Unit 2: Lesson 1

Fertile Ground describes the physical environment in which the community exists.


In this section:

Goals and Outcomes
Key Questions
Lesson Narrative
Group Activity: Elements of an Environment
Group and Individual Activity: Careful Observation
Group Activity: Imagining Environments
Assessment Strategies

Goals and Outcomes:

Students will be able to describe the physical environment depicted in the mural.
Students will understand the relationship between the environment depicted in the mural and the physical setting in which the mural exists.
Students will learn how the setting of an art work can tell the story of a community.
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Key Questions:

What human-made and natural elements are depicted in the mural?
How does the environment depicted in the mural compare to the physical setting in which the mural exists?
What do the human-made and natural elements depicted in the mural tell us about the history of the area?
How does an artist choose which aspects of the physical environment to include in order to represent a community?
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Lesson Narrative:

Teacher Preparation – Preview the websites given in the lesson.  For most sites there is explanatory information about the work and the culture.

Look at the following image:

Romare Bearden, Berkeley––The City and Its People, 1973

This mural, Bearden’s largest collage, was installed in the Berkeley, California, City Council Chambers in 1974. It is based on Bearden’s travel throughout Berkeley for a period of several days, during which he gathered material. Architectural details, political rallies, worship services, sailing vessels, and figures of importance to Berkeley’s history are documented. The image of four overlapping heads in the lower right quadrant, representing the community’s diversity, has become Berkeley’s city logo.

(Adapted from http://www.nga.gov/feature/bearden/170-145.htm)

What kinds of things do you see in Bearden’s mural that also appear in Fertile Ground? (birds, water, buildings, people, etc.)

Describe what the artists did to achieve different feelings of space in their murals.

Now look at two other murals by Meg Saligman:

Common Threads, Philadelphia, 1998

Once in a Millennium Moon, Shreveport, LA, 2001-2

How do the formats of these two murals compare to Fertile Ground? (i..e. horizontal or vertical)

Compare the feelings of space in these two murals to what you saw in Fertile Ground.

Notice that both Once in a Millennium Moon and Fertile Ground wrap around to another side of their buildings. (Link to image of Fertile Ground north side)

Look at the images on the second walls.

Compare the way Meg Saligman handles these secondary walls. (both the walls remain partially unpainted, both leave a lot of open, undefined space)

Does the undefined space left by the artist indicate the end of the murals or suggest the future? Explain.

If you see suggestions of the future, what imagery does the artist include in each of the murals that might suggest an openness to future possibilities?

The setting of a story can affect the characters actions and attitudes and the plot of the story.

Think of a story you have read recently.

In what kind of setting did the story take place?

The setting depicted in a painting also plays a similar role, helping the viewer better understand the context of the story.

Look at the following images:

Henri Rousseau, Fight between a Tiger and a Buffalo 1908

(Scroll down and click on the image.)

Katsushika Hokusai, Mount Fuji seen below a Wave at Kanagawa (The Great Wave), c. 1831

What do you see in each of these images?

How would you describe these settings?

What do you think people might do in each of these settings?

Is there anything people could do in one of these settings that they could not do in the other?

If you were to step into these scenes what kinds of animals might you see? (Be sure to consider animals that do not appear in the work of art)

What are the elements that make up the setting of Fertile Ground?

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Group Activity: Elements of an Environment:

In your group make a list of the elements of the setting that you see. Then divide your list into categories.  For example if you saw a rabbit that might be in the category of wildlife whereas if you saw a mountain it might be in the category of landscape features.

(Note to teacher: Be sure that students don’t forget things like architecture and statues that make up part of the setting, even though they are not part of the natural environment.)

Report out and see what categories have been discovered. Collect the results of the group work.
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Scientists, environmentalists, artists and others have often referred to  plants and wildlife as flora and fauna.

What flora and fauna did you find in Fertile Ground?

Meg Saligman chose the bur oak to appear in the mural because it is native to the prairie and because bur oaks represent fertile growth with roots nearly as deep as the tree is tall.

“The bur oak sheltered and inspired North American pioneers who settled the prairies.… The slow-growing, long-living oak could resist the fires that swept through mid-western prairies and forests. With roots that were nearly as expansive as the above-ground tree, the bur oak could withstand windstorms as well as droughts. These same pioneers found the tree to be excellent wood and waiting the necessary 20 to 30 years after planting was worth it for its shade and resistance to cold, drought and fire”

Prairie grasses also appear in the mural. Prairie grasses, like the bur oak, are native to Nebraska and have deep roots. The artist selected prairie grasses to appear in the mural because they covered much of the area in early times and suggest the open space of the prairie. Notice how the artist extends the space of the mural by painting the tree and grass roots below the bottom edge of the grassy landscape as if you could see below the ground. The painted roots and grasses merge into the actual grasses planted below the mural.

Bison, red-tailed hawks and Canada geese are included in the mural representing wildlife seen in the state.

For more information on these species see:


Red-tailed hawks

Canada geese

Look at the following images:

The Geese of Meidum, Ancient Egypt c. 1680-2500 B.C. (Detail of a tomb painting from the mastaba tomb of Nefermaat at Meidum)

Albrecht Dürer, Hare, 1502 watercolor

Albrecht Dürer, The Large Turf, 1503 watercolor

Maria Sibylla Merian, An image from Metamorphosis, 1730

John James Audubon, Canada Goose

What examples of flora do you see? What examples of fauna do you see?

What details do you see in these works that make them look so real?

What would you have to do to see a piece of earth with grass as closely as Dürer did? (Note to teacher: consider bringing in a magnifying glass or a microscope for a science lesson on close observation.)

Now look at the two paintings of geese.

How are they similar?  How are they different?

What about these images makes you realize that the artists were all looking very closely at the flora and fauna that they drew?

What examples of close observation do you see in the mural Fertile Ground.

Throughout time artists have been close observers of nature. Meg Saligman is a good example of an artist who closely observes her subject matter as part of her research.

What landscape features did you identify in Fertile Ground in your small group work?

The very long horizontal mural is divided into two equal strips. The top half is the sky with the sun setting in the west. The bottom half represents the landscape. Being from the eastern part of the United States, Meg Saligman was struck by the sense of openness in what she called the “big sky” of Nebraska. Keith Jacobshagen, a Nebraska artist, focuses on this feature of the landscape in his paintings, which although smaller in size, still reflect the vastness of the sky.

Look at:

Keith Jacobshagen, Naming the Days, 2000

(Click on reproduction, then agree and submit.)

Even though both these art works explore the notion of “big sky” how are these skies different?

Another environmental element which is connected to the big sky and the open landscape and which impressed Meg Saligman was the wind she experienced when working in Omaha.

Where in the mural do you see a suggestion that the wind might be blowing?

One of the features in the landscape portion of the mural is the Missouri River.

How can being on a river help a settlement develop and grow into a big city?

What do you know about how the Missouri River helped Omaha to grow?

The Missouri River was important for the early exploration of the region and continued to be an important trade route. Because of its location on the river, Omaha was considered the “gateway to the West” and served as the eastern starting point of the Transcontinental Railroad.

What do you see in the mural that indicates the importance of the railroad to Omaha?

(For more information on the Transcontinental Railroad see: http://www.tcrr.com/)

Another important feature of the Missouri River region is the area called the Loess Hills which are also included in the mural.

Loess, a German word for loose or crumbly, is used in geology to mean windblown soil. There are only two places in the world, China  and Western Iowa along the Missouri River, where the depth of the loess soil reaches 200 feet. The Loess Hills were formed between 14,000 and 24,000 years ago by active glaciers. In the summer, the warm air would melt the glaciers creating tremendous flows of water down the Missouri River valley. When the weather became cold during winter, the glaciers stopped melting, exposing huge mud flats. Strong winds sorted the exposed sediments and swept the finer soils off of the flood plain into huge clouds of dust, depositing them in the bluffs we now have today. The majority of this silt was deposited on Iowa’s side due to the dominant westerly winds.
(Apapted from http://www.loesshillstours.com/geology.html)

Where do you see the Loess Hills represented in the mural?

Loess Hills
(For study of geology extension.)

What kinds of human-constructed features of the environment do you have on your lists from your small group work?

Look at the following images:

Florence Mill, 1847

Creighton University, original Creighton Preparatory School Building, 1878

Trans Mississippi Exposition, Agricultural Building, 1898

St. Cecilia’s Cathedral, 1905-59

Rose Theater, (formerly Paramount Theater), 1927

John Lajba, The Road to Omaha, 1999, bronze

First National Bank Tower, 2002

Holland Performing Arts Center, 2005

Find all these structures in the mural.

Did the artist accurately represent these structures?

What different aspects of urban life are highlighted by these structures? (education, religion, business and finance, recreation, arts and culture)

A Nebraska artist who often paints architecture is Alan Tubach. His Capitol Seasons is a collage of different views of Lincoln, the capital city of Nebraska.

What similarities and differences do you see in the way the buildings are presented in relation to the natural landscape in Fertile Ground and Capitol Seasons?

Fertile Ground represents both the natural and built environments of Omaha and the region but the mural itself is also painted on the side of a building located in an urban environment.

Where in the mural do you see suggestions of an urban environment?

Where in the mural do you see suggestions of a rural environment?

Why might Meg Saligman have included so much rural imagery in a mural set in an urban environment?

Look at the following images:

Keith Jacobshagen, Naming the Days, 2000

Alan Tubach, Capitol Seasons

Grant Wood, Stone City, Iowa

George Catlin, Mandan O-kee-pa Ceremony

Fanny Flora Palmer, Across the Continent

Andrew Melrose, Westward the Star of Empire makes its way near Council Bluffs, Iowa

Albert Bierstadt, Emigrants Crossing the Plains

Which landscapes emphasize a city setting?

Which landscapes emphasize a rural setting?
Which ones represent a scene that might still exist today?
Which ones represent an historical view of the region?

In Fertile Ground Meg Saligman’s use of the rural landscape emphasizes the history of the region.

Science and Language Arts extension:
What kind of weather is represented in Fertile Ground?
What other kind of weather is common to the Midwest?

One of the examples of Nebraska’s unpredictable weather is the Blizzard of 1888, often referred to as the “children’s blizzard” because so many school children were caught in the blizzard.


Mural at the Nebraska State Capitol  Jeanne Reynal, The Blizzard of 1888

Blizzard Voices – A Nebraska Story, readings of his poems Blizzard Voices by the poet Ted Kooser with photographs

David Laskin, The Chidren’s Blizzard (book), An Interview with the Author

Weather Events – The Children’s Blizzard of 1888

Children’s book Anna’s Blizzard by Alison Hart

Opera Omaha – Blizzard Voices composer of music Paul Moravec, lyricist Ted Kooser, set design Watie White

Group and Individual Activity: Careful Observation

Careful Observation
Divide the students into groups of 3 to 4. Each group of students will pick an object in the classroom that comes from nature, for example flora or fauna from the natural world, that they can actually observe closely in their group.

Note to teacher:

The purpose of this activity is to closely observe a real tangible plant or animal rather than simply a photograph. Teachers can use insects, plants, or leaves that can be brought into the classroom. This would be an excellent opportunity to make a connection to science. Animals that are actually in the classroom, like rabbits, hamsters or turtles can also be used. The teacher can identify a certain number of plants or animals that the students can pick from or can ask students to bring in leaves or plants.

Review the images above by Dürer, Sibylla Merian, J. J. Audubon and the Egyptian artists and note the careful details in these works.

Discuss in your group the details you see in your plant or animal.

Make a list of the four or five major features that you see.

Individually make some sketches with pencil recording the features you have discussed. Decide which sketch to use for your finished drawing. On a fresh sheet of paper, begin with a light pencil sketch so that you can make changes before finishing the drawing with fine tip markers, colored pencils or pen and ink.

Whole Group Activity:

Have each group display their drawings while the other students view the works identifying the major features that the artists illustrated. Compare the class observations to the group’s list of feature of their plant or animal.

Have each student imagine they are the artist Meg Saligman and decide where in the mural Fertile Ground they would place their drawn object and why.

Teacher Note:

Find 5 rocks that have different characteristics, smooth and rough, small and large, different colors, etc.

Group Activity: Imagining Environments

Compare and contrast features of the rocks.

Individual Activity:

Pick one rock and imagine a place where it could live, real or imagined, for example a turtle pond or outer space.  Write a story where your rock has a major role. Be sure to describe the environment in which your story takes place.
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Assessment Strategies

Teachers will develop age-appropriate assessment strategies based on the Goals and Outcomes of the lesson and National Standards of the unit.
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