Archive | Classes & workshops

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!


Third time’s the charm: Finding my place in the SAMA community

Each time I go to SAMA (the annual gathering of the mosaic tribe, for you non-mosaic readers), it gets a bit easier. The first year I just soaked it all in and came away excited, overwhelmed, and exhausted. The second year I knew more people, some people actually knew of me, and I even got to show “Dialogue” in MAI. And again I came away excited, overwhelmed, and exhausted. This year—my third SAMA—I got to give a talk at the Cafe Evening and show “(More than) Enough” in MAI. And this year I only came away excited and exhausted! That overwhelmed feeling magically disappeared, and I think it’s because I finally feel like I’ve found my place in this crazy, diverse, supportive, and talented creative community.

A VERY unexpected standing ovation at the end of my talk didn’t hurt, of course

I am very lucky to have had the opportunity to stand up on that stage and tell my colleagues and peers about my climate change work—why I do what I do, how I navigate the choices I have to make, why I think this kind of work is important, and what I’ve learned along the way. More than anything else, talking about my work in this way really helped me feel like I had found my niche within my community and somehow gave me a feeling of legitimacy (weird, I know, but that’s how it felt).

Listening intently to questions, hoping I can answer them

I’m grateful to have had such a wonderful, warm, and receptive audience. It certainly helped (a bit) with the nerves, which I was definitely having trouble keeping in check, but it was more than that. People set aside their skepticism and apprehensions about my subject and came with an open mind, and I appreciated that. (I know this because I had more than one person come up to me and tell me as much afterwards.) When I was writing my talk, I was very conscious about trying to set the right tone—one that would encourage dialogue and not alienate people—and I’m glad that I appear to have succeeded in that respect. People also asked great questions and made thoughtful comments, both in the Q&A session and also throughout the rest of the conference. I am eager to continue this conversation, so please feel free to reach out if you have thoughts or questions or just want to bat ideas around. I’m always on the hunt for co-conspirators!

The snail-ISH thing I carved

After surviving my talk, I got to unwind and have fun (and get dirty!) in Sherri Warner Hunter‘s concrete and styrofoam class. I went in thinking I would sculpt something abstract, because (1) I can’t draw to save my life and (2) I plan on doing abstract things with what I learned. When I told Sherri this, she said, in the loveliest way possible, that that was fine, as long as I realized that she couldn’t really help me execute it since only I knew what it looked like in my head (versus doing, say, a fish, where she would be able to help me figure out where to cut). Reluctant to waste this learning opportunity, I threw caution to the wind, stepped outside my comfort zone, and made a snail-ISH thing. And yes, I know it has a short neck/head, thankyouverymuch. Playing with all the different tools was a blast, meshing was the bane of my existence (as usual), and I’m super excited to apply what I learned in my climate series in the very near future. Side note: Sherri is a fantastic instructor and you shouldn’t hesitate for even one second to sign up for a class with her. I still have dreams of travelling to Bell Buckle, TN, to take her concrete bootcamp.

Other than that, it was all the usual SAMA awesomeness: visiting and talking shop with friends old and new; listening to thought-provoking, entertaining, and inspiring presentations (with the added fun of having my mosaic feet included in Rachel Sager‘s Ruins presentation); getting up close and personal with amazing mosaic art in the MAI exhibition; buying fun tools and yummy supplies at the vendor market; getting swept up in the insanity of the Mosaic Art Salon silent auction; and road-tripping there and back with Sophie Drouin, mosaic force of nature and fellow Kitchener resident (watch out, world, we’re scheming…).

Left: Absolutely THRILLED to have been the winning bidder on Kelley Knickerbocker’s salon piece
Right: Tami Zweig Macala, the happy winner of the bidding war on my salon piece (and me the happy seller!)

I’m really excited for future conferences now that I’ve hit my stride, found my place, and ditched the feeling of overwhelmedness. All is right with the world… And now, back to work.

Proud to be able to show “(More than) Enough” as part of MAI 2017


What a difference a year makes: My second foray into the SAMA vortex

My second SAMA conference has come and gone, and wow, what a difference compared to last year. I had a slightly better idea of what to expect and that helped me feel a bit more at ease and better manage my energy and sanity throughout the week.

I knew a few more people than when I went last year—those friendly faces are such a safe haven for an introvert!—and made so many more connections this time around. Whereas in Philadelphia nobody knew who I was, this year people were actually starting to recognize me. It felt both weird and kind of neat to hear the odd person exclaim, “You’re Julie Sperling!” And people were enthusiastic not only about my work but also about my blog. It’s really encouraging to know that there is an appetite for both aspects of what I do—the work and the words.

Hey look! That's me in Marian Shapiro's talk!

Hey look, that’s me in Marian Shapiro’s talk! (Not a great photo, I know. Sorry!)

One of the highlights for me was getting shout-outs in two of the presentations. Marian Shapiro referenced the blog post I had written a while back about getting the most out of a mosaic workshop in her talk on teaching, and Karen Dimit included some images of my work in her talk on how SAMA has shaped her practice. It was a big honour to be included in her talk alongside artists I’ve looked up to and admired for such a long time (and still do).

The other highlight, of course, was having a piece in Mosaic Arts International and getting to talk to people about it and see it hanging with such a strong showing of the incredible diversity of work in the mosaic community. As an aside, I was heartened to see so many works with an environmental message; I counted five of the thirty-five mosaics in the show, including my own.

In good company (with Atsuko Laskaris and Angela Sanders)

In good company (with Atsuko Laskaris and Angela Sanders)

It was also really lovely meeting Sherri Warner Hunter, the juror who chose my piece for her Juror’s Choice award (and who also ended up buying my Salon piece, (Un)Acceptable Loss—I couldn’t have asked for a better home for it). Here’s what Sherri had to say about choosing Dialogue:

My Juror’s Choice was Julie Sperling’s “Dialogue (The Burden of the Message)”. Language was one of the recurring themes in the works that were submitted. I was particularly drawn to the random coloration of the tesserae, only to discover they were created from spray paint chips and shale. Both materials carry connotations of our misuse of the environment, however here, they are elevated to a thing of beauty.

Me and Sherri Warner Hunter---she is so lovely!

Me and Sherri Warner Hunter—she is so lovely!

The other big highlight for me was taking Marian Shapiro’s “Bend, fold, and undulate” class. If you ever have a chance to take her class, don’t hesitate—she’s a fantastic instructor and you will learn a tonne. I’m really excited to put what I learned into practice, so keep your eyes peeled for future additions to my Fiddling While Rome Burns series that incorporate some of these techniques.

I will say that I find these conferences physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausting. My theory is that the physical and mental toll will never go away—for example, there will always be lack of sleep to contend with and conversations and presentations that stretch you and get your neurons firing—but the emotional exhaustion will lessen. I think the emotional toll is largely tied to the newness of each experience. Right now, everything is a first for me (e.g., first SAMA, first MAI, first time being recognized by strangers, first important missed opportunity / connection, etc.) and so I feel them more intensely. The highs are higher because I’ve never experienced them before and same with the lows. My hypothesis is that things will start to even out as I go further down this path and the experiences become more familiar.

This SAMA really pointed out to me that I’m in a bit of a transition phase, and this transition seems to be happening quicker than I had anticipated. In one year, I’ve gone from flying under the radar in near-complete anonymity to now adjusting to the fact that people are watching. That idea—and the anxiety and self-imposed pressure that come with it—is taking some getting used to. It’s proving to be very difficult to shake the feeling that I’m the annoying kid sister struggling to keep up on my trike while the big kids speed along on their bikes. I still very much feel like a student and find myself deferring all the time, but every once in a while I can see hints of a not-too-distant future where I’ll finally feel like a peer / colleague.

Anyway, as with last year, I’ve picked a little personal anthem for SAMA 2016. This one was chosen a bit very cheekily:



How to get the most out of a mosaic workshop: Crowd-sourced wisdom

I got such a kick out of reading all the replies to my previous post. A big “thank you” to everyone who commented and shared their thoughts and experiences, both as learners and teachers. (And thanks to the perennially fabulous Mosaic Art Now for helping spread the word.) In addition to validating what I had written in my previous post (phewf!), those who weighed in had some great words of wisdom, which I have compiled below.

1. Have FUN

I can’t believe I forgot this one! Several people pointed out that simply relaxing and having fun is essential, and they are completely right. As Christien said, “All learning goes better with connection and play.” And Jacqui put it beautifully when she said “Enjoy the process and do not focus on the result too much […]. The fun part of learning is seeing yourself change. Relax, enjoy the class, and drink in all the new experiences […].” Having fun kind of goes hand in hand with tip #2 from my previous post: Don’t expect to create a masterpiece. Just enjoy.

2. Set a learning objective or two

While most people agreed that it’s better to go in without a set design, one instructor did add the caveat that it’s usually a good idea to go in with an idea of what you’d like to get out of the workshop, and suggested asking yourself: “Why am I here?” Even though you might not always be able to answer that question as concretely as you’d like—knowing what you don’t know is sometimes hard!—it’s a good idea to give it some thought.

3. Remember that what you learn might not be what you expected

Though you might go in with a very good idea of what you’d like to learn / accomplish during the workshop, that might not be what you learn in the end (and likely won’t be the only thing you learn). Sherry wrote: “You will always learn something of value from anything you attend. Maybe it’s not what you expected, [but s]ometimes, it’s that next step you’ve needed but didn’t know you did.” While workshops often help you acquire or improve on various skills, they also often teach you just as much about yourself and your process as they do about technique, which Claire noted in her comment. Finally, in addition to unexpected lessons learned, you may also find that you don’t have that eureka moment until much later. The learning doesn’t stop when the workshop ends; it continues as you digest the experience, assimilate it into your practice, and combine it with other skills and knowledge. I like how Lin put it: “As a student, I have often found that what I learned in a workshop sometimes only emerges as many elements merge in my mind and/or my work. As a professor, I have had students come to me years later and tell me that it was only later that they got what I was talking about in class. So, sometimes it i[s] quick, sometimes it flows through me later.”

4. Be open to feedback

This can be so so tough, but Julia offered some wise words when she said that sometimes it helps if you just think about your instructor as a person (not some wildly talented mosaic artist up on a pedestal of whom you are not worthy): “Realizing that they are not the best and they do not have [all] the answers, and that maybe, just maybe, they look to their students for ideas, energy, and inspiration makes [it] easier.” Feedback can often feel very personal, but Julia cautioned against taking it personally: “Try not to confuse what you make with who you are. The work does not equal your identity. It comes from you, has your maker’s mark, and it can get better/change. [T]eachers really aren’t commenting on you personally, it’s about the work.” (For extra credit, go read the blog post I wrote about vulnerability and criticism.)

5. Take advantage of a good teacher-student fit

Ginny commented on how wonderful it can be when you click with your instructor: “[A fellow mosaic artist] recommended a particular instructor to me, [saying]: ‘He teaches in a way that I learn’. For me, it’s important to have the right instructor. Everyone is different in how they process information. Although one can’t know in advance whether a particular instructor is the right fit, it’s wonderful when the match works. Taking a second workshop from the same instructor can be very enlightening.” Finding an instructor you click with can make for a really fantastic experience and you should treasure those moments. However, even if that perfect match isn’t there, you can still learn a lot (from the instructor, from your peers, and even from yourself by observing and reflecting on how you’re reacting / adapting to the situation, etc.).

6. Don’t beat yourself up for learning the hard way

Even though you might know better in theory, there are times when you are simply destined to learn the hard way. Learning the hard way by making mistakes (sometimes cringe-worthy, embarrassing ones) is sometimes the best way to learn a lesson. These lessons are often the ones we never forget; they are hard-fought and they help us to move forward with intention, as was kindly pointed out to me by an email commenter. I couldn’t agree more. Many of my most valued and deeply internalized lessons are the ones I learned the hard way. So roll up your sleeves, get your hands dirty, and don’t beat yourself up over your mistakes. Instead, as Jacqui said: “[L]et your perceived mistakes take you on another journey.”

Well that’s it! Thanks again to all who commented. This was a lot of fun. Now to start thinking of another topic that could spark a discussion…

A note on attribution: I have added quotes where the comments were left in a public forum (and therefore were, in my opinion, fair game for attribution). Any comments received privately have been paraphrased and kept anonymous.

Dexter is super excited to be helping me get the input grouped into themes

Dexter is super excited to be helping me get the input grouped into themes


How to get the most out of a mosaic workshop

With every mosaic workshop I take (six to date), I develop my skills both as an artist and as a student. Not having a fine arts background, I started out with zero knowledge about how to take an art class. Depending on your experience, this will sound either very odd or glaringly obvious: the skills and mindset you need to approach a mosaic class are quite different from those you need to be successful in, say, biology or literature. So yes, there is a learning curve to learning how to learn an art. (Say that 5 times fast!) I have become a better mosaic student by trial and error, and I have unfortunately not gotten the most out of some fabulous learning opportunities because I didn’t have the right approach to the class. While I’m not a perfect student and am still figuring things out, I wanted to share some thoughts and lessons learned thus far with those of you who are in the same boat as me so you can learn from my mistakes.

1. Go in with nothing (unless instructed otherwise)

The first few classes I took were very project based and we were instructed to bring a design that we wanted to execute. I thought this was the norm, so when I took Sonia King’s class I arrived with everything nailed down, design wise. Big mistake (one that I regret to this day). Yes, there are workshops where you will make a specific project and you should go prepared. But there are other workshops that are more about artistic exploration and if you go in with a predetermined idea of what you want to make, you will miss out. Make sure you know which kind of class you’re signed up for and prepare accordingly. If it’s a class more about artistic expression, try to go in with as little as possible (in terms of design, materials, and tools), leaving yourself open for learning opportunities. I know it can be nerve-racking and it can feel like you’re unprepared and are only increasing your chances of failure, but trust me on this one (and see #2 below for some thoughts on failure).

2. Do not expect to create a masterpiece

I admittedly still struggle with this one, even though it should be a no-brainer. Most workshops are more about the process than the final product. Let yourself get lost in the process and don’t worry about whether you finish or whether you create something pretty. You learn as much from your failures as you do from your successes, so use your class time to experiment and take risks and push yourself under the guidance of someone who knows more than you. This can lead to really fantastic conversations with both your instructor and classmates, and their insights into what works and what doesn’t (and why) are invaluable. Sometimes a failure is just one tweak away from something that works amazingly well and is exciting and new.

3. Be yourself

Your instructor has a distinct style and so do you. You are not there to learn how to imitate your instructor. Yes, they will share their knowledge and insight about what they do and their process, but at the end of the day, you’ve got to be you. The challenge is to figure out how to take their style and their teachings and use them to enhance your voice and vision.

4. Get what you need

This will apply more to some readers than others, but since it’s wholly applicable to me, I figured I’d include it in the list. I am quiet and introverted and I shy away from attention. Consequently, in class I keep my head down and quietly go about my business, and am reluctant to ask questions. The more classes I take, the more I realize that this is a terrible approach. Any one-on-one interaction you have with your instructor is incredibly precious and valuable, so don’t be afraid to ask questions when you have them or to call the instructor over when you’re stuck or want to sound out an idea. Of course, it goes without saying that you shouldn’t hog the instructor’s attention—always be respectful and mindful of your fellow classmates.

5. Learn from your peers

It’s easy to get totally focused on and immersed in what you’re creating, but don’t forget to get up occasionally and take a spin around the room to see what your classmates are up to. The diversity of work in a class never ceases to amaze me. Everyone has a unique perspective and way of incorporating what you’re all learning, and it can be very enlightening to see what other people are creating—the challenges they’re running up against and their solutions to those problems, their individual process (including everything from cutting materials to figuring out a plan of attack for their mosaic), and their artistic vision. Even if your class is made up of really different skill / experience levels, there’s still lots of peer-to-peer learning to be had. Obviously beginners can learn from their more advanced peers, but more seasoned mosaicists can also learn from beginners, who have the benefit of ‘fresh eyes.’

6. Embrace how you feel

There is no right way to ‘feel’ during a workshop. I’ve had classes where I feel like I’m on top of the world and things just feel right and effortless (case in point: my time in Rachel Sager’s class). But I have also had classes where I feel like I’m struggling and am consumed by anxiety and self-doubt (example: Verdiano Marzi’s class). This is normal. Feeling unsettled in a class is not an indication that you’re doing something wrong or that you’re failing. And grinning ear to ear and feeling like everything is just clicking doesn’t in any way mean that you’re not pushing yourself or learning anything. You feel how you feel and it’s all part of the experience and the emotional rollercoaster that is artistic growth.

I’m sure there are plenty of other pieces of advice / words of wisdom about how to approach a mosaic workshop, but these are the ones that I’ve learned the hard way and wish someone had told me before I started. I’d love to hear what you have to say—either from a student’s or an instructor’s perspective—on the ones that I’ve outlined here or others you think are important. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below. If enough of you weigh in (here and on social media), I’ll compile your responses into a follow-up crowd-sourced post.

Lots of learning going on: All the class pieces I've done so far

Lots of learning going on: All the class pieces I’ve done so far


Six days with a mosaic maestro: Verdiano Marzi workshop

I recently had the great privilege of taking a six-day workshop with master mosaicist Verdiano Marzi at the Chicago Mosaic School. It was a humbling experience to learn from such a generous, warm-hearted, genuine—oh, and ridiculously talented—artist and teacher.

It was amazing to listen to him talk about everything from his relationship with his tools and materials to the importance of sketching (he even let us leaf through one of his sketchbooks, *swoon*) to more philosophical musings about art. Personally, I adored his reverence for and wonder at the worlds that are revealed when a stone is cut open. We shared some ooohs and ahhhs as we took a closer look at the marble I was working with, and it was really neat to see that he gets the same twinkle in his eye as I do when exploring the landscape contained in a single tessera.

It was also such a pleasure to watch him work. He works with such joy and does everything with purpose and confidence. There is no hesitation as he cuts, selects, and places the tesserae, which is undoubtedly the product of both innate talent and decades of hard work and dedication. Several of us were quite taken with the way his fingers would caress the tops of the tesserae to tuck them into their mortar bed and get the surface just the way he wanted.

I had heard from other mosaic artists who have studied under Verdiano that he has an uncanny knack for knowing exactly where a student is on his/her artistic path and how to get them to take that next step. So going into this class, I just kind of put my faith in Verdiano, that he would guide me in whatever direction I needed to be guided, and I went in without a plan: no sketch (or even a general idea) and none of my own tools or materials. I wanted to be open to whatever learning opportunities presented themselves, rather than boxing myself in with a predetermined game plan. I didn’t even have any specific learning objectives for the course: my only goal was to be a sponge and soak up whatever knowledge and insight was offered.

While I did miss my tools a lot, it was a valuable experience to be forced to use ones that were foreign to me. How else would I have known that those sweet little Japanese hammers cut smalti like a dream? And I’m glad I didn’t bring any materials from home, because there was certainly no lack of choice at the school. I got to play with lots of new goodies, including travertine, shale, desert rose, and my favourite new obsession: flint. I am now officially on the hunt for a local flintknapper (don’t worry, I had to google that when I first heard it too)…

To kick things off, Verdiano had an initial chat with each of us to get a sense of where we were as mosaic artists. During our chat, he offered me a really great piece of constructive criticism, which I decided to focus on with my class piece. I’m also convinced that he made a mental note of a few other areas where he could push me, but kept those to himself (perhaps so as not to overwhelm me right at the outset?) and ever-so-subtly made me work on those other areas over the course of the six days.

After much hemming and hawing, I finally settled on my palette and started to push pieces around on my board. When I was finally more or less happy with my idea for the central element, Verdiano came past, gave it his blessing (saying there was something poetic about it) and told me to start sticking stuff down. Near the end of that first day, I had surrounded the three central stones about one third of the way around with the flint. Verdiano came by again, took one look, and offered a suggestion: fill the interstices with bits of shale to add density. Genius.

Absolutely captivated by the master at work

Absolutely captivated by the master at work (Photo courtesy of Deb Englebaugh)

Over the next few days, my mosaic evolved slowly, as mosaics tend to do. Once I got into the background section surrounding that central explosion, I kind of fell into a groove, just doing my thing, building lines. Maybe too much of a groove though, because when I stepped back at the end of Day 3 to look at what I had done, my heart sunk a bit. It just seemed to me like I was doing what I had always done and had parked myself firmly in my comfort zone. Where was the growth, the risk, the experimentation? It’s true that Verdiano had shown me how to add a bit of undulation to the substrate (pretty sure that was one of the mental notes he made during our initial chat), so yes, I had learned that, but my lines were still what I had been doing before.

The shale and flint getting cozy

The shale and flint getting cozy

One of the ideas that Verdiano and I had discussed on the first day was integrating some runs of larger pieces toward the outer edges (again, probably another of his mental notes), but when I got onto my roll, I kind of missed the boat on that one. Not without a fair bit of regret, I said goodbye to the learning opportunity that could have been, and decided to just keep going with what I was doing. By the end of Day 4, I had the whole upper right side of the mosaic done and was still feeling ambivalent about it and just a wee bit frustrated. Verdiano, in his gentle way, (again) raised the issue of incorporating some bigger pieces. I was a bit resistant to the idea, because I thought I had already gone too far down the path I was on and it was too late to course-correct. I was afraid it would unbalance the piece. I don’t know why that mattered to me. It was a class piece, after all—I was free to explore and play and make a mess if I wanted. And yet I was still hung up on making something that looked nice. Something else to work on: loosening up and giving up control.

Back at the ranch (well, the airbnb house where 7 of us from class were staying), I hit my low point. I was frustrated that I hadn’t been pushing myself harder and I was worried that there were only two days left and I still hadn’t had a watershed moment. I barely slept a wink that night, fretting and trying to figure out how to turn things around. Somewhere in the wee hours of the morning, my sleep-deprived brain and I hatched a plan: I would do that chunky section that Verdiano kept advocating for, and I would counter it with a lighter, wispier section opposite it.

The next day, I was determined. I started playing around with some bigger pieces and when Verdiano came by to check in, he offered to do a line or two for me. By all means, maestro, go ahead! (He even humoured me and incorporated a combination of 3 tesserae that I had set out on my board and quite liked together.) The lines that he did are very obviously not mine. As someone said during the critique: “There’s one line in there that doesn’t look like the others…” I didn’t try to mimic his style as I carried on with what he had started—Verdiano Marzi I am not—but I tried to let his lines influence me.

"Poïesis" (14" x 14") -- marble, flint, smalti, shale, desert rose

“Poïesis” (14″ x 14″) — marble, flint, smalti, shale, desert rose

Reflecting on the six days, I realize just how much I learned and how skilfully I was led through the process. Verdiano guides you so gently that you can almost convince yourself that any breakthroughs and aha moments are your own doing, but no, that’s just Verdiano’s skill as a teacher shining through: not spoon-feeding you, making you do the work, but giving you enough nudges so that you come to those realizations yourself. He knows where you’re going before you do, but he lets you get there at your own pace, and the learning is all the deeper and richer for it (no matter how much angst and frustration you have to wade through before you get there).

I’m still not entirely convinced that I was ready for Verdiano. Part of me thinks I would have gotten more out of it had I waited until I was a bit more mature, artistically speaking. That said, I do think my art will be better for having had this experience at this particular point in my journey, and I am immensely grateful for it. I love that I can very clearly see both the old me and the new me in what I made during class. It’s hard to articulate, but when I look at the two more dramatic sections—the undulating chunky and wispy corners—I get this feeling of potential and possibility. This very fleeting glimpse of the artist I could be. And that’s pretty darn exciting.

An angle shot to show the undulations a bit better

An angle shot to show the undulations a bit better


What lies beneath our feet: Wayfinding and the road ahead

I think that perhaps by now you’ve gotten a sense that mosaic camp had a pretty profound impact on me. So now it’s time to try to articulate what it all means. It’s actually kind of challenging to find the right words to adequately convey how pivotal and amazing this experience was for me. Over the course of this post, there will likely be ramblings and digressions, but I hope you’ll bear with me.

mosaic hardie in logIt’s hard to explain what this workshop meant to me without first understanding where I was in my relationship with mosaic. My early work with glass got me hooked on mosaic in terms of putting things together to form a cohesive whole. My brain works well that way, so it was natural that I should gravitate to mosaic. But the material and tools just didn’t do it for me. So I explored. I took a few classes and found out I didn’t like tile (neither vitreous nor ceramic), but that I did quite enjoy smalti and stone. Most importantly, I discovered my love for my hammer and hardie. But as I moved into these new materials, it felt like I was still missing a piece of the puzzle. I enjoyed the craftsmanship that went into each piece – I love working with my hands and creating something tangible – but I was still just a wee bit unsatisfied. I think that maybe I found the materials, although lovely, a bit uninspiring and sterile. Everything in neat cubes and rods and squares. It felt restrictive. I think it’s fair to say that prior to the workshop at Touchstone, I was in an uneasy transition period. I was still searching for my niche.

Now, I have long been a fan of Rachel Sager‘s work. It just speaks to me. I love the organic, almost eroded feel to it, and I definitely connect with the subject matter. I had a feeling that I would really enjoy taking a workshop with her, but I had no idea how transformational it would be. Seriously guys, this workshop was a game changer for me. It was the perfect course at the perfect time. The whole weekend I felt both euphoric and at peace. It was such a strange combination of feelings. I couldn’t make sense of it at the time, but now I know it was the result of finally finding my path. My previous restlessness had morphed into a peacefulness, a feeling like all was right with the world. And that made me so incredibly happy.

Maybe it’s my background in geography, but everything about the process we learned made my heart sing: the sense of place and connection, the dialogue with both nature and the materials, and the feeling of adventure and exploration that permeated the whole process. It all spoke to my soul. It was exactly what I had been searching for. Over the course of the weekend, Rachel kept returning to the themes of independence and freedom. I can think of no better way to describe how this workshop and this process made me feel.

I have always been uncomfortable calling myself an artist. I’ve always seen myself more as a maker, craftsperson, or artisan. But, oddly enough, when I was making “Grounded“, I felt (for the first time ever) like maybe I could eventually grow into the label of “artist”. It’ll probably take a while, but I think it’s an indication that I’m on the right path. [Complete aside: two people have already asked me if “Grounded” is for sale. You might think I’m crazy, but I’ve told them it isn’t. It’s just such a pivotal and emotional piece for me – I’m not ready to let it go yet. Maybe not ever. I never feel like this about any of my work. I’m always thrilled when it can go find a new home. But this piece is different.]

It feels exceedingly good to finally have direction. To feel that passion and fire. I was still bouncing off the walls for days after I got home. Poor R tells me I didn’t even look at her for 2 days – that’s how wrapped up in the experience I still was. I want a future (like, a full-time future) in mosaic where stone features prominently. Saying that is both exhilarating and terrifying. I still have a really really long way to go, and I know it isn’t going to happen overnight. But I’ll be patient and play the long game and keep chipping away at developing my skills and my voice. And then maybe one day…!

post-touchstone fb status

Music plays a big part in my life and ties me to moments in space and time. I often deliberately pick a song to act as a soundtrack for big events (like last days on the job, embarking on big trips, etc.). I’ll play it over and over to cement that feeling in my head and heart, and then whenever I hear it I’ll be transported back to that moment. Naturally, I chose a song to remember my experience in Rachel’s class. I hadn’t listened to any music at camp, swapping my ipod for the chirping of birds, the rustling of trees, and the babbling of the stream. When I got back to civilization and began my music-starved hunt for the perfect ‘theme song’, I went directly to Josh Ritter. I think his “Lark” pretty much embodies my experience at mosaic camp. The lightness of the music and some of the lyrics correspond perfectly with how I felt – like there was a “lark in my heartbeat.”


What lies beneath our feet: Look what I made!

I’m super excited to show you guys what I made at mosaic camp. It is decidedly better than what I used to make at camp – anyone remember gimp bracelets?? Of all the mosaics I’ve made before, this one is the purest and most accurate expression of me. I felt completely connected to this piece as I was making it. Is it perfect? Nope, not by any stretch of the imagination. And yet I love it. It might actually be my favourite piece to date, not because of how it looks, but because I love what it represents (more on that in Post #3).

sandstone mosaic

“Grounded” – made during Rachel Sager’s “What lies beneath our feet” workshop at Touchstone Center for Crafts

So how did this piece come to be? Well, the palette was determined by the rocks I collected. I had no idea what I’d have to work with until we got back to the studio and started breaking them open. A lot of my classmates had quite the range of colours in the rocks they had picked up, but I happened to end up with a bit more of a subtle palette. (Not complaining at all about that – just stating a fact.) I had also brought some stones from home to play with, which I had collected from a pocket park just around the corner from where I work in Gatineau, QC.

There were lots of extra goodies available to use in our mosaics – smalti, shale, coal, tile, etc., but I made the decision early on that I only wanted to work with materials I had gathered myself. This was a workshop about sourcing your own local stone, so I wanted to take that quite literally and really connect with the materials. The other rule I set for myself was that I wanted to use only my hammer and hardie. No nippers.

I had no plan for this mosaic; it was completely an intuitive exploration. All I knew was that I wanted to work on ‘line’. Everything flowed from the focal point I chose – that lovely red stone. I have no idea what kind of stone it is, but I loved it from the instant I found it. I decided there was no point in trying to chop it up because it looked quite layered and was harder than the sandstone (it almost looked clay-like). Definitely wouldn’t break well. So…instant focal point!

I started working down from the red stone, using the slant of its outer edges as my general directional guide but letting the lines split and meander as they wanted to. I was immediately drawn to this greenish-grey stone (that had been particularly unwilling to break open for me), which I paired with a subtle yellow I had found. Of course, other colours worked their way in here and there, not really because of any conscious aesthetic choice, but more to do with the fact that I had previously mixed all my different stones together (oops!). I left the edges uneven and loose (a) because I had never done that before and (b) because I thought it went well with the organic feel that was emerging in the piece.

I had no idea where I was going to go after I finished that initial section. Would I switch directions and add in some horizonal(ish) lines? Have everything just radiate from that red stone? Introduce more focal points? And what about colours? Gah! Too much thinking. I just went with my gut, which was telling me: strip it down, keep it simple. So I just let everything keep running diagonally, but introduced some red at the top (because there were some red/white stones in my pile that I thought were quite beautiful) and black at the bottom, which is the stuff that came from Canada. [Side note: it was neat to feel the difference between the two kinds of stone when I was cutting them. The stuff from home was much harder and had a nice clean (and entirely satisfying) snap to it when it broke, whereas the sandstone was like butter.] There were some very jagged and irregular blue stones with a nice rusty orange-red that I really really wanted to incorporate, but no matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t make it work. Anything I tried just felt forced. But fear not, I did bring them home with me (the only ones that made the journey back) and hopefully they’ll make their way into a future piece.

This mosaic was all about simplicity and understatedness. There’s a quietness and calmness about it that I think really reflects both my personality and the meditative space I was in when I was creating it. I felt both rooted and connected while making it, so I’ve decided to title it “Grounded.” Like I said, this is the most ‘me’ piece I have ever made. Expect more things like this from me in the future, because this just felt right.


What lies beneath our feet: Just the facts

I’ve just come back from participating in Rachel Sager’s inaugural run of her “What lies beneath our feet” workshop and I can say that it was, without a doubt, the most amazing and pivotal experience of my mosaic journey so far. It was a bit overwhelming (in a good way) and I’m still kind of processing, but I have lots to tell you. So much, in fact, that I think I’m going to break it down into three blog posts. This one will focus on the workshop itself – the who, what, where, when, why, and how of it. In the next post I’ll show you what I made and how I approached it. The third post will inevitably be the most challenging to write: I want to tell you about what this experience has meant to me in terms of where I am (a budding mosaic artist just starting out on my journey) and where I’m (hopefully) going.

But for now, let’s talk about the workshop!

SAMA vs. Sager
Since I don’t do mosaics full time, I can only justify about one big mosaic-related hoorah each year. This year, I had my sights set on attending my first SAMA conference. That was the plan. I was determined. But then I saw a posting for Rachel’s workshop on Pam Goode’s Mosaic Art Retreats blog. I immediately knew that this was the class for me and my plans for SAMA flew right out the window. A few months later, as I saw updates and pictures trickling out from SAMA, I got a bit jealous and started wondering if I had made the right decision. I needn’t have worried; it was absolutely the right decision. So my advice to you: If you get a chance to take a workshop with Rachel, do it. Don’t hesitate for even a second. She is a wonderful teacher and you will learn a tonne and grow as an artist.

Determined to do this on the cheap, I cashed in some of my hard-earned frequent flyer miles that I had accumulated from three years’ worth of flights between Ottawa and LA. I had originally planned to try carpooling with a local to get from Pittsburgh to Farmington (where Touchstone is located), but I ended up renting a car instead because (1) I was too shy to put myself out there and ask and (2) I really really really didn’t want to miss seeing Fallingwater (a Frank Lloyd Wright house in the area). And boy, am I glad I visited – it was SO cool. My jaw was just hanging open the entire visit. After that I popped over to visit the Laurel Caverns, which was more than slightly disappointing (read: supremely cheesy). I’m kicking myself for choosing that over Kentuck Knob (the other FLW house in the area). Oh well, you know what they say about hindsight.

Touchstone is like the camp you remember from your childhood, only better (especially in terms of the food – sooooo delicious). I chose to stay in a shared quad cabin, but the camp wasn’t full that particular weekend, so I actually didn’t have any cabin mates. I was a bit sad about that – I kept racing back to my cabin periodically during the check-in period to see if other people had arrived, only to be disappointed each time. Part of the reason I wanted other people in my cabin was because I’m painfully shy, so it’s an easy way to meet people. Instant friends! In a cabin on my own, I thought I risked being a hermit. But everything turned out OK, because all my classmates were super open and warm and friendly and we quickly became a tight-knit group and I never lacked people to eat with or sit by the campfire chatting with.

The workshop itself
Our class ran from Friday night to Monday afternoon. On Friday night, we started by putting the finishing touches on the substrates that Rachel had graciously prepped for us so they could dry overnight. And then Saturday morning…we hunted for rocks! WOO!! I totally loved walking through the woods, scanning for potential treasure troves, and getting my hands dirty – pushing aside leaves, rummaging through the stream bed, digging in the soil. So much more satisfying than ordering materials online with the click of a button.

Back in the studio, after a quick hammer and hardie lesson, we got to work cracking the stones open. The bigger / tougher ones were subjected to the blows of a sledgehammer, but the smaller, easier ones were broken down directly with our H&H. It was so neat to see the variations in colour and striation that were revealed once each rock was broken open, because they really looked quite similar from the outside. While others sorted their colours very carefully (as per Rachel’s instructions), I disobeyed. I was too excited to see what was on the inside of each stone I had collected, so I would chop one open, cut a few pieces from it, and then move on to the next one and the next one. Everything went into the same pile and it was a beautiful, disorganized mess. Luckily, I didn’t get scolded :-)

It felt really good to get my hammer swinging for a nice chunk of time and to feel the differences between the stones as they yielded under my hammer. What I found challenging was all the noise – 11 people wailing on rocks with steel hammers is not exactly quiet. A big part of finding the ‘sweet spot’ for me is the sound – like finding a stud in the wall. I had to focus on using my eyes (in addition to muscle memory) a lot more with all the background din. It’s interesting, the cues that you come to rely on.

And then, we created. (More on this in post #2.) It was fascinating to walk around the room and see how radically different people’s approaches and visions were, considering we had all started with the same basic ingredients. Talking about everyone’s piece at the end of the workshop – how they approached it, what others saw in it and responded to in its design – was a valuable and interesting exercise.

Outside of class
I tended to wake up early and would spend the time before breakfast just enjoying the quietness and the early morning sun (and checking my email). I had hooked up R’s old cellphone (from the California days) so I’d be able to communicate with her while I was there, but I ended up having no reception and wifi was only available in the main lodge. The funny thing is, I’m glad it worked out that way. While I really missed hearing her voice every day, it was nice to untether myself to some extent and let myself be completely absorbed in the experience.

And at night…there were campfires. Just sitting around, enjoying the flames and the night air, talking with interesting and creative people. That was one of my favourite parts (other than whacking the crap out of rocks with my hammer, obviously). The residential aspect of the weekend was part of what made it so special. People didn’t scatter back to their various hotels after class. You could really get to know people and continue the interesting discussions that had started during the day.

Four hours in Pittsburgh
The day after the workshop, I found myself with four hours to kill in Pittsburgh before heading to the airport. I decided to prolong the artsy creative high I was riding from the weekend by visiting the Mattress Factory and the Society for Contemporary Craft. Each place had pieces that absolutely blew me away, like Parastou Forouhar’s “Written Room”, Julie Abijanac’s “Disease mapping”, and Eszter Bornemisza’s “Lung of the city”.  I love walking – anywhere, anytime – and I think it’s a great way to experience the city, so instead of hopping the bus to get from MF to SCC, I walked. A long, hot walk (nearly 3.5km – I was sweating!!), but definitely worth it because I got to soak in that incredible Pittsburgh architecture.

And then it was time to go home to R (yay! I had missed her so!) and Dex (who gave me a very enthusiastic-bordering-on-scandalous welcome on the deserted streets of Ottawa at midnight) and my buckwheat hull pillow. I arrived exhausted, but in a good way, with a huge, persistent grin on my face.


The mosaic murals of Jingletown’s “Rue de Merde” (and more!)

Last weekend I took my first of two classes at the Institute of Mosaic Art in Oakland. I definitely added to my arsenal of fundamental skills and knowledge, which is always a good thing. We created a few quick and dirty pieces that were focused on process and technique rather than aesthetics. Needless to say, none of them came home with me.

On Sunday morning I arrived a bit early and took advantage of the chance to wander the neighbourhood surrounding IMA. I’m sure glad I did, because I got to see the “Rue de Merde” – a little strip of gravel path and vegetation (presumably where all the neighbourhood dogs go to do their business?) that is decorated with a long wall of murals, both painted and mosaicked.

So, without further ado, here is a brief photographic tour of the Rue de Merde and more!


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