Unit 3: Lesson 2

Fertile Ground makes use of both traditional and innovative techniques and materials.

In this section:

Goals and Outcomes
Key Questions
Lesson Narrative
Group Activity: Developing Mural Imagery
Individual Group Activity: Mural Reflections
Group Activity: Classroom Artist Statement
Assessment Strategies

Goals and Outcomes:

Students will become aware of traditions and innovations used in the construction of murals across time and place.
Students will understand the physical context in which murals are produced.
Students will be able to work collaboratively to understand artistic issues and decisions.
Students will be able to construct a mural addressing a current local community interest that can be displayed in a public setting.
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Key Questions:

In what ways do murals across and place use traditional techniques and materials?
In what ways might these murals have been innovative in their time?
What kinds of physical materials or environments must an artist consider when creating a mural?
What kinds of artistic decisions must an artist consider when creating a mural? (style, elements and principles of design, subject matter and symbolism, etc.)
Which traditional approaches will you consider as you create your mural?
What innovative approaches will you consider as you create your mural?
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Lesson Narrative:

Note to Teacher: In this lesson students will be creating a mural. The lesson will describe traditional and innovative methods used by working artists including Meg Saligman. Teachers have great flexibility in the choice of methods and materials for the final mural project. High school art specialists may choose a more complicated and/or permanent medium while elementary classroom teachers may opt to use crayons on butcher paper.

As an introduction to the design process and materials that Meg Saligman used in creating Fertile Ground watch Fertile Ground: Project Overview Part 1
and discuss the following questions:

After Meg Saligman came to Omaha how did she begin designing the mural and deciding what to include?
Are the figures Meg Saligman used in the mural imaginary? Why or why not?

Meg Saligman says the content of the mural comes from the community. She based the figures on historical photographs and people living today in Omaha. So in that sense, the figures are real. On the other hand Meg Saligman manipulates the figures and puts them together in imaginative ways.

How did Meg Saligman use space imaginatively?
(Refer to Units 1 and 2)
Have you ever created figures or space in an imaginative way in your own art?

According to the video, what non-artistic issues did Meg Saligman have to deal with in order to make the mural? (weather, durability of paint, helpers)

What else did you see in the video that suggests things a mural artist must consider? (safety, scaffolding, traffic issues, etc.)

Now watch Fertile Ground: Project Overview Part 2 and discuss these questions:

What surprised you about what it took to make Fertile Ground?

Did they mention anything in the video that they needed to make the mural that you hadn’t thought of in your last discussion?

Physical Materials and Environment: Tradition
Throughout time and place artists who have painted on walls have had to think about physical materials they will use and the kind of environment in which they will work.

Over the years fresco became the traditional method of painting on walls. There are two methods of fresco technique. True fresco is painting done on wet plaster so that the colors penetrate the plaster and become fixed as it dries. Dry fresco is done on plaster that has already dried and hardened.

Look at the following murals:

Egyptian murals.

The ancient Egyptian murals were painted around 1500 BCE in underground tombs in a desert area and then sealed up for centuries.

The whole wall would be covered with a thin layer of plaster to give an even white surface to work on. The next step was to mark the walls with red grid lines. The grid lines would help the draftsmen to be sure they drew the figures the right size and proportion. Using the grid in this way, a draftsman would draw the rough outlines of the painting in red. Paint was made from different kinds of minerals ground fine and mixed with egg, glue or gum to make it stick to the dry plaster.(http://egyptian-history.suite101.com/article.cfm/relief_raised_and_sunken)

Raphael’s School of Athens

In the Renaissance, Raphael was commissioned by Pope Julius II to paint the four walls of the study housing the Pope’s library where he signed important documents.

Raphael painted in true fresco on wet plaster, the technique that became standard in the Renaissance period. Paint was made from ground minerals but water was used to make the pigment stick to the wet plaster.

Murals of Teotihuacán, Mexico(1)
Murals of Teotihuacán, Mexico(2)

Teotihuacán was the sixth largest city in the world in the 1st century BCE. It was located very close to where Mexico City is today. Buildings were decorated with frescoes both inside and out, although the exterior frescoes no longer survive.

What features of the materials and physical environments would help preserve both the Renaissance and the Teotihuacán murals?
What features might put the preservation of the murals at risk?
What did Meg Saligman do to help preserve Fertile Ground?
In the 20th century the Mexican muralists revived the traditional technique of painting in fresco on walls. The three best known Mexican muralists, David Alfaro Siquieros, José Clemente Orozco, and Diego Rivera, painted the social, political and cultural history of Mexican peoples in their murals. The most famous of the Mexican muralists, Diego Rivera, went to Italy to study this traditional technique.

For some examples of works by all three muralists see:


(See the March 2008 edition of Scholastic Art for information on the Mexican Muralists)

Although most of the murals by these artists are in Mexico, one famous mural in the United States by Diego Rivera is The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City in the San Francisco Art Institute. This work, painted in 1931, actually shows Rivera and helpers painting a mural. It is painted in the traditional fresco technique and shows Rivera and workers on the type of scaffolding painters have used for centuries.  What is interesting is that the scaffolding is real wood which helps to support the wall on which the fresco is painted. Rather than covering up this structural support, Rivera incorporated it into the design so that it appears to be the scaffolding on which the painted figures sit and stand.(second source: The Making of a Fresco Showing the Building of a City)

In the 1970s in California another mural revival took place led by the Mexican American communities.  Watch this short video for an introduction to this movement.

The Save LA Murals Video by Yu Gu 2008 (second on site)
After looking at all of these murals, what are some of the similar challenges that all muralists face
(What kind of paint should I use? What kind of scaffolding will I need? Who will help me? etc.)
Which of these traditional methods and materials did Meg Saligman use on Fertile Ground?

Meg Saligman followed many of the traditional practices of muralists.  She painted her mural on an outside wall and had to consider the weather both in terms of having to work outside but also in the choice of materials that would be durable in difficult weather conditions. She also used scaffolding in order to paint the mural. Meg Saligman also worked with other artists and volunteers in the tradition of artist’s workshops.

(Remember the two part video you watched which showed the mural being painted.)

Science Extension: Choose one of the outdoor murals you have studied in this unit and study the weather patterns in that region. What features of the climate might affect the permanence of the mural?
In fact, Meg Saligman even worked in Mexico City where she painted a mural that refers to the content of the murals by Mexican artists. She took political figures typically painted in Mexican murals and replaced them with the portraits of people who lived in the neighborhood. In talking about the painting of this mural, Meg Saligman said that the weather in Mexico City was predictable and it rained in the late afternoon every day. She scheduled the work so that they could paint outside when it was nice, and when it rained in the afternoon they worked indoors completing other tasks.

Physical Materials and Environment: Innovation

Although many muralists follow traditional practices, throughout time there have also been innovations in the use of methods and materials.

Look at these prehistoric cave paintings:



Using sea-shells as paint containers and working by candlelight, Stone Age artists employed a wide variety of painting methods. Initially, they painted with their fingers, before switching to lumpy pigment crayons, pads of moss, or brushes made of animal hair or vegetable fiber. They even employed spray painting techniques using reeds or specially hollowed bones. Each era introduced new cave painting methods. Stone Age painters employed several different combinations of materials to make colored paints. Clay ochre provided three basic colors: numerous varieties of red, plus yellow and brown. For black color, artists used either manganese dioxide or charcoal. After grinding the pigments to fine powder, artists mixed the powder with substances like cave water, animal fats and vegetable juice to help it stick to the rock surface.
(adapted from http://www.visual-arts-cork.com/prehistoric/cave-painting.htm)

How can paintings made so long ago, about 15,000 BCE, be considered innovative?

Some 13,000 years later the Egyptians were painting their tombs and temples using an early fresco technique.

For information on Egyptian techniques see:


The Egyptian artists commonly used an assembly-line process of creating their murals. They worked in teams under a master artist who would make the design and supervise the work. Each artist would perform specific tasks like plastering the wall, drawing grid lines on the wall, painting the figures, etc. This was innovative at the time but it has become a traditional way of making murals.

Can you think of anything else that is made on an assembly line today?

Sometimes innovative ideas don’t work. Leonardo da Vinci’s Battle of Anghiari begun in the town hall of Florence, Italy, in 1504, does not remain because of the materials Leonardo tried to use. In traditional fresco painting the artist can only paint a small portion in a day because he or she must paint while the plaster base is wet. Leonardo liked to paint and repaint areas of his paintings so he was looking for a way to paint on a dry surface. Leonardo experimented with the encaustic painting technique in which the colored pigments are mixed with hot wax. This technique is usually done on small wooden panels but Leonardo wanted to use it for a large mural on a wall. The heat couldn’t be spread out evenly over the mural and, probably because of its large size, the artwork was damaged and never finished.(http://www.discovertuscany.com/anghiari/the-battle-of-anghiari.html)

In the 20th century synthetic paints were developed which offered another option other than natural materials as an innovation for muralists. Synthetic materials are cheaper, more permanent, dry more quickly, are more durable and can be painted on many different kinds of dry surfaces.

Meg Saligman used a number of available innovations in the painting of Fertile Ground and combined them with traditional methods. For example she designed the mural using a computer. Meg Saligman said, “My design was generated digitally. Working with photographic references the images were played with and manipulated in the computer. Then when the image was decided on I put the grid over it and divided it into small sections. I used both computer and hand manipulation.” Once the small grid was drawn a similar grid was drawn on a larger scale on the wall in order to transfer the image.  This is the same method the ancient Egyptians used to transfer their small sketches to their walls. Meg Saligman used both the computer and this ancient technique.

Another way Meg Saligman incorporated both innovation and tradition was in her use of fabric to make the mural. She adapted a cloth process designed by artist Kent Twitchell that allows portions of the mural to be painted on cloth in the studio and then attached to the mural wall with acrylic gel. Meg Saligman used this process to create “paint-by-number” sections of the mural to be painted by community volunteers who were not artistic professionals. Meg Saligman said, “This process allowed people to be part of something meaningful.” Meg Saligman combined this innovative process with a collaborative method that has been used for centuries. Seventy percent of the mural was painted directly on the wall and thirty percent was painted on fabric in the studio and was then applied to the wall.

Fertile Ground continues the process of searching for new materials to preserve murals. Meg Saligman used an architectural grade paint that is used on the bottom of boats to paint Fertile Ground. A sealing medium, like varnish, has been used to preserve murals as far back as the Egyptians, but like the paint the sealant used by Meg Saligman is synthetic and along with the paint should allow the mural to last longer than usual. Because of these materials Fertile Ground is being used as a best practices test case by conservators at the Ford Conservation Center.
Science Extension: Explore the chemical properties of paint which makes it more durable and resistant to the effects of weather.

Art Extension: Look at Meg Saligman’s Passing Through
This mural is innovative in that it is divided among fifteen sites throughout the city of Philadelphia. The visual images are combined with dialogue based on actual conversations overheard at the each location.

Formal and Physical Artistic Decisions

The Peter Kiewit Foundation had the idea of sponsoring a public art work as a gift to the city of Omaha. They contacted the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts to be the administrator and help develop the vision. A building site was chosen for a public mural and they began a search for a mural artist. 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.

Meg Saligman asked the mural sponsors, “What is important to you about Omaha?” She asked “What do you want the mural to say?” not “What do you want to see?” She says, “It is the job of the artist to guide the making of the visual work.”

Before Meg Saligman ever picked up a paintbrush she followed an extensive research process to gather ideas.

If you were asked to paint a mural like Meg Saligman was, what would you do to gather ideas?

Put the following four steps on the board:

Meg Saligman interviewed people from all walks of life. She asked, “What is important to you about Omaha?”

She researched the history of Omaha.
She collected historical images from Omaha and took photographs of present-day citizens and of the environment around Omaha.
She paid attention to certain themes that emerged as a result of these steps.
She said, ”The process is a balance between collecting images and information and putting it all together and yet leaving it open to new ideas so that the information can still talk to you… Everything is documented during the research process…Everything has a reference and comes from Omaha. Content comes from the community… I have a singular vision that I wish to hone. That means that I like to retain my own vision yet satisfy the (community] and fulfill their needs.”

Group Activity: Developing Mural Imagery

You have already picked a topic, brainstormed possible imagery and thought about locations and partners for your mural. (See Lesson 3A) Now is the time to do research to determine what actual imagery you will use. Let’s follow Meg Saligman’s steps:

Interview people in your community who can provide special knowledge about your topic and document what they say. (Note to teacher: If this is too difficult for students to do individually consider bringing in a community member to the classroom and having the students plan interview questions.)

Use the library to research your topic and document what you find. (Note to teacher: Have media specialists help with this.)

Collect images that are related to your topic and take photographs in your community that provide current information about your topic. Keep good records of the sources of your images.

How can you use art to portray a challenge in a positive way, or to celebrate a strength or interest of your community? For example, as Meg Saligman looked for themes in her research she focused on the way Omahans work together and the depth of the community. She interpreted depth in terms of depth of character of the diverse people, depth of roots, and the physical depth of the landscape. So she used the idea of depth in both a real and symbolic way. What idea will your art explore and what images will you choose to convey your idea?

You are now ready to put your images together in your mural. Consider the following issues as you begin:
Will the style of your mural be realistic like Fertile Ground or will it be more abstract like the WPA murals in WNYC in New York City (http://beta.wnyc.org/articles/arts/2005/oct/28/wnycs-new-deal-murals-a-rediscovery/)?
Will your mural create an illusion of depth or will the imagery remain flat?
Will you use symbolic imagery to convey your ideas?
Will you use people from your community to symbolize places or ideas like Meg Saligman did?
Will you use the space in your mural to indicate the notion of time like Meg Saligman did?
Will your mural tell a story like Fertile Ground tells the story of Omaha?
After seeing a number of murals throughout history which traditional or innovative approaches will you consider as you create your mural?

Note to teacher: There are many ways to adapt this mural project to the classroom. Consider the age of the students, your time frame, and what available space in your classroom or school building you have to display your mural.  Consider what kind of medium your students will use, such as markers, crayon, tempera paint, or oil pastel at the elementary level. Acrylic paints and mediums could form another option at the secondary level. Murals can be made on brown or white kraft paper that comes in 3’ or 4’ wide rolls, colored construction paper that comes in rolls, plywood or masonite panels, or on an actual wall surface.  Teachers can be innovative and consider flat surfaces or curved or folded surfaces.

Decide whether your students will make one large mural or work in small groups on several murals. If students will be working on one large mural then you will need to arrange specific tasks so that there is a unity to the mural.

Several options for this include:
Have each student choose an image from the discussion and make an appropriately-sized drawing and paint it. Then collage the paintings on the mural paper the way Meg Saligman applied paintings on fabric to the wall of Fertile Ground. The background could be painted in before or after.

After each student makes a drawing create a collage of the drawings as a preliminary sketch of the mural. As you paste down the drawings consider whether you want to create a sense of depth and how the drawings need to be sized to do that. Draw a grid on the sketch and use the grid to transfer the sketch to the mural surface like Meg Saligman did. Assign grid sections for painting, giving each student their original image to paint.
Math Extension: Have students calculate the ratio between the small and large grid squares.

Divide students into groups and have each group develop a subsection of the mural. For example one group might focus on the issue in the past, another group might represent the present, and a third might deal with the selected issue in the future. Their three separate sections would be connected to create one mural. (Judy Baca’s Great Wall of LA which deals with different decades of LA history is an example of this.)

Extentions: Another option for advanced art classes would be to do a more permanent exterior mural using paint, ceramic, glass, etc. Take a look at Meg Saligman’s Theater of Life which uses sculptural, mosaic and computer-generated media.
Consider durability and weather just as Meg Saligman and other muralists have had to do.
With advanced high school classes you might want to consider the social action nature of murals (see Judy Baca’s Great Wall of LA ) and do a project within the community.
Secondary students might find it interesting to explore traditional techniques by creating a small-scale fresco to experience the application of pigment onto damp plaster.
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Individual Activity: Mural Reflections

After the students have completed the mural have them individually write a reflective paragraph.
What did you learn about your community while you made the mural?
What did you learn about the artistic process while you made the mural?

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Group Activity: Classroom Artist Statement

When the mural is displayed include a class-composed artist’s statement that explains the ideas and imagery for the viewer. As an optional activity, create a key for the mural (link to poster key for Fertile Ground).

Consider creating a display of the documentation (photographs and interviews) used to create the imagery either on the wall or in a notebook (artistic portfolio) to accompany the mural. For a further extension have a “gallery opening” for other students, families and/or the school community to share students’ artistic efforts on this “public” work of art.
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Art media (materials) – categories for grouping works of visual art according to the art materials used such as oil painting on canvas or marble sculpture.

Cartoon – Full-size preparatory drawings made for the purpose of transferring a design to the working surface of a painting.

Conservation – preservation, protection or restoration of cultural or historical sites, artifacts, or works of art.

Fresco – a painting done on wet plaster so that the colors penetrate the plaster and become fixed as it dries.

Grid – a network of lines that cross each other to form a series of squares or rectangles.

Innovation – the act or process of creating a new artistic method or style.

Mural – a large scale art work applied directly to walls, ceilings, and other large flat surfaces.

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.

Process – a series of actions or steps taken to achieve a particular result, as in the processes necessary to create a mural.

Product – the object or performance that is a result of an action or process.

Scale – the size of one thing in relationship to others.

Site – the area or exact plot of ground on which anything is located.

Techniques –a method of carrying out a particular task, especially the execution or performance of an artistic work.

Tradition – an artistic method or style which has been established by an artist or movement and followed by others.
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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. The final product of the mural project, the class artist statement, the individual reflections, the documentation of research and interviews should all serve as components of your assessment process.