Between a rock and a work of art
Kitchener’s artist-in-residence loves ‘the perfection of the imperfect’
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.
Mosaic artist Julie Sperling, standing in front of her favourite work at her Kitchener home, holds a piece of black limestone.
Julie Sperling uses a hammer and steel wedge, called a hardie, to break limestone into smaller pieces.