OLEAN – Renowned muralist Meg Saligmann has focused on the SUNY Jamestown Community College Library and Liberal Arts Center for her latest large-scale project due to its location in the heart of her hometown – easily visible from downtown – and because it is on a higher education campus.
To a lesser extent, she was drawn to the history of the building and its surroundings. Certainly, the structure has stood the test of time.
An aerial drawing of Olean from 1882 on the Library of Congress website shows a building where the JCC Library now stands which housed Acme Flour Mill. Over the years it has also housed a cold store, slaughterhouse, fish market and even a television repair shop.
Anthony Stagles was part of the construction team in the early 90s that was tasked with repurposing the building which JCC took over in 1989. He remembers the layers of red brick crumbling over time.
Nonetheless, Stagles said much of the interior brickwork and some of the exterior were preserved and stabilized to help form the structure that exists today. A recent trip to the building’s dusty innards revealed the original 1800s stone and mortar foundation.
“It was amazing that they were able to do what they did with it,” Stagles said.
Before construction began, Stagles remembers seeing a wooden cogwheel likely used to grind flour. Others remember seeing a round millstone for grinding grain in the basement.
During a visit to Olean in February to gather additional community content and raise funds for the potential project, “Heart of Olean Mural,” Saligman said the idea of circles — like the cogwheel and the grinding wheel — continues. to increase as a potential overall feature of the design she plans to share with the JCC administration in the coming weeks.
ARTIST INSPIRATIONSaligman, a Philadelphia resident and graduate of Olean High School in 1983, has produced several notable community-oriented murals in the United States and around the world. She uses ideas from community members as well as local culture and history to build her designs.
“I had some interesting ideas that resonated with me,” she says.
The most notable of the artist’s initial concepts centers on Robert Lax’s 1959 series of poems entitled “Circus of the Sun”. Recently, Saligman learned that Lax, who was born and died in Olean, lived for a time with his parents at 307 N. Clinton St., on what is now JCC land and one block from the library and the liberal arts center. “Circus of the Sun” acclaimed Lax, who wrote most of the poems in the book while living in Olean.
“It speaks to the circle and goes back to your early days,” Saligman said of the work. “It resonates for me in the project that dates back to my beginnings. It has lots of great pictures. That’s what got me started with the circles. People keep bringing me pictures of circles. I started asking people to create circles, but it’s a targeted request. It allows people to come in. This gives us a channel of exchange. These are things I’m working with right now.
Other circles entered Saligman’s view. The “O” for Olean on the signs that welcome people to the city. North Union Street roundabouts. The face of the clock tower and the circular path around it in the heart of the JCC campus, where Saligman first discussed mural ideas with community members in November.
“I think it was fitting that the community gathering and gathering sessions begin here, in the heart of where the mural will be,” she said. “We have always had the core values of the college in mind. I’m interested in CCG’s value of embracing change. These values are something that can be addressed in a work of art.
EVOLVING OBJECTIVELax, who spent time working with a traveling circus, wrote in his poetry that it was magical to see an empty field transformed into a booming carnival. The same could be said for the ebb and flow of the massive 3.5-story library and liberal arts center.
While it offers a Salgiman scale that few buildings in the city possess, its endurance and propensity to adapt to change are equally remarkable.
Linda Edstrom, former alderwoman for the town of Olean and legislator for Cattaraugus County, ran the fish market there from 1981 to 1985, a century after it was originally built. She said the city stocked Christmas decorations at a higher level at the time. There was also room for local supermarkets to store frozen foods.
“It was a lot of fun and I was making a good living,” Edstrom recalled.
But Edstrom had no choice but to sell the market when Tops Friendly Markets began offering shrimp for less than she could buy. Six months later, the market was closed, thus ending commercial operations inside the building.
JCC soon after turned the structure into its main academic building. It became a library after the college took over the Fleet Bank building on North Union Street and built the Cutco Theatre, its Technology Center and Allied Health and Science Center in the early 2000s.
Pending college consent, Saligman’s mission is to refresh the building once again with a historic mural that will pay homage to the past, present and future of Olean and JCC.
“It’s a joy to work where you grew up, in the city you love,” said Saligman, a member of the Olean High School Wall of Fame. “I’ve done this in many cities without logging in first. To have a real love for it when I’m starting out is different, interesting and really nice.