Tag Archives | stone

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″


Stocking up for winter

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

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

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

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

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


1-day quickies: “Pulse” and “Fault Line”

I did these two mosaics — “Pulse” and “Fault Line” — in a mad sprint to the finish. I wanted to finish them quickly so I could drop them off, along with “Thaw” and “Harvest“, at The Studio : Boutique as we were passing through Carleton Place on our way to Kitchener for R’s brother’s wedding. So I banged these out over the course of two consecutive weekends, each one taking a few hours of concentrated work.

“Pulse” is made of marble subway tiles from the ReStore, as well as leftover smalti from “Punctuated Equilibrium” (just used on its side rather than standing on end). “Fault Line” used up all the rusty blue stone that I brought back from Pennsylvania (Booo! Wish I had more of that stuff!), and then some brick that had sheered off one of the houses on my block. Neither mosaic was the result of extensive planning — I let the pieces determine the path of the focal line of each mosaic, and then just built the rest from there. This is one of the things I love most about mosaics, just letting the tesserae take me on an adventure. It’s like reading a really good book, in that you’re always itching to turn the page, lay down the next tesserae, in order to find out what happens next.



Introducing “River bend” … finally!

"River bend" mosaic by Julie Sperling

Nothing says “congrats on your wedding” like a mosaic

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

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

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


Still trying new things: The story behind “Punctuated equilibrium”

"Punctuated Equilibrium" mosaic by Julie Sperling

“Punctuated Equilibrium” (2013) — smalti, local stone, skateboard (12″ x 18″)

The concept for this piece, which I’m actually planning to turn into a series, had been nagging at me for months; I say ‘nagging’ because – try as I might (and there were countless sketches, trust me) – I just couldn’t figure out how to execute it.

I’ve always thought that graffiti art (the artistic stuff, not just the random tags that are more vandalism than art) injects a certain vibrancy into what is sometimes the otherwise dull, structured mass of concrete and glass that is the city. I wanted to somehow depict the ripples of energy and life that emanate from the graffiti, fading slowly back to the monotony of right angles and office towers. The solution didn’t hit me until after Rachel Sager’s workshop at Touchstone – I could use irregular chunks of stone (rather than cubes) to introduce that chaotic energy!

Solution in hand, I scribbled a graffiti-inspired doodle down in my sketchbook and picked my palette. I knew I wanted to do the graffiti section in long, skinny bits of smalti to evoke the idea of spray paint. Nice idea in theory, but in practice cutting those long, skinny pieces did a number on my fingertips. Thank goodness for butterfly bandaids! I eventually took to protectively covering my fingertips with masking tape before starting to cut (it was all I had on hand!). But I got through it and, in the end I think it was worth it.

The chunky rock bit came next. The stone I used came from two places: the lovely subtle green ones were scavenged by my parents up by their cottage (around the Lion’s Head area). The greyish-blue ones came from one block away from my apartment – they were just randomly lying there in the middle of the street, so of course I stopped to scoop them up! Both were perfect for the job, because they didn’t break neatly into cubes anyway. I also threw in some lines of smalti, almost like sparks coming off the graffiti. I originally wanted to use marble at the top in the opus regulatum section (and use the polished side too, not the riven edge) to depict that bland regularity, but when I got to that point it just didn’t feel right. So instead I opted for this really cool matte black stone from around here. I also couldn’t resist throwing in one of those fun little bits of skateboard that I made.

I’m still having fun with playing around and trying new things. I’ve never worked with smalti in this style before, nor have I worked with chunky rock. It was exhilarating (and more than a wee bit nerve-racking) to try these new things on a bigger piece and have no idea if the investment of time and materials (and heart) would actually pay off or not.

I had settled on the name of the piece (and eventual series) long before I even stuck the first piece of smalti into the thinset. As a former science nerd, I thought the evolutionary concept of punctuated equilibrium suited my purpose perfectly. So there you have it: “Punctuated Equilibrium I” — “I” because there will be more!

"Punctuated Equilibrium" mosaic - side view (by Julie Sperling)

Get a little peak from the side

"Punctuated Equilibrium" mosaic - detail shot (by Julie Sperling)

Mmmm look at that texture!



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!


On warm-ups, playtime, and palate cleansers

"Thaw" mosaic by Julie Sperling

“Thaw” (2013) – scavenged safety glass, stone, smalti, cinca

I have recently discovered that I work better after warming up. I’ve always known that it takes me a while to get into the groove with other things, especially with sports, and even with writing; however, I had never even considered that this might also be true of mosaics. Well, after deciding that I would try to always have two projects on the go – a small one (to tinker around and have fun with) and a larger one – I’ve discovered that I work best when I lay down a few lines on my small piece before diving into the big one. Who knew?!

These smaller mosaics are also great for just playing around and experimenting with different materials or styles. It’s OK if I don’t like the outcome, because I haven’t invested too much time and/or too many materials in them. They’re also great ‘palate cleansers’ between bigger projects, perfect for helping me shift gears (as was the case with “Harvest”). There’s also the added bonus of having something – albeit a small something – to show for my work more often, which works well with my results-oriented personality.

I’m calling my most recent warm-up / playtime mosaic “Thaw”. I had been wanting to experiment with the safety glass that my mom scavenged from a bus shelter for me (best Christmas present ever!) since, well, Christmas, so that’s where the palette started. I also had a tiny bit of clear-ish smalti left over from the Mississippi project, so I grabbed that, and some really white stone tile I got from the ReStore (no idea if it’s natural or man-made, but I’m leaning toward the latter). And then I decided to toss in some cinca, just for kicks. The white stone was super crumbly and cut terribly – I was thankful that I tried it out on a small piece before committing myself to using it in a big piece. I may actually never use it again.

Anyway, I’m really digging this new way of working. So three cheers for warm-ups, playtime, and palate cleansers!

Close up of "Thaw" - mosaic by Julie Sperling

Zoom in on “Thaw”


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