Archive | By Our Own Hands

Upcoming exhibition: Anthropocene art on display

I’m what’s known in layman’s terms as Really Bad At Self-Promotion. So bear with me for a sec as I awkwardly tell you about my upcoming show…

In case you haven’t heard, I’ve got a solo exhibition coming up this fall. It’s at the Agnes Jamieson Gallery (Minden Hills Cultural Centre) in Minden, Ontario. The show opens October 24, and I’ll be there on October 25 for the opening reception and artist talk (4:30-6:00pm). I would be absolutely honoured if you could join me. If you can’t make it on that particular day, the show runs until December 21. 

I’ve been really hard at work for the past several months putting the show together and I’m proud of what I’ve come up with. The line-up is devoted entirely to works exploring the Anthropocene, and 9 of the 10 pieces in the show have never been exhibited before. The centrepiece of the show will be the crowd-sourced mosaic (currently in production!), which has so many interesting and amazing treasures tucked into it. And you’ll even be able to explore that piece with your hands without alarm bells going off or me doing a running tackle. Bonus!  

I’m really excited about the show and hope you can make it. I bet there will be lovely fall colours on display around that time, which are guaranteed to pair perfectly with beautiful yet sobering Anthropocene art.   

Feel free to email me if you have any questions!

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Nothing is beyond our reach: Using Spam to unsettle and inspire

Let me tell you about the time I—a mostly vegetarian—ate Spam for my art. Years ago I read a story about how the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) found a can of Spam and a can of Budweiser in the Mariana Trench. This story, and subsequent ones about the litter and contamination scientists are finding in the deepest part of the ocean, seemed to me to be so symbolic of the Anthropocene. Yes, we can talk about deforestation and strip mining and soaring levels of pollution and overfishing and plastic-choked seas and mass extinctions and the climate emergency and and and… But a can of Spam in one of the remotest corners of the Earth? That, to me, was like a retro-looking postcard from the Anthropocene. I mean, Spam. C’mon. 

So of course I needed to make a mosaic about it. I suppose I could have used any random can, but it just didn’t ring true enough for me. I knew it would have to be an actual can of Spam and an actual can of Bud. Two things I never eat/drink. Ever. 

After slinking through the self-checkout line at the grocery store in order to avoid the embarrassment of buying Spam, and after surrounding my can of Bud with several craft beers in an effort to show the guy at the Beer Store till that I do, in fact, know good beer from bad, I went about trying to make them palatable. A lot of people have asked me why I didn’t just throw them out and use the cans, but the whole issue of food waste just wouldn’t let me do it. Yes, it wasn’t pleasant, but it wasn’t going to kill me. And I only had to consume one can of each. I could do it. Spoiler alert: Spam is just as gross as you think it is. Every time I regale someone with the tale of how I ate it, I gag a little at the memory. But if you hide it under a big enough pile of arugula fresh from the garden, you can almost mask the flavour. And the Bud? I made bread with it, because there’s only so much punishment one person can subject herself to.

And so, I had two cans ready for my art, a clean conscience, and a slightly queasy stomach. Onward! 

As I said earlier, Spam and Bud aren’t the only things scientists have found in the Mariana Trench. They’ve found other pieces of litter, like plastic bags, but they’ve also found ridiculously high levels of contamination. At the very deepest part of the trench, the Challenger Deep, they found small crustaceans with levels of persistent organic pollutants (POPs) in their bodies that were more than 50 times higher than those measured in crabs living in heavily polluted rivers in China. The POPs—which don’t break down in the environment, accumulate in fat, stick to plastic, and are water repellent—accumulate up the food chain. When organisms that live in the upper layers of the ocean die, they sink to the ocean floor (as do plastic particles coated in these pollutants), where a host of scavengers makes quick work of them. (If you want to get a great look at some of the amazing things that live down there, I’d highly suggest queuing up episode 2 of Blue Planet II. Very cool stuff, and who doesn’t love David Attenborough?)

“Everything We Touch” (2019), 28.5″h x 24″w — shale, thinset tesserae, can of Spam, can of Budweiser

Beyond emphasizing that we humans just can’t help but get our dirty fingerprints everywhere, the Spam at the bottom of the trench is a beautifully effective illustration that there is no “away,” which is also what Edward Burtysnky, Jennifer Baichwal, and Nicholas de Pencier are getting at in The Anthropocene Project. (Note: If you ever get a chance to see the exhibition, run, don’t walk. It should be required viewing for our era.) Because there is no “away,” we need to rethink what we produce, how we produce it, how we consume it, and how we recover its value at the end of its life and resurrect it. In short, we need to make swift progress toward creating a circular economy. 

This is not just a noble environmental cause—it has the potential to be a huge job creator and to keep millions if not billions of dollars of value from being thrown away (quite literally). Looking at plastic alone, it has been estimated that only 9% of plastics get recycled in Canada. The other 91%, which is either landfilled, burned, or makes its way into our environment, represents an economic loss of nearly $8 billion a year. If current recycling rates don’t get better, these losses could climb to nearly $11 billion by 2030. But turn that around, and you’re keeping a LOT of money in the economy and creating 40,000 jobs.

If eating a can of Spam and making art from it can help nudge us in the right direction, well then I’m happy to have taken one for the team in order to create “Everything We Touch.” Hopefully we can turn things around so that the end of that sentence is “…is more resilient and better than when we left it” instead of “…turns to shit.” 

Fully cooked canned luncheon meat? Just…no. Said luncheon meat at the bottom of the Mariana Trench? Infinitely worse.
0

Between us and collapse: Appreciating the soil beneath our feet

I grew up and still live in southwestern Ontario. My hometown, Kitchener, is surrounded by that quintessential Ontario countryside, where farms—both modern and Mennonite—idyllically dot the landscape but are increasingly under threat from urban sprawl and the new crop of McMansions (seriously, can someone please explain five-car garages to me?). It seems that the lament of the loss of prime farmland has been a constant refrain all my life. And even though I am instinctively angry when a new subdivision displaces farms and forests, I will admit that I hadn’t really given much thought to soil before I started my Anthropocene series.

Turns out, soil is a really big deal and we are messing things up in a very big and bad way. Just like with species, just like with the climate, just like with the oceans…see a pattern here? Just one more life support system that hangs in the balance because of our actions. 

A few basic things about soil: the layer of fertile topsoil—you know, the good stuff—is about 12-25 cm thick. And do you know how long it takes to make more? Upwards of 1,000 years to make just 3 cm. Basically we’re talking about a non-renewable resource here, at least on a human timescale.

The first thing you probably think of when you think of soil is agriculture. And that’s important, especially when you consider that it’s estimated that 95% of our food is directly or indirectly produced on our soils. But our soils give us so much more than that. They filter our water, they help us be more resilient in the face of both flood and drought, they support biodiversity, and they act as carbon sinks, among other things.  

But we are destroying the planet’s soils far faster than they can regenerate. In 2017 it was reported that about one third of the world’s land is severely degraded and that we’re losing about 24 billion tonnes of fertile soil every year. Another way to visualize that loss: we are losing 30 soccer fields of soil every minute. Decreasing productivity is plaguing not only our agricultural lands (which we use intensively and unsustainably until they are exhausted and then we move on and exploit others), but also our rangelands, forested lands, and grasslands. 

The threats to our soils—to both their quantity and their quality—are so multi-faceted and diverse that it’s almost easiest just to say: the way we live is basically what’s messing them up. A growing global population and rising levels of consumption put a strain on our soils, as we constantly demand that they produce a growing amount of food despite declining volume and health. Urbanization buries soil under layers of concrete and asphalt, and the runoff from our cities pollutes the surrounding soils. War and armed conflict leave behind undetonated landmines, compacted soil from armoured vehicles, and pollution from chemical spraying. Climate change is altering soil’s fundamental characteristics, like how much moisture it contains. Deforestation and agricultural tilling practices lead to erosion of precious topsoils (without those roots, there’s nothing to hold the soil). Industrial activity, intensive use of fertilizers, and, increasingly, microplastics pollute our soils. And the list goes on and on. To save our soils, we can’t just fix one thing. This is not just a case of adding compost. Like all the other big wicked problems facing our planet’s life support systems, we need to radically rethink how we structure our society and our economy and how we go about our daily lives.   

When I started planning the first crop (no pun intended) of pieces for this series (and, more specifically, the lineup for my solo show), I vaguely knew about the problem of soil degradation as a hallmark of the Anthropocene. But when it came time to do my research in order to actually conceptualize and execute this mosaic, I was stunned. I had no idea that the layer of soil that separates us from the collapse of our civilization is, on average, just 15 centimetres (6 inches) thick. I had no idea it took a millennium to rebuild the very thinnest layer of soil. I had no idea that under current trends, we basically have about 60 years of farming left. That is a distinctly human timescale. I won’t be alive then, but my niece and nephew will, and that is terrifying. 

I just could not get that 15 centimetre figure out of my head, so I knew it had to be the anchor for this piece. I wanted/needed to show, in a very tangible way, just how precarious our situation is. And so the top part of the piece—that brown band—is 15 centimetres (give or take…this is art after all). As you move down, things get drier and the orderly flowing lines give way to big chunks of cracked dry earth. Unlike climate change, where it can be hard to wrap your head around just how catastrophic warming of 1.5oC, 2oC, or 4oC can be, pretty much everyone can think about 15 centimetres (or look at it here in my art) and appreciate just how thin that is. And even if you only make the link between soils and food, you can still get a very concrete idea of just how bad things could be. I think working on a mosaic that is so concrete, staring at that 15-centimetre band every time I sat down at my work table, made this piece very real and very troubling for me.

“Inches From Famine” (2019), 23.5″ x 29″ — shale, litovi, mortar , tile, brick, terracotta

So what do we do about all of this? It’s a big question. And just like with some of the other big issues I’ve tackled through my work, there are no easy answers. This is a fight that will need to be fought on multiple fronts. On an individual level, I can do a better job of knowing where my food comes from and supporting farmers who practice good soil management (as a general rule, smaller-scale farmers have a more vested interest in keeping their soils healthy and productive, as opposed to Big Agriculture). I can become more active in my community, encouraging my city to make good land-use decisions that won’t put undue pressure on this finite resource. And very close to home, I can get up close and personal with the soil in my gardens. Learn about it. Take care of it. Build a relationship with it. Because without our soils, we’re nowhere.

2

Their annihilation will also be ours: Exploring extinction through art

Scientists aren’t exactly prone to exaggeration. They are cautious and measured. So for scientists to call the loss of biodiversity happening worldwide a “biological annihilation,” you know it’s bad. Really bad. The biodiversity alarm bells have been ringing for several years now, and earlier this week (May 6, 2019), the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) added to the urgent cry for action in a comprehensive global assessment of biodiversity. The report was authored by literally hundreds of scientists who drew on roughly 15,000 studies and government documents. To say its findings are sobering is an understatement.

There are plenty of great articles summing up the report floating around out there (like the media release IPBES issued), though probably—and frustratingly—not as many as there are about the new addition to the royal family. I encourage you to seek one or two out and read them (or, if you prefer to listen, this interview on CBC’s The Current is a great overview, especially for the Canadian context). The key take-away from the IPBES report, for me, is that we’re losing species faster than ever before, it’s our fault, it’s getting worse, it’s not just an environmental problem, and to solve the crisis we basically have to overthrow the system.

According to the Global Assessment, more than 1 million plant and animal species are threatened with extinction, many in just a few decades, if we fail to act. There are far too many gut-wrenching statistics in the report to include here, but consider this one (just as a taster): Since 1970, vertebrate populations (i.e., things with spines) have fallen by 40% for land-based species, 84% for freshwater species, and 35% for marine species, and this steep decline is continuing.

The report is quite clear in pointing a finger at the cause of this mass disappearance: humans. More specifically, there are five major causes, all traceable back to humanity: land-use changes (i.e., we’re destroying their habitat to build cities, grow crops, extract resources, etc.), direct exploitation (i.e., we’re being greedy and taking more than we should), climate change (yep, that’s our cars, homes, factories, etc.), pollution (we treat the environment—from the air to the land to the water—as one big endless garbage dump), and invasive species (we travel, they come with us, whether we intend them to or not). In short: We are the problem. In fact, current extinction rates are 1,000 times higher than before humans came onto the scene, and are predicted to soar as much as 10,000 times higher if we don’t get our act together. At this point, only about 25% of the planet’s land area is (more or less) free of human impacts, and this is projected to shrink to 10% by 2050. Our dirty fingerprints are everywhere.

One of the report’s strengths (and it has many!) is that it makes it clear that this is not just an environmental problem. It’s not just a case of “Oh no, my grandkids will never see a [insert iconic species] in the wild.” The current mass extinction is tied to development, the economy, security, and social, cultural, and moral issues. It’s not an exaggeration to say that our lives depend on the earth’s biodiversity and that our fate is inextricably tied to that of all the various life forms we share this planet with. As the scientist who coined the term “biological annihilation” put it: this loss of wildlife represents a “frightening assault on the foundations of human civilisation”. Biodiversity provides us with food, fuel, medicine, flood protection, clean air and water, recreation, and so much more (collectively known as “ecosystem services”). A previous study by IPBES showed that in the Americas alone, these ecosystem services provide $24 trillion worth of benefits to humans every year. The earth’s biodiversity is so central to our overall well-being (and survival, to put it bluntly) that the current downward trends will undermine global progress on 35 of 44 of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, including ones related to poverty, hunger, health, water, cities, climate, oceans, and land.

“In the red” (2019), 23″h x 22″w — ceramic loon, degraded shells, concrete, ceramic

The scale, rate, and diversity of the loss that’s underway really stumped me when I was planning this mosaic. No matter what angle I tried, it all seemed so impersonal and abstract. But then I remembered this broken ceramic loon I had in my studio. It had been my grandma’s, but took an unfortunate tumble when she was moving. When my mom asked me if I wanted it, I was honestly a little doubtful that I’d ever find a use for it. But I took it because it was my grandma’s and I just couldn’t bring myself to say no. Well, fast forward three years and suddenly it was the perfect material for this mosaic.

Of course, when you think about extinction, you probably don’t think about loons. Images of cute, charismatic, and exotic animals are more likely to pop into your mind. Think tigers, rhinos, polar bears. But loons? Those are everyday animals. And they’re quintessentially Canadian: a symbol of camping trips and summers spent at the cottage. Their haunting calls are almost a part of Canada’s soul. Heck, they’re even on our money! But did you know that the number of loon chicks produced each year has been falling for the past 30 years, thanks in large part to mercury pollution and acid precipitation? Not good. All of this made them the perfect way to bring this issue home (at least for Canadians) and make the enormous loss of global biodiversity that we’re experiencing personal and intimate.

I built the loon explosion (which was meant to echo the idea of “annihilation”) by working my way from the loon’s head to its tail. This meant that the eyes were the first two pieces to go in, and they followed me the entire time I was working. It was very unnerving. I hope you find them as creepy as I do. The loon is hemmed in by concrete, which is an allusion to the rampant habitat destruction that’s fuelling the current biological annihilation.

The title of this piece—”In The Red”—has a few layers to it. First, it’s a nod to the International Union for Concerned Scientists’ Red List of Threatened Species, which is the leading source of information on species at risk across the world. Second, by using an expression for being in debt, it references the incredible value of the ecosystem services (and also just the intrinsic value of the nature’s richness and diversity) that we benefit from and are at risk of losing. And finally, it’s also about those haunting red eyes.


The degraded shells are leftover from the piece I did about ocean acidification a few years ago, and seemed a perfect small touch for this piece.

This mosaic really pushed me emotionally. Maybe it was because I was also listening to Elizabeth Kolbert’s “The Sixth Extinction” as I worked. Maybe it was the profound sense of loss and guilt. Maybe it was the eyes. Whatever it was, it got to me and I’m still in a bit of a funk. I’m trying to use that to fuel me and help me push for the “transformational changes” (aka overthrowing the system) that the IPBES report says are necessary if we want to turn this ship around. What does that look like? Well, it’s reforming nearly every aspect of our society to be kinder to nature (and in turn, to be kinder to ourselves). This includes our laws, our trade policies, our institutions, our values, and our economies, to name just a few. For example, it means shifting our view of development away from continuous economic growth and GDP (i.e., more stuff!) toward happiness and well-being. It’s a huge undertaking and it needs to happen ASAP, but we can’t shy away from the challenge. Our lives depend on it. So look into that loon’s eyes, harness the uneasiness, sadness, loss, guilt, rage, or whatever else you might feel, and channel it. I’ll be right there with you, fighting for our existence.

Don’t look away
1

Be a part of my art: Send me a piece of your place

I have a favour to ask. I’m currently in the midst of preparing for a solo show that will open this October in the little town of Minden, Ontario. It will be a show entirely devoted to the Anthropocene, and I’d like you to be part of it.

One of the pieces I’m planning to make involves a little bit of community participation. And by “participation” I mean “Please send me materials to put into a mosaic for the show.” Now, this isn’t some sneaky ploy to get free materials. I neither expect nor want you to send me your 24k gold smalti, that’s for sure. Let me explain…

In my opinion, one of the things that has contributed to this giant mess we’re in is an increasingly individualistic mindset and an erosion of community. We are increasingly out for ourselves and disconnected from others. This disconnect isn’t just between us and our fellow humans, it also extends to the relationship between us and the planet and all its landscapes and inhabitants, whether they’re fuzzy, slimy, leafy, scaly, or anything else.

Without a deep sense of connection—to other people, other beings (sentient and non), and other places—it becomes far too easy to ignore the consequences of our actions. What’s more, resilient communities, where social bonds are tight and there is a strong sense of place, are a key ingredient in turning this ship around and starting to make real progress on the environmental challenges we face.

There’s a lot more I could say, but I’ll save that for the blog post once this piece is eventually finished. But to do that, I need your help!

I want to make a mosaic to connect people to each other through their experiences, stories, and places. This mosaic will incorporate pieces of people’s places, which they (you!) send to me and I knit them together into a cohesive whole. And here’s the fun part: I plan to invite viewers to touch it. To get to know it. To connect with it—and, by extension, other people and places—in a very literal, tactile way.

I would love it if you would consider sending me a small contribution. I’m not looking for your most precious materials, and it most definitely does not have to be fancy or blingy or expensive. If you want to send me a rock from your driveway or your garden, that’s cool. Some brick that has broken off your house? Also cool. Part of a broken plate off of which your family has eaten many home-cooked meals? Again, cool.

Here’s what I really want: Send me something that makes you think of a place that’s special to you. Send me something that reminds you of home. Send me something that reminds you of someone special. In short, send me something that tells a story.

My first official submission: a rock from the monastery where a fellow artist lives

Here are the details, as well as some rules / guidelines to follow when you’re figuring out what you’d like to contribute.

Where do I send it? If you’re in the Kitchener area, we can arrange a drop-off / pick-up. If you need to mail it, just email me and I’ll send you my address (for obvious reasons, I’d prefer not to post that here). And here’s a bonus for any fellow mosaicists attending SAMA in Nashville: I’ll be there and I’d be happy to accept your contributions there if you want to play!

What’s the deadline? June 15. (I know it’s a long way off, but I’ll remind you again closer to the date.)

What size does it have to be? It can be as small as you like, but please don’t make it too big. Maximum size: about three-ish inches in either direction, and no deeper than two-ish inches.

Can I send anything? Feel free to get creative—you are definitely not restricted only to rocks—and if you want to run it by me first, please do. But keep in mind that people will be touching it, so nothing sharp. And while I love rusty metal, this is not the place for it as I’m sure there would be some tetanus-related liabilities… Also, nothing that will biodegrade, please and thank you. Oh, and maybe no creepy doll heads, ok?

Will you use everything you get? I will try to use everything you send me, but reserve the right to exclude a submission if it does not meet the criteria outlined above. Also, be warned that, while I intend to use most submissions as-is, you have to be ok with me cutting them or otherwise altering them. Don’t send me anything precious if you’re not ok with me taking a hammer to it.

Anything else? When you send it, please include a note saying why you chose that particular thing to send. Tell me its story. I’m going to try to find a way to include all that information in the final presentation…  

Other questions? Just ask!

And that’s it! I hope some of you out there will be keen to participate. I look forward to hearing your stories and playing connector.

11

Four days a week: My mosaic experiment in working less to live better

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).

Gold marking the hours

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.

Sometimes simplicity is just what the doctor ordered

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.     

5

On the frontline: A mosaic honouring environmental defenders

Every week, about 4 people are killed for standing up to those (predominantly industry of various stripes) who are encroaching on their traditional lands and resources, threatening the environment and their very survival. That adds up to hundreds of lives each year. More often than not, their killers go unpunished as land grabs and environmental exploitation advance, leaving death and destruction in their wake.

The non-profit Global Witness has been tracking these murders for several years, and the numbers are sobering, especially given the fact that their conservative methodology means that the number of environmental defenders killed worldwide annually is likely much much higher. The latest report available is from 2017 (the 2018 report will likely be out later this summer). In 2017 there were 201 killings worldwide, with the agribusiness and mining sectors responsible for the most murders (40 each). Latin America was the most dangerous place for defenders, particularly Brazil.

While the report tracks murders, it should be noted that there are many other forms of intimidation used by the perpetrators, including death threats, arrests, abductions, sexual assault, blackmail, illegal surveillance, and much more. The killings are just the (very gruesome) tip of the iceberg. All too often, the government and military are actively complicit in these killings and pressure tactics or, at the very least, the status quo in these countries—widespread impunity and corruption, lack of participation in decision-making, and lack of free and prior consent by the affected communities, etc.—enables the violence.

I’ve been waiting three years to make this mosaic. The issue planted itself firmly in my brain in 2016 with the assassination of Berta Cáceres, one of Honduras’ most prominent environmental activists and winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize. Cáceres co-founded the National Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH) and before her murder had been working with the Lenca people to stop the Agua Zarca dam, which would have affected the Gualcarque River, a sacred river for the Lenca people. The dam would have diverted 3 kilometres of river, displacing communities and jeopardizing their water resources and livelihoods. COPINH employed many tactics to stop the construction of the dam, most notably a blockade that lasted over a year. In the end, Cáceres, who had been receiving death threats for years, was shot and killed in her home. In November 2018, seven men were convicted of her murder. Among those convicted were two employees of the construction company, DESA (one of whom was, ironically enough, the company’s “community and environmental affairs manager”), a retired military officer turned DESA employee, and an active military officer. DESA’s then-CEO is being tried separately this year.

“For Berta (They Fear Us Because We Are Fearless)” (2019), 16″ x 16″ — shell casings, shale, smalti, stained glass

When I was conceptualizing this mosaic, it wasn’t with Berta, specifically, in mind. Though her murder was what first put the issue on my radar, with this mosaic I wanted to talk about environmental defenders as a whole. The bullets were a no-brainer, as was the spiky shale surrounding them. In trying to depict violence clashing with nature (and its defenders), I chose to use a beautiful piece of Youghiogheny glass that was leftover from my time in Ireland. Not only were the colours right, with the greens and blues, but its ties to a series of sacred spaces intimately tied to the notion of Place also seemed appropriate given the fierce defence of place that results in the death of so many defenders. I left it in big chunks, trying to get at the notion of undisturbed, unfragmented nature being threatened by the encroaching lines of shale.

Encroachment
A look at the chunks of Youghiogheny glass

There are a few things about this mosaic that give me chills every time I think about them. The title was chosen a few hours after the piece was complete, as a nod to Berta and what an important figure she was (and continues to be) in terms of environmental and human rights defenders. And it wasn’t until after the title was chosen that I realized all of the following:

  • First, I finished this piece on March 3, which is the anniversary of Berta’s murder. I had been working toward a March 3 finish date—and honestly, I thought I would finish several days later—because the next day was my 40th birthday and I liked the idea of starting a new decade with a clean work table.
  • Second, Berta and I both share a birthday (March 4), which R realized a few days after I had finished the piece.
  • And third, the face in the mosaic is 100% unintentional. As I was making it, R said she saw a face, but I never saw it until I brought the completed mosaic upstairs to show her, and then it just hit me in a classic lightbulb moment. And while it’s not an exact match to Berta’s profile, my god there are elements that line up.
Unintentional profile

Years ago I read Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Big Magic” (which I loved), and she talked about this sort of magical side to creativity and inspiration. At the time I was like, “Sure, yah, I guess,” but couldn’t really relate. Well, I’m a believer now.

This mosaic is a bit different from the others in this series so far, in that it’s decidedly human. Not that the other issues I tackle don’t have a human element, but this one puts it front and centre. This was important for me, because I was concerned that focusing solely on the physical impacts on the planet and its systems would remove humans from the equation, distancing us from or absolving us of the destruction we have brought about. There will definitely be more mosaics focusing on the social dimension in this series. The large-scale exploitation and destruction at the root of the Anthropocene are perpetrated by humans and affect humans, and it will be up to us humans to turn things around.

This mosaic, for me, caused a fair bit of reflection and introspection. I mean, we’re talking about being so hungry for resources and profits and cheap goods (and more, more, more!) that we’ll stop at nothing, including taking the lives of hundreds of innocent people who simply stand up for their land, their culture, and their livelihood. Obviously, a cheap smartphone or a cheap hamburger isn’t worth killing people for. (Yet we do it.) Stopping to consider both the social and environmental costs of our choices is important. But for me, this mosaic also got me thinking about how much I’m willing to sacrifice to live a more environmentally sustainable life. Do my choices inconvenience me? Make me a little less comfortable? Cost more money? Yes to all (though they also enrich my life, which will be the subject of future mosaics), especially if I were to push even further, which I undoubtedly can. But that is nothing compared to Berta’s sacrifice and those of other defenders.

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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
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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.

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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!

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