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The Artist: Meg Saligman
Meg Saligman is a world-renowned artist known for her large-scale murals. She was born in 1965 in Olean, New York, and now lives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. When she was very young she thought she wanted to be an actress, but when she was in 9th grade a teacher inspired her to explore visual art. She has experimented with a variety of art media all her life, but it was not until she was 24 years old that she painted her first mural. In college at Washington University in St. Louis she majored in painting and always exhibited the largest paintings in the student art shows. In Philadelphia in 1989 she began working with the Philadelphia Anti-Grafitti Network, a program which channels young people’s creative energies in a positive way. As a professional artist participating in this program, Saligman worked with former grafitti artists to paint community murals. Saligman says she loves to paint murals because they allow her to combine her interest in large-scale works with her belief in the “power of people working together to create something beautiful.”
Meg Saligman has created murals in Mexico City and Shreveport, Louisiana, but the majority of her works were created for Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, which has one of the most active mural programs in the country. According to a review of Saligman’s work, “Philadelphians regard [the city] murals as they would row houses and parks; they are part of the scenery… [They] find joy in the Philadelphia murals on a daily basis.” (The Free Library, August 22, 2007)
Meg Saligman has been innovative in both the techniques and the presentation styles of the murals she has created. Passing Through is a fifteen-site project scattered throughout the city of Philadelphia that combines imagery and text. Theater of Life is a multi-media mural that incorporates sculptural, mosaic and computer-generated imagery. Common Threads, the largest mural in Philadelphia, is presented in a vertical format, while Fertile Ground, the huge mural in Omaha, is in a long horizontal format. Meg Saligman has been recognized for the technical innovations she has brought to designing and constructing murals, such as painting on cloth and using the computer to design murals that can be painted by community members. She has been recognized nationally as one of the ten most influential muralists in the country and received the Visionary Artist Award from the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program.
After a national evaluation of qualified artists, Meg Saligman was commissioned by the Peter Kiewit Foundation and the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts to create Fertile Ground for the Omaha Mural Project. Meg Saligman stood out as the right choice for the project because of her process of working with the history of the community and her realistic painting style. She made three extensive research trips to Omaha to investigate historical archives, do interviews with members of the Omaha community, and photograph the people she would use to serve as models for the figures in the mural. Mark Masuoka, executive director of the Bemis Center said, “Meg was selected because she is one of the top muralists in the country and Omaha deserves the very best. She’s known for her almost maniacally extensive research and for her ability to coax the very essence of who we are out of the subjects she interviews and later represents in the mural. And Fertile Ground will tell a great story. Our story.” Back to top
The Site: Downtown Omaha
Fertile Ground, the largest public art project in the history of the city of Omaha, is located at 13th and Webster Streets. The 76-foot tall mural is painted on the east and north sides of the Energy Systems building. It is over 400 feet long and covers 32,500 square feet (about 2/3 the size of a football field) making it one of the largest murals in the country. Meg Saligman was thrilled with the scale of the building when she saw it because she says, “When I paint bigger, I paint better.”
Energy Systems, owners of the building on which Fertile Ground is painted, has been a long-term provider of thermal energy to downtown Omaha. According to a company Vice President, Energy Systems, one of the presenting sponsors of the Omaha Mural Project, is proud to be the home of Fertile Ground so that “our building could become the center of attention in a major civic project that will mean so much to the NoDo area and to the rest of Omaha.” Part of Omaha’s bustling downtown a century ago, the site of the mural has become part of the revitalization of the north downtown area.
How do you think downtown Omaha might have looked 100 years ago?
The historical development seen in the mural continues in the new growth in the surrounding neighborhood linking past, present and future.
One of the interesting features of the Omaha Mural Project is the number of diverse and dynamic organizations that have been involved.
What kinds of organizations might be needed to carry out a mural project like this?
The three presenting sponsors are the Peter Kiewit Foundation, a philanthropic organization which provided funding, the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, a leader in public art initiatives which managed all aspects of the planning and execution of the project, and Energy Systems, an energy company which provided the site for the mural.
If you were going to choose a site for a mural for your community, what site would you choose and why?
The Executive Director of the Peter Kiewit Foundation says, “Peter Kiewit loved his hometown and he was especially committed to the vitality of downtown. We can think of no better place to present a project of this magnitude as a tribute to our community and citizens than in the heart of downtown Omaha.” The Director of the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts calls the mural “a gift to the city of Omaha.”
What other kinds of things can you think of that might be considered a “gift to your city” for the people to enjoy?
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Medium and Process: Murals
Murals, large-scale images most often painted directly on walls, have been created in both ancient and modern times. Some of the earliest art works we know are cave paintings made by prehistoric humans drawing with earthen pigments on the bare cave walls. Other early examples of murals include ancient Egyptian tomb paintings, ancient Roman house paintings, and Italian Renaissance frescoes like Michelangelo’s Sistine Ceiling painted in a chapel. In the early 20th century murals became popular again because of the work of the Mexican muralists, like Diego Rivera. Many recent murals have been part of public art projects to revitalize cities such as Philadelphia, Chicago and Los Angeles.
Where have you seen art works painted directly on walls?
Meg Saligman’s process of mural painting makes use of new technologies and techniques. Her design is generated on the computer where she takes her photographic images and combines and modifies them until she gets the design she wants. Then she puts a grid over her final design so that it is divided into small sections. The same grid, on a larger scale, is placed on the wall so the small sections of the design can be enlarged onto the wall. Although the artist is using the computer to create her design she is also using the ancient method of using a grid to enlarge the images for the wall. The ancient Egyptians used the same technique for their tomb paintings.
Meg Saligman’s working methods have also been innovative in allowing community members to participate in the mural creation. By using technology and non-woven polyester fabric she created special “paint-by-number” segments of the mural from her designs that would be attached to the wall with an acrylic gel. Both trained artists and interested community members could work on these segments allowing people who might never have a chance to paint a mural to take part in the artistic process. Meg Saligman says, “The interaction with people is an important part of the work.”
Because many outdoor murals do not last a long time, this mural is serving as a case study to test the stability and longevity of materials and the effectiveness of production techniques.
Why do you think outdoor murals might not last very long?
Rescue Public Murals, part of Heritage Preservation in Washington D.C., selected Fertile Ground as an example of best practices in mural creation and preservation. In planning the project, Meg Saligman consulted with the Gerald R. Ford Conservation Center in Omaha on the challenges of the Nebraska climate, such as the effects of sunlight and wind on the mural. The Ford Conservation Center, along with the Winterthur/University of Delaware Art Conservation Program, will continue to monitor the materials of the mural to establish best practices for muralists around the world.
What kinds of things do you try to take care of and preserve?
What kinds of ideas will the mural preserve for the community of Omaha?
Other important Omaha partners who collaborated on the project were Sherwin Williams, Davis Erection, and Hawkeye Vision. About 871 gallons of Sherwin Williams’ architectural paint, 600 brushes, and 320 yards of polyester fabric were used to create the huge mural. Davis Erection provided extensive project coordination services and Hawkeye Vision documented the creation of the mural in time-lapse video (LINK of time lapse on website). It took more than 11,000 hours to complete the mural using seven professional artists and more than 75 community volunteers.
Why do you think Meg Saligman chose to work with so many other people?
If you are in school for 7 hours a day, how many school days would it take to complete the mural if you worked on it all the time you were in school?
If you are in school for 180 days a year, how many school years would it take?
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Architecture – human-made buildings and structures.
Archive – a collection of historical documents or records providing information about a place, institution or group of people.
Background – the part of a view that is farthest from the observer, especially in a picture or photograph.
Conservation – preservation, protection or restoration of cultural or historical sites, artifacts, or works of art.
Convergence – coming together from different directions to eventually meet.
Fertile – (of soil or land) producing or capable of producing abundant vegetation or crops.
-(of a person’s mind or imagination) producing many new or inventive ideas with ease.
-(of a situation or subject) fruitful and productive in generating new ideas.
Foreground – the part of a view that is nearest to the observer, especially in a picture or photograph.
Fresco – a painting done on wet plaster so that the colors penetrate the plaster and become fixed as it dries.
Gesture – a movement of part of the body, especially the hands or head, to express an idea or meaning.
Grid – a network of lines that cross each other to form a series of squares or rectangles.
Landscape – all of the natural visible features of an area of countryside or land.
Mural – a large scale painting applied directly to a wall, ceiling, or other large flat surface.
Philanthropy - the desire to promote the welfare of others, expressed especially by the generous donation of money to good causes.
Pigments – a substance used for coloring or painting, especially a dry powder that when mixed with oil, water, or another medium constitutes a paint or ink.
Potential – having or showing the capacity of developing into something in the future.
Scale – the size of one thing in relationship to others.
Site – the area or exact plot of ground on which anything is located.
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When Meg Saligman was chosen to paint the mural she was told that it should include the history of the city of Omaha and should be painted in a realistic style. It was up to her to decide how to tell Omaha’s story using only images on the side of a building.
Have you ever told a story using only drawing and without using words?
What are the other ways you could tell a story?
How could Meg Saligman, who is not from Omaha, find all the information she needed to tell Omaha’s story?
She made three research trips to Omaha and formally interviewed 30 to 40 people from all walks of life. She asked them, “What is important to you about Omaha?” Their answers helped provide the inspiration for the themes in the mural.
If the artist were to interview you, what would you say is important about your community?
After Meg Saligman’s research trips to Omaha she took home well over 1000 images to help her create her design. She had over 100 photographs of people who now live in Omaha, as well as old photographs from Omaha’s history.
Where do you see people in the mural who look like they lived long ago?
Where do you see people in the mural who look like they might live in Omaha today?
What clues are in the mural to tell you when people might have lived?
The historic photographs that Meg Saligman used as the basis of her historic images span nearly 150 years. For example the arch (37) is based upon one built as an entryway to the Trans Mississippi Exposition of 1898 in Omaha. The photographer in the mural (9) is Louis Bostwick (b. 1868) who took many of the historical photographs that Meg Saligman used in her research.
Meg Saligman creates a three-dimensional space in the mural using scale of objects and their placement.
Where do you see the largest figures?
Where do you see the smallest figures?
The smaller figures in the background represent the community’s past. The larger figures in the foreground represent Omaha’s present.
What might the space you stand in (as viewer of this mural) represent?
Regarding the figures Meg Saligman said, “The exact identity of the people in the mural isn’t the most important thing. It is what each individual represents to the community that is important.” Some of the figures, however, are real people from the community like Peter Kiewit (1) who represents business, senior citizens and philanthropy. The figure of the musician (12) is taken from an historic photograph but his face is a portrait of the 20th c. Omaha musician Preston Love. He represents the rich jazz history of the African American community in North Omaha. The artist has also included a figure which represents the potential (17) or future of the Omaha community. This figure is not based on any one real person but is based on many different people and is the central focus of the mural.
How does this figure’s body position (gesture) suggest “potential”?
Meg Saligman represents people from a variety of different times.
In what other ways do the people in this mural differ from one another?
(consider age, gender, ethnicity, occupations, urban vs. rural)
What different kinds of things are people doing in the mural?
How are people taking care of the land?
What activities are people doing that are part of Omaha’s traditions?
What do you see in the mural that suggests physical or economic development or expansion?
What clues in the mural suggest to you what kinds of jobs people might have?
Where in the mural do you see people working together?
Where do you see family groups interacting?
Follow the ribbon (17) in the mural that runs from one end to the other.
Why do you think the artist included this ribbon?
How does the ribbon change and move through the different parts of the mural?
What do you think the artist is trying to say about the community by using this ribbon?
Meg Saligman said that one of the things that impressed her was that “Omahans work together to build their community… and get things done.”
The mural continues onto the north side of the building. The artist said, “The mural seemed incomplete. We thought it needed to continue on the north with an extra flourish.” The ribbon that runs through the entire mural continues onto the north side.
What might this continuation of the ribbon say about the community?
If you were going to continue the mural on this north wall, what imagery would you include? Why?
Meg Saligman not only used archival photographs but she also took many photographs of the landscape and the architecture in the region. The artist used many features of the natural landscape to create a sense of depth and openness.
What features of the natural landscape do you see in the mural?
What kinds of sounds and smells can you imagine when you look at the different parts of the mural?
The 320-foot long “big sky” represents part of Meg Saligman’s vision of space. Notice how the sky fills nearly all the top half of the mural. The artist was inspired by a Willa Cather quote, “Elsewhere the sky is the roof of the world, but here the earth is the floor of the sky.”
Can you tell what time of day it is by looking at the sky?
Does the sky suggest more than one time of day?
The majority of the murals that Meg Saligman painted in Philadelphia are vertical and crowded with figures.
Why do you think the artist felt that the horizontal format was more appropriate to represent a community here in Nebraska?
Why do you think she left so much open space in the mural?
Where do you see architecture?
Meg Saligman used one building from each decade of Omaha’s history in the mural.
Do you see any buildings that you recognize?
One of the buildings is a school. Is there any other image in the mural that suggests the importance of education to the Omaha community?
Find the building under the archway with the figures on top. They are from both past and present and they symbolize people working together to create community.
Meg Saligman decided to title the mural Fertile Ground.
What does the word “fertile” mean?
What images in the mural suggest abundance, growth, inventiveness, creativity or new ideas?
The title Fertile Ground has meaning for the artist on multiple levels. The mural tells the story of Omaha, who we are, how we got here and where we are going. From historical references, to present-day neighbors, to the far-reaching dreams of the many children in the mural, Fertile Ground aims to capture the essence of our community identity. While designing the mural the artist discovered, through her research, some important themes associated with the community of Omaha. Two themes that stand out in the mural are “depth” and “convergence.”
What do you see in the mural that you might be able to connect with the idea of depth?
Meg Saligman explains that the multi-layered mural refers to deep roots that allowed Omaha to retain a depth of character even as it became a modern city.
In what different ways is the mural multi-layered? (consider both time and space)
Where do you see deep roots in the mural?
What might it mean for a community to have a depth of character?
What do you see in the mural that might represent this?
If you look at the mural you can see the deep roots of the prairie grass. Meg Saligman was struck when she read that prairie grasses have roots deeper than the grass is tall. She felt that this could symbolize community roots and the depth of character of the people. The Burr Oak in the center of the mural is a kind of tree that lives a long time and can adapt to many different soils. It represents the strength and adaptability of the people of the community.
You can also see depth in the landscape and sky in the mural.
What do you see in the background of the mural?
What do you see in the foreground?
The depth of the landscape in the mural is both physical and symbolic.
How does the depth of the landscape represent time?
The farming history of the community connects us to the land. This reference to the past indicates Omaha’s depth of history.
Another theme in the mural is “convergence” referring to how people and things come together to eventually meet.
What do you see in the mural that might refer to people coming together?
Omaha is located in the center of the country so it has often been thought of as a crossroads.
What different people, things and animals have passed through Omaha?
Do you see any of these in the mural?
Some of the events that the artist discovered in her research that caused a coming together in Omaha were the 1898 World’s Fair and the annual College World Series. The Missouri River and the railroad have provided ways for people to converge in Omaha and have brought many immigrants into the community.
Where do you see all of these in the mural?
Meg Saligman has mentioned that Omaha is a place that is easy to navigate.
What figures do you see in the mural who seem to be walking?
The artist said that she intentionally designed the mural with space for people to move around freely.
What does it suggest about a community to say there is room for all the diverse people who come together here?
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Investigate the geography of Nebraska. What different ecosystems are represented in the mural? Some environments to include are the Missouri River, the Loess Hills, and the prairie lands.
Study the weather systems of Nebraska. How does the mural reflect Nebraska’s weather? What are some of the weather systems found in Nebraska? How might these weather systems have affected the settlement and history of Nebraska?
Meg Saligman said that “a mural artist needs to like the weather and being outside.”
When she first came to Omaha she did not understand the extremes of Nebraska’s weather that quickly come and go. While working on the mural she was surprised by the tornado sirens and the wall cloud quickly approaching. She had to deal with the fluff from the cottonwood trees that the wind blew onto the wet surface of the mural.
What native Nebraska plants and animals appear in the mural? Some plants and animals to include are the Burr Oak, prairie grass, buffalo and red-tailed hawks.
Investigate the chemistry of paints, gels, fabric bonding materials, and protective coatings used in large-scale mural projects. What chemical properties of these materials would contribute to the longevity of the mural?
How did the artist use mathematics to create the mural? Study the use of grids to enlarge images. Consider the square footage to determine the quantity of paint and other materials needed, and determine a budget for the project. Determine how many workers would be needed to complete the project in a given time.
How is the history of Omaha and the state of Nebraska represented in the mural? Explore the significance of the economic history, the agricultural history, the ethnic history, the cultural history, the military history, and the recreational history of the region.
Art and Architectural History
Explore some of Meg Saligman’s other murals. How are they similar to or different from Fertile Ground.
Study the history of murals starting with ancient wall painting.
Research the history and significance of public art around the world as well as the public art in our community.
Investigate the history of architecture in Omaha by looking at some of its most significant structures such as churches, commercial buildings, theaters, schools, civic buildings and houses. How is this history represented in the mural?
Investigate how artists use traditional painting techniques as well as more contemporary computer technology to make art. How were these methods used in Fertile Ground? Study different genres of art such as landscapes, portraits, history painting, etc. Which genres does the artist combine in this mural?
Use computers to design a mural incorporating several different genres of art.
Explore Nebraska’s authors and poets like Willa Cather, Marie Sandoz, and Ted Kooser, and their impact on the cultural richness of the state. Investigate the relationship between written narrative, textual illustration, and visual art.
Read some first person narratives about what it was like to be a pioneer, a farmer, a Native American, etc. living in this region. Are these different ways of life represented in the mural?
Civic Engagement and Philanthropy
Discover how philanthropy has impacted the development of Omaha and the state of Nebraska through the generosity of benefactors like Peter Kiewit. Consider what impact can be made when people get involved and help improve their community through volunteerism. How can art encourage people to get involved with their community? How might this mural inspire civic engagement? Design a civic engagement project for your classroom. How will it improve your community?
Research, Archiving and Journaling
These practices were key to Meg Saligman as she conducted research and developed the scope and design of the project. Consider one of these research projects:
Conduct a research project individually about your family. Interview family members. Take documentary photographs. Write a story or make a collage, scrapbook, or video to present the results of your research.
Conduct a research project in a group about your school or community. Interview community members. Take documentary photographs. What important themes emerge from your research? Write a play and design a set and costumes. Present your play to your school or community.
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