On the evening of March 22, as Judy Taylor painted a portrait of local siblings in her quiet Seal Cove, Maine, workshop, surrounded by easels and oils, blueberry bushes and pines, the artist’s phone rang with the news that Gov. Paul LePage intensely disapproved of her work.
“I was kind of shocked,” said Taylor, remembering the call from a local reporter who was seeking her reaction to the LePage administration’s plan to strip her 11-panel mural from the state Department of Labor because, she learned, the tea-party-backed Republican governor thought it sent an insufficiently pro-business message. The ensuing drama has overwhelmed her and her state. “I certainly didn’t think it would become what it is today,” Taylor said.
On LePage’s order, the mural was dismantled and stored. In the past few weeks, the governor has also called for the renaming of conference rooms now titled in honor of farmworker leader Cesar Chavez and Frances Perkins, a Maine icon who was the first female U.S. Cabinet member, serving as the New Deal-era labor secretary. LePage’s derision of demonstrators has prompted even louder protests, political dissent within his party and merciless mocking by liberal critics in the national media. The controversy, Taylor said, has warped the Maine political scene into a landscape best captured by a surrealist.
All this for a work that depicted the history of the Maine labor movement for the few viewers who visited an obscure Labor Department waiting room on the outskirts of Augusta. Completed in 2008 for a $60,000 commission, the mural seemed safely out of the political fray. But in 2010, Republicans swept into power, and organized labor became a preferred target of conservative governors nationwide. The result: The mural is now dripping with unintended political symbolism that — for LePage’s political enemies and even some of his allies — has become a vivid illustration of the flaws of the governor who tore it down.
The symbolism of a mural
LePage, who previously made national headlines for telling the NAACP to “kiss my butt,” has explained his decision to remove the mural by citing an anonymous fax from a “secret admirer” comparing the 36-foot wall painting to something in “communist North Korea where they use these murals to brainwash the masses.” But unlike in, say, the Diego Rivera mural in New York ordered destroyed by Nelson Rockefeller in 1934, there is no depiction in the Maine mural of Lenin or any other revolutionary leading a May Day demonstration of workers. Instead the panels, painted in a stained-glass style, pay homage to the gloomy years before child labor laws and celebrate the secret ballot and other milestones.
LePage has called those protesting the work’s removal “idiots,” a rhetorical flourish that prompted a public rebuke from a bloc of Republican legislators. (“We feel compelled to express our discomfort and dismay with the tone and spirit of some of the remarks he has made,” they wrote.) Petitions are circulating online to recall the governor, a YouTube video in which an image of the mural is beamed onto the State House has more than 40,000 views, and a local lawyer has filed a lawsuit arguing that LePage violated the First Amendment rights of visual artists.