"We need the full diversity of artistic voices, approaches, and media out there, working on these issues, in order to engage as many people as possible and effect change. " Julie Sperling
To start this blog series on art and nature, I had the pleasure to interview Julie Sperling, a mosaic artist from Kitchener, Ontario whose work sits at the intersection of environment, science, and policy.
Question: Could you briefly introduce yourself and your work?
Answer: My name is Julie Sperling and I’m a Canadian artist using mosaic to tell stories about environmental issues.
My work started with an exclusive focus on climate change, and has expanded to tackle the range of issues linked to the Anthropocene. In my work I strive to create tension by walking the line between beauty and destruction and, in doing so, bringing people to a place of gentle discomfort.
Q. How has nature influenced your work?
Answer: Nature influences my work in a few different ways. As an artist working with a lot of natural materials (mostly stone, but also shell, wood, bone, and others), the influence of nature is present from the very start when I’m out gathering materials.
There’s something very special about knowing where a stone or other material comes from. Experiencing the material in that place, whether it’s a lakeshore, a forest, or just the park around the corner, and then bringing that connection back into the studio. It’s very different from ordering supplies online.
I also do a lot of my best thinking out in nature. I don’t tend to sketch my ideas on paper, but I spend a lot of that planning time surrounded by nature, tracing lines in my head as I walk. And then of course, and perhaps most obviously, some of my themes are inspired by nature. Over the years I’ve tackled nature-related themes like mass extinction, soil degradation, ocean acidification, sea ice loss, and land defenders, among others.
Q. As a mosaicist, you have a very tactile relationship with the materials you work with, and you often use unexpected materials in unexpected ways. How does that influence your relationship with the environment? Has making art about climate change altered your relationship with nature in any way?
Answer: My use of materials definitely has an influence on my relationship with the environment, and it’s much deeper than just seeing things with a mosaicist’s lens (i.e., seeing everything in terms of its potential as a material). There’s something very intimate about working with natural materials. Foraging for them, cleaning them, breaking them down (and in doing so, getting to know their personalities), and then learning their language as I put them back together. As a result of my work and the materials I use, I am much more aware of honouring the materials I use (not wasting them, letting them speak rather than imposing my will, etc.). I am also just generally a better observer when I’m out in nature. More attuned to the small details and the connections / relationships between things.
Making art about climate change and the Anthropocene has deepened my relationship with nature. Sitting with these heavy subjects for countless hours has made me much more keenly aware of what is at stake and what we stand to lose. It has really made me appreciate the nature around me on all scales, from being fascinated by a patch of moss to being humbled standing on the shore of one of the Great Lakes. Nature feels much more precious because of the work I do.
Q. Some of your work involves audience participation (sending you material, touching and interacting with an artwork). This seems like a wonderful way of making your audience reflect on the themes of your work and have them actively engage with it! How have audiences responded to that?
Answer : Oh, it’s been a real hit! I think people, in general, like being part of something bigger. So the chance to send a material - or in the case of another project, make a small mosaic - and have that be part of a larger piece of art is really neat. And the touching and interacting definitely goes over well. Mosaic is such a tactile medium. People want to touch it, whether you want them to or not! So to make a piece that was specifically meant to be touched, well, I think it helped people scratch that itch, and understand and connect with the different materials in a new way. It’s definitely something that will be in the back of my head as I plan more pieces.
Q. Has an artwork (film, music, visuals arts, literature, etc.) ever changed your perception of nature?
Answer: I’m sure there have been several such pieces over the years, but the one that is most recent in my memory is reading Robin Wall Kimmerer’s fabulous book, Braiding Sweetgrass. While it is non-fiction, there is so much poetry to her writing. I definitely classify it as art. It has had a profound impact on how I view nature, but more importantly, how I view my relationship with it, particularly the notions of gifts and reciprocity.
Q. What are the roles art can play in fighting the climate emergency and environmental crisis in your opinion? And what can artists and art organisations do?
Answer: I think art has an important role to play as we reckon with the climate emergency and the many and various challenges the Anthropocene will throw at us. It can help people understand and engage with a problem in a way that facts and figures can’t, because it doesn’t necessarily come at you head-on. Instead, it can approach you subtly or indirectly, easing you into the subject. It can also help us collectively imagine a better future, sparking dialogue and debate and collaboration. I also think that art, because of the fact that it is so subjective, can provide a point of entry into so many possible conversations. It can meet people where they are, and nudge them forward (or give them a big shove if they’re ready for that!).
I think we’ve seen a rise in the number and diversity of artists and art organizations engaging with environmental issues. So one thing that they can do is just be themselves, because there’s no right or best way to advocate through art. Art touches people in so many different ways, and people respond to different artforms. What works for one person won’t work for another. So we need the full diversity of artistic voices, approaches, and media out there, working on these issues, in order to engage as many people as possible and effect change.
Q. And finally, where can we find out more about your work? Are there any projects you would like to promote?
Answer: You can find my work, and the stories behind each piece, on my website (www.sperlingmosaics.com) and can follow me on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook (all @sperlingmosaics).
I was particularly fascinated by the notion of 'gentle discomfort' discussed by Julie:
"In my work I strive to create tension by walking the line between beauty and destruction and, in doing so, bringing people to a place of gentle discomfort."
There is something profoundly true about that statement, and I am certain it will resonate with many artists trying to engage audiences with difficult issues such as the climate emergency. It has certainly given me a lot to think about!
How do you achieve that balance in your own practice?
Please share your thoughts with us by commenting on this post or on social media, or email me at email@example.com if you would like to participate on the blog.