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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.


How to get the most out of a mosaic workshop: Crowd-sourced wisdom

I got such a kick out of reading all the replies to my previous post. A big “thank you” to everyone who commented and shared their thoughts and experiences, both as learners and teachers. (And thanks to the perennially fabulous Mosaic Art Now for helping spread the word.) In addition to validating what I had written in my previous post (phewf!), those who weighed in had some great words of wisdom, which I have compiled below.

1. Have FUN

I can’t believe I forgot this one! Several people pointed out that simply relaxing and having fun is essential, and they are completely right. As Christien said, “All learning goes better with connection and play.” And Jacqui put it beautifully when she said “Enjoy the process and do not focus on the result too much […]. The fun part of learning is seeing yourself change. Relax, enjoy the class, and drink in all the new experiences […].” Having fun kind of goes hand in hand with tip #2 from my previous post: Don’t expect to create a masterpiece. Just enjoy.

2. Set a learning objective or two

While most people agreed that it’s better to go in without a set design, one instructor did add the caveat that it’s usually a good idea to go in with an idea of what you’d like to get out of the workshop, and suggested asking yourself: “Why am I here?” Even though you might not always be able to answer that question as concretely as you’d like—knowing what you don’t know is sometimes hard!—it’s a good idea to give it some thought.

3. Remember that what you learn might not be what you expected

Though you might go in with a very good idea of what you’d like to learn / accomplish during the workshop, that might not be what you learn in the end (and likely won’t be the only thing you learn). Sherry wrote: “You will always learn something of value from anything you attend. Maybe it’s not what you expected, [but s]ometimes, it’s that next step you’ve needed but didn’t know you did.” While workshops often help you acquire or improve on various skills, they also often teach you just as much about yourself and your process as they do about technique, which Claire noted in her comment. Finally, in addition to unexpected lessons learned, you may also find that you don’t have that eureka moment until much later. The learning doesn’t stop when the workshop ends; it continues as you digest the experience, assimilate it into your practice, and combine it with other skills and knowledge. I like how Lin put it: “As a student, I have often found that what I learned in a workshop sometimes only emerges as many elements merge in my mind and/or my work. As a professor, I have had students come to me years later and tell me that it was only later that they got what I was talking about in class. So, sometimes it i[s] quick, sometimes it flows through me later.”

4. Be open to feedback

This can be so so tough, but Julia offered some wise words when she said that sometimes it helps if you just think about your instructor as a person (not some wildly talented mosaic artist up on a pedestal of whom you are not worthy): “Realizing that they are not the best and they do not have [all] the answers, and that maybe, just maybe, they look to their students for ideas, energy, and inspiration makes [it] easier.” Feedback can often feel very personal, but Julia cautioned against taking it personally: “Try not to confuse what you make with who you are. The work does not equal your identity. It comes from you, has your maker’s mark, and it can get better/change. [T]eachers really aren’t commenting on you personally, it’s about the work.” (For extra credit, go read the blog post I wrote about vulnerability and criticism.)

5. Take advantage of a good teacher-student fit

Ginny commented on how wonderful it can be when you click with your instructor: “[A fellow mosaic artist] recommended a particular instructor to me, [saying]: ‘He teaches in a way that I learn’. For me, it’s important to have the right instructor. Everyone is different in how they process information. Although one can’t know in advance whether a particular instructor is the right fit, it’s wonderful when the match works. Taking a second workshop from the same instructor can be very enlightening.” Finding an instructor you click with can make for a really fantastic experience and you should treasure those moments. However, even if that perfect match isn’t there, you can still learn a lot (from the instructor, from your peers, and even from yourself by observing and reflecting on how you’re reacting / adapting to the situation, etc.).

6. Don’t beat yourself up for learning the hard way

Even though you might know better in theory, there are times when you are simply destined to learn the hard way. Learning the hard way by making mistakes (sometimes cringe-worthy, embarrassing ones) is sometimes the best way to learn a lesson. These lessons are often the ones we never forget; they are hard-fought and they help us to move forward with intention, as was kindly pointed out to me by an email commenter. I couldn’t agree more. Many of my most valued and deeply internalized lessons are the ones I learned the hard way. So roll up your sleeves, get your hands dirty, and don’t beat yourself up over your mistakes. Instead, as Jacqui said: “[L]et your perceived mistakes take you on another journey.”

Well that’s it! Thanks again to all who commented. This was a lot of fun. Now to start thinking of another topic that could spark a discussion…

A note on attribution: I have added quotes where the comments were left in a public forum (and therefore were, in my opinion, fair game for attribution). Any comments received privately have been paraphrased and kept anonymous.

Dexter is super excited to be helping me get the input grouped into themes

Dexter is super excited to be helping me get the input grouped into themes


How to get the most out of a mosaic workshop

With every mosaic workshop I take (six to date), I develop my skills both as an artist and as a student. Not having a fine arts background, I started out with zero knowledge about how to take an art class. Depending on your experience, this will sound either very odd or glaringly obvious: the skills and mindset you need to approach a mosaic class are quite different from those you need to be successful in, say, biology or literature. So yes, there is a learning curve to learning how to learn an art. (Say that 5 times fast!) I have become a better mosaic student by trial and error, and I have unfortunately not gotten the most out of some fabulous learning opportunities because I didn’t have the right approach to the class. While I’m not a perfect student and am still figuring things out, I wanted to share some thoughts and lessons learned thus far with those of you who are in the same boat as me so you can learn from my mistakes.

1. Go in with nothing (unless instructed otherwise)

The first few classes I took were very project based and we were instructed to bring a design that we wanted to execute. I thought this was the norm, so when I took Sonia King’s class I arrived with everything nailed down, design wise. Big mistake (one that I regret to this day). Yes, there are workshops where you will make a specific project and you should go prepared. But there are other workshops that are more about artistic exploration and if you go in with a predetermined idea of what you want to make, you will miss out. Make sure you know which kind of class you’re signed up for and prepare accordingly. If it’s a class more about artistic expression, try to go in with as little as possible (in terms of design, materials, and tools), leaving yourself open for learning opportunities. I know it can be nerve-racking and it can feel like you’re unprepared and are only increasing your chances of failure, but trust me on this one (and see #2 below for some thoughts on failure).

2. Do not expect to create a masterpiece

I admittedly still struggle with this one, even though it should be a no-brainer. Most workshops are more about the process than the final product. Let yourself get lost in the process and don’t worry about whether you finish or whether you create something pretty. You learn as much from your failures as you do from your successes, so use your class time to experiment and take risks and push yourself under the guidance of someone who knows more than you. This can lead to really fantastic conversations with both your instructor and classmates, and their insights into what works and what doesn’t (and why) are invaluable. Sometimes a failure is just one tweak away from something that works amazingly well and is exciting and new.

3. Be yourself

Your instructor has a distinct style and so do you. You are not there to learn how to imitate your instructor. Yes, they will share their knowledge and insight about what they do and their process, but at the end of the day, you’ve got to be you. The challenge is to figure out how to take their style and their teachings and use them to enhance your voice and vision.

4. Get what you need

This will apply more to some readers than others, but since it’s wholly applicable to me, I figured I’d include it in the list. I am quiet and introverted and I shy away from attention. Consequently, in class I keep my head down and quietly go about my business, and am reluctant to ask questions. The more classes I take, the more I realize that this is a terrible approach. Any one-on-one interaction you have with your instructor is incredibly precious and valuable, so don’t be afraid to ask questions when you have them or to call the instructor over when you’re stuck or want to sound out an idea. Of course, it goes without saying that you shouldn’t hog the instructor’s attention—always be respectful and mindful of your fellow classmates.

5. Learn from your peers

It’s easy to get totally focused on and immersed in what you’re creating, but don’t forget to get up occasionally and take a spin around the room to see what your classmates are up to. The diversity of work in a class never ceases to amaze me. Everyone has a unique perspective and way of incorporating what you’re all learning, and it can be very enlightening to see what other people are creating—the challenges they’re running up against and their solutions to those problems, their individual process (including everything from cutting materials to figuring out a plan of attack for their mosaic), and their artistic vision. Even if your class is made up of really different skill / experience levels, there’s still lots of peer-to-peer learning to be had. Obviously beginners can learn from their more advanced peers, but more seasoned mosaicists can also learn from beginners, who have the benefit of ‘fresh eyes.’

6. Embrace how you feel

There is no right way to ‘feel’ during a workshop. I’ve had classes where I feel like I’m on top of the world and things just feel right and effortless (case in point: my time in Rachel Sager’s class). But I have also had classes where I feel like I’m struggling and am consumed by anxiety and self-doubt (example: Verdiano Marzi’s class). This is normal. Feeling unsettled in a class is not an indication that you’re doing something wrong or that you’re failing. And grinning ear to ear and feeling like everything is just clicking doesn’t in any way mean that you’re not pushing yourself or learning anything. You feel how you feel and it’s all part of the experience and the emotional rollercoaster that is artistic growth.

I’m sure there are plenty of other pieces of advice / words of wisdom about how to approach a mosaic workshop, but these are the ones that I’ve learned the hard way and wish someone had told me before I started. I’d love to hear what you have to say—either from a student’s or an instructor’s perspective—on the ones that I’ve outlined here or others you think are important. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below. If enough of you weigh in (here and on social media), I’ll compile your responses into a follow-up crowd-sourced post.

Lots of learning going on: All the class pieces I've done so far

Lots of learning going on: All the class pieces I’ve done so far


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