Unit 2: Lesson 2

Fertile Ground interprets the symbolic environment in which the community exists


In this section:

Goals and Outcomes
Key Questions
Lesson Narrative
Imagining the Future: Diorama
Imagining the Future: Creative Writing
Assessment Strategies

Goals and Outcomes:

Students will be able to analyze the symbolic environment that the mural represents.
Students will understand how the imagery of the mural symbolizes aspects of the community.
Students will learn how the symbolism of an artwork can reveal the significance, values and collective identity of a community.
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Key Questions:

How can the symbolic elements depicted in the mural be interpreted?
What aspects of the community are revealed in the symbolism of the mural?
How are the significance, values and collective identity of the community represented symbolically in the mural?
How can an artist develop symbols to represent a community?
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Lesson Narrative:


Teacher Preparation: Preview the websites given in the lesson.

People who make commercials often make use of people or characters to stand for certain qualities that they want you to associate with their product.

Watch this video of a Snuggle Fabric Softener commercial.

What qualities do you associate with the bear?
How do these qualities have anything to do with fabric softener?
Would a crocodile have been as good a spokesperson for fabric softener as the teddy bear? Why or why not?
What qualities would you associate with Michael Jordan as a basketball player?

Look at this cereal box advertisement with Michael Jordan’s picture.

Michael Jordan Wheaties Ad

Are the qualities you associated with Michael Jordan present in this ad?
What do these qualities have to do with cereal?

Look at this other Wheaties promotion.

If you were pictured on this Wheaties box, what would it say about you?

Notice that you have taken characteristics associated with the star athlete Michael Jordan and transferred them to anyone who eats Wheaties.

Artists also use symbols in their works.  Look at the following works of art:

A Vanitas Still Life, Flemish 17th century

Audrey Flack, Wheel of Fortune

What kinds of symbols do you see in these paintings that suggest that time is passing or has passed? (hourglass, skull, sun dial, calendar)

What kinds of object do you see that could be symbols for things that will decay or disappear? (fruit, flowers, candle flames, beauty)

Both of these paintings, one from the 17th century and one from the 20th century, deal with the idea that nothing lasts forever. They both warn that we shouldn’t count on our possessions to make us happy.

Meg Saligman uses similar techniques in her mural by using symbols to transfer characteristics of objects in the mural to qualities of the Omaha community.

Review this information about the bur oak.

“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.”


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.

What might it mean for a person to have deep roots in a community?
Do you know somebody who has been in the area for a long time?
Are there people who have grown plants on the land in the Omaha area for a long time?
What might it mean for a community to have deep roots in the land?

(Teacher note: Help the students arrive at the idea that Omaha has grown from a rural to an urban community and still has strong ties to agriculture.)

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. The deep roots of the prairie grasses also preserved the land and kept it from blowing away in the Nebraska wind.

One of the ways Meg Saligman uses symbols in the mural is to explore the idea of depth using roots of the bur oak and prairie grasses to suggest that Omaha is rooted in the land.

Where else in the mural do you see roots?

There are other symbols that suggest that there are traditions in Omaha that are deeply rooted and have been here a long time.

Look at #38 on the mural key.

What do you think these books symbolize?

The books serve as the mural cornerstone symbolizing education and learning as the foundation of Omaha.  One of the buildings seen through the archway is the earliest building at Creighton University. Others represent centers of learning in the arts, religion, and history.

Look at figure #21 on the mural key.

What aspect of the Omaha community do you think this man represents?
What features of this figure tell you what he represents?

This member of the United States Air Force symbolizes the historic presence of Strategic Air Command (SAC) at Offutt Air Force Base in Bellevue. Today US Strategic Command maintains its home base at Offutt and conducts operations in space, cyberspace, and deterrence.

Look at #5 on mural key.

What aspect of the Omaha community do you think this sculpture represents?
What features of this sculpture tell you what it is about?

This sculpture, The Road to Omaha by John Lajba, is a symbol of Omaha’s sports enthusiasm and its unique role as host site of the NCAA College World Series since 1950.

How long has Omaha hosted the College World Series?
Do you think that Omaha will continue to host the College World Series?

Meg Saligman has used objects and figures to symbolize the educational, military and recreational environments found in Omaha.

Do you see any other figures or objects that symbolize traditions that are deeply rooted in the Omaha community?

Where in the mural do these figures and objects, the architecture, the military man, and the College World Series sculpture, appear– in the background, middle ground, or foreground?

Notice that Meg Saligman uses the physical depth of the space to suggest the depth of these traditions in the Omaha community. One of the major themes that Meg Saligman used in the mural is “Depth”.

She refers to the depth of landscape and sky, the depth of history, the depth of roots in both nature and community, the depth of character of the community and of the people in the community.

Which of these refer to real physical depth and which refer to symbolic depth?

Another major theme for Meg Saligman was the idea of “Convergence”. Convergence means coming together from different directions so as to eventually meet.

Do you see anything in the mural that suggests the idea of coming together or ways people come together?

The arch on the right side of the mural was part of the agricultural  building from the 1898 Trans Mississippi Exposition, a world’s fair that brought 2.6 million people together in Omaha. The Indian Congress also occurred during the Trans Mississippi Exposition and more than 500 Native Americans representing 25 tribes attended.

Do you see any image in the mural that refers to the importance of the Native American communities in the area?

The Native American woman on the left side of the mural (#7) was taken from an historical photograph of a woman who lived in the area.

What do you see in the mural representing means of transportation that would have brought people to Omaha? (for example, the railroad, the river)

“Union Pacific Railroad… made Omaha its base camp to build its railroad west to Utah, and by the late 1800s there were more than 5,000 miles of railroad tracks in Nebraska.” (Westward the Empire. Omaha’s World Fair of 1898. A Companion to the UNO Television documentary, 1998)

Throughout history the railroads and the Missouri River brought people to Omaha for a variety of reasons. Omaha’s location near the convergence of the Missouri and Platte Rivers has long made the location a key point of transfer for both people and goods.

Why did people travel to and through the Council Bluffs/ Omaha area? (Teacher Note: Encourage students to draw upon their knowledge of Nebraska history to think about explorers like Lewis and Clark, transportation of goods, settlers who came to Omaha or moved through Omaha to go further west, the orphan train, more recent immigrants, etc.)

What other objects or figures in the mural might symbolically represent the notion of people coming together? (Road to Omaha sculpture as symbol of the College World Series, educational, religious, and cultural buildings as places where people gather, people gathering in the fields for agricultural activities, Canada geese that pass through Omaha on their annual migrations)

As the geographic center of the country, Nebraska is a place where waterways, interstate highways, fiber optic cable systems, rail lines and avian migration converge.

Find some figures in the mural that look directly at you.

Meg Saligman found this to be characteristic of people in Omaha, they “meet your gaze and greet you directly”.

Many characters in the mural are active, moving in different directions. In Meg Saligman’s interviews of people in Omaha she found that they often mentioned that people here move together with ease. The mural is designed to have space and openness so that people can move through freely.

Find some figures in the mural that are moving through space.

Find some figures that have gathered together in family groups.

Meg Saligman found that the importance of family was a significant value for Omahans. These groups of people also symbolize how Omahans work together to get things done and build their community.

While these groups of people stand for important values of the community, individual figures may also symbolize whole groups of people that are not physically present. For example, the woman leaning against the arch (#33) can symbolize two communities, both the medical profession and the south Omaha neighborhood.

Can you find a figure who represents the business community? What features of this figure symbolize a business person?

Meg Saligman represents the diversity of the Omaha community through figures symbolizing people of different professions, ethnicities, ages, genders and roles.

Which people in the mural symbolize the future of the Omaha community?

The figure in the center of the mural (#17) is called “Potential.”

What do you think that means?
What about the figure suggests possibilities for the future?

This figure can be called a personification, an abstract idea represented in human form.

What about this figure suggests a universal character or idea rather than a specific individual?
What is the artist saying about the community by including this figure of Potential as a central focus in the mural?

In her hand, Potential holds a golden ribbon that weaves throughout the mural.

Trace the ribbon from the left side across the mural and to the right side.

Is there any place you lose sight of the ribbon?
Where does the ribbon transform into something else?
What is the symbolic role of the ribbon?

After the ribbon has tied together all the figures on the main wall of the mural it continues onto the north wall of the building. LINK to image of North Wall

What do you see on the north wall?
How does it differ from the main wall of the mural?
What is the symbolic purpose of this unfinished wall?

The painting on the north wall was not part of the original design but was added later to suggest that the story of the community would continue.

Imagining the Future: Diorama

In what ways do you think Omaha might change, grow, or develop in 25 years?

What figures and objects might you imagine to symbolize those changes and developments?

Each group will create a three-dimensional diorama of their imaginary community in 25 years. Each group will decide which ideas from the whole-class brainstorming activity they want to use and what other ideas they can come up with.

Directions: Meg Saligman created the illusion of foreground, middle ground and background on a flat wall surface. You are going to explore actual three-dimensional space by placing your figures into real space.  You will create your diorama in a box with the opening of the box facing forward and the back, bottom, and side walls painted or decorated to represent the sky and/or landscape of your future community. (Teacher Note: Students could use paint, wallpaper, magazine images or construction paper to create a landscape.)

Create symbolic objects and figures for your future community. Objects can be made of any materials that the teacher selects. Some ideas are stand-up figures made of card stock/ cardboard, pipe cleaners, wire, popsicle sticks, clay, etc. Objects can also be made from recycled or found materials such as thread spools, small plastic containers, or other everyday items. Figures and objects can be decorated with a variety of art materials, fabric, patterned paper, etc. Each student will also create a figure to represent their future self to be placed in the diorama.

Place your objects into your diorama box.

Which objects will you place in your foreground and which will you place in the background?
Where will you appear?
Why did you place your objects in those positions?
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Imagining the Future: Creative Writing

Imagine yourself in your future landscape and write a story about what kind of adventure you could have there. How will you interact with the other figures and objects?

Small Group Share: Each group member reads their story to their small group. All the stories are set in the same future landscape with the same figures and objects.

How are the stories the same?
How are they different?

Teacher Note: Display the dioramas with the stories attached to the top and outside sections of the boxes.
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Converge – come together from different directions so as to eventually meet.

Personification– figure intended to represent an abstract quality. The attribution of a personal nature or human characteristics to something nonhuman, or the representation of an abstract quality in human form.

Potential – having or suggesting the capacity to become or develop into something in the future.

Symbol – a thing that represents or stands for something else, especially a material object representing something abstract.
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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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