Be­tween a rock and a work of art

Kitch­ener’s artist-in-res­i­dence loves ‘the per­fec­tion of the im­per­fect’

Waterloo Region Record - - FRONT PAGE - Jeff Hicks, Record staff

KITCH­ENER — Green suc­cu­lents, pot­ted in old Twin­ings tea tins, reach down from a base­ment win­dow sill with slen­der aloe-filled fin­gers.

Be­low their grasp, with a sil­ver Ital­ian ham­mer, Julie Sper­ling taps away at a chunk of dark, fine-grained lime­stone on a grey af­ter­noon.

In front of the 37-year-old for­ager mo­saicist, a red metal strainer hangs on a work­bench wall in a cel­lar-cor­ner duck blind be­low the drive­way of an old Don­ald Street home.

Sper­ling uses the crim­son colan­der to wash the rocks she chops into fine as­sem­bled art in this edge-of-the-ex­press­way base­ment stu­dio with a hot-wa­ter tank look­ing over her shoul­der.

“One of my favourite garage sale finds,” Sper­ling, a Kitch­ener-raised pol­icy an­a­lyst for En­vi­ron­ment and Cli­mate Change Canada, said of the cheaply ob­tained colan­der.

How did Sper­ling come to oc­cupy this place af­ter a decade in Ot­tawa? “Quite ran­domly,” she said. Sper­ling didn’t even take art in high school at Grand River Col­le­giate. She’s got a master’s de­gree in geography from the Univer­sity of Water­loo. Now, the sis­ter of a Ni­a­gara chef is the City of Kitch­ener’s artist-in­res­i­dence for 2017, promis­ing to en­gage the com­mu­nity in an open di­a­logue about the en­vi­ron­ment us­ing a series of mo­saics for her year-long project.

“Cli­mate in Pieces: From Art to Ac­tion” is what the project will be called. Res­i­dents will for­age with her along the Grand River, Sper­ling hopes. Work­shops will be held. Mo­saics, so pre­cisely im­pre­cise, will be mortared one chis­eled chunk at a time to in­su­la­tion board.

“The im­per­fec­tions make it per­fect,” Sper­ling says.

Odd leads to awed for Sper­ling. She loves the won­der­fully un­pre­dictable an­gles of each shard that shakes free when her ham­mer strikes stone on the steel wedge, called a hardie, that rests on top of an old stump her dad Tim brought back from the fam­ily cot­tage up north.

A decade ago, Sper­ling put to­gether a glass mo­saic cof­fee ta­ble, with the im­age of a re­splen­dent quet­zal bird in the mid­dle. The quet­zal is the na­tional bird of Gu­atemala. Sper­ling’s wife, Rita, who just got hired as a pro­fes­sor in Con­estoga Col­lege’s School of Lib­eral Stud­ies, was born in Gu­atemala.

That mo­saic sits in her liv­ing room, in front of the ch­ester­field so gal­lantly guarded by an 11-year-old minia­ture schnau­zer named Dex­ter.

A steep stair­case be­low, her work bench boasts a buf­fet-ta­ble spread of take­out con­tain­ers filled with a rapid­fire as­sort­ment of mo­saic ar­tillery.

Mud­stones and blue mar­ble. A green glass-porce­lain fu­sion. Some pieces of old knob-and-tube wiring her dad found in his bot­tom­less garage. Smalti, a tra­di­tional hand-cut mo­saic glass. Bits of sea shells her mom Gail brought back from Myr­tle Beach. Even chopped up so­lar pan­els from her Grandma Jeanne’s sun-pow­ered light-up flow­ers.

But cut­ting rock makes her tac­tile-trig­gered artis­tic heart croon, she says.

Ever since that class she took in Penn­syl­va­nia three or four years ago with Amer­i­can for­ager mo­saicist Rachel Sager, she’s been smit­ten with chop­ping rock.

“Some­thing just spoke to me,” said Sper­ling, whose mo­saics have been part of group or solo ex­hibits in San Diego, Toronto and North Carolina.

“The act of cut­ting. There’s some­thing hid­ing. You don’t know what you’re go­ing to find in­side. It’s the lit­tle worlds you find in­side.”

But she won’t go near gran­ite. It will kill her ham­mer, she says. Flint and pet­ri­fied wood have pet­ri­fied a pair or two of pre­ci­sion nip­pers. Sparks some­times fly.

But that fine-grained lime­stone from Ot­tawa is heav­enly to her. It has a sat­is­fy­ing snap to it and cuts like a dream, with lit­tle pock­ets of quartz. Sand­stone is like but­ter.

“You can smell the rock when you cut it,” she said.

“Ev­ery rock has its own per­son­al­ity. They smell dif­fer­ent. They break dif­fer­ent.”

And, af­ter 40 or 50 hours of work, they make a fine mo­saic with spell­bind­ing faults.

“The per­fec­tion of the im­per­fect,” she said.

DAVID BEBEE, RECORD STAFF

Mo­saic artist Julie Sper­ling, stand­ing in front of her favourite work at her Kitch­ener home, holds a piece of black lime­stone.

DAVID BEBEE, RECORD STAFF

Julie Sper­ling uses a ham­mer and steel wedge, called a hardie, to break lime­stone into smaller pieces.

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