Meg Saligman: The Big Picture
Meg Saligman’s large-scale murals are difficult to grasp close-up. But the stories they tell are in the details.
Meg Saligman is an internationally admired mural artist. Known for her community-centric creation process, she has produced over fifty large-scale public works, in numerous U.S. cities and around the world.
Saligman grew up in Olean, NY, and started painting murals as a teenager. She earned a BA in painting from Washington University in St. Louis in 1987, and began work as a professional muralist in the early 1990s.
Much of Saligman’s work has been completed under the auspices of Philadelphia’s prolific Mural Arts Program, including her best-known work, Common Threads (1998), a monumental painting depicting antique dolls amid local high school students. Her 2001 project Once in a Millennium Moon in Shreveport, LA, was the largest publicly funded mural in the United States at completion. At 42,000 square feet, We Will Not Be Satisfied Until, (2016) a Martin Luther King, Jr., mural in Chattanooga, TN, is among the largest public paintings in the world.
Meg Saligman paints big at home and abroad, but her creations are never about her, they’re about the communities where her work will live. She calls herself a vessel with a vision.
Meg Saligman: I do not start with the idea, I start with what I hear. The first part of the process is culling and collecting content, and that’s what inspires me.
Saligman calls this first part of the process, seeking. It leads to absorbing and creating and finally sharing. Underlying all this is an understanding that she must approach each new project as an outsider. This was especially true in 2015 when she and her collaborator, Lizzie Kripke, were commissioned to help create what would become one of the largest public murals in the United States: the MLK Mural, We Will Not Be Satisfied Until in Chattanooga, Tennessee. It wasn’t until they arrived to start work that they became aware of the theme the community had chosen: gentrification.
Saligman: So now we have a situation where we’re two white women painting about gentrification in a black community. So, it’s like but then you have to look inside and see do we think this is something we should be doing, and to me the answer was yes. One of the reasons was our process is we come into the community and it’s not like we’re placing the art there, we’re finding what is in the community. We had a team of nine working with us from Chattanooga, so we believed in getting a team of us working together to create the work, and also, I felt that it wasn’t as though there was someone in Chattanooga who could do this. If there was, I might have deferred.
In 2013, Meg Saligman was invited to apply her skills even father from home when she helped decorate a new water tower at a girls school in Central Tanzania. This part of Africa has a long history of problems with water, periods of intense flooding followed by severe droughts, sanitation and infrastructure are limited, and the burden of collecting safe water rests on the shoulders of women and girls, an arduous task that can put them in danger of sexual assault, as Saligman discovered in early correspondences with the girls from the school.
Saligman: We actually got back one sheet of paper that said water makes girls get raped because they have to walk by themselves for five hours every day to get it. So, they equated water with rape and just that subject to me seemed to be one that we could learn a lot from exploring together.
AJC: This changes this entire society for the women in it because there’s now water on tap, literally, whereas before it was a labor of gathering water.
Saligman: Well, this is a water tower that collects enough water for three months of the year, and it’s an ongoing issue at this school to get water for the full season. They had a salinated plan and they’re still doing it, they’re still trying to solve—
AJC: So this doesn’t solve the problem, well it’s more than a bandaid, maybe it’s a bandage on the problem, it fixed the problem for—
Saligman: They’re surviving with it.
Though it’s only a partial solution to a perennial problem, it’s likely that this water tower and the art that adorns it will remain for many years to come. This is not the case for all of Saligman’s projects, which have in some cases been painted over or demolished. But she says permanence is not her priority.
Saligman: Think of the work that goes into a stage set at the Metropolitan Opera House and then how often does that get seen? Then it could get thrown away, or reclaimed, or stored if it was really successful, so I think that the notion of exterior public murals have really bright lives even if the longevity is not guaranteed, for me, is a really great trade-off. Let’s say even if I’m a blue-chip artist and the gallery is selling my work, how many people see it when it goes into someone’s private home, or in a museum, that’s a self-selecting crowd? So, I love the public being able to see it, which way balances. I also strongly believe I make a work, put it within the community. If they don’t want it there in two weeks, it shouldn’t be there. It’s not up to me what happens to it and let it takes its life, and it’s far more interesting and potent that way.
Meg Saligman thinks deeply about the world and her own place in it, but her work has never been led by the desire to tell her own story, but to help others to tell theirs.