Tag Archives | smalti

Powering change: Energy production and consumption as seen through mosaic

Energy is, in large part, what got us into this climate change mess in the first place. The burning of fossil fuels like coal, natural gas, and oil has not been kind to the climate. So naturally, changing how we produce and consume energy—shifting to sustainable energy sources and reducing our consumption—will be an important part of taking action to reduce our climate footprint.

Let me be clear: when I’m talking about green or sustainable energy, I am not talking about things like “clean coal” (which is total greenwashing) or fracked natural gas (as much as some would like to tout this as a ‘transition fuel’ and celebrate its contribution to energy independence). No, when I talk about green energy, I am talking about truly renewable forms, like solar, wind, tidal, hydro (but more in the realm of micro-hydro and run-of-river than large-scale hydro), geothermal, and, in some cases, biomass. Yes, these all have an environmental footprint, as (fossil fuel industry–funded) opponents are fond of pointing out. There are impacts associated with the sourcing materials (e.g., mining) and production, with its transportation and construction, operation (e.g., impacts on wildlife like birds and bats), maintenance, and decommissioning. But anything we do—any form of energy we produce—has an environmental footprint, and the environmental footprint of renewable forms of energy is substantially smaller than that of fossil fuel energy. Of course, the greenest form of energy is the energy we don’t use at all and therefore don’t have to produce in the first place, also known as negawatts (‘negative megawatts’—a term coined by Amory Lovins in the 1980s).

Mosaic about renewable energy by Julie Sperling

“Power dynamic (Renewable production, mindful consumption)” (2017), 22″ x 11″ — marble, litovi, smalti, knob and tube, solar panel, shell, shale, limestone, sandstone, ceramic, miscellaneous stone

This mosaic tackles both renewable energy and sustainable consumption. Starting at the top, there is wind power, complete with clouds made of broken tubes from old knob and tube wiring (which were found in my dad’s garage, of course). Next up is solar power in the form of shiny rays of gold smalti. After that is all water-related forms of energy, but note that there’s lots of motion in the water (thanks to some waves made out of some really amazing shells)—no large problematic dams and reservoirs here!

Wind power and solar power detail of mosaic about renewable energy by Julie Sperling

Knob and tube clouds and golden sunny rays! (Plus negawatts. They’re everywhere!)

Mosaic about renewable energy (tidal and hydro section) by Julie Sperling

The sweetest little pebble stuck in a piece of shell in the water section

Sitting on the ground, there are solar panels ready to catch the sun’s rays above. These were originally part of solar-powered plastic flowers that decorated my grandma’s planter box, but when they broke I scooped them up rather than send them to the landfill. Around the solar panels is a layer of biomass, which, if done properly, is another source of green power (‘properly’ meaning not displacing food production or leading to deforestation, among other factors).

mosaic about renewable energy by Julie Sperling (solar, conservation, biomass, tidal, hydro)

Some negawatts mixed into the biomass section

Mosaic about renewable energy by Julie Sperling (solar, tidal, hydro, biomass)

Water, solar, and biomass. Check, check, and check!

And finally, down into the earth for geothermal energy, with hints of the heated groundwater that will be tapped into to produce energy. And we can’t forget the negawatts! You’ll see small sections throughout the mosaic where there are just the impressions left by missing pieces. If we consider each individual piece in this mosaic as a megawatt (a unit of power), then those missing pieces are the negawatts: integrated throughout and an essential part of a comprehensive energy strategy.

Mosaic about renewable energy (geothermal detail) by Julie Sperling

The geothermal portion — the heat from the earth’s core and the hot water that will be tapped into

Energy is a really easy area to take action on. You can buy green energy, you can install solar panels on your home, and you can also make your home more energy efficient through renovations (e.g., putting in extra insulation, sealing cracks, planting shade trees, etc.), technology upgrades (e.g., installing a smart thermostat, getting rid of that inefficient beer fridge), and behavioural changes (e.g., hanging your clothes to dry, turning off lights when they’re not in use, putting on a sweater and keeping your house a little cooler in the winter). There are usually incentive programs around to encourage you to implement these actions, so check with your local utility company or various levels of government. The nice thing about reducing your energy consumption is that it usually saves you money in addition to helping you feel very virtuous. Bonus!

And with that, I’m off to my renewable energy–powered studio to create my next climate change mosaic…

Mosaic about renewable energy by Julie Sperling

Parting shot of “Power dynamic”


Celebrating love with a mosaic ampersand

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

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

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

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

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

Love that typeset ampersand

Love that typeset ampersand

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

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

ampersand - top detail

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

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

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

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



It’s simple chemistry: Ocean acidification is bad news

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

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

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

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

pteropod time lapse

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

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

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

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

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

breaking the hand - crop angle

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

My very very favourite degraded shell in the mosaic

My very very favourite degraded shell in the mosaic


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

Oh, but these two are also quite striking…


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

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


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…


The atmosphere is a giant sponge: A mosaic about precipitation trends

Water. A basic necessity for life. But, as with most other things, climate change is going to mess with water too.

In general, wet areas are going to get wetter and dry areas drier (with exceptions to the rule, of course). Here’s how it works in a nutshell: A warmer atmosphere increases evaporation and is able to hold more water. So as warmer temperatures suck the moisture up into the atmosphere, which holds onto larger quantities of it for longer stretches of time, the land dries out more quickly, thereby increasing the risk and potential severity of drought. When the precipitation does eventually fall, it is with less frequency but higher intensity, resulting in, you guessed it, increased risk of flooding. In addition, warmer temperatures also mean that more precipitation falls as rain instead of snow. Less snow means a smaller snowpack, which reduces our summer water resources—normally the snow melts gradually and recharges water sources for important things like, say, agriculture. Well, not so much in the future. So, a warmer world is both wetter and drier, more drought stricken and more flood prone.

“Changes in the global water cycle in response to the warming over the 21st century will not be uniform. The contrast in precipitation between wet and dry regions and between wet and dry seasons will increase, although there may be regional exceptions.” (IPCC AR5, 2013, “The Physical Science Basis: Summary for Policy Makers“)

This mosaic is all about that growing divide between water-logged and arid regions and the fact that, when the rains do come, they won’t quench our thirst, as the deluge will simply run off our parched, sun-baked soils and endless expanses of concrete without a chance to seep in, get taken up by trees and plants, and recharge our aquifers. It’s that idea of suddenly and overwhelmingly having what you need but being unable to use it that’s behind the title of this piece: “Drinking from a firehose (Flood prone yet drought stricken).”

"Drinking from a firehose (Flood prone yet drought stricken)" mosaic by Julie Sperling about climate change and precipitation

“Drinking from a firehose (Flood prone yet drought stricken)” (2015), 19″ x 14″ — Marble, ceramic tile, mudstone, smalti, glass tile, brick, terracotta, sandstone, slate, thinset tesserae, and garden hose faucet handles

Proudly displaying my find (Not pictured: Wheels already turning in my head)

Proudly displaying my find (Not pictured: Wheels already turning in my head)

The proto-idea for the mosaic had been sitting idly in the back of my brain ever since I found the two garden hose faucet handles in an abandoned lot near my office on one of my lunchtime scavenging outings over a year ago. Yep, sometimes it takes that long (and often longer) for that seed of an idea to take root and sprout.

The idea was to have the fiery side and the watery side emerging from / spinning into the faucet handles in opposite directions. You know, turning the taps on and off. And they do rotate in different directions. But depending on whether you see them as coming out of the faucets or getting sucked into them like a drain, the drought doesn’t necessarily match up with the faucet closing and the flood with it opening (righty tighty and lefty loosey, respectively). This bugged me for a while, being the perfectionist that I am, but then I made my peace with it, embraced the ambiguity, and am now simply content that they move in different directions relative to the faucets. It is enough.





About halfway through this mosaic, it suddenly hit me: I was applying some of the things I had played with / learned during the IMA challenges. Until now, the impact of these challenges on my work had been fuzzy and intangible at best. But now here I was, weaving the lines in more than one colour and material (just like I practiced in Week 2) and also making use of negative space between the lines in the tangle (sort of like in Week 13). Now, I probably could have done this piece without the IMA challenge experience under my belt, but I like to think that in some way having gone through those challenges shaped the decisions I was making, even subconsciously, and my work was better for it.

Learning how to weave the lines over and under

Learning how to weave the lines over and under — a chronological progression

I must be a glutton for punishment, because making the lines meander and crisscross like this is certainly a challenge. Building so many lines in parallel and keeping track of each one’s direction relative to the rest of the jumble and how they’re going to go over and under each other is such a headache. And yet I love doing it. I have absolutely no plan when I set out on one of these undertakings. In many ways they are the most unpredictable of the work that I do. The lines take me on a journey and, while I may protest occasionally (“No, contrary to what you may think, dear line, I believe you really do want to veer left over here”), I generally just do their bidding. Maybe that’s why I love doing it so much: the element of surprise and the unknown keeps me engaged and on the edge of my seat.

Flood detail

Flood detail

Drought detail

Drought detail

The divide between wet and dry

The divide between wet and dry


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.


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…


Mosaic workout challenge, week 19: Ending

This week we had to think about endings, which is appropriate given that it was the second-last challenge.

Title: “Foiled again”

Size: 6″ x 4.25″

Materials: Smalti, tile, glass rod

How long did it take to complete? About 3.5 hours

Thoughts: I swear I had every intention of filling in the background, I really did! I even started doing it and then looked at the clock: Sunday afternoon, deadline looming… Realizing it was going to take me far too long, I ripped it out and started again with just the maze lines. Ahh negative space, how I have come to love and rely on you! When I started thinking about this prompt, I had a bunch of different ideas, but in the end I decided to just have fun with it and do something I normally wouldn’t do. So, not being big on rigid structure and right angles, I settled on the maze idea—lots of endings, opportunities for detours, etc. And yes, I realize I have absolutely no future as a maze designer – it’s so easy even a blind T-Rex could solve it in 3 seconds flat.

"Foiled again" (2014) -- 6" x 4.25", smalti, tile, glass rod

“Foiled again” (2014) — 6″ x 4.25″, smalti, tile, glass rod


Mosaic workout challenge, week 17: Elements

Earth, wind, fire, and water. That was the challenge this week: do something inspired by the four classical elements. This one felt easier to me, like I was more back in my wheelhouse. I didn’t have to contemplate it for days on end, which was nice.

"Core temperature" ... from the earth's inner core to its outer crust

“Core temperature” … from the earth’s inner core to its outer crust

Title: “Core temperature”

Size: 6″ x 4.25″

Materials: Stone, terracotta, smalti

How long did it take to complete? About 3.5 hours

Thoughts: I really enjoyed this challenge. Looking at the materials on my shelf, earth and fire were easy picks. I used a bunch of terracotta, smalti, and rock that I had already cut, which saved me a bunch of time. I had actually cut most of this about a year ago, and boy, can I ever notice the difference in my cutting skills! Just seeing that difference and the progress I’ve made was a valuable lesson in and of itself. And working with colours is always a good exercise for me, as it’s definitely not my natural inclination. I actually had doubts about the colours right up until I stepped back and looked at the finished piece. A lesson in trusting your gut instinct and not over-thinking, I suppose.

core temperature - angle


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


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