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Darwin mural graces new building

Crew members and painter Mike Leahy, left, and building inspector and frame builder Todd Robinson, carefully place one of the multi-media panels in the Piece-by-Piece project mural in the new Life Sciences Building at Irvine Valley College.
(Don Leach, Daily Pilot)

Regeneration is a key part of nature, so perhaps it’s fitting that the art display at Irvine Valley College’s new Life Sciences building arose out of discarded materials.

When school officials, Irvine Chamber of Commerce members and others gather on campus Wednesday for a ribbon-cutting ceremony, one wall of the building’s interior will sport a mural and a series of jars holding cycad trees. The surfaces of the mural and jars feature mosaic designs made from broken plates, stained glass, tile, ceramics and more.

Some of the hands that pieced those fragments together belong to homeless and low-income Los Angeles residents. The nonprofit Piece By Piece, founded in 2007, offers mosaic workshops taught by professional artists and gives participants a cut of the proceeds for work sold.

For the Irvine Valley College mural, nearly a dozen Piece By Piece artists collaborated with instructors and volunteers.


“We’re all involved,” said Dawn Mendelson, the program’s director. “It’s a great, fantastic team effort.”

The mural began to take shape when Jeffrey Kaufmann, the co-chairman of the college’s biology department, sought an art project for the soon-to-be-completed building. He approached Mendelson, his longtime neighbor, and gave her text from Charles Darwin as well as reprints of paintings from 18th-century natural history books as inspiration.

While Kaufmann didn’t participate in the art’s creation, he stopped by Piece By Piece’s Los Angeles studio to check on its progress. The mural, “Entangled Bank,” borrows its title from Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” and uses evolution as its theme, with panels that move chronologically from lava formation to human-made tools embedded in sun rays.

“I was very impressed,” Kaufmann said. “I personally did not want to see any realism because that takes the imagination away. I like to leave the imagination fully in place when you see an art piece like this.”


In addition to the mural, the display will feature six cycad jars that depict scientific themes, including hair under a microscope, tree trunks and a topographical map. Mendelson collaborated with a group of art instructors on the jars, which biology instructor Priscilla Ross suggested for the building.

Wednesday afternoon, Piece By Piece artists who worked on the mural will attend the ribbon-cutting. The group, whose motto is “Recycled art for a new cycle of life,” had plenty of material to choose from for the Darwin mural.

“We get a lot of donations of broken plates, old ceramics, stones, discarded tile, glass,” Mendelson said. “With this project in particular, we used almost all recycled materials. So we had some local ceramic artists who had some broken things that they donated to us. We had a local tile store that gave us some tile we could use. We used some old stained glass someone donated.

“And of course, for the sun circle, there are all kinds of old tools and metals and things like that in there.”

Piece By Piece artists create images on a base with a layer of concrete over foam, using cement-based adhesive to attach the pieces and then finishing the job with grout. Participants in the nonprofit go through a certificate training program and sometimes do projects on commission, with Irvine Valley College being the most recent.

“It’s just the greatest group of people working together,” Mendelson said.

If You Go

What: Dedication of Life Sciences Building


Where: Irvine Valley College, 5500 Irvine Center Drive, Irvine

When: 3:30 p.m. Wednesday

Cost: Free

Information: (949) 451-5210 or