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Two sides of the same coin: A mosaic about climate change adaptation and mitigation

There are two sides to the climate action coin: adaptation (dealing with the impacts of climate change) and mitigation (reducing greenhouse gas emissions). While working hard to reduce our emissions can help us avoid unmanageable situations in the future, equally strong efforts to adapt will help us manage the unavoidable impacts we’re currently facing and will continue to face.

You would be forgiven for not knowing much about adaptation, because we just don’t talk about it (except after a major disaster, like the Fort McMurray fires or Hurricane Sandy). The public discourse around climate change usually goes like this: Climate change impacts are already happening, so we need to reduce our emissions. There’s an immediate leap from impacts to mitigation, with no talk of adaptation. Why? Partly, I think it’s because talking about adaptation feels like an admission of defeat—as if our efforts to reduce emissions have failed and any further attempts will be futile. But I think it’s also because, on the whole, adaptation is a bit of a snoozefest (at least comparatively speaking). At its essence, adaptation is about common sense and making good decisions, and that sort of thing doesn’t exactly grab headlines. Solving problems before they occur—proactive adaptation—is boring. But it is smart.

In contrast, mitigation is easier to sell to the public. We talk about carbon taxes and windmills and electric cars. We talk about targets for 2020 and 2050 and how we’re going to get there. Capturing the public’s imagination with adaptation is much more challenging. There are no targets, no clear end point. It’s a process and, while it’s not exactly sexy, it’s just as important and urgent as mitigation. No matter how much we reduce our emissions—even if we manage to be carbon-neutral or even carbon-negative—there will still be impacts. That’s because there’s a lag in the climate system; the impacts we’re experiencing today are a result of the emissions of past decades, and these impacts are projected to become more severe (because emissions over the last few decades have skyrocketed). Impacts are here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future, so we’d best get to adapting.

What, exactly, does adaptation look like? Well, to start, it’s more of a journey than a destination, and the path travelled will look different for every community because the impacts vary across space and time. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to building resilience in our homes, communities, businesses, and landscapes. There’s a tendency—when we actually do talk about adaptation and climate resilience—to only talk about infrastructure solutions, like bigger stormwater pipes, new permanent roads to substitute ice roads lost due to warming temperatures, and seawalls to deal with sea-level rise and storm surge. And I get it. Infrastructure is concrete (no pun intended). It’s easy to wrap your head around and easy to throw money at. But adaptation is about more than that; it’s about how we build healthy, liveable, resilient communities in every sense.

So how else can we build resilience? Well, homeowners can create rain gardens to soak up more intense downpours (so that the water neither floods their basements, nor overwhelms the city’s stormwater system). Farmers can plant crop varieties that are better suited to our new normal (e.g., can better cope with drought). Cities can keep public pools open longer, operate cooling centres, and put in place heat alert systems to warn citizens and help them cope during more frequent and severe heat waves. And provinces can work to preserve our natural assets, like wetlands, that buffer us from climate impacts like flooding and drought.

One of the best ways to ensure we’re adapting is to integrate climate change considerations (temperature increases, changes in precipitation, increased risk of drought, flood, or wildfire, the arrival of new pests and diseases, etc.) into every decision we make. That means taking climate change into consideration when we’re planning our transportation systems, when we’re establishing our parks and protected areas, when we’re figuring out how to manage our water resources, when we’re managing and expanding our healthcare system, and on and on. This kind of work often goes unrecognized—there are no ribbon-cutting ceremonies for incorporating climate considerations—but it is fundamentally important.

So now that you know a bit about adaptation, what is it about this mosaic that speaks to the relationship between adaptation and mitigation? Well, it’s subtle, but if you look closely you’ll see that the left-hand side of the mosaic (the adaptation half) was made with only the rough faces of the marble, while the right-hand side (the mitigation half) was made with the polished face of the same kinds of marble. Two sides of the same coin stone. The choice of rough side for adaptation and shiny side for mitigation was very deliberate: shiny for mitigation because that’s what grabs our attention, rough for adaptation because it’s humble and ordinary, but oh-so-interesting and full of possibilities when you look closer.

"Both / and" - Mosaic about climate change adaptation and mitigation by Julie Sperling

“Both / and” (2016), 14″ x 14″ — marble and shale

When I first came up with the concept for this mosaic, I thought the difference between the two halves would be more apparent. But it actually makes sense that it is so subtle and that there is also some blurring between the two sides, in that some of the polished faces are quite matte and blend in with the adaptation half, while some of the cut faces of the adaptation half are so cleanly cleaved that they look almost polished. And this blurring also happens in real life. There are actions that both increase your resilience and reduce emissions; climate twofers, if you will. Things like increasing the energy efficiency of homes, or expanding our urban forests. It’s easy to see how these actions reduce emissions, but how do they help us adapt? Well, more energy efficient homes put less strain on the grid during heat waves (which will become more frequent and intense) when everyone has their air conditioners going full blast, and urban forests, in addition to acting as carbon sinks, can also cool our cities and soak up water from extreme downpours.

"Both / and" - detail (Julie Sperling)

If you look closely, you can see the difference between the two sides

I have also deliberately left the strike marks on the marble where it didn’t break with the first hit of the hammer, just as a reminder that we’re in uncharted territory in terms of dealing with climate change, and we’re going to have to do a lot of experimenting and learning by doing. While it will be important to talk about our successes so that others can take them and replicate them and scale them up, we also need to be open about our failures and learn from them (to “fail forward”).

"Both / and" (detail) - climate change mosaic by Julie Sperling

Check out the shiny grey marble for an example of the strike marks. If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.

And there you have it. My mosaic plea to not forget about adaptation; my attempt to give it the space it deserves alongside mitigation. So, my friends, go forth and adapt and mitigate.

Final word: When I started this mosaic, I had no idea that I would be leaving my job to move home to Kitchener-Waterloo. While the move is a very good thing, I would be lying if I said I wasn’t going to miss my job and, more specifically, my adaptation colleagues (affectionately known as the A-Team). These guys are fun beyond belief, they always have your back, and they are really really good at what they do. I know I’ve learned a tonne in the short time I’ve worked with them and am a better policy analyst for it. I guess it’s kind of fitting that the last climate change mosaic I make while still gainfully employed (with the federal government, anyway) is about the file that I work on. So this one is dedicated to the A-Team, the best colleagues a gal could ever ask for.

Dedicated to the A-Team. Truly the best colleagues I will probably ever have.

Dedicated to the A-Team. Truly the best colleagues I will probably ever have. “We’re climate change too!”

4

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.

1

Black carbon: When climate change and air pollution collide

I’m guessing you’ve never heard of black carbon, but surely you’re familiar with soot, yes? Well, that’s essentially black carbon. So what does soot / black carbon have to do with climate change? As it turns out, quite a lot.

Where does it come from?

Black carbon comes from the incomplete combustion of fossil fuels (e.g., coal), biofuels (e.g., ethanol), and biomass (e.g., wood—anything from fireplaces to forest fires). In developed countries, the majority of black carbon emissions come from burning diesel fuel (think: cars and other forms of transportation). In developing countries, however, most black carbon comes from residential cooking and heating (picture women crouched over charcoal cookstoves, because in addition to being an environmental issue, this one’s also a gender and health issue).

"Black carbon (Potent but actionable)" mosaic by Julie Sperling

The incomplete combustion of coal, mosaic style

How does it work?

Black carbon contributes to global warming both directly and indirectly. Directly in that its little particles, being black, absorb sunlight in the atmosphere and turn that into heat. And indirectly because when deposited on snow and ice, black carbon reduces their reflectivity, so more heat gets absorbed (rather than reflected back into space), making the snow and ice melt faster. The resulting water, being darker in colour, absorbs even more heat, and on and on it goes (remember, we covered this back when we talked about sea ice decline). This makes black carbon a really important driver of climate change in the Arctic.

"Black carbon (Potent but actionable)" mosaic by Julie Sperling

Black carbon at work in the Arctic, making things go wonky

Timing is everything

Along with a handful of other substances, black carbon is part of a group of super pollutants that, molecule for molecule, punch above their weight in terms of contributing to climate change. These super pollutants are known as short-lived climate pollutants (SLCPs). The “short-lived” part is important: unlike greenhouse gases (GHGs) like carbon dioxide, which can stay in the atmosphere for hundreds of years, SLCPs have a much shorter atmospheric lifespan (more in the order of days to weeks). This timescale aspect is key. When we reduce emissions of normal GHGs, there’s quite a lag before we see anything happening in terms of falling atmospheric GHG concentrations; what we’ve already put up there stays around for a looooooong time (essentially forever), so there’s no immediate gratification for the fruits of our mitigation labours. But reducing black carbon and other SLCPs has a much more immediate impact because of their short lifecycle. While it remains imperative that we address GHGs writ large, action on SLCPs can buy us a little bit of time and might help avoid those nightmarish scenarios of unchecked climate change.

But you know what’s also great about dealing with black carbon? It’s a local pollutant (soot’s not super great for your lungs, among other things), so in addition to seeing very tangible, short-term global effects in terms of climate change, you also see immediate local public health benefits in terms of things like asthma and other respiratory conditions (and, as mentioned above, in developing countries there’s also a gender angle). That’s a lot of bang for our mitigation buck!

"Black carbon (Potent but actionable)" mosaic by Julie Sperling

“Black carbon (Potent but actionable)” (2015), 12″ x 12″ — marble, coal, unglazed porcelain, smalti, sea spines

A no-brainer, but not a silver bullet

Now, on my more cynical days, I am sometimes inclined to think that developed countries find dealing with SLCPs an attractive option because it acts as a bit of a smokescreen (*groan*…sorry, I couldn’t resist) in that a lot of the work can be done outside their borders. They pull together some money for cleaner-burning stoves in developing countries, thereby appearing to be benevolent AND serious about dealing with climate change, but they essentially allow themselves to delay taking ambitious action at home, which would inevitably involve taking a long, hard look at fundamental changes to their fossil fuel-based economies. But like I said, that’s on my cynical days, which, admittedly, are too frequent. At the end of the day, action on black carbon and other SLCPs is a no-brainer, both at home and abroad. We should be doing it—it buys us some time and comes with considerable co-benefits—just as long as it’s not the only thing we do.

"Black carbon (Potent but actionable)" mosaic by Julie Sperling -- detail

Just a parting detail shot…

3

Melting away: A mosaic about sea ice decline

For the second mosaic in my climate change series, I decided to tackle sea ice decline. The long and the short of the trend: it doesn’t look good for sea ice, folks (or for the cryosphere in general). But don’t just take my word for it, let’s see what the smarty pants scientists from the IPCC have to say about the subject: according to them, “the current (1980–2012) summer sea ice retreat was unprecedented and sea surface temperatures in the Arctic were anomalously high in the perspective of at least the last 1450 years.” Yikes. Oh, and “a nearly ice-free Arctic Ocean in September before mid-century is likely.” Why should you be concerned about the loss of sea ice? Well, it plays an important function in regulating the Earth’s temperature (its whiteness and shininess reflects light and heat), so without it things will get even warmer and wonkier. It’s also a key component of polar ecosystems—think of the polar bears and seals and penguins, oh my!

Sea ice mosaic by Julie Sperling

“Sea ice (Steady unprecedented decline)” (2014), 14.5″ x 20″
Quartz, marble, stone from Ottawa and Georgian Bay, smalti, recycled glass tile, salvaged glass table top

 

Yep, it’s disappearing. Source: Climate Change 2013, The Physical Science Basis (IPCC)

This particular mosaic was based on a graph of Arctic summer sea ice extent since 1900. The trendline of the mosaic is made from a big chunk of quartz that was given to me by a friend of my mom’s. It took me a while to work up the nerve to smash it to bits with my hammer, but it was either that or let it sit there and collect dust. And this just means I have room to bring in more fun materials! In terms of stone, I used a white marble tile I scored at the Habitat for Humanity ReStore, along with that amazing blue stone from up near the cottage (Georgian Bay, Ontario), and the nice glittery grey layered limestone (?) and black stone from Ottawa. The glass is a mix of smalti (the various blue lines), recycled glass tile, and some chunks of a broken glass tabletop that I rescued from the curb. I like the way the stone and the clear glass play off each other, but it really was a struggle to break down the glass. I’m slowly rekindling my relationship with glass, but it needs work. I think more practice will help, because as my skills get stronger, I will be less frustrated when working with it. And I’m hoping my sweet new Japanese hammer will help…

Sea ice mosaic by Julie Sperling (detail)

A slightly better view of the undulations

I added some undulations to the substrate to evoke snow drifts and rolling seas. And I intentionally put some of the machined edges of the glass facing up (as opposed to the riven side) because, being so smooth, they really catch the light and look like glints of shiny snow or ice. Of course, the curves and the way the tesserae catch the light—which are my two favourite parts of this mosaic—are the hardest ones to photograph. I really had trouble getting a photo that captures the essence of this piece (I was desperately wishing my photographer friends lived closer). Perhaps it’s just one of those pieces that needs to be seen in person for the full effect. Or perhaps I just need to hone my photography skills. I suspect it’s actually a little of both.

I’m thoroughly enjoying creating this series, even though I’m only two mosaics into it. I like the idea of engaging with a subject for a prolonged period of time. I’ve already got my next two pieces ready to go in my mind, and countless other proto-ideas jotted down. Apparently climate change is the subject that, sadly, keeps on giving. In a previous post I had joked about a cheeky working title for the series, but the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to keep it as the official series title. So, it’s official: say hello to “Fiddling while Rome burns”—a series of mosaics about climate change.

Sea ice mosaic by Julie Sperling (quartz detail)

A close-up of some of the quartz pieces, and you can also see the difference between the riven and machined edges of the glass (See the run of smooth, shiny glass pieces between the two quartz chunks? Now contrast that with the riven edges of the glass three rows above.)

A front angle shot to show the topography

A front angle shot to show the topography

Sea ice mosaic by Julie Sperling (side view)

Looking back towards the top of the trend line

Sea ice mosaic by Julie Sperling (detail of topography and quartz)

Just a side view of the topography and the quartz sticking up, just floating along on the flowing ice and water

Sea ice mosaic by Julie Sperling (quartz detail)

The quartz and rolling snow drifts and waves from another angle

Sea ice mosaic by Julie Sperling (quartz detail)

A look at the biggest quartz pieces in the icy, snowy top corner before they melt away…

8

Mosaic workout challenge, week 16: The swept floor

This week’s challenge—“The Swept Floor“—was courtesy of Margo Anton and the rules were simple: use only scraps and don’t cut any of it (use it how you discarded it).

"Glacial till" - made entirely of scraps from previous projects

“Glacial till” – made entirely of scraps from previous projects

Title: “Glacial till”

Size: 4.25″ x 4.25″

Materials: Stone, cinca, glass, quartz, shale, marble

How long did it take to complete? About 2 hours

Thoughts: Considering I got my start in mosaics using glass scrap and rarely cutting anything, this week was surprisingly challenging. I had been processing a bunch of material recently for my next non-challenge mosaic, so I saved all the offcuts to use for this piece. I just kind of threw myself into this without a game plan and ended up working in sections that were determined by material and the shape of the pieces. There are groups of tesserae in this mosaic that I really love in terms of how they play off of / relate to one another, but overall I’m not crazy about the piece. I’m finding that when I don’t put any thought into the design beforehand, the results are a crapshoot, with me ending up unsatisfied more often than not. While I don’t usually (ever?) make a detailed sketch, I do tend to mull things over for a good while before diving in. These challenges are definitely reinforcing the parts of my practice that are essential for me.

glacial till - angle

0

Six days with a mosaic maestro: Verdiano Marzi workshop

I recently had the great privilege of taking a six-day workshop with master mosaicist Verdiano Marzi at the Chicago Mosaic School. It was a humbling experience to learn from such a generous, warm-hearted, genuine—oh, and ridiculously talented—artist and teacher.

It was amazing to listen to him talk about everything from his relationship with his tools and materials to the importance of sketching (he even let us leaf through one of his sketchbooks, *swoon*) to more philosophical musings about art. Personally, I adored his reverence for and wonder at the worlds that are revealed when a stone is cut open. We shared some ooohs and ahhhs as we took a closer look at the marble I was working with, and it was really neat to see that he gets the same twinkle in his eye as I do when exploring the landscape contained in a single tessera.

It was also such a pleasure to watch him work. He works with such joy and does everything with purpose and confidence. There is no hesitation as he cuts, selects, and places the tesserae, which is undoubtedly the product of both innate talent and decades of hard work and dedication. Several of us were quite taken with the way his fingers would caress the tops of the tesserae to tuck them into their mortar bed and get the surface just the way he wanted.

I had heard from other mosaic artists who have studied under Verdiano that he has an uncanny knack for knowing exactly where a student is on his/her artistic path and how to get them to take that next step. So going into this class, I just kind of put my faith in Verdiano, that he would guide me in whatever direction I needed to be guided, and I went in without a plan: no sketch (or even a general idea) and none of my own tools or materials. I wanted to be open to whatever learning opportunities presented themselves, rather than boxing myself in with a predetermined game plan. I didn’t even have any specific learning objectives for the course: my only goal was to be a sponge and soak up whatever knowledge and insight was offered.

While I did miss my tools a lot, it was a valuable experience to be forced to use ones that were foreign to me. How else would I have known that those sweet little Japanese hammers cut smalti like a dream? And I’m glad I didn’t bring any materials from home, because there was certainly no lack of choice at the school. I got to play with lots of new goodies, including travertine, shale, desert rose, and my favourite new obsession: flint. I am now officially on the hunt for a local flintknapper (don’t worry, I had to google that when I first heard it too)…

To kick things off, Verdiano had an initial chat with each of us to get a sense of where we were as mosaic artists. During our chat, he offered me a really great piece of constructive criticism, which I decided to focus on with my class piece. I’m also convinced that he made a mental note of a few other areas where he could push me, but kept those to himself (perhaps so as not to overwhelm me right at the outset?) and ever-so-subtly made me work on those other areas over the course of the six days.

After much hemming and hawing, I finally settled on my palette and started to push pieces around on my board. When I was finally more or less happy with my idea for the central element, Verdiano came past, gave it his blessing (saying there was something poetic about it) and told me to start sticking stuff down. Near the end of that first day, I had surrounded the three central stones about one third of the way around with the flint. Verdiano came by again, took one look, and offered a suggestion: fill the interstices with bits of shale to add density. Genius.

Absolutely captivated by the master at work

Absolutely captivated by the master at work (Photo courtesy of Deb Englebaugh)

Over the next few days, my mosaic evolved slowly, as mosaics tend to do. Once I got into the background section surrounding that central explosion, I kind of fell into a groove, just doing my thing, building lines. Maybe too much of a groove though, because when I stepped back at the end of Day 3 to look at what I had done, my heart sunk a bit. It just seemed to me like I was doing what I had always done and had parked myself firmly in my comfort zone. Where was the growth, the risk, the experimentation? It’s true that Verdiano had shown me how to add a bit of undulation to the substrate (pretty sure that was one of the mental notes he made during our initial chat), so yes, I had learned that, but my lines were still what I had been doing before.

The shale and flint getting cozy

The shale and flint getting cozy

One of the ideas that Verdiano and I had discussed on the first day was integrating some runs of larger pieces toward the outer edges (again, probably another of his mental notes), but when I got onto my roll, I kind of missed the boat on that one. Not without a fair bit of regret, I said goodbye to the learning opportunity that could have been, and decided to just keep going with what I was doing. By the end of Day 4, I had the whole upper right side of the mosaic done and was still feeling ambivalent about it and just a wee bit frustrated. Verdiano, in his gentle way, (again) raised the issue of incorporating some bigger pieces. I was a bit resistant to the idea, because I thought I had already gone too far down the path I was on and it was too late to course-correct. I was afraid it would unbalance the piece. I don’t know why that mattered to me. It was a class piece, after all—I was free to explore and play and make a mess if I wanted. And yet I was still hung up on making something that looked nice. Something else to work on: loosening up and giving up control.

Back at the ranch (well, the airbnb house where 7 of us from class were staying), I hit my low point. I was frustrated that I hadn’t been pushing myself harder and I was worried that there were only two days left and I still hadn’t had a watershed moment. I barely slept a wink that night, fretting and trying to figure out how to turn things around. Somewhere in the wee hours of the morning, my sleep-deprived brain and I hatched a plan: I would do that chunky section that Verdiano kept advocating for, and I would counter it with a lighter, wispier section opposite it.

The next day, I was determined. I started playing around with some bigger pieces and when Verdiano came by to check in, he offered to do a line or two for me. By all means, maestro, go ahead! (He even humoured me and incorporated a combination of 3 tesserae that I had set out on my board and quite liked together.) The lines that he did are very obviously not mine. As someone said during the critique: “There’s one line in there that doesn’t look like the others…” I didn’t try to mimic his style as I carried on with what he had started—Verdiano Marzi I am not—but I tried to let his lines influence me.

"Poïesis" (14" x 14") -- marble, flint, smalti, shale, desert rose

“Poïesis” (14″ x 14″) — marble, flint, smalti, shale, desert rose

Reflecting on the six days, I realize just how much I learned and how skilfully I was led through the process. Verdiano guides you so gently that you can almost convince yourself that any breakthroughs and aha moments are your own doing, but no, that’s just Verdiano’s skill as a teacher shining through: not spoon-feeding you, making you do the work, but giving you enough nudges so that you come to those realizations yourself. He knows where you’re going before you do, but he lets you get there at your own pace, and the learning is all the deeper and richer for it (no matter how much angst and frustration you have to wade through before you get there).

I’m still not entirely convinced that I was ready for Verdiano. Part of me thinks I would have gotten more out of it had I waited until I was a bit more mature, artistically speaking. That said, I do think my art will be better for having had this experience at this particular point in my journey, and I am immensely grateful for it. I love that I can very clearly see both the old me and the new me in what I made during class. It’s hard to articulate, but when I look at the two more dramatic sections—the undulating chunky and wispy corners—I get this feeling of potential and possibility. This very fleeting glimpse of the artist I could be. And that’s pretty darn exciting.

An angle shot to show the undulations a bit better

An angle shot to show the undulations a bit better

9

Mosaic workout challenge, week 8: Time

Week 8 was all about “time.” We had two options: we could either make a mosaic about time, or we could set the timer for 60 minutes and race against the clock (and go for as many rounds as we wanted). I chose the latter, because I liked the idea of throwing caution to the wind and just going for speed (which is pretty much unheard of in mosaic). The challenge brief specifically stated, and I quote: “I am granting myself, and all of you, permission to make ugly things this week.” I really took that to heart. This was all about the process, playing around, and making decisions on the fly. No over-thinking, no planning, no pulling up pieces or adjusting them until they’re “just so”… just sticking stuff down and seeing where it took me. I was totally OK with making something ugly, right up until the moment I had to post a picture of it, and now I feel very exposed. Oh well, on with the show!

"A cautionary tale" -- this is what happens when you just plunge right in and go for speed, not beauty.

“A cautionary tale” — this is what happens when you just plunge right in and go for speed, not beauty.

Title: “A cautionary tale”

Size: 6″ x 6″

Materials: Marble, limestone, ceramic tile, unglazed porcelain, smalti, glass rods, tumbled stones, beads, safety glass, beach glass, scrap glass from glassblowing workshop

How long did it take to complete? Three one-hour sessions…ready, set, go!

Thoughts: Wow. I took the time trial option and this challenge was the most fun I’ve had so far. It was really nice to not have any pressure and to just make something for the sake of making something, end result be damned! Instead of prepping 3 small substrates as suggested, I decided to divide one substrate into three general areas. I grabbed a very eclectic selection of leftovers from my shelf and put them in three piles (one palette for each one-hour session). Each section started with a chunk of glass, but after that it was all left to chance / instinct. I didn’t plan anything in advance, and I enforced a strict “laid is played” policy. The end result looks so different from my usual work. Lots more materials, lots more noise. I noticed that with the clock ticking, I tended to shorten my lines (which are normally long and gentle). Anyway, it’s neat that each of the 3 sections—cream, white, and grey—actually has its own personality. I named this piece “A cautionary tale” because it has served to remind me of the importance of both play and planning. This craziness that I created is the result of zero planning, but oh what fun I had making it!

One more view of the crazy mess I created...

One more view of the crazy mess I created…

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Mosaic workout challenge, week 7: Home

Man, these theme challenges appear to be my Achilles heel! Give me technical or materials-based challenges any day. When I saw the theme for this week—Home—my initial thought was “Awwww fiddlesticks” (well, in all honesty, it might have been just a wee bit cruder than that). So many possibilities. So much thinking to do. Needless to say, I was paralyzed for several days, but in the end it all came together (somehow!). Anyway, let’s get to the show and tell!

"Home range" -- layered spray paint, marble, tile

“Home range” — layered spray paint, marble, tile

Title: “Home range”

Size: 6″ x 6″

Materials: Layered paint from a local Ottawa graffiti wall, marble, scavenged tile that had fallen off a shop front in Kensington Market (Toronto, ON)

How long did it take to complete? Far longer than it should have (5 hours?), considering a big portion of it is one piece is layered paint.

Thoughts: I continue to struggle with the themed challenges, and while I’d like to think that by the end I will have gotten at least a bit more comfortable with them, I fear I may only improve my ability to BS my way through them… This week’s mosaic is the product of a series of very tenuously linked thoughts and a few happy accidents. My initial idea was to use building materials like brick, glass, and maybe some nails or something. But I had already used brick in a few earlier challenges and it kind of felt like taking the easy way out. So I turned my mind to the more abstract, touchy-feely meanings of “home.” Lots of ideas, but no clue how to turn those into something tangible (on a 6″ x 6″ substrate, no less!).

Eventually I started thinking about how “home” has so many layers of meaning to it. It’s different for everyone and our notion of “home” often changes over time. Somehow, my mind then jumped from layers of meaning to physical layers, and I started thinking of the layers of paint that must build up over time as houses change owners and owners change their personal tastes and styles. This reminded me that I had some chunks of layered spray paint that I picked up at the local graffiti wall—remnants of artworks past. Perfect, I had my main material! While cutting it up into tesserae (used for the ‘clouds’ of this mosaic), I was really drawn to the rough jagged edges of the paint chunks. When I set one of the edges on my board to contemplate it, I noticed that it looked a bit like a mountain range, and thus “Home range” was born. So, through many twists and turns, I finally created what “home” means to me—it’s not just my dwelling, but also the landscape I inhabit and the spaces I move through. And this concept is where the name of the piece comes from, as a “home range”, in ecological terms, is an area in which an animal lives and travels.

A close-up of the tesserae I cut out of the slab of layered spray paint

A close-up of the tesserae I cut out of the slab of layered spray paint

Check out the rugged edge of the slab o' paint!

Check out the rugged edge of the slab o’ paint!

6

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

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Getting prepped for my first Urban Craft appearance

urban craft - march 15

I’ve been making a number of smaller mosaics lately in preparation for my first Urban Craft appearance (March 15, 10am-3pm at the Glebe Community Centre). It’s been fun to use up some bits of material that have been hanging around my shelves for way too long and and also to tinker with styles I don’t usually use. But while there’s a certain satisfaction to being able to complete one of these little mosaics in a single sitting, I will admit that I am itching to really sink my teeth into a bigger project now.

The materials used in these little pieces are quite varied. There’s unglazed porcelain, smalti, bits of skateboard, a typeset letter, sea pottery (or at least I assume that’s what it is) that friends brought back from Bermuda for me, marble, bits of one of my favourite plates dating back to my student days (the green stuff), ceramic tiles, local stone (of course!), a chunk of glass courtesy of the local glassblowing workshop‘s discard pile, and even rocks rescued from one of those zen fountains that was destined for the trash.

It’s been interesting to hear what people see in some of them. The one with the salmon-coloured tile has reminded people of waterfowl, aquatic dinosaurs, bacon (!), muscle, and a seam in the earth. The one with the bits of skateboard has elicited comparisons to a roadmap / crossroads, chromosomes, and neurons. Someone saw a guitar in the one with the glass chunk, and people who commented on the one with the green ceramic have unanimously said it reminds them of seaweed.

Not much else to say about these pieces, so just enjoy the pictures below! And come to Urban Craft if you’re in Ottawa on March 15!

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