Big Touch-Up For Massive Omaha Mural

A worker with a pressure washer at the "Fertile Ground" mural in Omaha. (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News)
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August 4, 2017 - 7:45am

A huge mural that covers the entire side of a downtown Omaha building is getting a facelift eight years after it was completed. A faulty sealant was causing the massive outdoor painting to develop a cloudy white film that dulled its bright colors. A team of artists is now hard at work, getting what has become an Omaha landmark back into top shape.

On a bright summer day, two men with pressure washers are blasting away at the side of a building just across the street from TD Ameritrade Park in downtown Omaha. It’s tedious work and there’s a lot to do. The mural, titled “Fertile Ground”, stretches more than 450 feet and is eight stories tall, a total of 32,000 square feet. For renowned muralist Meg Saligman, this is a familiar place.  

“I admit to hanging around below this wall past when I have to at night,” Saligman said. “There’s something that feels nice and home-like about this site because we spent so much time here.”

Artist Meg Saligman at "Fertile Ground" mural. (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News)  

It took about nine months for her and a team of artists to complete the original project eight years ago. Almost immediately, the surface began to show premature discoloration. Saligman wasn’t happy.

“This time, coming and seeing that there is a fog over the mural, it hurt,” Saligman said.

It turns out the original sealant applied over the paint to protect it pulled away from the surface and created tiny air pockets that clouded the mural. The paint itself, under the clear coat, is still in good shape.     

“The good news is it was protecting it and the painting itself is fine, but if you can’t see through the clear coat to the painting, it doesn’t really matter,” Saligman said. “So, we are getting off that foggy, it’s almost like a milky haze is over the mural, which can be relatively easily fixed.”  

That’s where the noisy pressure washers come in. Workers are using them to remove the faulty sealant. Saligman and her team will then touch-up the paint in a few areas, add a varnish that will saturate the colors again, and then recoat it with a higher-quality, marine-grade sealant.

Workers at the "Fertile Ground" mural. (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News)

“It’s going to look, I would say, 100-percent better. The colors are going to come back, the colors are going to be vibrant. It’s going to give you that exuberance that it once did,” she said.

The restoration is funded by the Peter Kiewit Foundation. It also paid for the original mural. It’s what’s known as a non-linear mural. Instead of a left-to-right narrative, it’s a collective made up of snapshots of the past, present and future of Nebraska.

Paul Ternes is a program officer with the Omaha-based foundation and says it makes sense to ensure a mural the magnitude of “Fertile Ground” is kept in good condition.   

“This is one mural that people actually study and look at about the process, the scale. Doctoral students have looked at it as part of their mural studies or conservation studies,” Ternes said. “It can be used for telling a story, that humanities piece of telling who we are. There’s actually arts education built-in here that connects on many STEM elements.”   

Bemis Center Executive Director Chris Cook. (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News)

Because of the growth of downtown Omaha, the new ballpark and the College World Series every summer, the area around the mural gets a lot of foot traffic. It’s on the side of a building owned by NRG Energy and is maintained by the Bemis Center in Omaha. Bemis Center Executive Director Chris Cook says the mural restoration is an important investment.

“I think all the parties, especially the Bemis and Kiewit Foundation, artists really see the mural as a gift to the community of Omaha and an artwork that speaks on many different levels to our community and having it look the best possible is certainly our priority,” Cook said.   

For Meg Saligman, “Fertile Ground” brings back good memories. She’s glad it has new life.

“Right now, we’ve decided with the Omaha community that we’re going to restore it for another 10, 15 or 20 years. At the end of that clear coat, we’ll see the relevance that it still has and truly want that to be up to the people that live with it here,” Saligman said.     

The restoration should be complete in the next couple of weeks.



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