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History in a Closet

April 20, 2012


Somewhere is Augusta, Maine, a modern masterpiece has been hidden in disgrace by Maine’s Republican Governor, Paul LePage. The story of the Taylor Murals is worth telling at a time when a battle rages between the power of business and the dignity of labor.

Governor LePage was adamant from the outset that our state must become more “business friendly.” And, in a sense, he’s right. Vibrant business is a vital component of any economy. But in his zeal, he’s forgotten something.

The Taylor murals depict the history of the labor movement in Maine and were commissioned as a work of public art to be displayed for the benefit of the people of Maine.

Shortly after assuming office as Governor in 2011, Paul LePage announced that he had received an anonymous email complaining that artist Judy Taylor’s mural (which had been installed in the lobby of the Department of Labor in our capitol city) wasn’t business friendly and ordered the work removed.

In the ensuing year great controversy arose, protests took place, the national media took note and lawsuits flew in all directions.

The Governor stood firm by his decision, refusing even to divulge the whereabouts of this testament to the struggle of Maine workers and the legendary figures of Maine politics whose images adorned the work.

My suspicion has always been that a mural depicting life in the mills of Lewiston/Auburn caused the Governor intense personal pain. Growing up as the son of an abusive mill worker in Lewiston, Maine undoubtedly colored his perceptions, yet the fact that the shoe workers’ strike of 1937 (a major image within the work) was supported by 5,000 out of 6,000 workers certainly establishes it as a significant historical event in the story of labor in Maine.

Today I read that a replica of our Labor Mural will be touring in other states and that gave me some pride as a Mainer, yet I’m saddened that the original has been shuffled away to some dark closet in Augusta by the flippant order of a single man.

Judy Taylor’s work graphically illustrates not only the experience of those shoe mill workers, but of shipbuilders, woodsmen, paper mill workers, craftsmen and artisans, the casting of the first anonymous ballot in Maine and many famous faces of Maine Labor including our revered Francis Perkins (U.S. Secretary of Labor and the first woman ever appointed to a U.S. Cabinet position).

Yet behind this small story there is another, more important lesson.

We seem to have lost our way in the understanding of the importance of American labor to the American economic recovery. American union workers, especially public sector workers, have become the scapegoats of the Republican Party.

For me, the Taylor mural represents an essential economic and social truth that has escaped the Governor and his pundit supporters. While owners with their capital may be the captains of business, workers are the engine that provides the steam to make it run. Being worker hostile is not business friendly.

I hope you’re faring well, dear Maine Labor Mural. Perhaps the next time you see the light of day it will be in a more “people friendly” environment where you can tell your story with the dignity it deserves.

Perhaps the grand new lobby of the Portland International Jetport would suit you better.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Darby Fleming permalink
    April 21, 2012 9:55 am

    A thoughtful assessment. Given that the conventional wisdom is that Mr. LePage hasn’t seen the mural, you may be giving him too much credit for sensitivity, but I admire the attempt. Here’s to the mural and what it represents. And here’s to a new life for the mural soon.

    • cejesq permalink*
      April 21, 2012 11:37 am

      You know, Darby, I actually stopped for a second and wondered whether the Governor had “never seen” the Labor Mural. At that point, I realized that it occupied the entire lobby of the Department of Labor in Augusta until he ordered its removal.

      Then I wondered, which is more credible, that he’s never seen it or that he’s never been to the Department of Labor?

      So, to take him at his word, Paul LePage had never been to the Maine Department of Labor before he ordered the the Mural removed and didn’t think it was necessary to make a visit there before ordering an iconic work of public art removed because he’d received an anonymous email complaining about it.

  2. April 21, 2012 1:33 pm

    I think it is interesting that he got the complaint via anonymous email. It’s not like the Governor’s office would try and track that person down because they expressed their dislike of the mural…

  3. April 21, 2012 7:38 pm

    Keep writing Cris.

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