quote never gets acted on.

Then, on Sunday, two days before I’m supposed to fly out, I have to unexpectedly reschedule my flight to proactively avoid the Air France strike. Monday finds me scrambling to get ready to fly out a day early and freaking out that there is still no progress on liberating my mosaic.

Tuesday morning, 8am. I land in France and hit the ground running. I randomly go up to the first customs officer I see after collecting my luggage and explain my situation. He kindly escorts me to a customs office, where two lovely women proceed to phone different brokers they know in an attempt to find one who can move this quickly and at perhaps a cheaper price than that first exorbitantly high quote. They connect me with a broker who tells them she can help me, and I call her. (Keep in mind that this is all happening in French, on zero sleep, after an international flight…on top of weeks of stress-induced insomnia) In just two hours, she has what she needs from me, we connect with Chronopost, they acknowledge our email, and things seemed to be moving. Oh, and she quotes it at half the price of the first quote.

(Side note: If you ever need a customs broker in France, I highly recommend Amana Cargo and Sonia Difallah. She was efficient and effective, responsive in her communications, and patient in answering all my anxiety-ridden questions.)

Exhausted, I take a nap, with visions of success awaiting me upon my awakening. Alas. The afternoon rolls around and the broker is still waiting for two documents from Chronopost. More calls and emails to Chronopost follow (no tweets though—by that time I have given up on that method of contact).

End of Day 1, I take a walk to clear my head and find this elephant. The fact that its trunk is up does NOT bring me luck the next day.

The next day I am scheduled to pick up my rental car (oh yah, did I mention that I needed to rent a car because of the rail strike?) and drive to Chartres, then on to Auray the next day. Sensing that I will need more time at the airport to sort all of this out, I rejig all my hotels. More panicked calls and emails to Chronopost (from me and from my broker, who is also having phone trouble with them, which gives me some degree of comfort knowing it isn’t just me being inept / unlucky), but by the end of this second day in Paris, I am no further ahead.

So much time spent in the vicinity of the airport. Le sigh.

Day three dawns and I am pretty much resolved that I will not be getting my piece in time for the show. I send one more email to Chronopost, pleading with them to fast-track my documents. Just before lunch…an email from the broker! She has the last document she needs from Chronopost and she starts the customs process. She says it usually takes one or two hours to clear customs if all is in order, but “they’re on their lunch break now, so it’s not going anywhere for a while. ” More waiting, trying not to get my hopes up. Finally, at 4:30pm, I am resigned that it won’t happen. I email the broker, asking how late customs usually works (basically, asking for confirmation that, yes, now it is time to officially give up). And at that exact moment she emails me and our emails cross in cyberspace. My mosaic has cleared customs!!! She sends one of her guys to grab it from Chronopost and deliver it to my hotel. At 5:30pm, I hand over a giant wad of euros and take possession of my mosaic. I have never been so happy to see a cardboard box in my life.

IT’S A BOX! WITH A MOSAIC INSIDE!!! (PS No idea why it has a “heavy” sticker on it… it weighed less than 6 kg.)

Day four is the day of the show opening. Up at the crack of dawn, my mosaic and I set out for Auray, a six-hour drive away. The Périphérique fries my nerves, but I do enjoy the 130km/h speed limit once I reach the highway. I arrive in Auray and hang my mosaic on the wall just four hours before the show opens.

For four days, I have taken no pleasure in anything. It hasn’t even felt like I’m in France, as I’ve been entirely suspended in that limbo that is an airport hotel. The moment I walk into the exhibition space, though… I get chills. The venue is amazing. Breathtaking, really. The show is beautifully curated and thoughtfully hung. More than half the artists are there in person and I get to meet some of those big names I’ve admired for so long.

I feel proud, overwhelmed, frustrated, and exhausted all at the same time.

*gasp* The Chapelle du Saint-Esprit. Gorgeousness.

Proof that it actually made it there.


Now that I’ve been home for a bit, and have some distance between myself and that shipping shitshow, I can consider the fundamental question of: Was it worth it? The answer is not a simple yes or no. I am immensely honoured that my art has been chosen to hang in a space like that, alongside artists whose work I greatly admire. In terms of boosting my confidence and my ego? Yep, mission accomplished. In terms of making connections? Again, yes. In terms of being able to put that I’m an internationally exhibited artist on my CV? Check.

But in terms of expense and stress? I’m not so sure. I don’t love that these shows seem to be firmly a pay-to-play situation. The cost is not insignificant. I would estimate that participating in this show will have cost me nearly $1,000 by the time it’s all over, and that doesn’t include the trip I took to attend the opening (a trip without which I am certain that my mosaic would never have made it out of the airport). I can afford to pay thanks to my day job, but that’s beside the point. I know this is just “the way things are done” but that doesn’t mean I have to like or accept it.

As I shared frustrated updates about my misadventure on social media, I was shocked by the number of similar horror stories I heard. Art being held in customs for months, artists paying vast sums of money just to get their art out of customs, art being damaged or lost entirely. If this is such a common thing, why do we even do it at all? My own experience was enough to give me pause, but add to that all the similar (and worse!) stories I’ve heard, and it just doesn’t seem worth it to me. Surely there must be a better alternative.

So, will I participate in an international (not counting the US) show again? I won’t say never, but I will be very very selective and it won’t happen often. I’d say I can probably count on one hand (with plenty of room to spare) how many times I will do this in my entire career. I think I am better served trying to build my profile and my audience here at home (or at least closer to home), as these are the people who are probably more likely to buy my work. These are the people I can build relationships with, relationships that are so very important in selling people on the idea of investing in me, my art, and my vision.

But—and that’s a very big but!—if/when opportunity comes knocking and I actually work up the nerve to try this again, I will at least know the following and will roll the dice accordingly:

  • It will cost a LOT of money. Probably more than I think it will. These shows do not make financial sense, and my participation will be purely self-indulgent.
  • There will be stress. Probably more than I think there will be. (Not that knowing this will prevent me from having real honest-to-god heart palpitations again next time…)
  • I will be at the mercy of customs agents. I might get lucky, or I might not.
  • The worst-case scenario of never seeing my mosaic again is always a very real possibility.
  • Having someone on the ground who can troubleshoot and advocate on my behalf (especially if it’s a country where I don’t speak the language) will be essential.
  • Hand delivering work will always be the best option, if possible.

And finally…

  • Never ever tell them it’s art.

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Putting it out there: Lessons learned from my first solo show

I have recently opened my first solo show and given my first Artist Talk. For those of you in the Toronto area, you still have lots of time to go see it—it’s hanging at Evergreen Brick Works until March 6. It feels weird to say this, but this is very likely the only time these ten mosaics will all be hanging together, ever, because three are already set to go off to their forever homes after the show is over.

I feel extremely lucky to have found such a wonderful place to show my work. Not only is Brick Works an amazing place to explore in and of itself (it’s an old brick factory and quarry, teeming with old industrial infrastructure and graffiti, that has been turned into a community environmental space), but the alignment of its mandate and my climate change mosaics is perfect. Even more perfect is the timing of the show, which was intentionally scheduled to coincide with the big international climate change negotiations (COP21) that are about to get underway in Paris in just a few days. There is a city-wide art festival—ArtCOP21—set to take place in Paris during the talks, and there are also satellite events all over the world. I am proud to say that my show is part of that global movement. (Below are just a few photos of Brick Works itself, to pique your interest.)

I have learned an enormous amount going through the whole process of launching this show. In the event that this is helpful for anyone else who’s at the same point in their journey as me, I thought I’d share some of these lessons learned here on the blog.

1 – You need endurance in spades

When I first decided that it would be amazing to do a show of my climate change mosaics in conjunction with COP21, I had two mosaics done and just under eight months to do the rest (I envisioned a line-up of ten mosaics). Having only evenings and weekends to work, I already knew that averaging one mosaic per month was ambitious. But the timing was too tempting, so I decided to throw myself into it head first. I will be the first to admit that the pace for the next months was punishing. As I was working on one piece, I was not just thinking ahead to the next steps of that particular mosaic, but also mentally writing the associated blog post as I worked AND sketching out the next piece in my head. By the time I reached the halfway point, I felt like I was approaching burnout. Social obligations that took me away from the studio made me anxious—all I could think about was the work that I wasn’t doing. But your body and mind have a way of getting what they need. A planned working holiday at the cottage ended up being more relaxation holiday than working holiday, which, despite feeling a bit panicked by my lack of productivity, ended up being exactly what I needed in order to go back to work refreshed and focused. And when I could finally see the light at the end of the tunnel (around the eighth or ninth mosaic), I could feel my drive seriously flagging. I spent an entire Friday night on the couch with Dexter, binging on Netflix because, as I rationalized to myself, he was being sucky. In truth, I was the sucky one. But again, I needed that night of nothing. All of this to say: be prepared to work hard and know that it will take a physical, emotional, and mental toll, but listen to your body and your mind.

If you need a night or a week of nothing, try not to feel (too) guilty. Pictured here is what my week at the cottage consisted mainly of: hammock time.

If you need a night or a week of nothing, try not to feel (too) guilty. Pictured here is what my week at the cottage consisted mainly of: hammock time.

2 – You are not doing this alone

While those long hours in the studio are a solitary endeavour, rest assured that you are surrounded by people who want nothing more than to see you succeed. Let them give you a push when you’re dragging, reassure you when you’re doubting, distract you when you’re going squirrelly, forgive you when you’re snippy, and champion you out in the world when you’d rather just curl up in a ball. Accept help when it’s offered (seriously, don’t feel guilty about it—people only offer if they genuinely mean it) and ask for help when you need it. I reached out on occasion to mosaic friends who have walked this path many times before and asked to pick their brains about one thing or another. While I probably could have googled the answers to my questions (or gone with my gut instinct, or problem-solved on the fly), what it gave me was peace of mind from a trusted source, because, let’s be honest, how many times has the internet led us astray or at least sent us down the rabbit hole, wasting precious time?

3 – You might as well aim high

When I was first trying to find an environmental organization to partner with for the show, I was specifically looking for a small community-based organization (as opposed to a more high-profile organization), because this was my first show and that felt appropriate and safe. But when it seemed like the initial interest from one such organization was starting to wane, I decided I needed a Plan B. So on a whim, I emailed my dream location / partner. Imagine my surprise when Brick Works said yes! While a “no” might sting for a moment, the possibility of that momentary disappointment is totally worth it on the off chance that a huge “YES” might come your way. So why not aim high? There’s no harm in asking for what you want, even if you don’t think you’re ready for it.

I never ever thought I'd be showing my work in such an amazing place. (It is truly an oasis in the heart of the city, just check out these walking trails out back!)

I never ever thought I’d be showing my work in such an amazing place. (It is truly an oasis in the heart of the city, just check out these walking trails out back!)

4 – Don’t be afraid to ask lots of questions

I was at a bit of a disadvantage going into the show, because I had never visited Brick Works, so I was walking in blind. (To her credit, R really really tried to convince me to take a weekend to go visit the space beforehand, but I honestly didn’t have a weekend to spare—I was working right down to the wire.) So, I had to ask a lot of questions to try to situate myself (and also because it was my first time feeling my way through this whole process). Most of the time I felt like I was being pretty annoying, pestering them with so many questions and asking for clarification when things were a bit fuzzy, but it had to be done.

Don’t feel bad about asking questions. It’s better to have the information you need in advance than to have several surprises at the last minute (although there will inevitably be those unpleasant surprises). For non-traditional venues in particular, make sure you ask questions about things like access to the space, supervision, and any other activities that will take place where your work is being displayed. And if, in this process, something doesn’t feel right, speak up. If there’s one lesson that was the hardest for me to learn during this whole experience, it was that I needed to stick up for myself because nobody else was going to do it for me.

My mosaics chilling with some apples at the Saturday market. (See? This is why I say ask about access.)

My mosaics chilling with some apples at the Saturday market. (See? This is why I say ask about access.)

My mosaics look on as one of the Chocosol guys whips up some Mexican drinking chocolate.

My mosaics look on as one of the Chocosol guys whips up some Mexican drinking chocolate at the Sunday market.

5 – Lists and timelines are your friends

My fellow list-makers will think this one’s a no-brainer, but I think it deserves to be mentioned. When I was a little less than halfway there, I decided I should make myself a timeline. It did two things: it scared the shit out of me because it made things very real in terms of how little time I had and how quickly I had to work, but it also comforted me because even though time was short, I could see that it was doable if I worked smart and worked hard. On the days when I didn’t feel like working at all, it kept me accountable; and when I managed to finish a piece ahead of time, it gave me a huge feeling of satisfaction (and those little wins were so important in maintaining my motivation). And at the end, when the mosaic work was done but the logistical / administrative work was ramping up, lists kept me sane. By that point I was frazzled and emotional—I think I freaked R out on more than one occasion because it’s rare for her to see me like that—so making lists was comforting and reassured me that something wouldn’t get accidentally forgotten (even if I made the same list three times in three different places).

6 – Have a plan, but be ready to adjust on the fly

As much as you try to plan ahead, at least one thing (and most likely many things) will go wrong. Take it in stride and adjust. For example, I went in with a really good idea of where I wanted to hang my mosaics based on the wall measurements I had been sent. I had scale drawings and everything—my graph paper and I had a hot date one Saturday night. But when I saw the lighting situation, I immediately knew that I would have to scrap that plan, and I can honestly say that the new configuration is probably better than my original one would have been (even without factoring in the lighting).

The layout in the Foreman's Shed

The final layout in the Foreman’s Shed

7 – Pick your battles

Not only will there will be unanticipated problems that you’ll have to solve, but there will also be things that you’ll just have to accept as imperfect. This will help you stay (relatively) sane and will help you make good use of the time you have. I quickly learned that I had to be quite firm with myself and with others about those things that I was going to let go and choose to not get upset about. As mentioned in #2 above, chances are that if you’re embarking on an undertaking like this, you are surrounded by lots of fantastic people who are genuinely invested in your success, so when a wrench gets thrown into the works, they will get outraged on your behalf. They will want to find a solution, or push you to find a solution. This, sometimes, will cause you stress, which is why I’m saying it’s a good idea to know what you’re willing to fight for and what you’re willing to let slide, and then clearly communicate to your circle of cheerleaders and champions when you’ve decided that something is not worth getting worked up about.

8 – When it comes to hanging, trust the interwebs and do the math

I hung one wall of my show three times. Thankfully it was just using S hooks, so it was easy to adjust and I wasn’t wasting anyone’s time but my own. I knew, thanks to Google, that I should be hanging it so the centres of the mosaics were somewhere around 56″ to 58″. But at 5’10”, it felt really really low, so I hung it at 63″ and immediately regretted it. For those of you who are not of average height, trust the collective wisdom of the interwebs. I also messed up the calculation for how much space to leave between the pieces so they’d be evenly spaced on the wall…twice. By the time I got all the measurements—horizontal and vertical—right, I had hung the wall three times and had wasted at least an hour. So, trust Google and also take the time to do the math right the first time.

Also, know how much space you have and how much you need. When I was told which wall my mosaics would be hanging on, I thought, “Great! Thanks!” and didn’t give it any more thought. But then a few days later, I came to the realization that the wall was 14′ wide and if I lined up all my mosaics side by side with no spaces between them, they were almost exactly 14′ wide too. Eek! So I highly suggest knowing how much space you need in order to hang your work properly and then going from there (e.g., by adjusting spacing, revisiting your line-up, negotiating more hanging space, etc.).

Measure, measure, and then measure again.

Measure, measure, and then measure again. (Photo courtesy of Liz George, Evergreen Brick Works)

Figuring out the spacing in the Foreman's Shed.

Figuring out the spacing in the Foreman’s Shed. (Photo courtesy of Liz George, Evergreen Brick Works.)

9 – It feels very weird when it’s all over

When I got back home, it felt very strange to have so much time on my hands and to see the walls of my apartment bare. (With very limited space, I basically have to store all my mosaics on our walls.) As a wise friend assured me, this is completely normal and the best solution is just to get right back to work. Another friend advised me to be gentle with myself. I plan on doing both of those things: I have the perfect (non-climate) project to ease myself back into it. And after that, stay tuned, because the Fiddling While Rome Burns series isn’t over yet—I’ve got lots more to say about climate change, and I’m planning on turning my attention to exploring solutions and actions over the next little while. I hope you’ll join me on this next phase of the journey.

Thank you to everyone who cheered me on and/or helped make this possible. Stay tuned...

Thank you to everyone who cheered me on and/or helped make this possible. Stay tuned…

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Transitions Exhibition at Ciel Gallery

ciel transitions postcardIn case any of you are curious, photos of the full line-up of mosaics in Ciel Gallery‘s Transitions Exhibition are now available both on Ciel’s website and their Facebook page. And if you fall in love with any of the mosaics, you can buy them via the website (there’s a handy Paypal link for each mosaic).

I really enjoyed checking out the other mosaics in the show, and especially being able to read the artist statements that accompanied each piece. There are some really fantastic pieces and I’m proud to be part of this show.

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Huzzah! My first juried show!

Good news, friends! This week I found out that “Punctuated Equilibrium I” was accepted into the Transitions show at Ciel Gallery in Charlotte, North Carolina. I’m super super excited, because this is my first show ever (let alone a juried one!). I will admit, however, that the initial excitement has worn off a wee bit as I’ve begun trying to figure out how to ship the piece there and back. Ugh.

But let’s ignore those details for now and just enjoy the moment (and some gratuitous cute dog photos).

The furriest member of my cheering section

The furriest member of my cheering section

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