Tag Archives | metal

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?


Abandon all hope, ye who study climate change: Mosaics about candour, heartbreak, and hope

The rusty nails in this one were proudly presented to me one day by a colleague who knew I would love them

The rusty nails in this one were proudly presented to me one day by a colleague who knew I would love them

For anyone even half listening to what scientists are saying about climate change, it’s evident that the picture is pretty bleak. Rising temperatures, thawing permafrost, increasingly acidic oceans, disappearing glaciers, wild fires, flooding, pests and diseases…and the list goes on and on.

Yet despite the high stakes and the urgency of the challenge before us, those advocating for climate action are told to keep the messaging positive and not to be Debbie Downers lest people find that offputting. When a scientist occasionally dares to give us some straight talk, he or she almost inevitably gets labelled an alarmist and is publicly discredited simply for speaking frankly and truthfully. Take, for instance, the case of climatologist Jason Box, who experienced a great deal of backlash in response to his tweet: “If even a small fraction of Arctic sea floor carbon is released to the atmosphere, we’re f’d.” So great is our denial that scientists are being forced to build increasingly unrealistic assumptions into their models in order to produce results that are palatable to political decision-makers. (Side note: You really should read this article about model assumptions by David Roberts, my favourite climate and energy blogger. It was one of two articles this year that scared the crap out of me, the other article being this one about self-reinforcing feedback loops.)

Why does that coal have to be so awful yet so beautiful?

Why does that coal have to be so awful yet so beautiful?

The near-apocalyptic future scenarios, the pressure to put a positive spin on even the most terrifying research findings, and society’s continued willful ignorance and inaction in the face of climate change create somewhat of a perfect storm (or perhaps a perfect superstorm is a more appropriate term in this age of climate change) for an increasingly common phenomenon among climate scientists: “pre-traumatic stress disorder.” The term was coined by forensic psychiatrist Lise Van Susteren to describe the mental anguish caused by anticipating and preparing for the worst, long before it happens. Slowly, and against convention, scientists are bravely beginning to speak out about their frustration and worry and the emotional toll that their work (and society’s collective response to it, which is basically a shrug and a “meh”) takes on them. Is This How You Feel?, a website that collects handwritten letters from scientists in which they honestly and heartbreakingly express how they feel about climate change, is one really excellent example of this.

So far, throughout my climate change series, I’ve tried to keep things from sliding into sky-is-falling territory. The blog posts are factual, with a hint of pessimism, but usually countered with some light-hearted humour. And the mosaics themselves are not aggressive or confrontational. They are, on the whole, rather inviting. But there’s always been a nagging question in the back of my mind: is it right to make something beautiful about a subject that is so ugly? I waffle on that. The answer I am comfortable with lies somewhere in the range of “It depends” and “Yes and no.” Do you try to draw people gently into a conversation? Or do you unsettle people and make them uncomfortable? I have largely (exclusively?) done the former.

"We're screwed!" -- I can't resist a lame joke

“We’re screwed!” — I can’t resist a lame joke

But after reading about the personal challenges that scientists are faced with, I knew I had to get just a bit darker, even if only briefly. And so, the idea for the three small mosaics comprising “Shouting into the wind” was born. The materials choice began with a single rusty screw (“We’re all screwed,” I said to myself, jokingly), which became a few carefully chosen pieces of rusty metal, and to which I added coal and shale to represent some of the climate bad guys. And then one small line of gold in each piece, as a glimmer of hope. The mosaics are intentionally small and thin. I didn’t want them to have as much of a presence as the other pieces in the series. Not because these dark days and their emotional turmoil are unimportant and should be swept under a rug (they are very real and important and should be openly acknowledged), but rather as a nod to the fact that the overwhelming message from society to scientists is to not talk about our climate reality openly and bluntly.

May these three mosaics serve as a reminder to us that scientists shouldn’t have to censor or sugar-coat things because we can’t handle or refuse to accept the truth. They aren’t making dire predictions and electing to be harbingers of doom and gloom just for the heck of it. It’s not a question of beliefs or some elaborate attention-grabbing scheme, it’s a question of fact. By making scientists tell us what we want to hear, or by ignoring or ridiculing them when they speak frankly, we are placing a great burden on their shoulders, as they are forced to watch us continue down our self-destructive path, their hands effectively tied, their mouths muzzled, and their hearts breaking.

"Shouting into the wind" climate change mosaic by Julie Sperling

“Shouting into the wind” (2015), 6″ x 5.25″ each — rusty metal, coal, shale, 24-karat gold smalti


The rock fairy

Ever since I was bitten by the rock bug, people have been giving me stones (and, increasingly, rusty bits of metal) to use in my mosaics. Sometimes it’s a negotiated exchange (“I’ll send you some of mine if you send me some of yours”), sometimes people are lovely enough to think of me while they’re travelling, sometimes rocks pass through many hands before I get them (like the chunk of quartz that was from my mom’s friend’s friend), and sometimes the rock fairy just randomly shows up at my office (which ends in me going around the floor, checking with the usual suspects to see whether they were responsible for whatever goodies were left on my desk).

Sometimes friends enlist the help of their kids in gathering materials for me on their roadtrips

Sometimes friends enlist the help of their kids in gathering materials for me on their roadtrips

It’s always interesting to see what other people think will be perfect for incorporating into my work. The rocks that non-mosaic people give me are usually much different than what I would normally pick up—they tend to be rounder, smoother, and typically more aesthetically pleasing or interesting as is (think of the souvenir rocks you squirrel away in your pocket on vacation and then promptly forget about)—as opposed to the usual “workhorse” rocks that I pick up with the intention of smashing to bits. That said, I eventually find a use for the vast majority of them, which is neat because it forces me to push myself a little bit and consider new possibilities. I also love that these rocks almost always come with stories, whether spoken or unspoken, and I enjoy knowing that people have connected with them in some way—in a particular place and at a particular moment in time—before they give them to me.

"Workhorse" sandstone by way of a mosaic friend in Pennsylvania -- this is definitely more in my wheelhouse

“Workhorse” sandstone by way of a mosaic friend in Pennsylvania — this is definitely more in my wheelhouse

I have also loved putting together packages of rocks that I’ve sent off to mosaic pals and sharing a little bit of home with them. It’s fun to think that the rocks I think are perfect aren’t necessarily the ones that they’d choose for themselves, even if we both make mosaics.

Drool-worthy petrified wood from a fellow Canadian mosaic nut, which was just one of the many treasures I received in our swap

Drool-worthy petrified wood from a fellow Canadian mosaic nut, which was just one of the many treasures I received in our swap

While I may occasionally get stumped—damn you, large, perfectly round rock, you will not defeat me!—I always love it when the rock (or rusty metal) fairy visits. I get a warm fuzzy feeling when non-mosaic people go out of their way to indulge my habit, and there’s a sense of kinship, community, and connection when fellow mosaic people swap rocks with me. Either way, the rock fairy is always welcome at my place!

This perfectly round rock was the first thing to ever mysteriously appear on my desk at work

This perfectly round rock was the first thing to ever mysteriously appear on my desk at work



False debate: A mosaic celebrating the scientific consensus on climate change

Scientists overwhelmingly agree that climate change is happening and that it is caused by humans. In the words of the latest IPCC report: “Human influence on the climate system is clear, and recent anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases are the highest in history.” And yet people still seem to think there’s a debate about whether or not climate change is (a) occurring and (b) caused by human activity. This manufactured debate is courtesy of a handful of powerful corporations whose wealth is inextricably tied to the fossil fuel industry and who are able to exert a disproportionate amount of influence on the media and politicians. The result is public confusion. This whole situation frustrates me to no end. By all means, let’s debate. But let’s not debate about whether or not climate change is happening. (Spoiler alert: It is.) Instead, let’s talk about what we should do about it, which policy instruments we should employ. Now there’s a debate I’d welcome with open arms (as long as it actually leads to action).

climate science consensus pie graph mosaic by Julie Sperling

“Quod erat demonstrandum (All else is junk science)” (2015), 24″ diameter
Stone (limestone, sandstone, Eramosa marble, coal, shale, concretions), cement parging, salvaged tile, brick, ceramic, Italian smalti, rusted metal, vintage 24-karat gold smalti

climate consensus pie chartThis so-called ‘debate’ about climate change is what inspired this mosaic. A 2013 study by John Cook of The Consensus Project examined a whopping 12,000 peer-reviewed journal articles about climate change published between 1991 and 2011. Of the roughly 4,000 that stated a position on anthropogenic climate change, 97% of these articles endorsed the scientific consensus that humans are causing climate change. The rest? Well, that’s just junk science. (You can watch Cook explain his study in this 3-minute video.) Even with the scientific consensus sitting around 97% and growing, public perception of scientific agreement is far lower (people believe that about 50% of scientists support anthropogenic climate change). And this ‘consensus gap’ between scientific reality and public perception prevents us from taking meaningful action to address climate change as we go around in circles, debating something that has actually been settled for years.

And so I decided to turn this convincing pie graph into a mosaic. The outlying 3%—the junk science—is quite fittingly represented by a bunch of rusty bits of metal (scavenged a year ago on the streets of Ottawa during the spring thaw) and coal sent to me by one of my Touchstone classmates. It’s funny, I very nearly got the math wrong on this when I was sketching it out. For some reason, my brain hopped instantly from 3% to 3º. Luckily, just before I was about to start sticking stuff down, I realized 3% is actually closer to 11º. Glad I caught that one!

Scooping up those two little red rocks (and one bit of rusty metal) in Lachine, QC.

Scooping up those two little red rocks (and one bit of rusty metal) in Lachine, QC.

This piece is so full of different materials that I had a hard time coming up with a list! There are stones, of course: shale, limestone, sandstone, coal, and Eramosa marble (and probably others that I can’t identify). There are two roundish red rocks I picked up along the banks of the St. Lawrence while out for a sunny Thanksgiving stroll. There are concretions given to me by friends in Alberta and Pennsylvania. There’s cement parging fallen from various walls around my neighbourhood—always in ample supply in the spring. There’s a variety of floor tiles (some even salvaged from my parents’ recent renovation, which my feet and my family’s feet have walked over a thousand times), brick that the Ottawa winter kindly liberated from a neighbouring house, and one of my favourite plates from my university days. And there is Italian smalti and hints of vintage 24-karat gold smalti (a splurge when I was in Chicago).

I had a heck of a time naming this piece. When I originally conceived of it, I got used to just referring to it as my “Junk Science” piece. I liked the ring of it and I was very close to actually naming it that. But then it struck me: why should the 3% minority get naming rights? Unacceptable. And so, “Quod erat demonstrandum (All else is junk science)” was born. The title comes from the only thing I managed to retain from the two weeks I spent in high school Algebra and Geometry before dropping the class (let’s just say that word problems are not my strength); QED is what you put at the end of a mathematical proof to indicate that it is complete (it roughly translates as “that which was to be demonstrated”). I guess it’s kind of the mathematical equivalent to dropping the mic? Anyway, I like how it lends a certain seriousness / formality to the piece, which is appropriate given that we’re really talking about one of the most fundamental concepts that I will ever deal with in this series.

Julie Sperling climate change mosaic pie graph scientific consensus

Check out how it dips over the edge of the substrate in places

As a final note, I wanted to mention that I’m really excited about this piece and how it turned out. There’s something about it that feels different, like something in me has shifted in some way (though I’m still working on putting my finger on what, exactly, that is and harnessing it going forward). I have a feeling that this mosaic will be an important marker in my evolution and growth as an artist, and this has me grinning a big ol’ stupid grin!

Bonus video: If you like sensible and funny commentary, you’ll love this John Oliver segment on the climate change ‘debate’. It is so perfectly bang on.


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


Temperature’s rising: Embarking on a series devoted to climate change

I have just begun a new series dedicated to climate change. I won’t get into my motivations behind the series in this post, because I’m planning on doing a post exclusively on the ‘why’ of the series in the near future. Instead, this post will explore the first mosaic of the series.

It seemed like a no-brainer to start a climate change series with a mosaic based on rising global temperatures. The actual inspiration for this piece was the graph below, taken from the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report (essentially, a really really big report that contains the most up-to-date, reliable climate science available). I won’t get into the nitty gritty of the graph, but basically it shows that global temperatures are going up.

The verdict: It's getting warmer.

The verdict: It’s getting warmer. (Source: IPCC, “Climate change 2013: The physical science — Summary for policymakers”)

It actually took me quite a while to fiddle with my palette and figure out how exactly I wanted to execute the piece. The stones I used were from the Bruce Peninsula in Ontario (the white and red ones), Pennsylvania (the yellow stuff), and Kamouraska, Quebec (the thin jagged ones I used for the trend line). The yellowish sandstone has a lot of mica in it, which is fun to look at up close but ridiculously hard to photograph (at least with my meager photographic skills).

"Heat (Each decade hotter than the last)" - mosaic by Julie Sperling

“Heat (Each decade hotter than the last)” (2014) — stone from Ontario, Quebec, and Pennsylvania, and a flue damper, 16.25″ x 24.25″

The metal circle in the bottom corner is a rusty old flue damper that I found in my daddy’s garage. I figured it was an appropriate sort of thing to include in this piece, since it’s used to control the air flow (and therefore temperature) in a wood-burning stove.

Daddy's garage is full of old treasures like this flue damper. I love that it's from Guelph, Ontario (close to where I grew up)

Daddy’s garage is full of old treasures like this flue damper. I love that it’s from Guelph, Ontario (close to where I grew up)

My favourite thing about this piece is the trend line. I love how the thin stones echo the annual variations shown in the graph, yet, when taken as a whole, clearly show an upward trend. These thin stones were actually a last-minute substitution. I had originally planned to do the trend line in terracotta (thinking the colour was appropriate for the subject matter), but there was something about it that just wasn’t sitting right with me. I’ve been learning the value of giving myself some distance when I’m unsure about something, so I let it percolate in the back of my head for a few days and eventually landed on the thin Quebec stones.

"Heat (Each decade hotter than the last)" - detail shot. Mosaic by Julie Sperling.

A view of the flue damper over the rugged topography of the trend line

"Heat (Each decade hotter than the last)" - detail shot. Mosaic by Julie Sperling.

The trend line from another angle, heading up, up, and away.

I am really excited about this series (I’ve already got ideas for at least 5 or 6 other pieces bouncing around in my head) and I’m looking forward to explaining my motivations in a future post. But for now, I hope you’ve enjoyed this little tour of “Heat (Each decade hotter than the last)”.

"Heat (Each decade hotter than the last)" - detail shot. Mosaic by Julie Sperling.

One last parting shot of the flue damper and trend line


Craving colour: The urge to create “Incendio”

The fire hose cap that helped satisfy my craving for colour. (Found in Ottawa's Chinatown.)

The fire hose cap that helped satisfy my craving for colour. (Found in Ottawa’s Chinatown.)

Lines of colour and energy

Lines of colour and energy

Every once in a while, I’ll come across some fun little trinket that I think has the potential to be incorporated into a future mosaic. Such was the case with the fire hose cap that was the starting point for “Incendio,” which I found on the street one sunny day around Thanksgiving when R and I were out with Dexter for a walk.

Most of these little doodads sit for months (or even years) on my shelf, waiting for just the right concept to pop into my head. Not the case with the hose cap. When I picked it up, I thought I’d just pop it in the bin with all the other interesting finds until I had a use for it. But after finishing “Lifecycle”, which eased me into a much-needed calm, zen-like state and helped me find my centre again, I was suddenly craving colour and energy.

And thus emerged “Incendio”. I grabbed some smalti from the shelf, chopped up some of that fabulous matte black stone from the banks of the Ottawa River (man, I love that stuff!), and away I went. I didn’t have much of a plan. Just followed my gut. Colour and energy.

Full credit for the name goes to R. We were sitting on the couch, just bouncing names around, and I was having such trouble coming up with something. All of a sudden she just said, “Why not ‘Incendio’?” It’s funny how you just know when you hit on the right name – it just clicks. (And thank goodness, because this piece was dangerously close to being called “Solar flare”, which was the best I could do.)

"Incendio" (2013) -- stone from the banks of the Ottawa River, smalti, and a fire hose cap, 12" x 12"

“Incendio” (2013) — stone from the banks of the Ottawa River, smalti, and a fire hose cap, 12″ x 12″


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