Almost all of the mosaics that I create are done collaboratively … participants contribute ideas and drawings and then I attempt to incorporate as many of their ideas as possible into the final design. While working at Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild almost 20 years ago, I learned the importance of collaboration and community engagement in the art making process. The act of coming together, of creating side by side, sharing stories and experiences all becomes part of the artwork and provides a lasting memory that participants walk away with. This creative, collaborative experience itself becomes a social form of art.
                  ~ Laura Jean McLaughlin, 2018 NCECA Projects Space Artist

Homewood Community Center – A student working on a collaborative mosaic.

Pittsburgh artist, Laura Jean McLaughlin’s work has been exhibited in more than 100 galleries and museums nationwide. A recipient of the Maggie Milono Memorial Award from the Carnegie Museum of Art as well as three residencies in the Arts/Industry program of the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Wisconsin, Laura is known for both object-oriented work that she creates in her studio in Pittsburgh’s Garfield neighborhood and collaborative mosaic works that she creates in community settings. She will be a featured artist in Projects Space at CrossCurrents: Clay and Culture, the 52nd annual NCECA conference taking place March 14-17, 2018 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Projects Space is a platform for ceramic artists to create and present works during the annual conference that incorporate clay as medium in time-based, performative, relational, or site responsive work.

When I finally got to meet Laura Jean McLaughlin, she was everything that you would expect from a talented artist and then some! I quickly learned that she not only holds a passion for her artwork, but for humanity as well. Her positive attitude is infectious and her work reflects a passion for the power of collective action and creation. As we talk, she shares, “The Unity Shards idea came to me during my morning meditation as I thought about people coming together from all over to attend the conference, and how each person attending somehow contributes to the event’s overall outcome, much like pieces of ceramic tiles coming together to create an image or design.”

Laura helps others instantly feel comfortable, perhaps because she is so comfortable and sure of herself. As an artist who has been involved in ceramics, mosaics, and sculptures for a very long time, her creative space, The Clay Penn, is packed with projects. To a newcomer like me, all of the colors, shapes, and designs are a sensory explosion, but I got the feeling that to Laura, everything was exactly where it was supposed to be.

A finished collaborative mosaic by Laura Jean and Southside area high school students.

During my visit and our lunch at Bantha Tea Bar (an adorable little café across the street from her studio), I learned a lot about Laura as an artist and as a person. Her true passion lies in bringing communities together and creating lasting visual works that can be enjoyed by all. She is known around Pittsburgh for her huge mosaics that can be seen all around the city (and even beyond) on outdoor steps, and building walls! Her process of mural development often involves incorporating contributed ideas and designs from community volunteers. She then involves dozens of participants to lay tiles that create the mural’s image, after which Laura grouts and installs the mosaic. The entire process is dedicated to bringing people together to create something positive and lasting. “It was through this concept, of togetherness and harmony, that the collaborative mosaic mural project, Unity Shards, was born,” says Laura.

I have always been fascinated by the process of creation and how time often seems suspended in this euphoric moment.  Much like riding a bicycle, your body knows what to do without consciously thinking while creating. Some call it Flow, others call it the Tacit dimension. My hope is to allow many people to experience the feeling of creating something that becomes much larger than themselves and that will provide a lasting memory of Pittsburgh during NCECA 2018.

Laura’s Unity Shards project will have a prominent place within the upcoming NCECA conference. Working in the Projects Space area of the Resource Hall Wednesday-Friday, March 14-16, Laura will collaborate with conference attendees and community members who contribute shards to the project. Laura’s work area within the conference will be one of several experiences for which admission is free and open to the public. The result of all this work will be a mural for the Alphabet Garden at City of Asylum on Pittsburgh’s North Side, a visionary community devoted to providing a safe haven for writers and artists from around the world who experienced persecution for their work in their homelands.

City of Asylum, Alphabet City Garden wall where the Unity Shards mosaic will be displayed.

The Unity Shards mosaic will be created by those attending the conference using broken shards of ceramics. Laura encourages everyone to bring fragments of their own broken ceramic pieces to Pittsburgh to include in the work. In addition, shards are being collected from all around Pittsburgh at various collection sites throughout the city. Laura has also launched a Facebook and Instagram feed dedicated to the project.

We encourage everyone to join in this project of unity. Even if you can’t make it to this year’s conference in Pittsburgh, you can send or drop-off your ceramics shards to one of the drop-off locations around Pittsburgh. NCECA encourages all members of its audience and the Pittsburgh community to like the project’s Facebook page in order to stay in contact and remain updated on additions and changes in drop-off locations.

Drop-off locations that are currently arranged to receive shards in Pittsburgh in advance of the NCECA conference are:

Additional drop-off locations will soon be added.

Click here to like Unity Shards on Facebook and be sure to follow the project on Instagram, too!