OLEAN — Renowned muralist Meg Saligmann zeroed in on SUNY Jamestown Community College’s Library & Liberal Arts Center for her latest large-scale project because of its location in the heart of her hometown — easily seen from downtown — and because it sits on a campus of higher education.
To a lesser extent, she was attracted to the history of the building and its surroundings. To be sure, 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 is now that housed Acme Flour Mill. Over the years, it was also home to cold storage, a slaughterhouse, a fish market and even a television repair shop.
Anthony Stagles was on the construction crew in the early ’90s that was in charge of repurposing the building that JCC took over in 1989. He remembers layers of red brick crumbling from age.
Nevertheless, Stagles said much of the interior brickwork and some outside was preserved and stabilized to help form the structure that exists today. A recent journey to the building’s dusty bowels revealed the original 1800s foundation of stone and mortar.
“It was amazing that they were able to make it into what they did,” Stagles said.
Before construction began, Stagles recalled seeing a wooden cogwheel likely used for milling flour. Others remember seeing a round millstone for grinding grain in the basement.
During a February visit to Olean 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 millstone — continues to rise as a potential overarching feature of the design she plans to share with the JCC administration in the coming weeks.
ARTIST INSPIRATIONSaligman, a Philadelphia resident and 1983 Olean High School graduate, has produced several notable community-driven murals in the United States and around the world. She uses community member ideas and local culture and history to build her designs.
“I’ve had some interesting ideas that have resonated with me,” she said.
Most notable of the artist’s initial concepts center on Robert Lax’s 1959 series of poems called “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 grounds and a city block from the Library & Liberal Arts Center. “Circus of the Sun” brought acclaim to Lax, who wrote most of the book’s poetry while living in Olean.
“It speaks to the circle and going back to your beginning,” Saligman said of the work. “That resonates to me in the project going back to my beginning. It has a lot of beautiful imagery. That’s what started me with the circles. People keep bringing me pictures of circles. I have started asking people for circles, but it’s a focused ask. It gives people a way in. It gives us a pathway for exchange. Those are elements that right now I’m working with.”
Other circles have come into Saligman’s view. The “O’s” in Olean on the signs that greet people into the city. The roundabouts on North Union Street. The face of the clock tower and the circular path that runs around it in the heart of JCC’s campus, where Saligman first discussed mural ideas with community members in November.
“I think it was fitting that the meet and greets and community gathering sessions began right here at the heart of where the mural will be,” she said. “We’ve always had the core values of the college in mind. I’m interested in JCC’s value of embracing change. Those values are something that can be addressed within a work of art.”
EVOLVING PURPOSELax, who spent time working with a traveling circus, wrote in his poetry that it was magical seeing an empty field transformed into a burgeoning carnival. The same could be said for the ebb and flow of the massive 3 ½-story Library & Liberal Arts Center.
While it offers Salgiman scale that few buildings in the city possess, its endurance and propensity to adapt to change are equally notable.
Linda Edstrom, former Olean city alderwoman and Cattaraugus County legislator, ran the fish market there from 1981-85, a century after its original construction. She said the city stored Christmas decorations on an upper level at the time. There was also space for local supermarkets to keep frozen food.
“It was great fun and I made a decent 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 it. Six months later, the market was shuttered, effectively ending commercial operations inside the building.
JCC soon after transformed 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 Cutco Theater, its Technology Center and Allied Health & Sciences Center in the early 2000s.
Pending consent from the college, Saligman’s mission is to refresh the building once more with a landmark mural that will pay homage to Olean and JCC’s past, present, and future.
“It’s a joy to work in the place you grew up, in the city that you love,” said Saligman, a member of Olean High School’s wall of fame. “I have done this in a lot of cities with no prior connection. To have a true love for it when I start is different, interesting, and really nice.”