Tag Archives | limestone

How they’ll know we were here: Plastic, concrete, aluminum

I’m so very excited to be diving into a new series. It feels like a really nice way to start a new year and also to shift gears after ending my residency. Please don’t worry: the climate change series lives on! I’ll keep adding to it indefinitely—there’s certainly more than enough material to keep me going for…ever—but this generalist Jill-of-all-trades is feeling the need to branch out a bit and tackle some other, albeit related, issues.

And so, it gives me great pleasure to introduce you to my new series, “By Our Own Hands,” a series that will explore the Anthropocene from all its terrifying angles.

“We Were Here Now” (2018), 16″ x 22.5″ — mortar, concrete, plastic, metal, ceramic, red dog, coal, limestone, shale

What is the Anthropocene? In short, it’s the new geological age we find ourselves in and we only have ourselves to blame for this new era. Yep, humans have exerted so much influence on the climate and the environment that our impact is the defining feature of this new era. And no, this isn’t a “yay us, look what we’ve accomplished” sort of thing. More like an “oh shit, look what we’ve destroyed” sort of thing. As R put it: it’s an “epoch-alypse.” Ha! Clever girl.

Way to go, humans!

Now of course there’s scientific debate over exactly where the Anthropocene starts and the Holocene ends, debate over what marker denotes that official shift. (The frontrunner is 1945-ish, with radioactive elements from nuclear bomb detonations being the identifier.) But it’s really just a matter of time before scientists come to an agreement and make it officially official.

There are lots of hallmarks of this new geological age, and I’ll be drawing inspiration from many of them over the course of this series. For the first mosaic in the series, however, I decided to tackle one key characteristic of the Anthropocene: the mind-blowing scale at which we produce concrete, plastic, and aluminum, all three of which are now firmly rooted in the geological record. Centuries and millennia from now, anthropologists and geologists (if humans are still around) will find a layer of these materials—and many other things, collectively known as technofossils—as they dig into the earth. This is our legacy. And some legacy it is. Consider these sobering facts:

  • We have produced about 500 million tonnes of aluminum since the 19th century.
  • We have produced about 50 billion tonnes of concrete and more than half of this was in the last 20 years. That’s enough concrete to spread a kilogram of the stuff on every square metre of the planet.
  • We now produce about 500 million tonnes of plastic a year.

Plastic utensils and bread bag tags getting cosy with metal scrap and concrete

The mosaic is divided (roughly) into thirds. The bottom is just plain rock, a nod to geological eras gone by. The middle is moving closer to the present day, with hints of human influence showing up with the inclusion of small ribbons of plastic, layers of ceramic, and, perhaps the most dominant feature of this layer: seams of coal and red dog, the latter being a by-product of coal extraction (for extra credit, read Rachel Sager’s blog about red dog, which is actually a really spectacular material to work with). Together they speak to transformation and the impending transition.

sperling mosaic about anthropocene using limestome and shale

The bottom: shale (dark brown) and limestone (greys and black)

mosaic detail of anthropocene using red dog, coal, ceramic, and plastic

Ceramic, red dog, and coal (and a fork for good measure)

Then there’s the big disruption: a chaotic jumble of concrete, plastic, and metal (I exercised my artistic license and didn’t restrict myself to aluminum here). And after that, a field of mortar (drawing that link to concrete) and plastic. The careful viewer will note that, while the colours and materials themselves are arranged into horizontal layers, the lines of the mosaic—those rows of piece after piece after piece—actually run vertically. This is by design, to give the tangle of that unholy trinity something more to disrupt.

We interrupt this timeline…

Almost like plastic morse code…

The plastic details are some of my favourites. I didn’t really know what to expect when I started cutting up the plastic utensils, or even as I started incorporating them. But as I placed more and more of them into the mosaic, it became increasingly obvious that they looked almost like some sort of hierogyph. I love this. I like to think of it as a sort of message to the future. I’m not sure what it says… “Sorry we screwed everything up”? Probably not. It’s likely something more along the lines of “MORE EVERYTHING!”

A message to the future

The title, “We were here now,” is partly inspired by those plastic messages to the future; it’s a reference to our inescapable need to leave our mark, to say we were there, to satisfy our ego. Think scratched initials in a bathroom stall or on camp bunk beds or in the bark of trees, but on a much larger scale. This new geological layer proclaims just that: We were here. The past tense is intentional. Not we are here. Were. Continue down the path we’re on and we, as a collective, are not long for this world. The “now” is meant to disrupt, to make you pause over the disconnect between “now” and the use of the past tense, and, ultimately, convey how quickly everything is changing and how we can lose it all in the blink of an eye (geologically speaking).

I look forward to sharing many more cheery, uplifting facts and thoughts about the Anthropocene with you, so stay tuned! And now, I need a drink. Anyone else?


That’s enough! A mosaic about consumption and climate change

Climate change is fundamentally a consumption problem. This is not some sweeping, hyperbolic statement. Everything we consume—the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the phones in our pockets, the cars we drive, even the art on our walls—has a carbon footprint associated with its production and use (some larger than others, naturally). There’s a tendency to put the climate blame squarely on the shoulders of business and industry, but we, as individual consumers, are not blameless. Far from it. Recently, scientists quantified the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions stemming from household consumption: our consumption of stuff is responsible for 60% of global GHG emissions.

I’m going to tackle this issue in two parts mosaics: one on how much we consume (the current mosaic) and the second on what we consume.

"(More than) Enough"

“(More than) Enough” (2016), 12″ x 16″ — one single piece of limestone

This mosaic is about the notion of having enough—an odd notion in today’s society, where we want more, want it now, and want it for cheap. Recognizing that you have enough and actively consuming less is a very straightforward and simple way of reducing your impact on the climate (and the environment writ large); it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that ten pairs of jeans have a bigger footprint than four. To put this idea into practice, I decided to make a mosaic out of one single rock. I would chop it up and use every last scrap of it. It would be enough. Ironically, however, I quickly realized that I had more than enough.

The rock, pre-chopping.

The rock, pre-chopping.

First cut. Just look at those layers!

First cut. Just look at those layers!

I had already prepared my substrate before chopping the rock, which I didn’t think would be problematic because I’m normally quite good at estimating how much material I’ll need to complete a project. My chosen rock seemed about right to me. But when I looked at my pile of tesserae after chopping up the whole rock, I knew I had too much. It’s funny, but this realization immediately called to mind my almost weekly thought upon opening our organics box: “That will never be enough food for the week!” And yet it always is. And it is often too much.

All chopped and sorted by size and shape (and please note that I also saved the wee flakes and dust)

All chopped and sorted by size and shape (and please note that I also saved the wee flakes and dust)

Upon realizing that I had too much, I started to brainstorm options for dealing with the excess. The obvious solution would have been to just use a bigger substrate. Tempting, yes, but totally contrary to the point of the mosaic. If you have too much stuff, you don’t buy a bigger house (or rent a storage locker or three). I thought about displaying the leftovers in some sort of container or making a second mosaic that was more random and looked more like a scrap heap, but discarded these options because it didn’t feel like the best use of the material. It felt somewhat akin to throwing it out. It felt disrespectful. I think it was R (brilliant co-conspirator that she is) who suggested giving it away. Perfect! When you have too much, you don’t let it go to waste, you share the bounty. You let someone else get use and enjoyment out of it.

So I roped in two fellow mosaicists: Kelley Knickerbocker and Rachel Sager. Both were easy choices: Kelley because she’s already been working on pieces using other artist’s scraps / leftovers, and Rachel not only because of rocks and foraging, but also because of her mosaic where she used nothing but one kind of stone (I liked that sort-of parallel). I’ll be sending them care packages with my leftovers, with instructions to simply enjoy the rock and put it to good use. And fear not, I will report back on what they make from it—I’m eager to see what they create with this special rock that has oh-so-much character. It is definitely in good and capable hands with them. (If anyone’s wondering, here are the stats on this little experiment: Starting weight of rock = 1.7 kg. Weight of leftovers = 0.65 kg. So I definitely had MUCH more than I needed.)

Kelley Knickerbocker's "Stockpile" - made using discards from a floor installation by Erin Pankratz

Kelley Knickerbocker’s “Stockpile” – made using discards from a floor installation by Erin Pankratz

Rachel Sager's "Driveway" - made using only gravel from her driveway

Rachel Sager’s “Driveway” – made using only gravel from her driveway

I like to think that I am a relatively conscious consumer. I don’t buy blindly just for sport. No retail therapy here. I also like to think that in my mosaic work I do my best to honour the materials and not waste them. And yet this mosaic taught me so much. More than anything, I learned to really and truly appreciate the material and all its quirks. Because I was determined to use every last speck of the rock, there was no discarding of mis-cut tesserae, or shaving off a corner so it would be ‘just so’. I consciously tried to keep my cutting to a minimum. Barely any was done at the beginning (after the initial breakdown with the hammer and hardie), though I did have to resort to the nippers a bit more frequently near the end as my choices became more limited and I backed myself into corner after corner.

more than enough - detail 2

A close-up shot so you can appreciate this crazy amazing rock

I revelled in this chance to loosen up a bit, to let the imperfections (the rock’s and mine) shine, since this is typically one of the things I struggle with most in mosaic. Strike marks on the most interesting side of the tesserae? Welcome! Accidentally get a tiny spot of thinset on the top of a piece? That’s ok! Piece not lining up quite as it should with its neighbour? So be it, and hey, that’s just an opportunity to fill the gap with the little flakes that I otherwise wouldn’t know what to do with. Also, because I sensed I would have extra rock, I made an effort to not use all the choicest pieces. I wanted Kelley and Rachel to get some good bits too.

Strike marks and thinset and imperfections, oh my!

Strike marks and thinset and imperfections, oh my!

This was such a great exercise in restraint, mindfulness, strategy, and creativity. I am so eager to do it again that I think I will turn this into a little side series. The “Enough” series. I can see it becoming to me something akin to what Karen Dimit‘s “NYC Water Towers” collection is to her. She returns to the water tower as a subject over and over again to experiment with new techniques and materials. In my case, I can see myself returning to this exercise as a way of refocusing myself and returning to first principles. Because one rock is most definitely enough, and often more than enough. A good lesson for both mosaic and life.

more than enough - detail 1

Just one more shot of some of those bands of colour

Putting all the little flakes to use! (And the rock dust got mixed into the thinset that I used to finish the edges.)

Putting all the little flakes to use! (And the rock dust got mixed into the thinset that I used to finish the edges.)


Celebrating love with a mosaic ampersand

This past fall, a dear friend of mine got married. As is apparently now the custom when friends get married, I made a mosaic for her and her new husband. Not only do I enjoy making these personalized gifts, but there’s also something that has always felt appropriately symbolic about wedding mosaics (e.g., the dual importance of both the individual and the whole and how they work in partnership, the enduring nature of mosaic, etc.).

I first met Siti in Australia, many many moons ago. She is one of the kindest, funniest, most genuine souls I know. Over the years, we have kept in touch primarily through hand-written letters, despite the fact that we’re both fairly technologically connected people. Seeing a letter or parcel in my mailbox from Siti completely makes my day. I have developed a sort of ritual for reading her letters—there must be a mug of tea or coffee, there must be music, and I must be curled up on the couch—because they are special and deserve to be savoured and read with my undivided attention. On the writing side, in some ways my letters to Siti evolve much like mosaics: slowly and deliberately, constructed with love and patience, letter by letter, word by word, sentence by sentence.

Reunited after nearly 10 years and engaging in an age-old Canadian tradition: frolicking in the autumn leaves

Reunited after nearly 10 years and engaging in an age-old Canadian tradition: frolicking in the autumn leaves

I have come to know that Siti has a weakness for stationery, old typewriters, and typography. She and her husband, Fad, even take calligraphy classes together. (I know, too cute, right?) So deciding what to make for their wedding mosaic was easy. The typeset letter was purchased from a social enterprise here in Ottawa that is essentially a thrift / antique store with the parallel mission of helping the most marginalized and vulnerable members of the community. A perfect origin for this element, because Siti and Fad are admirably committed to volunteerism and giving back, especially to those most in need.

Love that typeset ampersand

Love that typeset ampersand

In addition, their devotion to their families is readily apparent, making it fitting that the china for the ampersand came from a tureen that once belonged to either a grandma or great aunt of mine (the origins are a bit muddy) and ended up in my hands because it was cracked. I later learned that the pattern on the china actually reminded Siti and Fad of the coffee cups they drank from on their honeymoon. How serendipitously perfect!

And of course I was going to use rocks, not only because they’re what I love, but because they’re stable and humble, and the more you get to know them, the more they reveal their beauty and their secrets to you. All good qualities in a partner and a marriage, if you ask me.

ampersand - top detail

As a final note, I think an ampersand is quite appropriate for a wedding mosaic. Obviously, it’s fitting in that these two are now Siti and Fad. But I also like the way “and” can hint, with the addition of a simple ellipsis, at the promise of adventures to come (as in “And…”).

So, my dear Siti and Fad, I wish for you a life full of love, laughter, patience, adventure, and discovery. I send you all my love as you begin writing your life together like a beautiful, heartfelt, sprawlingly epic letter.

A special wedding ampersand mosaic for Siti and Fad 12"h x 10"w China, smalti, limestone, Eramosa marble, mudstone, thinset tesserae, typeset letter

A special wedding ampersand mosaic for Siti and Fad
12″h x 10″w
China, smalti, limestone, Eramosa marble, mudstone, thinset tesserae, typeset letter



It’s simple chemistry: Ocean acidification is bad news

Whenever we talk about climate change, it’s only natural to focus on what happens up in the atmosphere. But climate change has an evil twin: ocean acidification (also known as “the other CO2 problem”).

By now you already know that when we burn things like coal and other fossil fuels, greenhouse gases like CO2 get released into the atmosphere. But did you know that some of that CO2 also gets absorbed by the oceans? And when that happens, it forms carbonic acid, making the oceans more acidic. Since oceans cover 70% of our little blue planet, that’s a LOT of surface area for them to come into contact with the atmosphere and for CO2 to be transferred from air to water. In fact, the oceans absorb about 25% of the CO2 we put into the atmosphere, or roughly 22 million tons per day (and have absorbed a full 50% of what we’ve emitted over the past 200 years).

Scientists used to think that the oceans were doing us a favour, climate wise, by taking in all that CO2. Taking one for the team, if you will. The warming we’re experiencing now would have been that much worse had the oceans not absorbed so much of what we’ve emitted to date. Originally, scientists thought that the ocean could play this buffering role indefinitely and self-regulate. Sadly, the scientists were wrong; the natural regulating processes in the oceans can’t keep up with the amount of CO2 being absorbed and their acidity is increasing. Today, the oceans are 30% more acidic than they were at the start of the Industrial Revolution. And if emissions keep on going at their current pace, scientists predict that the oceans could be 150% more acidic by the end of the century, with a pH level that hasn’t been seen since 20 million years ago.

So what happens when the oceans get more acidic? All sorts of bad things. Species like oysters, clams, corals, and sea urchins have a really tough time building their shells. For instance, mussels and oysters are expected to produce 25% and 10% less shell, respectively, by 2100. And tiny little pea-sized sea creatures called pteropods or “sea butterflies”—the inspiration for this mosaic—are already feeling the impacts. A lot of these species are at the bottom of the food chain, and when they’re threatened, the impacts ripple and cascade through the rest of the system, right up to us, with serious implications for the food security of millions of people.

pteropod time lapse

A pteropod shell gradually dissolving over 2 months when placed in sea water with a pH equal to that predicted for the year 2100

And it’s not only shelled organisms that are feeling the impact of increasing ocean acidity; fish can also be affected. The excess acid in the ocean finds its way into their bloodstream, and they end up expending more of their energy to counter its effects and regulate the pH of their blood. That means fish have less energy to do other important things, like digesting food, fleeing from predators, hunting, and even reproducing. It can also mess with their behaviour, preventing them from hearing and avoiding predators, and actually making them bolder and more likely to venture away from shelter (thereby increasing their risk of predation), as well as compromising their ability to navigate. (And this, again, links directly to food security issues for a good chunk of the world’s population.)

"Breaking the hand that feeds us (More acidic, less viable)" (2015), 18" x 18" -- marble, ceramic, mudstone, limestone, chalk, smalti, flint, shells

“Breaking the hand that feeds us (More acidic, less viable)” (2015), 18″ x 18″ — marble, ceramic, mudstone, limestone, chalk, smalti, flint, shells

If you want the 2-minute version of the story, I’d highly suggest watching this video, courtesy of Grist. And if you’ve got 20 minutes to spare, why not settle in and let Sigourney Weaver teach you about ocean acidification?

breaking the hand - crop angle

So, I think you probably understand by now that ocean acidification is a really big deal, which is why it was important for me to include a mosaic about it in this series. As I mentioned above, the images of the dissolving pteropod were by original inspiration—after having seen them, I just couldn’t shake them. To really get into the spirit of the issue, I decided that my mosaic should include shells that had been dissolved in acid, so I ran my own little homemade ocean acidification simulation. Do you remember making naked eggs as kids? You put an egg in vinegar (which is acidic) and its shell dissolves gradually over a few days, leaving only the membrane, or a naked egg. Fun times. Well, I figured I could use the same principle on some seashells that had been donated to me in recent years. And it worked like a charm. The shells bubbled and fizzed like crazy in the vinegar, and slowly but surely dissolved. The only thing I didn’t anticipate was just how much vinegar I would need: nearly 3L. I am so very very sick of the smell of vinegar at the moment. Some of the shells that I dissolved were quite beautiful in their original state, and someone on Facebook asked if it had been tough to sacrifice those to the vinegar. It had given me pause, to be sure, but I think it only serves to reinforce the message of the mosaic: ocean acidification will wreak havoc on those things we find most dear, beautiful, and life-sustaining.

My very very favourite degraded shell in the mosaic

My very very favourite degraded shell in the mosaic


Oh, but these two are quite striking too...

Oh, but these two are also quite striking…


And then there's this one. I love how I had no idea what would happen once they went into the vinegar. The element of surprise always makes my work more fun.

And then there’s this one. I love how I had no idea what would happen once they went into the vinegar. The element of surprise always makes my work more fun.


Mosaic workout challenge, week 9: When life gives you lemons…

Eeek – the ‘to do’ list keeps growing and it’s getting more and more difficult to find the time for these challenges. I may miss one or two in the coming weeks, as we are in the process of moving and I’m also attending Verdiano Marzi’s class in Chicago at the end of August. But for now, here’s what I managed to squeeze in this week. The challenge was the complete the phrase “When life gives you lemons…”

"G&T" - because really, what else would you do with lemons (or limes, yes, I know)...

“G&T” – because really, what else would you do with lemons (or limes, yes, I know)…

Title: “G&T”

Size: 4.25″ x 4.25″

Materials: Limestone and gin bottle

How long did it take to complete? Three hours

Thoughts: When I read the challenge for this week, I immediately thought of a gin and tonic. I know, I know, they’re traditionally made with limes, but we don’t get too picky with our citrus fruit here in this household, so humour me. I just happened to have an empty gin bottle, which I smashed and paired with some limestone. Like last week, I just flung myself into the challenge without a plan. I was neither here nor there with this challenge (and the result), and I’m not sure I learned much, except that I should’ve picked a lighter thinset colour in order to make the green glass pop a bit more.

An angle shot of "G&T" so you can see some of the texture.

An angle shot of “G&T” so you can see some of the texture.


Mosaic workout challenge, weeks 5 and 6: Three and Pattern

The last two challenges have coincided with a visit from friends from California, and since I’m short on time I’m going to combine two weeks’ worth of challenges into one post. Week 5 was a theme challenge where we interpreted ‘three’ however we wanted. Week 6 was all about pattern, and was one of the toughest ones so far for me. The best part of week 6 was sharing my workspace with 13-year-old V, one of our California visitors, who made his first mosaic while he was here (and liked it!).

Week 5 – Three

"Three Generations" - stones found on the shoreline of the cottage by (from left to right) my grandma, my mom, and me

“Three Generations” – stones found on the shoreline of the cottage by (from left to right) my grandma, my mom, and me

Title: Three Generations

Size: 4″ x 5″

How long did it take to complete? About 3 hours

Love or hate this workout? I really enjoyed this one. It was a bit stressful coming up with an idea, mostly because I tend to be very literal. Appropriately enough, the idea I ended up running with was my third one, ha!

Happy with the result? I was working on this one at the cottage, so there were a few “meh, good enough” moments because I wanted to finish so I could join in the board game fun and/or go read down by the water, but overall I’m happy with it, particularly because it has sentimental value.

What did I learn? I reinforced the fact that I need to let an idea percolate for a while in my head if I’m not feeling it 100%, because if I allow myself to do that I will inevitably hit upon a better idea than I started out with. The inspiration for this mosaic finally hit when I remembered that my grandma had told me that she had picked up a stone for me the last time she was at the cottage. I decided to get my mom to find one too, and I did the same, so the piece is built around three stones selected by three generations from the same shoreline, all tied together by an unbroken loop of marble.

Week 6 – Pattern

"Switch" - my first attempt at creating a pattern

“Switch” – my first attempt at creating a pattern

Title: Switch

Size: 6″ x 5″

How long did it take to complete? About 3.5 hours

Love or hate this workout? I won’t say hate, but how about strongly dislike? I just found working in a pattern too constraining. I like to let the pieces lead me, but I couldn’t seem to figure out how to do that while also settling into a repeating pattern.

Happy with the result? Within the context of the challenge, I’m satisfied, but it’s definitely not a favourite of mine.

What did I learn? Patterns are hard and not something that comes naturally to me! Even with just a simple pattern, I struggled. I think they take a lot more planning (and measuring) than my normal style, so if I’m ever faced with a project like this again, I will definitely whip out my ruler and do some calculations first. I also used this challenge as a chance to play with the grain of the limestone (having it echo the orientation of the metal piece it was framing – horizontal around horizontal, vertical around vertical). I’ve only worked with this stone once before, and I made the effort to have the grain all flowing in the same direction. Seeing it now running both ways in one piece, I’m not sure it makes that much of a difference, at least from far away. Good to know for future projects!

A close-up of the grain running both horizontally (left) and vertically (right) - not super obvious except for up close

A close-up of the grain running both horizontally (left) and vertically (right) – not super obvious except for up close


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?


Stocking up for winter

Now that fall has officially arrived, I’ve been getting a little twitchy about stockpiling enough rock to get me through the winter. Don’t get me wrong, my shelves are anything but bare, yet I still keep asking myself “Will it be enough?” Luckily, I had a chance to do a whole lot of rock foraging this September when my brother and I, our spouses, and my parents all went up to our family cottage (up on the Bruce Peninsula) for some quality time in celebration of my parents’ 40th wedding anniversary.

Over the course of 3 outings, I managed to collect pretty close to 100 pounds of stone. The first day we just stuck around the cottage, so I collected lots of really nice cream-coloured rock, which has a bit of a sparkle to it when it’s cut open, right out front by the water. Everyone was keen to help me build my pile, but I think they got a bit discouraged by my rejection rate (don’t worry, they caught on fairly quickly).

Outings two and three were both at Cape Chin, because I have always loved the blue and red rocks there. R and I both rocked a backpack on the first Cape Chin outing and were hunched over from the weight of our haul by the time we made our way back to the car, but I was flying solo on day 2 at the Cape (R came with me, but got lost in her book while I explored). The backpack I used was my dad’s totally vintage one from his European adventures in the sixties – it still had his childhood address written on the tag inside! It was the BEST rock scavenging backpack ever – I think it was the external frame (and vintage appeal, obviously) that made it so awesome. Aside from the red and blue rock, I also managed to find quite a few fossils at Cape Chin (which I’m planning on using as focal points eventually) and some really nice layered rock, which I’m guessing is limestone of some sort.

Back at the cottage, I set about giving all the rocks a good cleaning out on the deck. Everything was going swimmingly until I looked over at a pile of red rocks that I had just washed and set out to dry in the sun… What was once a pile of 5 or 6 stones was now a pile of waayyy more smaller red rocks. Just the act of dunking them in water had caused them to fracture into smaller pieces! (The same was true, I later discovered, for the blue stone.) No more washing for either of those! I later tested them to see whether the moisture from the thinset would have the same result, but luckily they held their form and didn’t crack, so I can still use the red and blue guys in mosaics <insert big sigh of relief>

It was really nice to be able to spend some good chunks of time looking for rocks and not feel rushed — really being able to feel the place, enjoy the sun and the fresh air, get to know the local stones, and then carefully select the ones that would make the journey home with me.


Introducing “River bend” … finally!

"River bend" mosaic by Julie Sperling

Nothing says “congrats on your wedding” like a mosaic

It seems that when friends and family get married, having me make a mosaic for them is a popular request. This particular wedding gift mosaic was for R’s brother and his wife, which R commissioned me to do (although I have yet to see the pay cheque…). The bride and groom gave me a list of earlier pieces of mine that they enjoyed, but essentially gave me free rein in terms of design, colours, and materials. Since the “Mississippi Meander” was on their list, I decided to go with a river theme. I’ve been planning to build a series around rivers for a while now, so this was a good chance to start doing that.

I chose a section of the Grand River that runs through Kitchener (where they live) and then stretched it to cover the substrate I was planning to use, so it’s definitely a loose interpretation of that part of the Grand. Originally, I had wanted to get rocks from their area to use, but time did not permit; instead, I used ones I had gathered here in Ottawa. I absolutely love the grey pieces that have lines in them and the ones that have a bit of orangey-brown at one end.

It was weird working on a project and not being able to post pictures / updates. I kept wanting to tell people (and by people, I mean Facebook): “I’m working, really I am! You just can’t see what I’m working on!” But now the mosaic – which I named “River bend” – is in their possession, so I can safely share pictures of it with you without ruining their surprise. Phewf!


Getting to know the rocks in my neighbourhood

Pretty typical of what's around here. This is at the pocket park right by my work.

Pretty typical of what’s around here. This is at the pocket park right by my work.

So far, spring and summer have been wet, which has foiled the vast majority of my attempts to go out rock hunting. The best I’ve been able to manage is a few lunchtime jaunts to that pocket park where I got the black rock for “Grounded” or a nearby section of the riverfront trail, which is fine except for the fact that it’s teeming with civil servants at lunchtime and I feel very self-conscious picking rocks with everyone watching. I also managed to get out once (seriously, only once – and even then there were thunderclouds looming) one weekend to a little island that I thought would have great scavenging opportunities, which it did, although those opportunities will probably be better once the water levels are a bit lower and more of the shoreline is exposed.

I feel like I’m riding a very steep learning curve. I’m slowly getting to know what kinds of rock my hammer and hardie can handle, both in terms of type and thickness. I’m finding that the stuff I can get through here is maybe one-third of the thickness of the rocks I was easily breaking with my hammer and hardie at Touchstone. Even though I take my mini-sledge with me whenever possible to crack stones open and get a sense of whether I’ll be able to cut them at home, I still manage to lug plenty of really hard, ‘uncuttable’ stone back home with me. Like I said, learning curve.

I haven’t actually busted out my rock identification kit yet (best garage-sale find of the season!), so I don’t know the names of the rocks, but that’s coming. I think it’s safe to say that I’ve found limestone. Lots of limestone. And maybe a wee bit of sandstone. Oooh, and so many fossils and neat quartz (?) formations. Those aren’t going to get chopped up – I’ll just incorporate them into mosaics “as is”.

Awww yeah - rock and mineral identification sets from the Geological Survey of Canada (from way back in 1966!)

Awww yeah – rock and mineral identification sets from the Geological Survey of Canada (from way back in 1966!)

The palette here is so different than what we worked with at Touchstone. Definitely more monochrome – lots of black and grey. I’m starting to appreciate the subtleties of the rocks, rather than pining for the colour range of the Pennsylvania sandstone: the black rocks with tiny pockets of quartz or what looks like flecks of metallic mineral, the grey layered rocks with greenish lines running through them, the (other) grey rocks with a orangey-brown layer on one side…

These rocks cut differently than the Pennsylvania sandstone (duh, obviously). I’m resigning myself to the fact that I inevitably end up with much more regular cubes, smoother surfaces, and sharper angles than with the sandstone. I’m trying to think in terms of what I can do with the stones to bring out their innate qualities – let them do what they want to do – rather than forcing them to conform to what I want to do. It’s all about give and take and letting the spirit of the place imbue my work. I don’t have it all figured out yet, but I’m working on it.

So for now it’s all about playing around and getting familiar with the materials that surround me. Hopefully the weather will be more cooperative going forward, because I’ve got to build up a nice little stockpile of rock before the winter sets in. I like that there’s a seasonal dimension to this process – it just further reinforces the connection to place.

Look at all these fun rocks!

Look at all these fun rocks!


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