Making art in the hope that a solution to ocean plastics isn’t our white whale

In November 2018, a dead sperm whale washed up on an Indonesian shore. It had 5.9 kilograms of plastic waste in its stomach. Drinking cups, pop bottles, flip flops, plastic bags, and other assorted bits of plastic. This was not the first nor the most plastic-laden whale to wash up. For example, there was a whale that washed up in Spain with nearly 30 kilograms of plastic in its stomach. And then there were the 13 whales that washed up in Germany with things like a 13-metre long fishing net and a 70-centimetre piece of plastic from a car in their stomachs, among other things. Oh and let’s not forget the whale that died in Thailand with 80 plastic bags (and other plastic items) in its stomach. In comparison, 5.9 kilograms seems like child’s play, which is a crazy thing to say.

In planning the lineup for my upcoming solo show, I had already left a placeholder for a mosaic about ocean plastics. I know, I know, it seems like I only just made a mosaic about how the oceans aren’t the only game in town when it comes to plastics. But in planning a show about the Anthropocene, I couldn’t ignore this issue, especially when you consider the staggering statistics. Like the fact that we’re dumping about 8 million tonnes of plastic into the oceans every year, and this number could double by 2025 if we don’t take action. The ocean currents collect this plastic into five gigantic gyres, the biggest of which—the Great Pacific Garbage Patch—is three times the size of France and growing. It contains 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic.

So, needless to say, ocean plastics earned their spot in my lineup. I initially thought the piece was going to be inspired by the statistic about the oceans having more plastic than fish by 2050 if current trends continue. But as soon as I read the story about that whale, I knew this was the plastics piece I was meant to create and that it was going to be called “In The Belly Of The Whale”.

Can you find the unintentional fish? Didn’t mean for it to get in there, but I love that it happened.

So I rounded up all the random bits of plastic I could find in the house, plus those I had already squirrelled away in my studio, and got to work. There are utensils, the caps from nut milk cartons, zip ties, contact lens packaging, old skin lotion containers, the plungers from syringes we use to give the dog his meds, strips of plastic bags, and so many other random goodies (baddies?).

“In The Belly Of The Whale” (2019), 24″h x 30″w — plastic and styrofoam

For me, the dangling strips of plastic hanging from the belly of the whale (who is, of course, belly up…sorry to be such a downer), are kind of like a strange new species of seaweed made of microplastics. Now, of course whales don’t eat seaweed, but it speaks to how plastics are worming their way into the food web at all levels. They get in at the top when they get mistaken for food and eaten whole (those plastic bags look an awfully lot like jellyfish). And they insert themselves at the bottom once they’ve been broken down into smaller micro- and nanoplastics and taken up by things like plankton, insects, fish, birds, etc. So organisms at the top of the food web get a sort of double exposure, as they get tricked into eating whole plastic items, plus their normal food now also contains plastics that have been concentrating in predators and prey right up the food chain.

Tentacles!

So the bad news is that we probably can’t filter out the plastics that have already made their way into the ocean, especially the microscopic bits. But we can stem the flow of plastics into the oceans, because the vast majority of the plastic that ends up there comes from sources on land (e.g., it’s not from marine activities, like fishing vessels). I’ve already provided a list of easy actions you can take in my post about freshwater microplastics, but here’s a refresher:

  • Nix the bottled water.
  • Carry a travel mug and even travel utensils. For instance, I have a very strict rule for myself: if I can’t get it in a “for here” mug and if I don’t have my travel mug with me, I don’t get to buy a coffee. Pretty good motivation to have that mug with you!
  • Take a hard look at what you buy and how it’s packaged, and look for alternatives, like taking your own reusable containers to the Bulk Barn (and thanks, Bulk Barn, for letting us bring our own containers!).
  • Just say no to plastic bags. (Your fruits and veggies will be just fine without one. Trust me.)
  • Watch what you wear. You can deal with microfibres up front (e.g., limiting your nylon or fleece duds) or you can grab something to catch the rogue fibres in the wash.
  • Use beeswax cloth instead of plastic wrap.
  • Break up with any of your toiletries that contain microbeads.
One thing you can do: recycle properly (if you can’t eliminate the plastic in the first place)

I hate that I find these plastic bits so inspiring, artistically speaking. It unsettles me. And that’s probably a good thing, because while I try to be conscientious about what I buy and to limit the plastic I use, it’s still surprising how much of it creeps into my life. Working on this mosaic made entirely of plastic—the majority of which was just from our house—has served as a good reminder to me that I can (and will!) do better.  

Knotted strips of plastic bag in with the plastic bits
9

A problem in three dimensions: Mountaintop removal mining, mosaic, and the Anthropocene

The characteristics and impacts of the Anthropocene are so diverse and all-encompassing that I’m hard-pressed to think of even one aspect of our lives and the planet we inhabit that remain unscathed. As an artist engaged in big issues like the Anthropocene (and climate change), I will never run out of material to draw on. This is both a blessing (as much as you can consider the destruction of our planet a blessing…) and a curse, in that some days it can get a little overwhelming trying to decide what particular angle to tackle next.

But sometimes an issue just grabs you and won’t let go. Three years ago, a scientific study popped up on my radar and has been gently but incessantly nudging my creative subconscious ever since, until I was finally able to turn my attention to it in the studio. That study was one out of Duke University that quantified the destruction that mountaintop removal (MTR) mining has wreaked on Appalachia.

“Then They Took The Mountains” (2019), 22″ diameter — sandstone, marble, calcite, petrified wood, limestone, shale, schist, smalti

You might think it’s weird that a study about Appalachia would grab this Canadian’s attention, when there are clearly similarly destructive practices happening here at home (I’m looking at you, tar sands). Don’t worry: I can assure you that I am equally horrified by the scale of destruction brought about by the tar sands operations. But what drew me to this study about MTR mining was one specific thing: the researchers quantified the problem in three dimensions. And that just kind of blew my mind. They argued that the impacts of the practice couldn’t be adequately described in terms of just the land area disturbed (e.g., the number of square kilometres destroyed), like we do for disturbances like deforestation. To properly capture the impact of this particular mining practice, you also had to account for the topographical changes.

First things first: a little MTR mining 101. As its name suggests, coal companies literally blow the tops off mountains to get at the coal seams under them. How does this surface mining on steroids work? First, they take all the trees and soil off the mountain. Of course they don’t put all that perfectly good timber to use. It just gets burned or illegally dumped in a valley, because to do otherwise would cut into their profits. Next, they drill deep holes in the top of the mountain, stuff them with explosives, and BOOM. These blasts remove hundreds of feet of mountaintop in one go. Then they bring in huge machines (22 storeys tall!) to clear away all the debris and scoop up the coal. They deal with the rubble from the blast by tossing it in the surrounding valleys.  

Because this kind of mining takes the tops off mountains and puts them in valleys, the Duke researchers found that 40 years of the practice have profoundly flattened the region, up to 40% in some places. It has also made the slopes of the mountains 10% less steep.

The physical effects of mountaintop mining are much more similar to volcanic eruptions, where the entire landscape is fractured, deepened, and decoupled from prior landscape evolution trajectories, effectively resetting the clock on landscape and ecosystem coevolution.

Ross, McGlynn, Burnhardt, “Deep Impact: Effects of Mountaintop Mining on Surface Topography, Bedrock Structure, and Downstream Waters

These changes are having profound impacts on how the landscape works. On the blown-away mountaintops (which are now more like plateaus), grasses tend to take over because the environment is no longer suited to forests. In the valleys, there’s a definite change in how water flows (or doesn’t), in its quality, and in the life it supports. Some studies have found that the surrounding waters have lost half their fish species. Water contamination is prevalent in local communities, where many residents can no longer use their well water for drinking, cooking, or bathing.

The rubble filling these valleys is no joke. Some of these so-called “valley fills” are the size of an Olympic swimming pool and some are the size of 10,000 Olympic swimming pools, which I can’t even wrap my head around. They cover and block waterways, and the Environmental Protection Agency has estimated that the fills have buried more miles of stream than the entire length of the Mississippi River.

Valley fill, mosaic style

As with many environmental issues, there are also deep connections to human health. The health impacts of MTR mining on the surrounding communities are troubling to say the least. One researcher found that there are about 1,200 excess deaths per year in communities affected by MTR mining compared to unaffected Appalachian communities. There is also evidence of birth defects and low birth weights. For instance, the risk of a heart defect is 181% higher in MTR areas than other areas.

The Obama administration had begun making progress to rein in these destructive practices and had commissioned public health studies as well. I don’t need to tell you what has happened under the Trump administration. (If you really need a hint: the regulations and studies suffered the same fate as the poor mountaintops themselves…they got blown up.)

If you have 10 minutes, I highly recommend this short documentary by Human Rights Watch

For this mosaic, I created a mountainous substrate (but old mountains, like the Appalachians, not young jagged ones) and then cut the tops off them. I later used the tops to clog up the river valley winding its way between the mountains. You can see the river running under these fictitious valley fills, slowing to a trickle by the time it makes its way past all of them. While much of the meaning in the piece comes from the topography I created and altered, the process of building and covering the river was, for me, quite symbolic and imbued the mosaic with extra meaning.

Where the mountaintops used to be…

Those who get to explore this mosaic in person will see that the river continues under the inverted mountaintops, but you really have to peek around/under them. Looking only from directly above, you’d never guess how far under the rubble I actually mosaicked. To do this, I would first mosaic the river and surrounding banks, taking as much care as I normally would for a portion of the mosaic that was destined to be exposed and easily seen. Then I would cover these areas up with the chunks of mountaintop. Trust me, this was not easy to do. To see my careful work (often 2 or 3 hours’ worth of work) vanish in a matter of minutes filled me with anxiety, sadness, doubt, and a feeling of loss. And this was how it had to be. The parallel with how those valley fills cover up ecosystems and landscapes that took millennia to evolve brings another layer of meaning to the piece.

Looking upstream toward the headwaters flowing unobstructed…but not for long
The river disappearing under the decapitated mountains

As an artist this piece stretched and challenged me, and the research for this blog post horrified me (but also made me even more thankful that I chose to explore this issue through my art). If the defining characteristic of the Anthropocene is that human activity is the dominant driver of change on the planet, then for me MTR mining is a perfect poster child for this new epoch and for the scope and scale of the challenge we have created for ourselves in our insatiable quest for cheap resources.

4

Hey oceans, it’s not all about you: A mosaic to shine the light on freshwater microplastics

Playing second fiddle is tough. Over the years, I’ve experienced it many times at my day job where, as luck would have it, my various files always seem to take a backseat to the Hot Issue of the day. While understandable, it sometimes gets frustrating jumping up and down, waving your arms, trying to convince people to pay attention to an issue that you know is important but that always seems to get overlooked.

I can’t help but think that this is how people who work on freshwater microplastics feel. As I watch governments (mine included), industry, public sector organizations, and citizens band together to tackle ocean plastics, it seems like we’re ignoring a very important part of the puzzle. Don’t get me wrong: ocean plastics are a huge issue, but not to the exclusion of microplastics elsewhere, like our rivers and lakes, our fields and forests, and pretty much every wild place we hold dear (including the “wilderness” of our own bodies).

I consider myself pretty fortunate to work with lots of scientists, some of whom work directly on the issues of both ocean and freshwater microplastics. I get to see the work they’re doing to understand and tackle this problem, and through their social media networks I also get a glimpse into what’s going on in the broader research community. This was how the work of Chelsea Rochman and her lab at the University of Toronto popped up on my radar. An article she co-authored in The Conversation Canada was the direct inspiration for this commission, which was done for a client in Ottawa who is engaged in environmental work. (We’re safely into 2019, which means I can finally share this piece with you, as it was commissioned as a Christmas gift.)

“Beyond Oceans” (2018), 10″h x 12″w — stained glass, smalti, plastic cutlery, shale, limestone, eramosa marble, mudstone

To bring you up to speed on microplastics: they’re bits of plastic that are less than 5 mm long (think of a sesame seed or smaller). They come from a bunch of different sources, like the breakdown of larger plastics, microbeads in cosmetics, and even synthetic fibres in our clothing. And once they’re in the environment, it’s bad news. Wildlife—from bugs right up to mammals—can mistake them for food. The plastics fill their bellies, leaving no room for food. Sometimes they leach chemicals. And they can work their way up through the food web too, hopping between ecosystems and species, right onto our plates.

This mosaic, with its ribbon of “microplastics” (that plastic cutlery again!) weaving its way through a section of the Ottawa River, is quite simply me doing my bit to wave my arms and shout “Hey! Microplastics aren’t just an oceans issue!” It’s not that the oceans aren’t important, it’s just that microplastics are probably closer to home than you think (for us non-coastal dwellers) and our rivers and lakes—and forests and fields and mountains and tundra—deserve attention too.

Close-up of the microplastics

Bonus points: If you want to take action, it’s actually not that hard. First, work on phasing out those disposable plastics from your life.

  • Nix the bottled water.
  • Carry a travel mug and even travel utensils. For instance, I have a very strict rule for myself: if I can’t get it in a “for here” mug and if I don’t have my travel mug with me, I don’t get to buy a coffee. Pretty good motivation to have that mug with you!
  • Take a hard look at what you buy and how it’s packaged, and look for alternatives, like taking your own reusable containers to the Bulk Barn (and thanks, Bulk Barn, for letting us bring our own containers!).
  • Just say no to plastic bags. (Your fruits and veggies will be just fine without one. Trust me.)
  • Watch what you wear. You can deal with microfibres up front (e.g., limiting your nylon or fleece duds) or you can grab something to catch the rogue fibres in the wash.
  • Use beeswax cloth instead of plastic wrap.
  • Break up with any of your toiletries that contain microbeads.

Second, when you see plastic litter, pick it up! (Plogging, anyone?) Then it doesn’t have a chance to degrade and eventually become dinner (or get wrapped around some poor unsuspecting animal).

Not hard, right? Get to it!

3

Predictably unpredictable: A mosaic about the wild ride that awaits us

The earth and its systems aren’t 100% predictable at the best of times. There are always blips and surprises and occasionally big upheavals. But the more we push our planet to its limits, the less able its natural systems are to absorb the punches we’re throwing at them. Eventually, they will crack.

Little blips among the calm…

The closer you get to these tipping points, the more sensitive the whole system gets, and everyone and everything along for the ride is more vulnerable. Then finally something pushes it over the edge, there’s chaos, and then the system sort of reorganizes itself and finds a new equilibrium. You might be thinking: “OK, so we just have to deal with a little bit of wonkiness and then things will settle down.” But just because the planet and its systems settle down into a new stable “normal” state, it doesn’t mean we’re going to like it. What if an open bottle of wine’s two possible stable states are upright, or on its side with wine spilled everywhere? Stable isn’t necessarily desirable.

I’ve already explored the self-reinforcing feedback loops that can lead to these abrupt shifts in the state of a system as part of my climate change series. Indeed, pretty much all of the tipping points scientists talk about are related to the climate, because the climate system is so influential in terms of the functioning of the planet. Some examples of the tipping points they talk about are the disappearance of the polar ice sheets, the increasingly unpredictable summer monsoon seasons in India and West Africa, or the dieback of the Amazon rainforest (and there are plenty more for you to lose sleep over if you’re curious). While ice caps, monsoons, and rainforests might seem fairly far removed from our daily lives, the problem with these tipping points is that they cascade into other spheres of our lives. They ripple into people’s basic survival, into the economy, into our social fabric, into geopolitics, into life as we know it. They trigger sea-level rise, water shortages, the loss of property and livelihood, threats to health and human security, and on and on. And if they result in untenable living situations locally, then there is of course the possibility of conflict and climate refugees that will extend the reach of these tipping points beyond borders.

“Surprise Is The New Normal” (2018), 13.5″w x 19.5″h x 3.5″d — marble, smalti, glass, shell, coral, quartz, desert rose, apophyllite, sea spines, porcupine quills, wire, earphones, USB cable, styrofoam, various plastic, rubber bands, knob and tube, lightbulb, harp string ends

The earth’s systems are approaching these tipping points and are losing their buffering ability, so we’re going to need to learn to expect the unexpected as it relates to the most basic aspects of our lives and the natural foundation upon which they’re built. This mosaic is all about that new, unstable, uncertain norm we find ourselves in. Set against a backdrop of stable white marble (sort of like calming regular white noise) you see glitches and protrusions everywhere. At the bottom they’re small and almost imperceptible, and all made of natural materials. But as you move up, these surprises grow bigger and more frequent, and by the very top they are the rule instead of the exception. They’re also entirely composed of man-made materials: plastic, headphones, a broken lightbulb, glass, styrofoam, a zipper pull, the ends of harp strings (I know, right? Surprise!!), and so much more.

Gazing from the bottom, with its natural surprises, up toward the top
Surprise! Oh yes, that’s the top of a harp string!

And here’s a fun fact about the red smalti highlighting each irregularity: it was rescued from Italian maestro Verdiano Marzi’s trash bin by friend and fellow mosaic bad-ass Sophie Drouin. Talk about the interconnectedness and unpredictability of all things! In chaos theory (where the idea of tipping points come from), the classic example is a butterfly flapping its wings and causing a tornado elsewhere in the world. Or, in this case, one of Verdiano’s Winged Victories flaps its wings in France and, well, you know the rest of the story. 

Those spikey things on the right? Porcupine quills.
Broken lightbulb and earbud, among other man-made surprises

Long story short: Surprise will be the new norm going forward, so buckle up, because we’re in for a wild ride. Adjusting to the uncertainty of the Anthropocene and the stress it brings will test the limits of our societies. We are going to have to adapt all of our systems—political, economic, social, cultural—to be flexible and resilient in the face of all the uncertainty headed our way. On the upside, this really is the chance for a great reimagining of a more just, inclusive, and sustainable society.

It’s hard to pick a favourite surprise, but the zipper pull might be mine.
Can you find the pieces of styrofoam tucked in there like they belong?
From the edge of chaos, looking back into the calm
0

From there to here: A mosaic about the driving forces behind the Anthropocene

How did we get here? That’s the question at the heart of my mosaic, “The Three Horsemen”. It’s not an angsty, existential question. It’s a specific question, where the “here” is the Anthropocene. So, how did we get here, to a point in geologic time that’s the equivalent of a dumpster fire for which humans are to blame?

I’ll be diving into the hallmarks of this new geological age in future mosaics, covering such uplifting topics as altered nutrient cycles, invasive species, mass extinctions, erosion, pollution of all kinds, sea-level rise, and so much more. But I figured that I should probably take a look at the journey first before immersing myself in the destination. Thus, “The Three Horsemen,” or, how we got here.

There are plenty of different combinations of factors that you could argue brought us to this point, and indeed, each article I read when researching this mosaic was sort of a variation on a theme. But the one that resonated with me, both intellectually and artistically, was from a 2016 article in Science by Colin Waters et al. The authors identify three “linked force multipliers” that produce many of the drivers associated with the hallmarks of the Anthropocene: (1) accelerated technological development, (2) population increase (and a shift to urbanization), and (3) increased consumption of resources (e.g., fossil fuels, minerals and metals, etc.).

These force multipliers really emerge onto the scene in a big way in the 1950s, just after WWII, in a period known as the Great Acceleration. It’s in this period that we see a rise in economic activity and resource consumption that prompts all the upswings in the global distress signals that are characteristic of the Anthropocene (see: list above of future mosaic plans).

“The Three Horsemen” (2018), 22″ diameter — Slag, lightbulb innards, shale, mortar tesserae, cement, marble, knob and tube, earphones, limestone, red dog, brick, architectural glass, ceramic, smalti, circuit board, resistors, coal, hard rubber, gears

“The Three Horsemen” (a nod to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse) takes these force multipliers and the Great Acceleration and turns them into an explosion. At the epicenter is a big chunk of slag that my dad brought back from his days working at Inco (a mine, mill, smelter, and refinery of all kinds of metals up in Sudbury, ON). Creeping out from under it are the innards of burnt-out incandescent lightbulbs (now relics of the past). From the start, these have always given me the heebie-jeebies; I find them very unsettling, though in a good way when put in context of this piece.

They’re coming to get you…

And then the impact ripples out in successive waves of Anthropocene materials. For technological development, there are circuit boards, resistors, two pairs of earbuds that (of course) broke far too soon, bits of hard rubber, gears from an old shredder, and the ends of bolts (which I saved each time I trimmed the hanging hardware on the back of a mosaic, you know, just in case…). For population increase and urbanization, we’ve got mortar and concrete, brick, some old dishes, and architectural glass samples. And for resource consumption (notably energy and metals), there’s the slag and incandescents, of course, but then there’s also knob and tube insulators, shale, coal, and a wee tiny bit of gold. (Click to embiggen any of the detail shots below!)

So this is how we got here: an explosion of people using things, aided and abetted by technology. Like all of my work, that tension between the sobering and the beautiful is here again, and I find that it is especially appropriate when talking about the Anthropocene. Thinking and talking about this issue will inevitably stir up conflicting feelings. I freely admit that I look at cities and their feats of architecture and engineering, and even at industrial sites, and often swoon at their hard lines and complex beauty. I appreciate the convenience of driving my car and having a house that’s neither too hot nor too cold. And don’t get me started on my phone and computer and all the other tech gadgets in my life. But there is always a little voice in my head, reminding me that all of this comes at a price. And that tension and dichotomy is what I try to channel in my work. Yep, these are good-looking mosaics. There’s a calmness and an elegance to them. But let them draw you in…look closer…and you’ll find a darker, more sobering side.

Side view of the rippling explosion

1

Come learn and get creative with me…online!

I’m super happy (and just a wee bit nervous) to share with you something a little different for me: an online course all about using constraint as a tool to push yourself further as a mosaic artist. The course just launched over on Mosaic Arts Online, and there’s a 10% discount (promo code: CREATIVITY10) until midnight on Monday, September 3 for all you early adopters. If you click through, you can watch a little promo video of me telling you all about the course.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, Mosaic Arts Online is a quickly growing learning platform for mosaic artists run by Tami Macala and it is nothing short of awesome. Interested in learning from a particular artist but the travel gets in the way? Or maybe that artist (like me!) doesn’t offer in-person workshops? Enter Mosaic Arts Online, where you get to learn “in your own space, at your own pace.”

So where did this class—Creativity Through Constraint—come from? Well, remember that mosaic I made from the infamous “bacon rock”? It was, hands down, one of the best creative experiences I’ve had in my career so far. I took one rock, chopped it up, and made a mosaic out of it using every last scrap, and in the process I learned so much about myself as an artist and it opened up so many possibilities in my andamento. I loved it so much that I did it again a little while later with an amazing piece of mookaite.

I knew this was an exercise that I wanted to keep doing periodically, but I also knew that the material I chose to work with was fundamental to my experience. Not just any material will do for this exercise. But there’s only so much bacon rock and mookaite on my shelves. How to get around that?

I turned the problem over in my head for months and months. Then, one day I was chopping up some multicoloured slabs of leftover thinset I had saved from my Artist in Residence workshops and it hit me: I could make my own “rock” out of thinset that would lend itself beautifully to this exercise. And since thinset is so readily available, and this exercise was such a game-changer for me, why not share it with the world? And thus the Mosaic Arts Online course was born.

I know it might seem like a simple exercise. I mean, how hard can it be to mix up a blob of thinset, chop it up, and put it all back together again? Trust me: it will make your brain hurt (in a good way). And it has so many applications beyond just the actual exercise. Some of the things you can learn / develop a greater appreciation for include:

  • Getting comfortable with thinset, if you aren’t already. And also never looking at thinset the same way again…especially if you pair this course with either/both of Erin Pankratz’ courses!
  • Building your hammer and hardie skills if you’re a beginner (thinset is a great material to learn on!) or going back to basics and chopping mindfully instead of on autopilot if you’re a pro.
  • Becoming a whiz at estimating the coverage of your material and also navigating your substrate strategically depending on how much material you have.
  • Learning to listen to your material and build a relationship with it, so that your work is a partnership between you and the material, not simply you imposing your will on it.
  • Taking your andamento to the next level by seeing the possibilities presented by size, shape, and surface topography, loosening up and being less precise, deepening your understanding of flow, and generally pushing yourself out of your comfort zone.

Yep, you really can take a weird blob of thinset and turn it into something special!

The beauty of this exercise is that you can do it at any point in your mosaic career and you’ll learn something new each time. YOU set the degree of difficulty for yourself. Maybe you start with two colours and a layered “rock”. I got cocky when filming this and thought: “I’ll roll all three different ways of making these thinset rocks into one!” I’ve never not been challenged by this exercise, but man, this was next-level challenging! So whether it’s your first time or your sixth, you’ll walk away a better mosaicist.

“More Organic Than Kale” (title credit goes to Sophie Drouin, who described the piece as that). Seriously, that’s what you can do with just two colours of thinset. It’s great fun!

While I really hate being in front of the camera (talk about stepping out of your comfort zone!), that is tempered by my excitement to share this exercise with you. It opens up so many possibilities and I can’t wait to see how those of you who take the course run with it.

Let’s make our brains hurt together!

0

Never tell them it’s art (Or: How I rid myself of the itch to show my art internationally in one not-so-easy step)

It is always a thrill to be invited to show your art. Even more of a thrill: being invited to show your art in a faraway country. For years now, I’ve watched the Big Dogs of the mosaic community put their work on display in countries all over the world (but predominantly Italy and France), thinking “It would be so very cool to be able to do that one day.” So when an invitation arrived from Martine Blanchard to exhibit my work in the quaint little town of Auray, France, I jumped at the chance.

This is Auray. It’s pretty darn cute.

Having shipped to the US and Australia before, I knew it would be expensive. And I knew there would be a degree of stress involved, both in hoping it arrived unscathed and hoping it would not get held up by customs. It turns out I underestimated the expense and the stress by several orders of magnitude.

I offer the following colour commentary about my experience in case it is helpful to anyone considering participating in a show where shipping and customs are involved. As I quickly learned, it is not for the faint of heart.


Early on, I think I’m off to a good start. I get tips from someone who has done this multiple times, I take my piece to a guy who makes me a box that’s small but strong (which will cut down on shipping costs), and I make inquiries trying to figure out what paperwork I need. I even make arrangements to be able to send my work via Canada Post, which is so much cheaper than a courier like FedEx or UPS.

After dropping my box off at the post office just before Easter, I begin the process of obsessively checking the tracking number to see where it is on its journey. The following Friday evening, more than a week after it has been sent, I check in, only to find that my mosaic has been blocked in the customs process since Wednesday. There’s some sort of document missing. Shit. This being after business hours and at the start of the weekend, there is nothing I can do but google and google some more, trying to figure out what document is missing and how I can fix it. I am very bad at just sitting and waiting.

Thanks to some very obscure message boards buried in the depths of the interwebs, I figure out what I need and the email address to send the documents to, because Chronopost, the French equivalent of Canada Post, helpfully doesn’t post this information on its website. Also, their only contact options for customer service are phone or Twitter / Facebook. Desperate, I tweet them.

Monday morning I actually get a reply to my weekend email saying that my document has been received and my shipment should be on its way soon. Tuesday they tweet back, confirming this. By Thursday it still hasn’t moved. I tweet them again. No reply. Friday morning—two plus weeks after sending my package—I wake up early, unable to sleep because of the worry, and decide I will need to bite the bullet and call them.

Calling Chronopost is no easy feat. First, there’s the language barrier. Thankfully, speaking French (however much I may butcher the language) is a requirement of my day job, so I can at least hold my own in a conversation. Then you have to be lucky enough that the call doesn’t drop. That happens about every second time I call them. And then you have to (patiently?) explain and re-explain your situation to every single person you talk to. By the third call I’ve got my spiel down pat.

By the time I start work at 8am, I know what is wrong. I have committed the cardinal sin of shipping artwork: I said it was art. It was a completely innocent mistake. I didn’t know that honesty was not the best policy. And because I said it was art, Chronopost tells me they are not authorized to move it through customs, nor are they authorized to deliver it. The only option, it seems, is to hire a customs broker to get it through customs and then complete the delivery. Through all of this, Martine is also valiantly trying to liaise with Chronopost on her end, but eventually she—quite understandably—has to give up and turn her attention to the million other things that need to be done for the show.

The first quote from a broker is ridiculously high (300+€, and that doesn’t even include delivery!). But I am so tempted to just accept it because I’m due to fly out in four days to attend the opening, and what’s the point of going if my piece isn’t even going to be there? Also, the alternative is to just let my mosaic languish there until the clock runs out and Chronopost ships it back to Canada, though this option feels somewhat risky, as if there would be a very good chance that it would get lost in the system, never to be seen again. Because of the time difference and the resulting lags in communication, this quote never gets acted on.

Then, on Sunday, two days before I’m supposed to fly out, I have to unexpectedly reschedule my flight to proactively avoid the Air France strike. Monday finds me scrambling to get ready to fly out a day early and freaking out that there is still no progress on liberating my mosaic.

Tuesday morning, 8am. I land in France and hit the ground running. I randomly go up to the first customs officer I see after collecting my luggage and explain my situation. He kindly escorts me to a customs office, where two lovely women proceed to phone different brokers they know in an attempt to find one who can move this quickly and at perhaps a cheaper price than that first exorbitantly high quote. They connect me with a broker who tells them she can help me, and I call her. (Keep in mind that this is all happening in French, on zero sleep, after an international flight…on top of weeks of stress-induced insomnia) In just two hours, she has what she needs from me, we connect with Chronopost, they acknowledge our email, and things seemed to be moving. Oh, and she quotes it at half the price of the first quote.

(Side note: If you ever need a customs broker in France, I highly recommend Amana Cargo and Sonia Difallah. She was efficient and effective, responsive in her communications, and patient in answering all my anxiety-ridden questions.)

Exhausted, I take a nap, with visions of success awaiting me upon my awakening. Alas. The afternoon rolls around and the broker is still waiting for two documents from Chronopost. More calls and emails to Chronopost follow (no tweets though—by that time I have given up on that method of contact).

End of Day 1, I take a walk to clear my head and find this elephant. The fact that its trunk is up does NOT bring me luck the next day.

The next day I am scheduled to pick up my rental car (oh yah, did I mention that I needed to rent a car because of the rail strike?) and drive to Chartres, then on to Auray the next day. Sensing that I will need more time at the airport to sort all of this out, I rejig all my hotels. More panicked calls and emails to Chronopost (from me and from my broker, who is also having phone trouble with them, which gives me some degree of comfort knowing it isn’t just me being inept / unlucky), but by the end of this second day in Paris, I am no further ahead.

So much time spent in the vicinity of the airport. Le sigh.

Day three dawns and I am pretty much resolved that I will not be getting my piece in time for the show. I send one more email to Chronopost, pleading with them to fast-track my documents. Just before lunch…an email from the broker! She has the last document she needs from Chronopost and she starts the customs process. She says it usually takes one or two hours to clear customs if all is in order, but “they’re on their lunch break now, so it’s not going anywhere for a while. ” More waiting, trying not to get my hopes up. Finally, at 4:30pm, I am resigned that it won’t happen. I email the broker, asking how late customs usually works (basically, asking for confirmation that, yes, now it is time to officially give up). And at that exact moment she emails me and our emails cross in cyberspace. My mosaic has cleared customs!!! She sends one of her guys to grab it from Chronopost and deliver it to my hotel. At 5:30pm, I hand over a giant wad of euros and take possession of my mosaic. I have never been so happy to see a cardboard box in my life.

IT’S A BOX! WITH A MOSAIC INSIDE!!! (PS No idea why it has a “heavy” sticker on it… it weighed less than 6 kg.)

Day four is the day of the show opening. Up at the crack of dawn, my mosaic and I set out for Auray, a six-hour drive away. The Périphérique fries my nerves, but I do enjoy the 130km/h speed limit once I reach the highway. I arrive in Auray and hang my mosaic on the wall just four hours before the show opens.

For four days, I have taken no pleasure in anything. It hasn’t even felt like I’m in France, as I’ve been entirely suspended in that limbo that is an airport hotel. The moment I walk into the exhibition space, though… I get chills. The venue is amazing. Breathtaking, really. The show is beautifully curated and thoughtfully hung. More than half the artists are there in person and I get to meet some of those big names I’ve admired for so long.

I feel proud, overwhelmed, frustrated, and exhausted all at the same time.

*gasp* The Chapelle du Saint-Esprit. Gorgeousness.

Proof that it actually made it there.


Now that I’ve been home for a bit, and have some distance between myself and that shipping shitshow, I can consider the fundamental question of: Was it worth it? The answer is not a simple yes or no. I am immensely honoured that my art has been chosen to hang in a space like that, alongside artists whose work I greatly admire. In terms of boosting my confidence and my ego? Yep, mission accomplished. In terms of making connections? Again, yes. In terms of being able to put that I’m an internationally exhibited artist on my CV? Check.

But in terms of expense and stress? I’m not so sure. I don’t love that these shows seem to be firmly a pay-to-play situation. The cost is not insignificant. I would estimate that participating in this show will have cost me nearly $1,000 by the time it’s all over, and that doesn’t include the trip I took to attend the opening (a trip without which I am certain that my mosaic would never have made it out of the airport). I can afford to pay thanks to my day job, but that’s beside the point. I know this is just “the way things are done” but that doesn’t mean I have to like or accept it.

As I shared frustrated updates about my misadventure on social media, I was shocked by the number of similar horror stories I heard. Art being held in customs for months, artists paying vast sums of money just to get their art out of customs, art being damaged or lost entirely. If this is such a common thing, why do we even do it at all? My own experience was enough to give me pause, but add to that all the similar (and worse!) stories I’ve heard, and it just doesn’t seem worth it to me. Surely there must be a better alternative.

So, will I participate in an international (not counting the US) show again? I won’t say never, but I will be very very selective and it won’t happen often. I’d say I can probably count on one hand (with plenty of room to spare) how many times I will do this in my entire career. I think I am better served trying to build my profile and my audience here at home (or at least closer to home), as these are the people who are probably more likely to buy my work. These are the people I can build relationships with, relationships that are so very important in selling people on the idea of investing in me, my art, and my vision.

But—and that’s a very big but!—if/when opportunity comes knocking and I actually work up the nerve to try this again, I will at least know the following and will roll the dice accordingly:

  • It will cost a LOT of money. Probably more than I think it will. These shows do not make financial sense, and my participation will be purely self-indulgent.
  • There will be stress. Probably more than I think there will be. (Not that knowing this will prevent me from having real honest-to-god heart palpitations again next time…)
  • I will be at the mercy of customs agents. I might get lucky, or I might not.
  • The worst-case scenario of never seeing my mosaic again is always a very real possibility.
  • Having someone on the ground who can troubleshoot and advocate on my behalf (especially if it’s a country where I don’t speak the language) will be essential.
  • Hand delivering work will always be the best option, if possible.

And finally…

  • Never ever tell them it’s art.

4

What’s black and white and is but isn’t a mosaic?

I have just quietly launched a product line that is and isn’t mosaic. “Trace Elements” are prints of tracings that I make of my own mosaics.

There are so many reasons why I’m doing this. Let’s get the most obvious one out of the way first: price. I know that not everyone has hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars to buy my art. Offering prints makes my art way more accessible, and that’s important to me. It’s also WAY easier and cheaper to ship than an actual mosaic, which is a big bonus.

I could just offer prints of photos I’ve taken of my work. Lots of people do that, and there’s nothing wrong with it. But personally, photos of mosaics always leave me unsatisfied. Every time I post photos online, I know that it’s just not the same as experiencing a mosaic in person. You can’t fully appreciate the texture, topography, scale, reflectivity, and all those other more tactile and experiential qualities that make mosaic so special. The challenge of adequately capturing a mosaic in a photo is one of the medium’s big Achilles heels. And if I’m constantly saying, “The photos don’t do it justice,” then why would I offer prints of those photos?

So the challenge for me was to find something reproducible that captures the essence of the mosaic. Enter the tracing. I did not invent tracing mosaics. Let’s be very clear about that. There are plenty of mosaicists out there who do it as they work to restore or reproduce ancient mosaics. There are others who use it as a learning tool to get right down to the building blocks of a mosaic. I just decided that I would make tracings that themselves are art.

Hand traced, hand printed

One of the things I love most about mosaic is the andamento. How those lines of tesserae are built and how they move. Especially how they move. A tracing strips away everything except the andamento. It lays it bare. For me, this is the essence of my work, which is why the simplicity of a tracing captures what’s at the heart of my work and never fails to make me feel just a wee bit exposed.

Every single tessera is traced by hand on vellum paper, to later be scanned and then printed. I tried a few different ways of printing them, and have settled on getting them screenprinted by hand at a local shop. I love the crispness of the lines paired with the fact that you can still see traces of evidence that they were made by hand, like the ink distribution not being 100% the same in each and every print. The perfection of the imperfect. It adds to their character and specialness.

There is a meditative aspect to the tracing, just as there is to actual mosaic-making. I also learn something about myself as a mosaicist with each tracing that I do. Any bad habits are clearly exposed, but I can just correct those Bob Ross happy accidents by nudging the outline of a tessera one way or the other. It’s not cheating, it’s learning! I’m also finding that tracing is giving me a new (cautious) appreciation for colour and the role it plays in my work. (Anyone who knows me well, knows that I am a colourphobe.)

I never trace the whole mosaic; instead, I select a favourite fragment, which always brings to mind the ancient mosaic fragments you see in museums. I love how it hints at the whole, but is enough on its own. It is complete yet mysterious.

My tracings are not exact replicas of my mosaics. While sometimes it’s because I fix things, but more often it’s because the image underneath the tracing paper isn’t perfectly clear, so I give it my best guess. I get to (re)invent some of the andamento as I trace, so there is a uniqueness to these tracings that goes beyond what a photo can offer.

The simplicity of a tracing kind of means that the sky’s the limit. I’ve already joked about making an adult colouring book, t-shirts, calendars, andamento workbooks, and postcards. Who knows where this tracing adventure will take me, but I’m really excited and I’d love for you to follow along on this ride.

How to buy a print

I’m still working on getting the storefront set up on my website, so for now just email me and we’ll go from there! Prints measure 9″ x 12″ and are screenprinted by hand on 100% cotton, 250 gsm, acid-free paper. They are $50 CAD each (plus postage) and payment can be by email transfer, PayPal, cash, or cheque.

I’m offering each print in small limited editions of 50. The first print available is “(More than) Enough“, which is quite possibly one of my favourite mosaics I’ve ever made, and thus an obvious choice as the first offering in this new venture.

 

 

2

Dear future: We tried and…

Who knew that plastic cutlery would be such an inspiring material? Certainly not me. This is one of the big things that keeps me coming back to mosaic: the surprise of new and unexpected materials.

After finishing “We Were Here Now“—the first mosaic in my Anthropocene series—I definitely wasn’t done with those plastic knives, forks, and spoons, and they weren’t done with me. I loved how they had taken on a sort of hieroglyphic appearance in that mosaic, so I thought: Why not just zero in on that and play with it for a minute? This intersected nicely with a beautiful comment left for me in the guestbook at my final residency show, which had been rattling around in my brain for months (in a good way): “What affected me most […] was the vision of mosaic and the actual materials used being a snapshot of what will be left of our current civilization, bits of rubber, bones, concrete. The idea that you are a distant future archaeologist reconstructing an image of your past / our now is compelling.

So I wrote a letter to future generations. Mosaic was my language, and the unholy Anthropocene trinity—concrete, plastic, and aluminum—was my material. For the aluminum, I thought nothing could be more representative of our throw-away, consumerist, globalized reality than a bright red can of Coke.

“By the time we realized…” (2018), 12.5″ x 10″ — concrete, plastic cutlery, aluminum Coke can

There are no secret coded messages in this mosaic. I didn’t go as far as to create my own actual language or script. It’s just me playing around, making writing-like lines, though you will find a few commas and periods.

The importance of punctuation: Comma after the opening salutation, slashes between the parts of the date above…

The title—“By The Time We Realized…”—leaves the ending open. By the time we realized…it was too late? By the time we realized…we had just enough time to get our act together and turn things around? We, collectively, still have time to decide what that ending will be, but that window is getting narrower. I, for one, am still fighting to turn this ship around. What about you?

Ripped and a bit crumpled. This letter has seen some wear.

0

Enough talk. It’s time for action.

This mosaic is junk. No, really. It is 100% scrap that any sane person would have tossed right into the trash. But not me. I just can’t help myself.

It all started with my artist in residence gig. At my events, the little ‘pancakes’ of thinset that people would make their climate-action mosaics out of were going like, well, like hotcakes. There was no time to be picky about how pretty and smooth their edges were as I was hurriedly spreading them. In the heat of the moment, that was definitely a problem for Future Julie. And so, after each event was done, faced with ugly cracked and chunky dried edges, I set about nipping them off to tidy the pieces up. After doing the first batch, I looked down at my little pile of offcuts and thought: Yep, I think I could make something out of that. So I dutifully saved every single scrap I nipped off the edges of all 244 community-made mosaics.

Over the months, as my pile grew, I daydreamed of what I’d make out of them. I could not get those scraps out of my head. But I couldn’t just dive into a project that used them, because there were other projects in the pipeline that needed to get made first. Ugh, deadlines. This, of course, only made me want to make this mosaic even more.

Finally it was time. I can’t even tell you how good this project felt. It was like I was playing the whole time. I’m sure the delayed gratification had something to do with this, but I think a large part of it was owing to the scraps themselves. As someone who normally struggles with being too precise and also with being terrified of colour, the wonkiness of those colourful little scraps set me free. And using the leftover colour mixes to adhere the scraps—the exact same mixes that the scraps themselves were made out of—just felt so over-the-top to my colour-fearing self that, of course, it was perfect.

“Enough (Talk)” (2018), 13.75″ x 12″ — thinset scraps

Now, you might be wondering about the title, “Enough (Talk)”. Well, I’ve decided that this definitely qualifies as one of my “Enough” pieces. Though I didn’t take one thing, chop it up, and put it back together again, like I did with “(More than) Enough” and “Enough (Size matters),” the spirit is the same. It is about a shrewd and thoughtful use of a material; it is about not wasting a single scrap. And the “talk” part? Where did that come from? I’ve previously written about how each of the community-made mosaics in “Baseline (We’re just getting started)” is like one voice in a big noisy conversation about climate change, each one nudging the dialogue forward. And if each individual community-made mosaic is one voice, then the scraps are snippets of those conversations.

But enough talk. It’s time for action.

The raggedy irregularities of the scraps were oh so good for me

 

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