AUGUSTA, Maine — More than 250 demonstrators crowded into the offices of the Maine Department of Labor on Friday morning to protest Gov. Paul LePage’s planned removal of a labor-themed mural from the building’s lobby.
The small lobby that houses the actual mural, however, was no match for the crowd, which instead was forced to line long stretches of the hallway to listen to speakers express their thoughts — ranging from confusion to dismay to outrage — at the Republican governor’s order.
“This mural belongs to the people, not the governor, and we want it to stay where it is,” Robert Shetterly, a Brooksville artist, told the crowd, which at times broke into anti-LePage chants including “Recall Paul!” and “Art in, Paul out!”
LePage ordered the mural’s removal after receiving an anonymous letter complaining about its theme. The letter’s writer, identified only as a “secret admirer,” said the mural was too pro-union and after viewing it said, “I felt for a moment that I was in communist North Korea where they use these murals to brainwash the masses.”
The mural dispute, which has gained national attention, comes at an already tense time in the relationship between LePage and state employees unions as they remain at odds over proposed changes to the state’s pension system and union membership rules.
Union members were among those in attendance at Friday’s rally, where demonstrators took issue not only with the planned removal, but the complaints about it being unbalanced or overly political.
Speakers said the 36-foot-long mural was an accurate account of the state’s labor movement. Some of the mural’s 11 panels depict women shipbuilders during World War II, the 1986 International Paper strike in Jay, and former federal Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, whose family homestead in Newcastle is now the Frances Perkins Center.
“It’s simply history,” Shetterly, who helped organize the rally, said in an interview beforehand. “To move it, no matter how you try to cushion it or spin it, is to demean it, is to try to erase some of our history.
“That’s one thing imperialism does. It tries to take away people’s history,” Shetterly continued.
LePage, himself, said he appreciates the history represented by the mural, which was created by artist Judy Taylor of Tremont. But he said artwork displayed in that building must reflect the department’s goal of balancing the interests “of both employees and employers to accomplish its mission.”
LePage, who has seen only photographs of Taylor’s mural, also announced that his administration was soliciting submissions of artwork that reflect the “cooperative relationship” between workers and employers in Maine. A LePage spokesman said Taylor’s mural would remain at the Labor Department until a new home is found.
Shetterly warned those involved, that if Taylor’s mural is removed, however, he — and many others — would not stand idly by.
“I think there are plenty of people, including myself, who will try to block it,” said Shetterly, adding that any such action would be a “nonviolent act of civil disobedience.”
While there is no specific timeline for the mural’s removal, a LePage spokesperson on Friday said the mural will be moved to Portland City Hall, pending a vote by the Portland City Council.
State Rep. Ben Chipman of Portland and Portland City Councilor David Marshall reportedly initiated the discussion to move the mural to that city. Chipman said the move will keep it on public display.
Portland Mayor Nicholas M. Mavodones Jr. said Friday that the council would raise the issue at its April 4 meeting and he was anticipating a large crowd.
Mavodones did offer that he would prefer the mural stay at its current location. But if the decision has been made to remove it, he said, he thought he and his fellow councilors could be open to hosting it. But the Portland mayor did say he had some reservations.
“I think it’s unfortunate this mural has become such a lightning rod,” he said. “I certainly wouldn’t want the fact that Portland would be willing to display it to be perceived as assisting in or enabling its move from Augusta. There’s a chance people would see that.”
While the city of Portland might be willing to house the artwork, speakers at Friday’s rally urged the governor to leave the mural at the labor offices, where it has hung since 2008.
“We want the mural to stay, but I don’t think it will because, like I say in my sign, [LePage] is the king, and his word is God, and if it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen,” said Bob Brennan, a photographer from Troy. Brennan held a painting of a clown, on which he had taped a cardboard sign likening a “king” LePage to the painting’s subject.
Earlier in the day, it appeared that Brennan’s resignation to the mural’s fate might have been premature after a report that Maine law might prevent the governor from taking unilateral action to remove the artwork. However, later in the day, officials with the Attorney General’s Office and the Maine State Museum confirmed that the law applied only to historic works in the literal sense, and and not modern works that deal with historical subjects.
At Friday’s rally, Maryrae Means of Bristol thought back on her own family history in the labor movement as she listened to speakers. Her grandfather, she said, worked in the Lewiston mills at just 9 years old.
“This is more than about art for me,” she said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.