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The Institute of Mosaic Art Weekly Mosaic Workout Challenge: Looking back on 20 weeks of making and learning

It’s been a while since the Institute of Mosaic Art’s 20-week mosaic workout challenge ended, and I’ve finally had some time to catch my breath and collect my thoughts. Overall, the challenge series was fantastic and I would recommend it to anyone. While I will admit to getting fatigued somewhere around Week 15—for the future, I’d recommend maybe 10 challenges spaced 2 weeks apart—it really was a worthwhile experience.

If IMA runs another challenge, I encourage you all to join in. And in the meantime, I highly suggest going back and doing the challenges on your own. The nice part about doing it on your own is that you can give yourself a bit more time between challenges (rather than cranking through them at the break-neck pace of 1 per week), and you can even pick and choose the ones you want to do (although I would recommend doing them all, even the ones that make you cringe).

IMA challenge pieces by Julie Sperling IMA challenge pieces by Julie Sperling

So, what’s so great about the challenges? Here are a few quick ideas:

  • They get you into the studio on a regular basis, even if it’s just for a few hours
  • They force you out of your comfort zone and allow you to take risks without any consequences if you fail (that said, I found that it was MUCH harder than I anticipated to throw caution to the wind and just make something without fear of failure, mostly because of the fact that the results were put online for the world to see—experimenting in your studio where nobody can see is much different from sharing the hot mess you created publicly)
  • They connect you with a community of fellow participants and it’s really interesting to see all the different interpretations of the same challenge theme
  • They teach you a LOT (about materials, technique, and yourself)

With each challenge, I tried to maintain my own style that is slowly emerging (letting that serve as the control), and then vary just one or two elements as dictated by the challenge prompt. The result is a collection of 19 mosaics that, for the most part, are actually fairly cohesive despite some very diverse prompts. The most valuable lessons learned for me were not in terms of materials, techniques, or subject matter; rather, they were insights into my own personal process. I now know that I really need that head time before diving into a project, and that it’s ok to just set some materials on the table and stare at them and my blank substrate for a day or two or five before diving in. That’s just how I work. If I rush it, the results are a crapshoot. But I also learned the value of playing and just going on sheer instinct / gut feeling (evidenced best in Week 8’s time trial exercise). And finally, I learned what it feels like to make a complete dud. Not just a piece that you feel so-so about, but one that’s really and truly awful and goes straight from the work table to the garbage can.

Anyway, a big thank you to Sophia at the Institute of Mosaic Art for running these challenges. I know the administrative / logistical effort behind them was enormous (especially while also looking after the day-to-day of the Institute), but it really was appreciated.

One final note: I am selling the bulk of the challenge pieces that I made (minus the duds and the ones that were copies of other artists’ work). Because these were learning exercises, I’m keeping the price very reasonable (they range from $50 to $100). If you’re interested in any of them, pop on over to my Etsy store.




Mosaic workout challenge, week 20: Artist’s choice

Week 20! The END! Wow. It’s been an interesting ride, but also an increasingly tough slog as the weeks wore on. I’m happy and proud that I stuck with it, and I will be doing a post in the coming weeks with some thoughts on the whole experience. But, for now, let’s take a look at what I made for this final challenge. The theme actually didn’t come as a surprise to me. I had a sneaking suspicion that we’d get to do something of our own choosing for the big finale, and I like the way Sophia worded the challenge prompt:

“Look at the work you’ve done over the past 4 months, think about what you’ve enjoyed, what you’ve hated, what you are capable of accomplishing given a week and a few hours in the studio. Use the materials you love, choose a design that plays to your strengths, make something that reminds you why you fell for mosaic in the first place.”

So here’s what I did…

Just doing what I do. Rocks from my mom, my better half's mom, and a fellow mosaicist.

Just doing what I do. Rocks from my mom, my better half’s mom, and a fellow mosaicist.

Title: “Wayfinding”

Size: 6″ x 6″

Materials: Nothing but rocks!

How long did it take to complete? About 7 hours, I think… I lost count

Thoughts: This, in theory, should’ve been the easiest prompt: just do what you do. Instead, it was the hardest (but I guess the things that are closest to your heart usually are). The one phrase in the challenge prompt that really resonated with me was the one about making something that reminds you of why you fell for mosaic in the first place. And the reason I fell in love with mosaic (at least the way I do it now) was the rocks. I love knowing where my materials come from and having a very direct hand in their sourcing and processing. I also love how rocks are imbued with history and meaning; they have stories, whether they are unspoken geologic stories or tales of modern-day adventure. Who hasn’t picked up a stone while on vacation as a memento? People connect with stones, and I love that. To honour that connection, I made this mosaic entirely out of stones—all from Canada—that had been given to me by various rock fairies (and people very dear to my heart), who chose these stones specifically for me to use in my art. In terms of composition and process, I get no greater pleasure than when I let the tesserae and the lines take me on a journey, so with this piece I just followed their lead and went wherever they decided to take me. Overall, this feels like a fitting end to this 20-week challenge.


Mosaic workout challenge, week 19: Ending

This week we had to think about endings, which is appropriate given that it was the second-last challenge.

Title: “Foiled again”

Size: 6″ x 4.25″

Materials: Smalti, tile, glass rod

How long did it take to complete? About 3.5 hours

Thoughts: I swear I had every intention of filling in the background, I really did! I even started doing it and then looked at the clock: Sunday afternoon, deadline looming… Realizing it was going to take me far too long, I ripped it out and started again with just the maze lines. Ahh negative space, how I have come to love and rely on you! When I started thinking about this prompt, I had a bunch of different ideas, but in the end I decided to just have fun with it and do something I normally wouldn’t do. So, not being big on rigid structure and right angles, I settled on the maze idea—lots of endings, opportunities for detours, etc. And yes, I realize I have absolutely no future as a maze designer – it’s so easy even a blind T-Rex could solve it in 3 seconds flat.

"Foiled again" (2014) -- 6" x 4.25", smalti, tile, glass rod

“Foiled again” (2014) — 6″ x 4.25″, smalti, tile, glass rod


Mosaic workout challenge, week 18: Redux (again)

We got a second catch-up / do-over week. I was both hoping for and dreading this. While a catch-up week would allow me to go back and do the one challenge I missed while I was in Chicago, that particular missed challenge—copying a non-mosaic work of art (or part thereof)—was the only one that I would’ve been perfectly happy to never have to do. Anyway, here’s the skinny.

Title: Reasonable facsimile of Picasso’s camel sketch

Size: 6″ x 6″

Materials: Cinca

How long did it take to complete? About 2.5 hours

Thoughts: I was really hoping I’d get to miss the challenge where we had to copy a non-mosaic artist’s work… Damn catch-up weeks! It’s Thanksgiving up here in Canada and I’m spending an extra long weekend away in Montreal, so I had to be pretty strategic in terms of what I chose to replicate. As with other weeks when I’ve been pressed for time, I decided to maximize the negative space and went with one of Picasso’s line drawings (a camel). This also meant that I could keep the materials really simple (just cinca, in this case) and didn’t have to pack much—just a few tiles, my tweezers, nippers, and a bottle of glue. I’m pretty happy with how it turned out. There are some issues with the keystoning in parts, but heck, I was on vacation and wasn’t being too exacting. Had I had more time and access to all my materials, I really would have liked to have tried my hand at interpreting a Rothko. Maybe I’ll save that for a self-imposed challenge on a rainy day…

Pablo Picasso's sketch of a camel

Pablo Picasso’s sketch of a camel

My mosaic rendition of Picasso's camel

My mosaic rendition of Picasso’s camel


Mosaic workout challenge, week 17: Elements

Earth, wind, fire, and water. That was the challenge this week: do something inspired by the four classical elements. This one felt easier to me, like I was more back in my wheelhouse. I didn’t have to contemplate it for days on end, which was nice.

"Core temperature" ... from the earth's inner core to its outer crust

“Core temperature” … from the earth’s inner core to its outer crust

Title: “Core temperature”

Size: 6″ x 4.25″

Materials: Stone, terracotta, smalti

How long did it take to complete? About 3.5 hours

Thoughts: I really enjoyed this challenge. Looking at the materials on my shelf, earth and fire were easy picks. I used a bunch of terracotta, smalti, and rock that I had already cut, which saved me a bunch of time. I had actually cut most of this about a year ago, and boy, can I ever notice the difference in my cutting skills! Just seeing that difference and the progress I’ve made was a valuable lesson in and of itself. And working with colours is always a good exercise for me, as it’s definitely not my natural inclination. I actually had doubts about the colours right up until I stepped back and looked at the finished piece. A lesson in trusting your gut instinct and not over-thinking, I suppose.

core temperature - angle


Mosaic workout challenge, week 16: The swept floor

This week’s challenge—“The Swept Floor“—was courtesy of Margo Anton and the rules were simple: use only scraps and don’t cut any of it (use it how you discarded it).

"Glacial till" - made entirely of scraps from previous projects

“Glacial till” – made entirely of scraps from previous projects

Title: “Glacial till”

Size: 4.25″ x 4.25″

Materials: Stone, cinca, glass, quartz, shale, marble

How long did it take to complete? About 2 hours

Thoughts: Considering I got my start in mosaics using glass scrap and rarely cutting anything, this week was surprisingly challenging. I had been processing a bunch of material recently for my next non-challenge mosaic, so I saved all the offcuts to use for this piece. I just kind of threw myself into this without a game plan and ended up working in sections that were determined by material and the shape of the pieces. There are groups of tesserae in this mosaic that I really love in terms of how they play off of / relate to one another, but overall I’m not crazy about the piece. I’m finding that when I don’t put any thought into the design beforehand, the results are a crapshoot, with me ending up unsatisfied more often than not. While I don’t usually (ever?) make a detailed sketch, I do tend to mull things over for a good while before diving in. These challenges are definitely reinforcing the parts of my practice that are essential for me.

glacial till - angle


Mosaic workout challenge, week 15: String theory

Fifteen weeks down, five to go. I’m definitely starting to feel the fatigue. I’ve recovered from the Verdiano Marzi workshop, but now I’m elbows deep in prepping for my next climate change mosaic, so I can feel my interest in these challenges waning as I embark on exciting new projects. But I will not give up! I’ve come this far, might as well finish (and I am still learning stuff, so it’s definitely not a waste of time).

Week 15’s prompt—“string theory”—was from Kelley Knickerbocker. We had to doodle a line and then use tesserae to define the negative space of the line. It was a great challenge and much harder than I initially thought it would be!

"Metropolis" (6" x 4.25"), shale, cinca, stone, flint, coal

“Metropolis” (6″ x 4.25″), shale, cinca, stone, flint, coal

Title: “Metropolis” (note: differs from the name submitted to IMA, which was done in a hurry…I later exercised my right to a sober second thought)

Size: 6″ x 4.25″

Materials: Stone, cinca, coal, shale, flint

How long did it take to complete? About 2.5 hours (and another 2.5 hours for the one I did and then promptly threw in the garbage)

Thoughts: I had some trouble this week because, while I loved the challenge prompt, none of my materials were really speaking to me. Eventually I just grabbed a few random jars from my shelf and dove in head first. That attempt was so bad that I couldn’t bring myself to submit it, even though I know that there is no pressure to create a masterpiece in these challenges and that there are really no expectations other than to spend some time in the studio. Yes, it was that bad: the materials were wrong, the colours were off, the doodled line was wonky…*sigh* So I tried again, and the second attempt was a huge improvement on the first one. Had I not been under the gun to finish this in a hurry (I started on Sunday at 2pm), I would’ve spent a lot more time tapering the ends of the lines so they didn’t end so abruptly.

I learned two things this week, both completely unrelated to the challenge prompt. First, I learned that I really need to wait until I “feel it” before I start. If I force myself to just crank something out, chances are the results will be terrible. It is not unusual for me to leave a blank substrate and some half-chopped piles of materials on my table for a few days (or even weeks) while I putter and ponder until I’ve got it straight in my head. That is how I work and this challenge reinforced that I should do what works for me, even if it sometimes feels like I’m wasting time. Second, I learned what it feels like to create a complete flop and to recognize that and be ok with it going straight into the garbage.

Tough to capture the varying textures and heights in a photo

Tough to capture the varying textures and heights in a photo


Mosaic workout challenge, week 14: Joy

This week was another theme challenge from a guest artist (Laurel True), who challenged us to think about how we express joy in mosaic.

"Break through" and jump for joy!

“Break through” and jump for joy!

Title: “Break through”

Size: 6″ x 4.25″

Materials: Smalti, ceramic tile, vitreous tile, and skateboard

How long did it take to complete? About four hours

Thoughts: When I read the prompt for this week, I immediately thought of bright colours and upward movement. I chose the skateboard pieces for their angles and because I liked the playful, energetic jumble they created. The rest of it looked a bit different in my head, but I backed myself into some corners, design wise, by trying to use up materials that had been kicking around my shelf for far too long and others that I already had cut. I also didn’t have a lot of each material cut, and I really noticed what an impact it had on my lines—they really are better when I have a big selection of tesserae to choose from. This week, for me, was also a lesson in just letting go and recognizing that sometimes it’s perfectly OK to allow a piece to be what it’s going to be once it starts diverging from the vision I have in my head (and other times it is worth fighting to get a project back on track and more aligned with what is in my head). It’s all about picking my battles.

A better shot of the angles of the skateboard pieces

A better shot of the angles of the skateboard pieces


Mosaic workout challenge, week 13: Animate

I’m baaa-aaaack! Wow, after doing these challenges for 11 weeks straight, it certainly felt weird to skip a week, but I think I have a good excuse: I was in Chicago taking Verdiano Marzi’s class (I kept joking that I was going to tell Sophia that Verdiano Marzi ate my homework). This week’s challenge—“Animate“—was from a guest artist, Delaine Hackney, and was an exploration of how to use colour, materials, and flow to give a sense of animation.

tendril - full 2

Title: “Tendril”

Size: 5″ x 6″

Materials: Smalti and, uhh, a lot of thinset

How long did it take to complete? About three hours

Thoughts: I made some strategic decisions this week because I was short on time and energy, and yet still wound up needing 3 hours even with all that negative space. Sigh. It took me quite a while to land on how I was going to tackle this challenge. When I started thinking about movement and life and energy, for some reason I was drawn to the idea of working with a simple line that increasingly gets more and more animated / lively. I wish I had had a longer substrate, as that would’ve given me more room to progress from calm to crazy (the transition seems a bit abrupt to me in this piece, especially when compared to the vision I had in my head). I also took the opportunity to push myself to cut smaller pieces, which I struggle with, especially when using smalti (verdict: still struggling) and to work in a thicker bed of thinset (verdict: still feels weird and needs work). Anyway, I kind of like how the finished product is also kind of reminiscent of roots or veins or lungs – adds a whole other layer to “animate”.

A parting close-up shot of "Tendril"

A parting close-up shot of “Tendril”


Mosaic workout challenge, week 11: Making copies

This week’s prompt was so terrifying that I nearly bailed. We were supposed to find a mosaic by another artist that we loved and reproduce a small part of it. Yikes. Oh, and of course I was short on time again. But instead of bailing, I had a Tim Gunn moment, modified the prompt, and made it work for me. You might call that cheating, but I prefer “creatively bending the rules.” This is how it all went down…

Title: “Favourite spot”

Size: 4.25″ x 6″

Materials: Smalti, glass rods, stained glass

How long did it take to complete? About two hours

Thoughts: I just couldn’t bring myself to copy someone else’s work (especially if I had to post a picture of it after)—so intimidating!—so I modified the challenge slightly and instead made a mosaic in the style of an artist whose work I adore. I drew my inspiration from Luca Barberini‘s Via di Roma 136 series, which I have long admired. What makes these mosaics so appealing to me is the way Barberini conveys so much life and character with just a few perfectly imperfect tesserae. I love his whimsical glimpses into the everyday. Now, ever since these challenges started, R has had her fingers crossed for a portraiture challenge (PLEASE NO!!!) and she keeps joking with me that I should do a portrait of our miniature schnauzer, Dexter. While a realistic portrait of dear ol’ Dex is firmly outside my current (and probably even future) abilities, I decided that perhaps I could render his likeness à la Barberini and score some major points with R. And while it’s clear that I am no Luca Barberini, I did try to channel his simplicity and ease, and was surprised by how much you can communicate or suggest just with a few pieces of glass.

"Favourite spot" -- our dog Dex, immortalized in mosaic (he couldn't care less, he only has eyes for the fire hydrant)

“Favourite spot” — our dog Dex, immortalized in mosaic (he couldn’t care less, he only has eyes for the fire hydrant)


Dexter approves!

Dexter approves!




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