Putting it out there: Lessons learned from my first solo show

I have recently opened my first solo show and given my first Artist Talk. For those of you in the Toronto area, you still have lots of time to go see it—it’s hanging at Evergreen Brick Works until March 6. It feels weird to say this, but this is very likely the only time these ten mosaics will all be hanging together, ever, because three are already set to go off to their forever homes after the show is over.

I feel extremely lucky to have found such a wonderful place to show my work. Not only is Brick Works an amazing place to explore in and of itself (it’s an old brick factory and quarry, teeming with old industrial infrastructure and graffiti, that has been turned into a community environmental space), but the alignment of its mandate and my climate change mosaics is perfect. Even more perfect is the timing of the show, which was intentionally scheduled to coincide with the big international climate change negotiations (COP21) that are about to get underway in Paris in just a few days. There is a city-wide art festival—ArtCOP21—set to take place in Paris during the talks, and there are also satellite events all over the world. I am proud to say that my show is part of that global movement. (Below are just a few photos of Brick Works itself, to pique your interest.)

I have learned an enormous amount going through the whole process of launching this show. In the event that this is helpful for anyone else who’s at the same point in their journey as me, I thought I’d share some of these lessons learned here on the blog.

1 – You need endurance in spades

When I first decided that it would be amazing to do a show of my climate change mosaics in conjunction with COP21, I had two mosaics done and just under eight months to do the rest (I envisioned a line-up of ten mosaics). Having only evenings and weekends to work, I already knew that averaging one mosaic per month was ambitious. But the timing was too tempting, so I decided to throw myself into it head first. I will be the first to admit that the pace for the next months was punishing. As I was working on one piece, I was not just thinking ahead to the next steps of that particular mosaic, but also mentally writing the associated blog post as I worked AND sketching out the next piece in my head. By the time I reached the halfway point, I felt like I was approaching burnout. Social obligations that took me away from the studio made me anxious—all I could think about was the work that I wasn’t doing. But your body and mind have a way of getting what they need. A planned working holiday at the cottage ended up being more relaxation holiday than working holiday, which, despite feeling a bit panicked by my lack of productivity, ended up being exactly what I needed in order to go back to work refreshed and focused. And when I could finally see the light at the end of the tunnel (around the eighth or ninth mosaic), I could feel my drive seriously flagging. I spent an entire Friday night on the couch with Dexter, binging on Netflix because, as I rationalized to myself, he was being sucky. In truth, I was the sucky one. But again, I needed that night of nothing. All of this to say: be prepared to work hard and know that it will take a physical, emotional, and mental toll, but listen to your body and your mind.

If you need a night or a week of nothing, try not to feel (too) guilty. Pictured here is what my week at the cottage consisted mainly of: hammock time.

If you need a night or a week of nothing, try not to feel (too) guilty. Pictured here is what my week at the cottage consisted mainly of: hammock time.

2 – You are not doing this alone

While those long hours in the studio are a solitary endeavour, rest assured that you are surrounded by people who want nothing more than to see you succeed. Let them give you a push when you’re dragging, reassure you when you’re doubting, distract you when you’re going squirrelly, forgive you when you’re snippy, and champion you out in the world when you’d rather just curl up in a ball. Accept help when it’s offered (seriously, don’t feel guilty about it—people only offer if they genuinely mean it) and ask for help when you need it. I reached out on occasion to mosaic friends who have walked this path many times before and asked to pick their brains about one thing or another. While I probably could have googled the answers to my questions (or gone with my gut instinct, or problem-solved on the fly), what it gave me was peace of mind from a trusted source, because, let’s be honest, how many times has the internet led us astray or at least sent us down the rabbit hole, wasting precious time?

3 – You might as well aim high

When I was first trying to find an environmental organization to partner with for the show, I was specifically looking for a small community-based organization (as opposed to a more high-profile organization), because this was my first show and that felt appropriate and safe. But when it seemed like the initial interest from one such organization was starting to wane, I decided I needed a Plan B. So on a whim, I emailed my dream location / partner. Imagine my surprise when Brick Works said yes! While a “no” might sting for a moment, the possibility of that momentary disappointment is totally worth it on the off chance that a huge “YES” might come your way. So why not aim high? There’s no harm in asking for what you want, even if you don’t think you’re ready for it.

I never ever thought I'd be showing my work in such an amazing place. (It is truly an oasis in the heart of the city, just check out these walking trails out back!)

I never ever thought I’d be showing my work in such an amazing place. (It is truly an oasis in the heart of the city, just check out these walking trails out back!)

4 – Don’t be afraid to ask lots of questions

I was at a bit of a disadvantage going into the show, because I had never visited Brick Works, so I was walking in blind. (To her credit, R really really tried to convince me to take a weekend to go visit the space beforehand, but I honestly didn’t have a weekend to spare—I was working right down to the wire.) So, I had to ask a lot of questions to try to situate myself (and also because it was my first time feeling my way through this whole process). Most of the time I felt like I was being pretty annoying, pestering them with so many questions and asking for clarification when things were a bit fuzzy, but it had to be done.

Don’t feel bad about asking questions. It’s better to have the information you need in advance than to have several surprises at the last minute (although there will inevitably be those unpleasant surprises). For non-traditional venues in particular, make sure you ask questions about things like access to the space, supervision, and any other activities that will take place where your work is being displayed. And if, in this process, something doesn’t feel right, speak up. If there’s one lesson that was the hardest for me to learn during this whole experience, it was that I needed to stick up for myself because nobody else was going to do it for me.

My mosaics chilling with some apples at the Saturday market. (See? This is why I say ask about access.)

My mosaics chilling with some apples at the Saturday market. (See? This is why I say ask about access.)

My mosaics look on as one of the Chocosol guys whips up some Mexican drinking chocolate.

My mosaics look on as one of the Chocosol guys whips up some Mexican drinking chocolate at the Sunday market.

5 – Lists and timelines are your friends

My fellow list-makers will think this one’s a no-brainer, but I think it deserves to be mentioned. When I was a little less than halfway there, I decided I should make myself a timeline. It did two things: it scared the shit out of me because it made things very real in terms of how little time I had and how quickly I had to work, but it also comforted me because even though time was short, I could see that it was doable if I worked smart and worked hard. On the days when I didn’t feel like working at all, it kept me accountable; and when I managed to finish a piece ahead of time, it gave me a huge feeling of satisfaction (and those little wins were so important in maintaining my motivation). And at the end, when the mosaic work was done but the logistical / administrative work was ramping up, lists kept me sane. By that point I was frazzled and emotional—I think I freaked R out on more than one occasion because it’s rare for her to see me like that—so making lists was comforting and reassured me that something wouldn’t get accidentally forgotten (even if I made the same list three times in three different places).

6 – Have a plan, but be ready to adjust on the fly

As much as you try to plan ahead, at least one thing (and most likely many things) will go wrong. Take it in stride and adjust. For example, I went in with a really good idea of where I wanted to hang my mosaics based on the wall measurements I had been sent. I had scale drawings and everything—my graph paper and I had a hot date one Saturday night. But when I saw the lighting situation, I immediately knew that I would have to scrap that plan, and I can honestly say that the new configuration is probably better than my original one would have been (even without factoring in the lighting).

The layout in the Foreman's Shed

The final layout in the Foreman’s Shed

7 – Pick your battles

Not only will there will be unanticipated problems that you’ll have to solve, but there will also be things that you’ll just have to accept as imperfect. This will help you stay (relatively) sane and will help you make good use of the time you have. I quickly learned that I had to be quite firm with myself and with others about those things that I was going to let go and choose to not get upset about. As mentioned in #2 above, chances are that if you’re embarking on an undertaking like this, you are surrounded by lots of fantastic people who are genuinely invested in your success, so when a wrench gets thrown into the works, they will get outraged on your behalf. They will want to find a solution, or push you to find a solution. This, sometimes, will cause you stress, which is why I’m saying it’s a good idea to know what you’re willing to fight for and what you’re willing to let slide, and then clearly communicate to your circle of cheerleaders and champions when you’ve decided that something is not worth getting worked up about.

8 – When it comes to hanging, trust the interwebs and do the math

I hung one wall of my show three times. Thankfully it was just using S hooks, so it was easy to adjust and I wasn’t wasting anyone’s time but my own. I knew, thanks to Google, that I should be hanging it so the centres of the mosaics were somewhere around 56″ to 58″. But at 5’10”, it felt really really low, so I hung it at 63″ and immediately regretted it. For those of you who are not of average height, trust the collective wisdom of the interwebs. I also messed up the calculation for how much space to leave between the pieces so they’d be evenly spaced on the wall…twice. By the time I got all the measurements—horizontal and vertical—right, I had hung the wall three times and had wasted at least an hour. So, trust Google and also take the time to do the math right the first time.

Also, know how much space you have and how much you need. When I was told which wall my mosaics would be hanging on, I thought, “Great! Thanks!” and didn’t give it any more thought. But then a few days later, I came to the realization that the wall was 14′ wide and if I lined up all my mosaics side by side with no spaces between them, they were almost exactly 14′ wide too. Eek! So I highly suggest knowing how much space you need in order to hang your work properly and then going from there (e.g., by adjusting spacing, revisiting your line-up, negotiating more hanging space, etc.).

Measure, measure, and then measure again.

Measure, measure, and then measure again. (Photo courtesy of Liz George, Evergreen Brick Works)

Figuring out the spacing in the Foreman's Shed.

Figuring out the spacing in the Foreman’s Shed. (Photo courtesy of Liz George, Evergreen Brick Works.)

9 – It feels very weird when it’s all over

When I got back home, it felt very strange to have so much time on my hands and to see the walls of my apartment bare. (With very limited space, I basically have to store all my mosaics on our walls.) As a wise friend assured me, this is completely normal and the best solution is just to get right back to work. Another friend advised me to be gentle with myself. I plan on doing both of those things: I have the perfect (non-climate) project to ease myself back into it. And after that, stay tuned, because the Fiddling While Rome Burns series isn’t over yet—I’ve got lots more to say about climate change, and I’m planning on turning my attention to exploring solutions and actions over the next little while. I hope you’ll join me on this next phase of the journey.

Thank you to everyone who cheered me on and/or helped make this possible. Stay tuned...

Thank you to everyone who cheered me on and/or helped make this possible. Stay tuned…

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