Connected \\ June 4, 2021

Salem artist Meg Nichols turns Salem windows into watery world

Salem artist Meg Nichols recently created an installation in the windows at 179 Essex Street inspired by our new exhibition In American Waters, which explores how artists have long been inspired by the sea. I recently asked Meg about her new public art project, her own artistic practice and where she thinks Salem’s creative community is headed.

Meg Nichols. Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.

Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.

Q: You’ve been a photojournalist, pursued music photography, travel and storytelling. How do all these parts influence you as an artist?

A: I studied Photography at the School of Visual Arts in NYC and photographed bands on and off stage all through college. I kept up with my love of travel and photography by working for an international reggae music magazine for many years and quickly found that I loved studio portraiture but also telling the visual stories of concert-goers or musicians before and after the show. When I started travelling internationally on various photojournalism projects, I started photographing craftspeople (specifically in Ghana and Turkey) in their workshops, which really broadened my world view of the artistic process and cultures. With these photos, I would help them market their wares and tell their story through an art collaborative I set up. Over time, I realized I loved the hands on practice of jewelry making, book binding, printmaking, etc. just as much as taking pictures and started to explore other mediums.

Q: What is the vision for the windows on Essex Street?

A: The vision is to create a whimsical, immersive experience that viewers will linger in, seeking out all the details. The Edward Moran painting that it is inspired by (The Valley in the Sea) has so many elements that make you look and think twice, so I wanted to bring that into a 3D realm for the viewers. You really have to look closely. I also wanted to create something that was not an expected underwater scene in order to capture the true imagination of what early explorers and artists imagined the bottom of the sea looked like. The majority of the elements were constructed by hand and I used recycled materials whenever possible. The original painting has such a unique color palette and glow about it (much different than we see under the water today), so keeping everything light, bright and in my own style was important.

A woman painting a wall.

Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.

Q: What do you hope people take away from the installation?

A: I hope people are intrigued by it and walk all the way in to see it in full. Since this is a collaboration of sorts between two artists, I hope that the viewers find the underwater scene that I've created based on Moran's work mystical. I hope it challenges people to use their imagination, change their view of how things are supposed to look (art can be presented in any style) and brings them a moment of awe and calm.

Edward Moran (1829 - 1901) The Valley in the Sea, 1862 Oil on canvas 49 ¼ x 73 ¼ x 4 ¼ in. (125.1 x 186.1 x 10.8 cm) Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields, Martha Delzell Memorial Fund, 70.5,

Edward Moran (1829 - 1901), The Valley in the Sea, 1862. Oil on canvas. 49 ¼ x 73 ¼ x 4 ¼ in. (125.1 x 186.1 x 10.8 cm). Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields, Martha Delzell Memorial Fund, 70.5,

A detail of the Edward Moran work adorns the door of 179 Essex, next to the unveiled windows. Photo by Dinah Cardin

A detail of the Edward Moran work adorns the door of 179 Essex, next to the unveiled windows. Photo by Dinah Cardin.

The artist with her finished work. Photo by John Andrews.

The artist with her finished work. Photo by John Andrews.

Q: What made you want to create more public art during the pandemic?

A: Due to having more free time, less distraction and opportunities provided by Creative Collective, I was able to explore projects that I would not have ever come up with on my own - like painting Jersey barriers! Creating something fun to take a picture in front of or bring a moment of joy for people out walking their dog or getting a break from being inside on Zoom meetings felt more important than ever when so many of us were "stuck at home" and going outdoors / out in public looked different than before.

Meg Nichols and other artists on the North Shore associated with the Creative Collective, painted Jersey barriers in restaurants all over the North Shore like this one on Derby Street. Photo by John Andrews.

Barrier design by Meg Nichols.

Courtesy Meg Nichols.

Q: What do you like about Salem's creative community and where do you see it going?

A: Having lived in New York City and in other areas of Massachusetts, Salem has the best creative community I've ever experienced! The fact that it is not just made up of artists, but includes entrepreneurs and small businesses of all types makes it abundant with opportunities. Salem feels like a place where you can try new things, be non-traditional, and "let your freak flag fly," as they say. I think it will continue to grow because more people will put themselves out there when they see creatives from all walks of life and stages of their careers, experiencing success, however one defines it. I also think it's impossible to ignore the positive effect that the creative community and economy has on quality of life to residents with public art, entertainment, hospitality, etc and the benefit it brings to business with things like creative branding, custom signs, murals.

The 2021 Salem Arts Festival is June 4-6. Photo by John Andrews of Creative Collective.

Photo by John Andrews of Creative Collective.

Q: How has the last year of lockdown and reflection been helpful to you as an artist?

A: I was able to take virtual classes that I had not previously had the bandwidth for and that gave me the confidence to put my work out in a more public setting. The community of sign painters, muralists, hand letterers and educators that I was able to connect with last year changed the course of my creative career dramatically. I'm not sure that I would have felt so connected offline as well if it had not been for Salem's public art projects that kept me outside, working with other artists and community members. Like many people, this year also showed me what was really important and caused me to make some life changes to pursue what really drives me - art!

View of window with sail and watery mural

Photo by Henry Rutkowski

Photo by Dinah Cardin

Photo by Dinah Cardin

In American Waters
is on view at PEM from May 31 through October 3, 2021. To learn more, visit Tune into the museum’s podcast, the PEMcast, to hear more about In American Waters and PEM’s Climate + Environment initiative. Available on all podcasting apps. PEM is hosting an ongoing series of special exhibitions, installations, and programs about our changing relationship with the natural world that encourage reflection, inspire conversation, and spark action. Learn more at and #PEMClimate.

The 2021 Salem Arts Festival is June 4-6.

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