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Travelling feet: Half of my contribution to Rachel Sager’s Ruins Project

Done and ready to be shipped to its new home!

Done and ready to be shipped to its new home!

This past summer, while on vacation at my family’s cottage, I finally got around to making a contribution to send to Rachel Sager for The Ruins Project. (If you don’t know about this undertaking of hers yet, read this—it’s basically amazing.) Well, technically I made half of a contribution. What did I send her? My left footprint. I intend to make and install the right footprint in situ when I finally get myself to The Ruins one of these days. You might be asking why on earth I would make a footprint, particularly given that it’s a bit out of character for me since I tend heavily toward the abstract, but trust me, it makes perfect sense. Bear with me as I explain…

When I started thinking about what I wanted to do, I knew it somehow had to be tied to Place. If you’re familiar with Rachel’s work, you know this theme figures prominently for her, and her Ruins promise to be one gloriously sprawling, mosaic-laden tribute to Place. Luckily, notions of Place are also near and dear to my geographer’s heart, so this was a natural fit for me.

All installed in The Ruins!

All installed in The Ruins! (Photo courtesy of Rachel Sager)

So what connects Place and a footprint for me? Easy: walking. I am an avid walker and, like the lines in my mosaics, I take such pleasure in wandering and meandering, letting my feet and my curiosity carry me where they will. There’s something about walking’s repetition, rhythm, and simplicity that really resonates with me. Walking is how I connect best with my Place; it forces me to slow down and notice little details and really get to know my surroundings as I move through the landscape at a human pace. The best walks are unhurried and unfold at their own pace, similar to mosaic, which defies being rushed.

For me, mosaics, Place, and walking are all inextricably intertwined. There are so many parallels between what I experience when I’m moving through my landscape on foot and what I experience when I’m simultaneously creating and discovering the pathways of my own mosaics. That’s why I decided to make a footprint (well, an eventual set of footprints) for Rachel’s Ruins.

C'mon, that's a pretty nice footprint (hanging in the studio, just waiting for the trip to the cottage).

C’mon, that’s a pretty nice footprint (hanging in the studio, just waiting for the trip to the cottage).

The footprint really is mine—I actually painted the sole of my foot to make the template, then hopped on one foot to the bathroom to wash it off (don’t ask me why it didn’t occur to me to do the whole process in the bathroom). For a long time, I didn’t like my feet. They’re too wide (like, really wide), the toes are stubby, and the left foot is a whole half size bigger than the right. Mine are not elegant feet. But the more in love I’ve fallen with walking, the more I’ve come to appreciate my feet. They are a solid, sturdy base, they are practical and made for exploration, and they ground me in my Place. And, as it turns out, they make for really good, classic-looking footprints.

The left foot that now calls The Ruins home is made from pieces of my Place. The black rock is my favourite rock from where I live (Ottawa) and this particular batch was foraged in celebration of my second Touchstone anniversary. The big chunks of off-white rock with the beautiful pockets and pits are from the cottage, which is a very special place for me and full of lots of good memories. The right foot will eventually be made from stones and other materials found in and around The Ruins, as that place (with Rachel’s class at Touchstone serving as a proxy) has left its mark on me and influenced how I am navigating the various twists and turns of the mosaic path down which I am now travelling.

My foot and its neighbour (by Kelley Knickerbocker)

My foot and its neighbour (by Kelley Knickerbocker). Photo courtesy of Rachel Sager.

This was a really fun project for me and I was so happy to be able to contribute to this fabulous (and massive) undertaking of Rachel’s. I can’t wait to head down and complete the pair. Stay tuned! And keep your eye on her website and social media channels (there’s even a hashtag: #TheRuinsProject) for updates as the project picks up steam.

Zoomed out for a bit of perspective. Look how tiny my foot is compared to the stairs. And those stairs themselves are dwarfed by the Ruins writ large...

Zoomed out for a bit of perspective. Look how tiny my foot is compared to the stairs. And those stairs themselves are dwarfed by the Ruins writ large… (Photo courtesy of Rachel Sager)

A side note: When I told my parents that I was on the hunt for nice pitted chunks of the limestone from the cottage, which are tougher to come by than you’d think (at least in manageable sizes), my dad offered up one particularly beautiful specimen. It had been sitting on a shelf where he displays lots of interesting little objects that he randomly finds here and there, and I knew immediately that it had to remain at the cottage. So I turned it into a little mosaic that I later installed on the side of the cottage.

Freshly installed, thinset not even dry yet!

Freshly installed, thinset not even dry yet!

**Update!**

In October 2016 I actually visited Rachel’s Ruins and got to finish my pair of feet, the second of which I made out of materials I found right there, under foot, in the Ruins.

My right foot, made with my special “Ruins mix” of materials

The pair of them, with more work popping up around them

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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

 

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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.

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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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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

5

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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