Mosaic and ceramic artist Laura Jean McLaughlin has created more than 100 collaborative mosaic murals, work that has been installed throughout Pittsburgh and as far away as Tolne, Denmark.

The Healing With Nature Mosaic Project through which she recently guided participants differed greatly from those, including two murals she worked on almost simultaneously and wrapped up in May with Clairton and Seneca Valley school district students. This one, unveiled Sunday at the Frick Environmental Center, resulted from a collaborative process designed to respond to individuals’ grief and loss. Importantly, the more than 30 participants who created the mosaic during the six-week, 10-session project developed community.

McLaughlin said it all emerged from the group therapy project managed by Susan Spangler and Ted Cmarada, husband and wife psychotherapists based in Pittsburgh. They founded Lively Pittsburgh, a social enterprise organization, a partner in the project.

Participants included several survivors and family members from the Oct. 27, 2018, Pittsburgh synagogue attack. They brought precious artifacts from lives lived and loved — broken plates, mirrors, keys, hearts and shells — to integrate with remnant tile pieces from the Tree of Life building, according to a news release from 10/27 Healing Partnership, another partner.

Participants brought in their mementos to the sessions to add to the mural. (10/27 Healing Partnership)

Other partners included the Jewish Family and Community Services of Pittsburgh, Age-Friendly Greater Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh Center for Arts & Media, and Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy.

Spangler said the Pittsburgh Center for Arts & Media supported McLaughlin as artist-in-residence for the project. The 10/27 Healing Partnership noted the Arts in Education partnership of the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, a state agency funded by the commonwealth of Pennsylvania, also supported the artist’s work.

The Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy discounted the Frick Environmental Center rental for the program. The mural will temporarily remain there “as a place of contemplative refuge for all who grieve,” according to the 10/27 Healing Partnership website.

Every session began with group therapy work with everyone sitting in a circle led by Spangler, McLaughlin said. During those initial sessions, which the artist joined, participants responded to prompts Spangler and Cmarada provided. “It was hard hitting the very first day,” McLaughlin said, noting some held back initially from sharing.

One session had participants, leaders and artists engaging in forest bathing, led by conservancy naturalist educator Patty Himes, that let them rest and commune with nature, Spangler said. McLaughlin found that activity to be memorable, forcing everyone to slow down, be quiet and mindful.

As participants shared and engaged in these experiences, McLaughlin asked them to develop a list of words that could tell their story. “I asked them, ‘How do you want people to feel?’ ”

From their words — and McLaughlin had her own list — they drew sketches, which she took home to prepare a design.

Participants in the mural project often completed their work in a circle. Here they pressed items they found in nature into clay medallions. (Laura Jean McLaughlin)

The idea of circles kept coming back to her, so McLaughlin developed a sketch based on the math-based Fibonacci sequence, which explains circles follow everything in nature, from rings in trees and ripples in water and more. She looks for symmetry in her work, and that concept just clicked, although she wanted and received participants’ approval.

“The whole circle idea was throughout the whole thing and very inspired,” she said.

Interspersed among the color tiles, mirrored glass and Tree of Life building remnants are clay medallions participants made from their park walks. They pressed moss, leaves, sticks and more that they found into the material, then glazed the medallions. McLaughlin fired them before adding them to the six-panel mural, which measures 6 by 7½ feet.

She stuck with colors in nature in the mosaic’s tile arrangement and the chosen glaze purposely. Mirrored tile glass pieces created a tear in the middle, dropping into a pool of water. “I wanted [the mirrored tiles] to be a reflection of whoever was viewing it, so that ripples out as well,” McLaughlin said.

Water held its own significance: “It’s a part of everything,” she said.

McLaughlin lives near Spangler and Cmarada, and they became friends; they know and appreciate her work. She in turn appreciates their expertise. “Ted and Susan were amazing to pull this all together and create such a warm environment. They are good at what they do,” she said.

Spangler lauded the rest of the planning committee — Lulu Orr, Jewish Family and Community Services; Ranisa Davidson, 10.27 Healing Partnership; and Lauren Baumann, 10.27 Healing Partnership — for the success, too, especially because the project came together quickly in January. They shared ideas and helped find funders, including The Pittsburgh Foundation, Jewish Healthcare Foundation, Age-Friendly Greater Pittsburgh and Awesome Pittsburgh.

She relied on three pillars to plot out and lead the sessions: the healing powers of nature, community and unconditional presence, and creative expression.

Spangler said the participants shared their hearts in each session and settled into presence, dealing not only with grief and loss but also compassion and care. “The creative process emerged from that intimacy,” she said. “When we gathered around the mosaic, it felt like gathering around a Thanksgiving table. We felt close in that way.”

Both Spangler and her husband have years of counseling and psychotherapy experience, but he said blending dimensions of nature and art together, then utilizing or receiving them as healing elements, proved different. “People came out of the shadows of their own isolation and grief and found community,” he said.

After the grouting sealed in all the mural pieces, participants clean off the excess in one of the last stages of its creation. (10/27 Healing Partnership)

Spangler explained that although everyone will come to know loss and grief, she called the group sessions extraordinary. “It came from participants’ willingness to share vulnerably,” she said. “They did that from the first day.  The living metaphor — bringing broken pieces together to make a whole — is really unique.”

Rabbi Doris Dyen and her husband, Deane Root, decided to join in because they had been present the day of the Pittsburgh synagogue mass shooting that claimed 11 lives. She was to co-lead the Dor Hadash service, and broken glass on the sidewalk outside the building and the sounds of gunshots stopped them as they emerged from their car. “Had we been a few seconds earlier, we would have walked in and may not have made it through the day,” she said.

She wanted to do this especially for three people caught inside — one who was severely injured, another who died and another who escaped.

“I have been doing many things to process the emotions to come from that event these past five years,” Rabbi Dyen said. “But this mosaic project was sort of life-affirming to be involved in and to do.”

Working with the small pieces of tile and glass and then pressing them into the mural by following curving colored lines resonated with her. “Something to that was very meaningful to me, putting small things to create a picture to create something wonderful,” the rabbi said. “The thing that prevented me from going into that building — broken glass. To create something of beauty out of something that awful.”

She and another survivor smashed large tile pieces from the Tree of Life building into smaller ones, another aspect that proved to be meaningful. “The building had to be demolished to give something life-affirming to that site,” Dyen said. “To keep some pieces of that and give those pieces a different life represents ongoing life and not destruction.”   

Her own personal memento: a broken mirror, a present on her 60th birthday that had signatures of friends on the back. Dyen added fragments of its glass to one of the clay medallions her husband made, which incorporated a bird’s nest, letters that spell out love, a heart, a smile and a tear drop.  

Both had trauma therapy sessions with a counselor in the five years since the mass shooting, and some of their recovery work has included helpful nature walks, Root said.  They live on a busy Squirrel Hill street, and he became very sensitive to loud noises that made him jumpy.

This project appealed to him, and it provided opportunity for him to work within a natural environment, being in a quiet space with mostly birds and trees and natural smells. It made him observant, and Root said the prompts also helped, especially Cmarada’s. It all “served as a psychological and emotional grounding on our presence on Earth. It takes you out of some of the anxieties one tends to spin in one’s head,” Root explained.

The prior therapy sessions and the mural project proved to be therapeutic. “It enabled me to be more relaxed and be more at peace with my surroundings. It is all cumulative, but this one really helped.” The tactile work of and using senses to create the mural became “constructive and not only contemplative.”

He saw it was helping the others, too, who shared their own grief, anxieties and loops that “spun in their heads, recycling the pain.”

The mural work and the sessions helped Root “get into much more listening and compassion for what was going on around. “Everyone deals with the hurts and the pains in their lives. It helps to have that perspective, that vision.”

Neither Dyen nor her husband had much hands-on artistic experience before this, although he said he appreciates art and looks always for what message the artist communicates. They met as music majors in college.

“Since this whole thing happened in 2018,” Dyen said, “I think more visually than I was aware of. … It’s not been about working with my hands that way. I play the piano. I do music with my hands. But not so much the artistic creation. 

“I can sometimes see things in color. I sometimes see sound in color. So it’s one of those odd things that people have it. I would never have had the idea to do this mosaic project. But being a part of it was really wonderful, maybe because of it being so unusual to think that way.”

Attendees at the mural unveiling look closely at its details and the items that make up the six panels. (10/27 Healing Partnership)

Helen is a copy editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but she's currently on strike. Contact her at

Helen Fallon

Helen is a copy editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but she's currently on strike. Contact her at