June 20, 2018
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Mural, mural on the wall: What did labor artwork teach Maine?

Kevin Bennett | BDN
Kevin Bennett | BDN
Kate Harris (right) of Belfast helps artist Pat Wheeler (left) of Deer Isle on Tuesday, April 19, 2011, as she unfurls a banner she painted before marching from the Margaret Chase Smith Federal Building in Bangor to Peirce Park for a rally supporting the return of Judy Taylor's History of Maine Labor mural to the Department of Labor in Augusta.


The LePage administration had no pressing need to remove a mural depicting Maine labor history from the lobby of the Department of Labor building in 2011. Both the ensuing symbolic and legal battles waged after the governor had the mural taken down were distractions from more immediate state problems.

But look on the bright side: LePage unwittingly drew national attention to a Maine artist, and he brought the controversy to a fine conclusion Monday by finding the artwork a new home at the Maine State Museum.

LePage instructed that the mural — by Tremont artist Judy Taylor — be removed nearly two years ago, arguing that it presented a one-sided view of history and that it was not in line with his administration’s pro-business message. The decision drew outrage, hundreds of protesters, national media coverage and an ultimately unsuccessful lawsuit.

After such an outcry, there is probably no better place for the Maine Labor History Mural than in the atrium of the state Cultural Building in Augusta, which houses the museum, the Maine State Library and the Maine State Archives. The irony, of course, is that the 33-foot labor mural will now be seen by more people and is in a safer, more prominent location.

We wonder what visiting students will be told not just about the scenes depicted on the mural but about the mural’s own history. After all the disagreement, what has Maine learned? Here are a few lessons:

1. Symbols matter. They strengthen convictions. If they didn’t, people wouldn’t burn flags, wear wedding rings or get tattoos. They also wouldn’t appreciate art, which has the power to make people think, feel and act. The mural’s images of striking workers, women shipbuilders during World War II and child laborers represent the historic struggle for workers’ rights. An affront to the mural was, in the eyes of many, an affront to the gains for which unions fought.

2. History matters. The fight over the mural endured because of the value some people place on the history of the labor movement. One mural image is of part-time Maine resident Frances Perkins, who, as President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s labor secretary, helped create the minimum wage, which became effective in 1938. As time elapses and fewer Mainers are alive to remember working without this and other protections, people apparently still prize the past’s effect on Maine today.

3. Listening matters. It took a couple years and a lawsuit, but the LePage administration ultimately responded to Maine people’s wishes. His office received lots of pressure to bring back the labor mural, and he did. LePage could have done more to articulate regret, but his administration appears to recognize the historic significance the artwork gained, as it is now displayed in a more noteworthy place — where more than 51,000 people visit annually.

Was the labor mural worth the time and effort to battle for its return? No matter your feelings about unions, you can probably appreciate the dedication of the fight, which turned a piece of contemporary art in a lobby to one with its own bookmark in Maine’s history.

Have feedback? Want to know more? Send us ideas for follow-up stories.

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