Unit 3: Lesson 1

Fertile Ground draws upon a rich history of mural making across time and place.


In this section:

Goals and Outcomes
Key Questions
Lesson Narrative
Group Activity: Developing Mural Theme
Assessment Strategies

Goals and Outcomes:

Students will become familiar with murals through time and place.
Students will be able to describe how murals express community concerns.
Students will understand the influence of different types of patronage on the creation of murals.
Students will recognize factors that affect the preservation and permanence of murals.
Students will be able to plan a mural that addresses a community interest.
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Key Questions:

Why have people throughout history made murals?
How can murals tell us about the stories of peoples’ lives in their communities?
In what different ways have murals been funded?
How has the content of murals been affected by different kinds of patrons?
What different factors contribute to the preservation and permanence of murals?
What content would you like to include in a mural for your community?
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Lesson Narratives:

Note to Teacher: The inquiry approach used in this lesson is designed to allow students to carefully observe works of art, make connections to their own prior knowledge, and respond to questions before they have been given specific information by the teacher. The lesson narrative below is structured in a sequence to lead teachers and students through this process.  The information given below discussion questions is meant to be introduced by the teacher after the students have had a chance to observe the images and discuss the questions themselves. It is always a good idea for the teacher to ask the students to refer back to the work of art to support their ideas.

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

This lesson concentrates mainly on secular painted murals that make good comparisons with Meg Saligman’s Fertile Ground. There are, however, strong traditions all over the world of murals made in religious contexts and in other media (materials). Teachers might be interested in exploring:

Buddhist Dunhuang cave paintings in China
Catacomb paintings in Rome
Byzantine paintings and mosaics in churches around Greece and Eastern Europe
Sistine Chapel in Rome and other Renaissance and Baroque frescoes in Italy
Assyrian painted reliefs in Iraq
Islamic tile decoration in Mosques in Spain and the Middle East
Medieval stained glass windows in churches in Europe
Marc Chagall and Henri Matisse modern stained glass windows

Community Concerns

Murals have been made all over the world in all different time periods. Although the subject matter of the murals vary, people have always made murals about things that are important to them and their communities.

Look at the following murals:

Lascaux cave paintings

Full virtual tour of the cave.

Raphael, School of Athens

Diego Rivera, Detroit Industry

Meg Saligman Journey

What do you see in the paintings?

Based on what you see, what do you think might have been important to the communities for which the murals were made?
Can you guess where and when each of these paintings might have been made?

The Lascaux cave paintings were made in a cave in southern France about 15,000 BCE making them some of the earliest art we know about . These paintings of horses and bulls were made deep in caves in areas that were probably used for community ceremonies rather than for living spaces. The animals pictured were hunted for food so the artists were representing animals that would have been vital for the people’s survival.

Raphael was commissioned by Pope Julius II to paint the School of Athens in 1510-1511 in the Vatican in Rome, Italy, during an historical period called the Renaissance. It was painted in the study housing the Pope’s library where he signed important documents. Most of the figures in the mural represent actual philosophers and scholars from ancient Greek times, such as Plato, Aristotle and Euclid. Scholars and painters during the Renaissance were inspired by the great period of learning and culture that had taken place almost 2000 years before in Greece. In order to make the connection between this period of learning in ancient times and his own time, Raphael uses portraits of some of the important Renaissance artists that he knew, such as Michelangelo and Leonardo. For example, Plato, the older figure with the white beard in the center is given the features of Leonardo da Vinci, a famous painter of the Renaissance that Raphael knew and admired. Through his painting in the Pope’s library, Raphael expresses the importance of learning and the arts to his community.

Diego Rivera, an artist from Mexico, painted Detroit Industry, in the Detroit Institute of Arts in Michigan in 1932-33. These murals depict workers in one of the Ford Motor Company’s plants in Michigan. The whole group of 27 panels focuses on the automobile workers but also includes references to new developments in other areas of science and technology. Through these murals Rivera expresses the significance of the worker in the growing automobile industry in Detroit.

Meg Saligman’s Journey was painted in 1998 on the exterior wall of the Children’s Crisis Treatment Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It symbolically depicts the healing journey of the children who are treated at the Center. Through these murals Saligman expresses the importance of the youth of the community.

How does Meg Saligman represent the interests and concerns of the Omaha community in Fertile Ground?

Meg Saligman says that the content of her mural comes from the community.  She interviewed many people in Omaha and asked, “What is important to you about Omaha?”

What would you answer if she asked you this question?
Meg Saligman said that in her initial impressions of Omaha she saw a depth of roots in both nature and community.
Where do you see roots in the mural?
What in the mural shows that the natural world is important to our community?
How can a community have roots?

The mural is titled Fertile Ground. This is a metaphor that compares a thriving community to healthy plants that send deep roots down into fertile soil.

How does Meg Saligman show that the Omaha community is thriving in the mural?

Sometimes artists have made murals to help a community overcome problems and thrive. Between 1974 and 1983 Judy Baca worked with members of the community to create a 2,754 ft. mural along a flood control channel in Los Angeles.  The original plain concrete wall was unattractive and the project, along with a walkway and park, was meant to create a beautiful and useful space for the community. The subject matter celebrates the history of California through the eyes of women, Native Americans, and immigrants from all over the world who settled there. The imagery, which empowers people whose history was rarely studied, is divided into decades from the 1910s to the 1950s with plans for a continuation in the future. Although the official name of the mural is The History of California it is now almost always called the Great Wall of Los Angeles (a reference to the Great Wall of China, begun in the 3rd c. BCE). Each year of the project young people between the ages of 14 and 21 were recruited to help plan and paint the mural. The project provided jobs to young people from low-income families and from a diversity of backgrounds and taught them valuable life skills.

Look at Judy Baca’s Great Wall of Los Angeles

This website has numerous pages which provide information, video, and images of the different parts of the wall.

Meg Saligman has also been involved in projects with youth that were meant to address urban problems. In 1989 she painted her first mural with the Philadelphia Anti Graffiti Network that is dedicated to stopping graffiti vandalism. One of the ways they do this is to paint murals that cover graffiti and provide imagery that community members can enjoy, be proud of and take care of.

What problems exist in your community that you might be able to address in a mural?


Because murals are images on walls, they are usually public art which convey the concerns of a certain community to a larger public.

How do these large-scale art works come to be? A person or group of people or organizations usually select an artist, pay for materials and labor, help determine the location and subject matter of the mural, and guide the entire project. The people who do this are usually called patrons. There are many different kinds of patronage including domestic (family), elite (ruling class), government, and collaborative (partnerships).

Look at the following works of art:

Blackfoot Native American painted tipis

Roman villa at Boscoreale

African Ndebele House Painting

Blackfoot Native American painted tipis

Painted tipis were common among Plains Indian tribes, but painting a tipi is not simply a matter of creating your own design, or copying someone else’s on your tipi. In the traditional Blackfeet way of doing things, tipi designs are owned by individuals and families, and are passed on through family lines or through transfer of the rights to the design to another person. A person usually received the original design through having a dream or a spiritual vision, in which the dreamer is given certain instructions in order to carry out the design in the proper manner. Source: http://art.mt.gov/folklife/hearthand/tipi.asp

Roman villa at Boscoreale

This wall painting is a fresco in a cubiculum (bedroom) from the Villa of P. Fannius Synistor at Boscoreale, ca. 40–30 BCE. It shows the Roman interest in decorating their walls with realistic paintings. The majority of the villa served as a residence for the owner, a wealthy Roman citizen who owned more properties of this kind and used them as country houses. The painted decoration of the villa at Boscoreale shows that the owner was rich and could afford to decorate his home, here in particular his bedroom, with the best paintings. Objects of daily life were depicted in such a way as to seem real, with metal and glass vases on shelves and tables appearing to project out from the wall. These paintings reveal the owner’s pleasure in impressing guests at his comfortable summer home.  Source: http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/03.14.13a-g

African Ndebele House Painting

For over a hundred years, the Ndebele have decorated the outside of their homes with designs. It is women who have been the painters of these artistic forms that are such striking Ndebele cultural markers. In wall painting, women have an outlet for the expression of their experience of the world, of their aspirations, and of their identity as individuals and as part of a group. The early paintings were geometric and primarily decorative. Over the decades, the painters’ style quickly developed and the artists began to incorporate imagery from their lives, particularly the details drawn from their work as domestic servants in white households in the cities. Electric lights, swimming pools, multistory houses, telephones, airplanes, and water taps all appear prominently in Ndebele paintings. Artists have been quoted as saying that because they want these things for themselves, they paint them on their homes. Read literally, the symbols and designs in Ndebele wall painting reflect the aspirations of the painter, and ultimately, the community.  Source: http://academic.evergreen.edu/projects/wallpainting/about.htm#traditionsandtechniques

Of the four types of patronage, domestic, elite, government or collaborative, which one do you think was responsible for the creation of these works?
Could any of these works fit under more than one type of patronage?
How and by whom was the subject matter chosen for each of these murals?
How do you think the locations of the murals might have been chosen?

Now look at the following works:

Mayan painting at Bonampak

Raphael, School of Athens

Mayan painting at Bonampak

These murals were painted around CE 800 in a small temple and show the ascension of a new king. The paintings reveal, in astonishing detail, the ancient Maya at the end of their splendor, engaging in court rituals and sacrifice, and wearing elegant costumes as they preside over fallen captives, acknowledge foreign nobles and receive abundant tribute. Costumes, musical instruments, and the weapons of war are all rendered with great detail, making Bonampak an unparalleled resource for understanding ancient Mayan society and the rulers who controlled it. Source: http://www.peabody.yale.edu/explore/bonampak.html

Raphael, School of Athens

See information presented earlier in lesson.

Of the four types of patronage, domestic, elite, government or collaborative, which one do you think was responsible for the creation of these works?
Who do you think chose the subject matter for these murals and why?
How do you think the locations of the murals might have been chosen?

Teacher’s note: For more murals connected to elite patronage in different historical time periods see:

Mantua, Ducal Palace

Diego Rivera’s mural at Rockefeller Center

Now look at the following works:

Aaron Douglas, Aspects of Negro Life

Nebraska State Capitol murals in the Memorial Chamber

Aaron Douglas, Aspects of Negro Life

During the Great Depression the United States government set up the Works Progress Administration (WPA) to provide jobs to people all across America. Some of those hired were artists who created public art works. In 1934, Aaron Douglas was commissioned to paint a series of murals for The New York Public Library. The four panels of Aspects of Negro Life show the influence on Douglas’ painting of African sculpture, jazz music, dance, and abstract geometric forms. The murals are symbolic of the migration of African peoples from the rural South and the Caribbean to the urban industrial centers of the North just after World War I. The murals express the creativity of the 1920s in the urban north and the freedom it allowed African Americans in their new life.   Source: http://exhibitions.nypl.org/treasures/items/show/170

Nebraska State Capitol murals in the Memorial Chamber

In 1992 Steven Roberts, an Omaha artist, won a competition held by the Nebraska Capitol Murals Commission to paint eight mural panels for the Memorial Chamber on the 14th floor of the Nebraska State Capitol. The eight murals present “heroic enterprises associated with Nebraska history”. One of the paintings, The Ideal of Freedom, portrays the trial of Standing Bear, chief of the Ponca tribe. At this trial Native Americans were first recognized by the judicial system as human beings with civil rights. Roberts spent from 1992-1996 painting the large murals in his art studio and they were installed in the capitol in 1996.

Look at the other seven murals that Roberts painted in the Nebraska capitol. Choose one of the other seven and discuss how the artist connected the subject matter to the Nebraska community.
Sources: http://capitol.org/building/rooms/memorial-chamber/ and http://www.modernartsmidwest.com/collection/StephenRoberts

Teacher Resource on Trial of Standing Bear.

Of the four types of patronage, domestic, elite, government or collaborative, which one do you think was responsible for the creation of these works?

Who do you think chose the subject matter for these murals and why?
How do you think the locations of the murals might have been chosen?

Now look at the following works:

Diego Rivera, Detroit Industry

Judy Baca’s Great Wall of Los Angeles

Watie White and Andrew Forsman, Benson Mural

(refer back to information about Diego Rivera’s and Judy Baca’s murals earlier in this lesson)

Diego Rivera, Detroit Industry

In 1932 the president of the Ford Motor company and the director of the Detroit Institute of Arts commissioned Rivera to paint two murals for the museum’s Garden Court dealing with the history of Detroit and the development of the automobile industry.

Judy Baca’s Great Wall of Los Angeles

In 1974, the Army Corps of Engineers contacted Judy Baca to create a mural in a major flood control channel as part of a beautification project. Production of the Great Wall has involved the support of many government agencies, community organizations, businesses, corporations, foundations, and individuals. This support has taken the form of cash contributions and donations of supplies, equipment, and services. The Social and Public Art Resource Center (SPARC) became the managing organization for the production of the mural. Throughout the years, assistance has come from the Summer Youth Employment Program, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the Flood Control District.

Watie White and Andrew Forsman, Benson Mural

In Omaha the Benson community embarked upon a neighborhood beautification project along Maple Street with the Benson-Ames Alliance, the Benson Business Association, Omaha by Design and Art Omaha. In conjunction with this effort members of the Leadership Omaha Class (Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce) began a public mural project under the leadership of artist Watie White. Another member of the group said, “We wanted something that would not only add beautification to the area and bring pride to area residents, but also give something back to local business owners who are socially minded and have continually impacted the area through their active community presence.”

To broaden the impact, the group wanted to add a mentoring element for student artists in the area. “We really wanted to have the opportunity to partner one-on-one with students,” said White, who worked with Benson High School student Andrew Forsman on the mural behind the Pizza Shoppe. “When students create something of this stature and see the end result, it gives them something to be proud of, and in this case, be proud of for years to come.” White refers to the mural as “Homer at the Pizza Shoppe” because it is a contemporary interpretation of Homer’s The Odyssey, an ancient Greek literary classic which Forsman had just read in school. Amy Ryan, owner of the Pizza Shoppe, met with White and Forsman to develop the design, and served as the model for the ship’s figurehead. The mural refers to Odysseus’ perilous journey home after the Trojan war as his wooden ship traveled through turbulent waters and faced fantastic adventures.

(adapted from Michelle Fuller, “Benson Mural Project aims to help community,”)

Literary Source: The Odyssey by Homer

Of the four types of patronage, domestic, elite, government or collaborative, which one do you think was responsible for the creation of these works?
Who do you think chose subject matter for each of these murals?
How do you think the different partners contributed to each of the projects? (subject matter, funding, location, community involvement)

You have looked at examples of four different kinds of patronage: domestic, elite, government and collaborative.

Which type of patronage do you think was responsible for Meg Saligman’s Fertile Ground in Omaha?

Fertile Ground had three major patrons: the Peter Kiewit Foundation, a philanthropic organization which provided all the 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. The Executive Director of the Peter Kiewit Foundation said, “Peter Kiewit [former Omaha business leader and philanthropist] 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.”

Of course, such a large project as Fertile Ground requires the help of many different people and organizations. 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. Other organizations that provided resources were the Durham Western Heritage Museum and Douglas County Historical Society whose archival photographs Meg Saligman used in her research and the Gerald R. Ford Conservation Center which is documenting materials and techniques for preservation of the mural.

Have you ever worked with other people on a project?
Have you ever worked on a project that partners your school with another organization or business?
What are the advantages of collaborating with others on a project?
After looking at all these works and discussing their patronage why do you think people might want to be patrons of art projects?

What kind of community project would you like to support with your patronage?

Preservation and Permanence

Over time the existence of murals has been threatened by many different factors. We are fortunate to still have ancient murals like those in Lascaux cave dating from about 15,000 BCE.

What do you think are some of the factors that might threaten the survival of murals throughout the world? (environment, natural disaster, materials, human interaction)

Compare the physical environments of Egyptian murals and the Mayan Bonampak murals

The Egyptian murals were painted in underground tombs in a desert area and then sealed up for centuries.  The Bonampak murals were painted in stone temple buildings in the Mexican rainforest and were open to the public.
How would these environments have different impact on the survival of the paintings?

The paintings in Lascaux cave in France lasted thousands of years underground in a cave that no one knew about. In 1940 they were discovered by four teenage boys who found a secret underground passage where a tree had uprooted. Great crowds of people flocked to see these very old paintings and the temperature and humidity of their bodies changed the environment and caused the paintings to start to deteriorate. There is now a recreation of the most famous part of the cave that tourists can visit while the original cave is only open to a few scholars so that the paintings do not deteriorate any further.

Another form of environmental impact on preservation of murals are natural disasters.

What kind of natural disasters can you think of that might destroy art works?
Could a natural disaster preserve a mural? How?

Murals at two ancient sites were preserved when volcanic eruptions covered them with ash and pumice.

Watch this YouTube Video about the destructive effects of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius near Pompeii (Italy) in 79 CE.

The murals that you looked at earlier in the villa at Boscoreale were actually preserved when Vesuvius erupted.

(For a map of Italy with Boscoreale marked, as well as Pompeii and Mt. Vesuvius see http://www.maplandia.com/italy/campania/napoli/boscoreale/

Murals on the ancient island of Thera (modern Santorini) in the Aegean Sea were also preserved by a volcanic eruption in about 1600 BCE that blew away much of the island itself but preserved whole rooms of buildings intact.

For a map of Thera in the Aegean Islands go to: http://www.oeaw.ac.at/sciem2000/Images/pr04fig02.gif

Sometimes the kinds of materials used or the surface to which they are applied impacts how long they last.

The Blackfoot Native American tipis were traditionally made of buffalo hide and painted with natural plant dyes.

Originally the painted Ndebele houses were made of mud and the designs were created with natural pigments.

What factors might threaten the survival of these types of paintings?

Another example of the physical properties of materials which affected the preservation of a painting is Leonardo da Vinci’s Battle of Anghiari begun in the town hall of Florence, Italy in 1504. 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)

Another way murals might be threatened is through human interaction.

What are some ways you can think of that people’s actions might affect the survival of murals?


The Works Progress Administration (WPA)  – Click on Multimedia Slide Show on the site below and listen to the introductory information about the WPA, its employment of artists, and the murals were made studios of the New York radio station WNYC.(http://www.wnyc.org/arts/articles/53366)

Now listen to video #3 on this site (third picture below about artist Louis Schanker).

What happened to the murals in the WNYC studios?

Look at Diego Rivera’s mural Man at the Crossroads in Mexico City. (Click on the image for a larger view)

It is a remake of a mural done earlier in Rockefeller Center in New York City. Rivera planned this mural to be a 63-foot-long portrait of workers facing symbolic crossroads of industry, science, socialism, and capitalism.

Do you see anything in this mural that might represent these ideas?

The survival of the original mural Man at the Crossroads was strongly impacted by decisions people made. The artist Diego Rivera held political views that were unpopular in the United States at the time. He added a portrait of the Russian leader Vladimir Lenin that had not been approved in the original design. Rivera was ordered to remove the portrait of Lenin but he refused. Even though he offered to balance Lenin’s portrait with one of Abraham Lincoln on other side of the mural, he was barred from the site, his full fee was paid and the mural was hidden behind a massive curtain. Rivera’s supporters protested and the Museum of Modern Art offered to transfer the mural to its building but at midnight on February 10, 1934, Rockefeller Center workmen destroyed the mural with axes.(http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/cultureshock/flashpoints/visualarts/diegorivera_a.html)

Do you know of any other works of art that have been destroyed for political reasons?

Who do you think should make the decisions about what imagery is included in a mural? (the patron, the artist, the community, etc…)

When Meg Saligman was chosen to paint the mural, Fertile Ground, 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.”

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.

What do you think might threaten an outdoor mural in Omaha, Nebraska?

Meg Saligman has thought about the preservation of the mural from the very beginning. 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. Hawkeye Vision installed a video camera to chronicle the making of the mural so that this video will serve as a record of the process. 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 sunlight, wind, and temperature 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.

Group Activity: Developing a Mural Theme:

Divide the students into groups of four or five.

You have looked at a number of murals that reflect aspects of the community for which they were made.

What murals do you remember that reflect their communities and how do they do that?

In your small groups come up with two interests, strengths or concerns of your community that could serve as a topic for a mural that you will design.

Have each of the small groups write their ideas on the board or on large paper that can be posted around the room. Leave space under each idea. Have each group report out briefly about their ideas and why they chose them.

Have each small group choose two of the posted ideas (at least one of which is not their own) for further work in their group.

Your group is going to act as the patron for a mural.  For each of your two selected topics make the following decisions:

What would be a good location for a mural with this topic?

What other community partners might be interested in getting involved with this mural project?

(Teacher Note: Review some of the partners involved with the making of Fertile Ground, Judy Baca’s Great Wall of Los Angeles and Watie White’s Benson Mural.)

Have each group report out their ideas and write the information under the selected topics.

Of the ideas selected and discussed, have the class chose one to create a mural (See lesson 3B)

(Teacher Note: If there is a clear favorite the entire class will then focus on that topic, otherwise use whatever democratic selection process is appropriate to your class. Consider the possibility of merging some of the topics into a single one if they are related in some way.)

Have the small groups brainstorm imagery that could be used to represent or symbolize this topic. Report out and record all of the ideas.

(Teacher Note: Your students will be using these ideas in Lesson 3B to make a mural.
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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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