Let’s talk about work-life balance. “Wait a second, Julie,” you say, “I thought you worked on environmental issues…?” Oh, I do. But this has a decidedly environmental angle. So let’s dive in!
Allow me to set the stage by telling you a bit about my own work-life balance. Since graduating from university, I’ve always had a regular 9-to-5 office-style day job. I’ve never been concerned with chasing promotions. For me, the most important part of work has always been doing interesting work with talented colleagues, and—as much as possible—being able to leave my work at work. Am I capable of working at a higher level? You bet. Could I think of things to do with the extra money that would come with a promotion? Sure. But for me the trade-off—the extra responsibility, hours, and stress that would surely be attached to moving up the corporate ladder—just hasn’t seemed worth it. Without knowing it, I have pursued what David Roberts calls “the medium chill.” (Note: While I’m not going to get into the notion of the medium chill here, it’s most definitely a related concept and I would strongly encourage you to go read David’s article.)
For years and years, this medium chill approach had worked well for me. That is, until mosaic started becoming more than just a hobby. I’m at a point now where I feel like I have two careers. Mosaic is no longer something I pick away at just for fun when I feel like it; I have goals and commitments and it is now work that I take seriously. Enjoyable work, but work nonetheless. When I’ve got something like a show to prep for, or the city residency a few years ago, it suddenly gets a bit overwhelming and I can feel that carefully cultivated balance slipping away. Of course I don’t work the equivalent of two full-time jobs if you look at it on an hours-per-week basis. But as the hours at the office and the hours in the studio pile up, I suddenly feel myself going into survival mode and edging closer and closer to burnout. And here’s where the environmental and social angles come in…
When I’m tired and have no spare time, I stop doing some of the simple things I normally do that help reduce my environmental footprint and/or contribute to my community. I favour quick trips in the car for efficiency’s sake, rather than taking the time to walk or take public transit (which is doubly sad because I really really love walking). I stop making things from scratch, like oat milk, hummus, jam, and laundry detergent. I withdraw from family, friends, and my community, getting panicky at the suggestion of spending time with people or going to an event (basically anything that would mean time away from my studio).
A few years ago, I read an article called “We need to work less to live better,” which explored the social and environmental benefits of working less (specifically, a four-day work week). Employers experimenting with this model found staff were more productive and focused. Not only did they have to be more efficient with their time to accomplish a full week’s work in just four days, but that extra day off gave them more time to sort out their personal to-dos, so there were fewer distractions at the office. People called in sick less. And there was an overall uptick in self-reported work-life balance and satisfaction.
There are definitely good business reasons to do this. But it’s also good for the community and the environment. The first obvious environmental benefit is people commuting one day less each week—an instant reduction in greenhouse gases and air pollution. With more time to themselves, people can do those things that are perhaps less convenient but that help reduce their environmental footprint (and are often very enjoyable). Things like gardening, making food from scratch (and not relying on over-packaged meals and take-out), taking a slower mode of transportation, spending time fixing things rather than just throwing them out and buying new ones, and the list goes on. They also have more time to get involved in their community. They can volunteer, become more active in local politics, and simply spend more time cultivating those social bonds that are so important in building sustainability and resilience.
So when R booked a trip to Oaxaca for a work conference and I couldn’t tag along (see above re: not being able to sacrifice time away from the studio), I decided I would take those four days off from my day job and use them to make a mosaic. A four-day mosaic. This would be my little experiment with working less to live better. Four glorious days of only working one job. Thirty-two hours to work with focus, and then my off hours were mine to do with as I pleased. To me it sounded like a dream.
I decided I would actually make four mosaics—one a day—on 8.5” x 11” substrates (the same size as a standard sheet of paper, for any international readers), as a nod to my day job. The material is a mix of neutrals leftover from various projects. If I was really going to embrace the idea of working less to live better, I wasn’t going to spend time cutting for this project.
I broke my days into eight one-hour increments. I’d set a timer, work until it ran out, then stretch, regroup, and start again. Because I usually work in stolen hours in the evenings and on weekends, I didn’t have a good idea of what I could accomplish in eight hours. I did know, however, that I didn’t want to work at a harried pace, just trying to fill as much space as possible. I would work at a reasonable pace, allowing myself to linger in the pleasure of building my lines. I also wanted to signal the passage of time visually in the mosaics, so at the start of every hour, I put in a bit of gold. The number of pieces I used corresponds to the hour of my workday (e.g., if I was starting my fourth hour, I’d put in four pieces of gold).
Each day had a bit of a theme, because I couldn’t fathom doing the same thing for four days straight; I think that would have been boring for both you and for me. Day 1 I just wanted to settle in and feel the increments of time. So I did one grouping of lines each hour, almost like paragraphs. By Day 2 I was feeling a bit more relaxed, both about the pace of my work and also about being away from the office. So that day was all about slowing down and allowing myself to breathe. Day 3 I devoted to the connections that can happen when you’re not spending all your waking hours at work. Not that this brief four-day hiatus allowed me to go out and build a whole whack of social connections, but I did sit down and pen a handwritten letter to a dear friend, so I think that counts. And Day 4 was simply about pleasure, adventure, and play. I took what, in mosaic terms, is basically just a meandering eight-hour walk around my substrate. (In real life, I mirrored this with several leisurely walks a day with our dog.)
These mosaics are intentionally simple, in keeping with the idea of the medium chill—of hopping off that aspirational treadmill where we’re constantly striving for the next biggest, best, shiniest thing. Can I do more groundbreaking work? Sure, and I’ve done it before and I’ll do it again. But in the context of this particular mosaic about this particular issue, there was something deeply satisfying about remixing good but simple andamento in four different ways and just getting lost in the simplicity and pleasure of creating the lines.
I’m not sure I have any earth-shattering revelations after four days of actually having some semblance of work-life balance. But I definitely felt a shift as the days progressed. I was calmer, more relaxed, and had more energy. My mind actually started wandering to the various projects around the house I wanted to tackle, and I found myself wanting to go out walking or biking, or do some gardening (if only the weather had been cooperative), or actually—gasp!—see friends and family. I am committed to trying to find a bit more balance, somehow, because when I’m well rested and when I have time, I’m happier, healthier, kinder to the planet, and a much better citizen, in the most global sense there is.
Julie, I’ve been out of the mosaic world for a while now, but still enjoy keeping updated in that medium. Mosaic will always have a special place in my heart. I remember the first time I heard (read) your name and it seems so long ago, but not really. It was the IMA mosaic a week art challenge. I was so intrigued by your work and your prose. I’ve been a follower ever since and couldn’t be happier for the growing success you’ve achieved and to see how your body of work has become more refined to reflect your personality and life’s interests. For whatever it’s worth, you always make me long to pick up the hammer and start again; and I may just do that.
These current pieces are beautifully simple in their design, but powerful in their message. I adore them not only for their beauty, but the message as well. Some people have the gift to articulate clearly and in a way that is also interesting. You not only have that gift, but one that spills over into your art. I’m so, so impressed by your work, your message, your style of prose and your growth as an artist. Julie Sperling is a person to emulate.Keep up the good work.
Oh Ginny, this comment made my entire week. Serious warm fuzzies. Thank you! I was actually just thinking about those IMA challenges the other day – seems like forever ago.
Here here, re: hopping off the aspirational treadmill. Part of the dedication to a work service we do every day at the Monastery says, “In reciting [this work chant], we recognize that our activities are wondrous in their simplicity and are no other than the path of awakening.” Here’s to being an ordinary person who appreciates the magic and sacredness of ordinary life. I love your embodied/enacting life experiments—turns out they make for very beautiful art, too! Using the gold to mark the time reminded me of the watercolor artist Roanna Wells’s work. Thanks so much for sharing your process. So nourishing!
Gracias Julie, es maravilloso.
Excellent. I hope you can do that again… and eventually, always!