Archive | Fiddling while Rome burns

Weather vs. climate: A mosaic about one of my pet peeves

batman slap robin climate change

If my mosaic were a meme, it would be this.

My blood boils every time I hear someone say, “Man, it’s so cold out! So much for global warming, eh?” We’re talking a fist-clenching, teeth-grinding level of frustration and anger. So what do I do about it (other than correct someone every time they make such a boneheaded statement)? I make a mosaic about it, of course!

So let’s get things straight, shall we? First let’s talk about the difference between climate change and global warming. Climate change is not exclusively about things getting warmer—this is why we don’t refer to it as global warming anymore—climate change affects both warm and cold regions of the world and is about more than just temperature (e.g., precipitation, sea level, etc.).

And the distinction between weather and climate can be summed up with the phrase: “Climate is what you expect; weather is what you get,” which basically boils down to the fact that weather is what you see on any given day out your window (the short-term, immediate stuff), while climate is the global average taken over a much longer time period. Climate is not weather, and cold or snowy weather does not disprove climate change (much to the chagrin of snowball-throwing Republican senators). But here, how about we take 2 minutes and let a real scientist—Neil deGrasse Tyson—explain it to us using a really simple example: Follow the man, not the dog.

With that cleared up, now let’s have a look at the mosaic I made. The terracotta trendline is meant to represent rising global temperatures from a variety of climate models (they may all be slightly different, but they’re all headed in the same general direction). I used the copper wire because it’s a good conductor of heat, which I thought was appropriate. And the blue smalti punctuating the piece here and there? Those are those pesky snowy, cold blips. They’re there, yes, but they don’t disturb the trend. Not much else to say about this piece. It was a fun one, and I’m thinking of maybe doing a second one on the same theme (just a different way of representing it visually), so stay tuned!

Julie Sperling "Weather is not climate" mosaic

“Weather is not climate” (2015), 10″ x 10″, marble, stone, terracotta, smalti, beads, copper wire

Julie Sperling "Weather is not climate" mosaic

A closer look at the trendline with the cold-weather blips

Julie Sperling "Weather is not climate" mosaic

Close-up of the little copper outliers poking up here and there


Melting away: A mosaic about sea ice decline

For the second mosaic in my climate change series, I decided to tackle sea ice decline. The long and the short of the trend: it doesn’t look good for sea ice, folks (or for the cryosphere in general). But don’t just take my word for it, let’s see what the smarty pants scientists from the IPCC have to say about the subject: according to them, “the current (1980–2012) summer sea ice retreat was unprecedented and sea surface temperatures in the Arctic were anomalously high in the perspective of at least the last 1450 years.” Yikes. Oh, and “a nearly ice-free Arctic Ocean in September before mid-century is likely.” Why should you be concerned about the loss of sea ice? Well, it plays an important function in regulating the Earth’s temperature (its whiteness and shininess reflects light and heat), so without it things will get even warmer and wonkier. It’s also a key component of polar ecosystems—think of the polar bears and seals and penguins, oh my!

Sea ice mosaic by Julie Sperling

“Sea ice (Steady unprecedented decline)” (2014), 14.5″ x 20″
Quartz, marble, stone from Ottawa and Georgian Bay, smalti, recycled glass tile, salvaged glass table top


Yep, it’s disappearing. Source: Climate Change 2013, The Physical Science Basis (IPCC)

This particular mosaic was based on a graph of Arctic summer sea ice extent since 1900. The trendline of the mosaic is made from a big chunk of quartz that was given to me by a friend of my mom’s. It took me a while to work up the nerve to smash it to bits with my hammer, but it was either that or let it sit there and collect dust. And this just means I have room to bring in more fun materials! In terms of stone, I used a white marble tile I scored at the Habitat for Humanity ReStore, along with that amazing blue stone from up near the cottage (Georgian Bay, Ontario), and the nice glittery grey layered limestone (?) and black stone from Ottawa. The glass is a mix of smalti (the various blue lines), recycled glass tile, and some chunks of a broken glass tabletop that I rescued from the curb. I like the way the stone and the clear glass play off each other, but it really was a struggle to break down the glass. I’m slowly rekindling my relationship with glass, but it needs work. I think more practice will help, because as my skills get stronger, I will be less frustrated when working with it. And I’m hoping my sweet new Japanese hammer will help…

Sea ice mosaic by Julie Sperling (detail)

A slightly better view of the undulations

I added some undulations to the substrate to evoke snow drifts and rolling seas. And I intentionally put some of the machined edges of the glass facing up (as opposed to the riven side) because, being so smooth, they really catch the light and look like glints of shiny snow or ice. Of course, the curves and the way the tesserae catch the light—which are my two favourite parts of this mosaic—are the hardest ones to photograph. I really had trouble getting a photo that captures the essence of this piece (I was desperately wishing my photographer friends lived closer). Perhaps it’s just one of those pieces that needs to be seen in person for the full effect. Or perhaps I just need to hone my photography skills. I suspect it’s actually a little of both.

I’m thoroughly enjoying creating this series, even though I’m only two mosaics into it. I like the idea of engaging with a subject for a prolonged period of time. I’ve already got my next two pieces ready to go in my mind, and countless other proto-ideas jotted down. Apparently climate change is the subject that, sadly, keeps on giving. In a previous post I had joked about a cheeky working title for the series, but the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to keep it as the official series title. So, it’s official: say hello to “Fiddling while Rome burns”—a series of mosaics about climate change.

Sea ice mosaic by Julie Sperling (quartz detail)

A close-up of some of the quartz pieces, and you can also see the difference between the riven and machined edges of the glass (See the run of smooth, shiny glass pieces between the two quartz chunks? Now contrast that with the riven edges of the glass three rows above.)

A front angle shot to show the topography

A front angle shot to show the topography

Sea ice mosaic by Julie Sperling (side view)

Looking back towards the top of the trend line

Sea ice mosaic by Julie Sperling (detail of topography and quartz)

Just a side view of the topography and the quartz sticking up, just floating along on the flowing ice and water

Sea ice mosaic by Julie Sperling (quartz detail)

The quartz and rolling snow drifts and waves from another angle

Sea ice mosaic by Julie Sperling (quartz detail)

A look at the biggest quartz pieces in the icy, snowy top corner before they melt away…


Why make mosaics about climate change?

When I tell people that I’m doing a series of mosaics about climate change, the usual response is something like <insert raised eyebrows, skeptical / confused look> “Ummm…ok…?” (My environmental policy wonk colleagues are the exception to this rule—they are super keen and excited about it.) This is why I figured it would be a good idea to devote a blog post to explaining why I’m doing what I’m doing.

Let’s tackle the easy question first: Why climate change? In short, climate change worries me. A lot. I will be the first to admit that I often get very very frustrated by

  • the lack of awareness and concern among the general public,
  • the overwhelming sense of apathy and inertia that seems to exist (including the lack of action at the political level),
  • the ‘debate’ about the reality of climate change, which is engineered by a small but vocal few who are propped up by junk ‘science’ (for a good explanation of this, I highly recommend James Hoggan’s “Climate Cover-Up“), and
  • the entirely false but annoyingly persistent either/or choice we are offered between the economy OR the environment (when, in fact, we can have both).
Joel Pett's editorial cartoon perfectly sums up the fact that we have nothing to lose by acting on climate change. So what are we waiting for?

Joel Pett’s editorial cartoon perfectly sums up the fact that we have nothing to lose by acting on climate change. So what are we waiting for?

I could go on, but at the risk of sounding ranty and alienating readers, I’ll stop there. While I do what I can in my personal life, at work I often feel like my hands are tied. Such is the reality of being a small cog in the big machine that is the federal bureaucracy. Anyway, I wanted to do more, and I decided that one way I could do this was through my art.

I think artists are in a unique position of being able to translate complex and/or intangible concepts and issues in a way that makes them more accessible and visceral for the general public. Art encourages people to slow down, and it invites them to really interact with a subject. I think creating this space for contemplation and dialogue is an essential counterbalance to the never-ending stream of headlines and soundbites. In this way, artists are well placed to contribute to the public policy dialogue on any number of issues. I get positively giddy when art, science, and public policy collide.

One of Gregory C. Johnson's 19 brilliantly simple illustrated haikus from the IPCC Physical Science Assessment

One of Gregory C. Johnson’s 19 brilliantly simple illustrated haikus summing up the IPCC Physical Science Assessment

I am neither the first nor the last artist to engage in this way. Even in the narrower niche of art related to climate change, I am in good company. Some recent examples that have been inspiring me are oceanographer/artist Gregory C. Johnson’s 19 illustrated haikus of the key takeaways from the IPCC’s Physical Science Assessment (a 2,000+ page document), Courtney Mattison’s large-scale ceramic installations depicting coral bleaching, the eclectic rafts created by street artist Swoon as a statement about rising sea levels and the loss of people’s homelands, and, of course, fellow Canadian Franke James’ visual essays that take aim at Canadian climate policy (among other things). Even within the mosaic community, I am not alone. Yulia Hanansen is working on a series about the effects of climate change on water distribution, and I’m sure there are others.

I have cheekily given my series the working title “Fiddling while Rome burns.” Who knows, maybe it’ll stick! I’m basing it on graphs and basic concepts / processes because (a) I think we tend to forget that there is a solid scientific grounding behind calls for climate action and (b) I believe we have pretty much become immune to alarming climate change graphs, statistics, trends, and impacts. I know I am certainly guilty of simply scanning the latest graph du jour and thinking “Yup, it’s bad,” as I scroll past. And if I—as an informed and engaged citizen—do it, then I know other people do it too. So putting these graphs and trends in stone, turning them into art, is my attempt to get people to look at them for more than a split second and realize that, yes, these trends are real, climate change is happening, and we’re already feeling its effects. Mosaic also seems like a good medium for communicating about climate change because they’re both such slow, gradual processes. But I think the parallels between mosaic and climate change also hold true for addressing climate change. Individual pieces of stone and glass come together to create something bigger, and individual actions really do add up and collectively make a difference. If my mosaics can inspire people to make even one positive change in their lives for the sake of the climate, well then that’s pretty neat and it gives me a bit of hope.

Extra credit: If you want to bone up on climate change, I’d highly recommend checking out DeSmog Blog (it even has a sister site dedicated solely to the Canadian context) or tuning into the new TV series Years of Living Dangerously. There are plenty of good and credible climate news sources out there, but these should get you started.

Mosaics in the series (evergreen list):


Temperature’s rising: Embarking on a series devoted to climate change

I have just begun a new series dedicated to climate change. I won’t get into my motivations behind the series in this post, because I’m planning on doing a post exclusively on the ‘why’ of the series in the near future. Instead, this post will explore the first mosaic of the series.

It seemed like a no-brainer to start a climate change series with a mosaic based on rising global temperatures. The actual inspiration for this piece was the graph below, taken from the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report (essentially, a really really big report that contains the most up-to-date, reliable climate science available). I won’t get into the nitty gritty of the graph, but basically it shows that global temperatures are going up.

The verdict: It's getting warmer.

The verdict: It’s getting warmer. (Source: IPCC, “Climate change 2013: The physical science — Summary for policymakers”)

It actually took me quite a while to fiddle with my palette and figure out how exactly I wanted to execute the piece. The stones I used were from the Bruce Peninsula in Ontario (the white and red ones), Pennsylvania (the yellow stuff), and Kamouraska, Quebec (the thin jagged ones I used for the trend line). The yellowish sandstone has a lot of mica in it, which is fun to look at up close but ridiculously hard to photograph (at least with my meager photographic skills).

"Heat (Each decade hotter than the last)" - mosaic by Julie Sperling

“Heat (Each decade hotter than the last)” (2014) — stone from Ontario, Quebec, and Pennsylvania, and a flue damper, 16.25″ x 24.25″

The metal circle in the bottom corner is a rusty old flue damper that I found in my daddy’s garage. I figured it was an appropriate sort of thing to include in this piece, since it’s used to control the air flow (and therefore temperature) in a wood-burning stove.

Daddy's garage is full of old treasures like this flue damper. I love that it's from Guelph, Ontario (close to where I grew up)

Daddy’s garage is full of old treasures like this flue damper. I love that it’s from Guelph, Ontario (close to where I grew up)

My favourite thing about this piece is the trend line. I love how the thin stones echo the annual variations shown in the graph, yet, when taken as a whole, clearly show an upward trend. These thin stones were actually a last-minute substitution. I had originally planned to do the trend line in terracotta (thinking the colour was appropriate for the subject matter), but there was something about it that just wasn’t sitting right with me. I’ve been learning the value of giving myself some distance when I’m unsure about something, so I let it percolate in the back of my head for a few days and eventually landed on the thin Quebec stones.

"Heat (Each decade hotter than the last)" - detail shot. Mosaic by Julie Sperling.

A view of the flue damper over the rugged topography of the trend line

"Heat (Each decade hotter than the last)" - detail shot. Mosaic by Julie Sperling.

The trend line from another angle, heading up, up, and away.

I am really excited about this series (I’ve already got ideas for at least 5 or 6 other pieces bouncing around in my head) and I’m looking forward to explaining my motivations in a future post. But for now, I hope you’ve enjoyed this little tour of “Heat (Each decade hotter than the last)”.

"Heat (Each decade hotter than the last)" - detail shot. Mosaic by Julie Sperling.

One last parting shot of the flue damper and trend line


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