AUGUSTA, Maine — The artist behind the labor-themed mural removed from a state building said Wednesday it was “heartbreaking” to hear her work compared to North Korean propaganda considering her own father’s distinguished military service during the Korean War.
In a formal statement released Wednesday, Judy Taylor of Tremont said the 11-panel mural now at the center of the political dust-up between Gov. Paul LePage, labor unions and artists “belongs to the people of Maine and needs to be accessible to them.”
LePage ordered the mural taken down from the walls of the Labor Department over the weekend, and has since declined to say where it has been stored. On Wednesday, however, the owner of the building that houses the department offices said the mural is still in the building complex on Commerce Drive in Augusta.
Taylor’s strongest statement was a response to reports that LePage was prompted to remove the mural, in part, by an anonymous letter from someone who viewed it as anti-business and compared it to propaganda from communist North Korea.
The mural includes a depiction of Taylor’s father as a young man dressed in his Army uniform. Taylor said she included her father as well as her mother — depicted as a little girl in the mural — as a personal touch after losing both of her parents during the prior year.
“He was a man who stood by every word he spoke, every letter he wrote,” Taylor wrote of her father. “It was so heartbreaking to learn that this controversy may have started with an anonymous letter comparing this mural to a North Korean propaganda poster.
“Perhaps we should hang my father’s Bronze Star for his service in Korea in the now empty reception area of the Maine Department of Labor until the mural is returned, as a symbol of the importance of remembering our history, and not shuttering it away.”
The 36-foot mural was removed after LePage said it was too biased in favor of organized labor and wasn’t in line with his pro-business agenda. The mural was installed in 2008 and depicts Maine’s long labor history with images of mill workers, labor strikes and child laborers among its scenes.
The unexpected removal came after the governor’s office earlier said it would not take down the mural until it had a new home in a public space.
However, relocating the artwork has proven difficult, as the Portland City Council, after showing an initial willingness to display the mural at Portland City Hall, has declined to consider the matter. Officials at a museum in Lewiston also have stated that the mural should remain in Augusta, but needed more information before deciding whether to accept the work on loan.
Additionally, much to the dismay of Taylor and her supporters, the administration has refused to say where the mural is being stored. Some LePage critics have filed Freedom of Access requests demanding to know where the mural is housed.
The administration has responded to those requests that there are no documents indicating the location of the mural. They declined again Wednesday to disclose the location.
“The mural is stored safely in a secure location awaiting transfer to a venue that can make it available for public viewing,” LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett said in a statement.
Although the administration was mum on the artwork’s whereabouts, news reports indicate that the painting hasn’t gone far. Kevin Mattson, who is part-owner of the Commerce Drive complex that houses the Department of Labor offices told Maine Public Broadcasting Network Wednesday that the mural is being stored somewhere in the complex.
But LePage administration officials have indicated there’s no chance the mural will be rehung there.
As proof of the need for a change of atmosphere at the agency, Bennett cited a statistic that employers lose two-thirds of the “misconduct cases” involving fired employees that are heard by the Department of Labor.
“While we appreciate Ms. Taylor’s personal story and talent, the governor knows that the Department of Labor must serve both employees and employers for Maine to prosper,” Bennett said. “Changing the decor of the agency is just the first step.”
Labor advocates, artists and others have criticized LePage’s decision, saying the mural depicts an important part of Maine history and belongs at the Department of Labor. A rally to demand the mural’s return is scheduled Friday at the State House.
The president of the Maine College of Art in Portland said the mural captures a piece of history and that its removal is an “act of censorship.”
“Gov. LePage did not like what he saw,” Donald Tuski said in a statement Wednesday. “By removing the mural, he smashed that mirror — an attempt to rewrite history.”