The mural by Judy Taylor in the Maine Department of Labor in Augusta in 2008. (James Imbrogno/AP)

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.

Maine State Senator Troy Jackson is pictured at the Maine's Dept of Labor in Augusta, ME. Jackson is a upset that a mural by artist Judy Taylor depicting important stories in Maine's labor history, was removed. (MATTHEW CAVANAUGH/For The Washington Post)

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.

Amid all this pressure, LePage, like the mural, vanished. The art disappeared to a storage closet believed to be somewhere in the complex housing the Labor Department. The governor escaped to Jamaica. In his absence last week, LePage’s office shrugged at the issue, calling it a distraction from the serious budgetary matters before the state. Adrienne Bennett, a spokeswoman for the governor, who declined to comment, reiterated that LePage regretted the timing of the controversy, falling as it did during budget season. She argued that the removal had nothing to do with the anti-labor initiatives in Wisconsin and elsewhere and that “we wouldn’t do anything differently.”

Meanwhile, demonstrators keep coming to the State House.

“We came to protest,” said George Joel Stanley as he asked a receptionist in the lobby for the governor’s office, explaining, “I did my own mural.” The 63-year-old entered the governor’s office, next to a white sign promoting “Arts in the Capitol,” and revealed to Bennett a portrait of LePage under the title “New pro-Biznezz” and a drawing of a worker with a screw in his back. “You never know,” he said to her. “He might like it.”

Bennett nodded gamely and crossed the tiled hall, where Planned Parenthood was staging a news conference about keeping its funding in the federal budget, and entered a small office where communications director Dan Demeritt chuckled at a letter by the Aroostook County Republican Committee soliciting funds to buy the mural outright.

“It’s not a coordinated effort,” Demeritt quipped. But Republican officials are certainly not opposed to the idea. When a commenter on the conservative blog As Maine Goes suggested that Republicans “pay off the feds and burn it,” GOP legislator Jon Mc­Kane of Newcastle chimed in on the blog, “You read my mind.”

Maine owns the mural, but the federal funding that contributed to its commission means that if LePage does not exhibit the art in an appropriate government building, he must reimburse the state’s unemployment trust fund account 63.39 percent of the “current fair market value,” according to the Labor Department. Given the painting’s new cultural significance, LePage may unintentionally have taken on the role of a political Larry Gagosian, the art dealer who has a knack for driving up prices. Tom Denenberg, the chief curator of the Portland Museum of Art, said that while he wouldn’t put a dollar amount on the mural’s appreciation, the governor’s focus “without a doubt dramatically increases its importance.” That complicates LePage’s efforts to take full control of the situation, and Bennett said the office is still “assessing” what to do with the work. She insisted that LePage wishes the mural no harm — he just finds it anti-business.

“When a new administration comes in, you talk about message, you talk about rebranding,” Bennett said, adding that the mural does not reflect the governor’s agenda. “Where are the job creators? Where is Mr. Bean?” she asked, referring to the founder of Maine-based L.L. Bean, purveyor of Shetland sweaters, hunting boots and other preppy outdoor wear.

Another interpretation of Le­Page’s motivation is that he is seeking to promote his strictly business vision of the state at the cost of Maine’s history of organized labor, a reading that is apparently held by Washington’s top labor official.

“As a proud ‘Angeleno,’ I have always loved the murals in my home town. They tell stories and make history something you can actually see,” Labor Secretary Hilda L. Solis said in a statement. “The mural in Maine tells a story about workers throughout history, and that story just isn’t told enough, anywhere. Labor history is our history. And to understand, appreciate and most important, to learn from history, we’ve got to know the full story.”

Telling labor’s story

Each panel of the mural is an allegory for a struggle or an achievement in the labor movement.

Panel 8 depicts a pregnant woman receiving advice from Perkins, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s trailblazing labor secretary, after whom the Labor Department building in Washington is named. Perkins is buried in Maine, where her family has deep roots. Her grandson Tomlin Perkins Coggeshall lives in the 1837 family home on the banks of the Damariscotta River in Newcastle; it doubles as the fledgling Frances Perkins Center. A small hallway features pictures of Perkins laughing with FDR and John F. Kennedy, a library of Perkins biographies, and other historical documents. In the corner stands a cardboard cutout of Perkins that featured prominently at a recent garden party.

Coggeshall, who wears horn-rimmed glasses, can hardly believe that the governor even indirectly criticized her legacy.

“It just seems like a thoughtless act,” he said. “Had it been contemplated carefully, it might not have been done.”

Workers in nearby Bath, the “City of Ships,” were less delicate. Panel 9 of the mural depicts women who, inspired by the icon Rosie the Riveter during World War II, helped build the nation’s battleships. Across the street from those same shipyards, under a towering red-and-white crane, a dozen workers gathered at the local union chapter to explain that they felt besieged by the governor.

“He’s out to break the unions,” said Don Bilodeau, a white-haired 58-year-old tinsmith and AFL-CIO representative. He said he met with LePage last month, a few days before the mural’s removal, to discuss unionizing issues. During the meeting, he said, the governor made it clear that he would fight federal labor protection laws if necessary. “It’s obvious he hates labor, and the ultimate insult was the mural.”

Ever since the painting became a rallying point for workers, artists and LePage’s political enemies, the governor’s office has kept it hidden. But on a recent afternoon, state Sen. Troy Jackson (D), a barrel-chested logger from the northern town of Allagash, got a tip about where the mural was stashed. He climbed into his 2008 Dodge Avenger — whose rear window bore stickers that read “61%: We didn’t vote for Paul LePage” — and drove away from the capitol. A few miles out, on a stretch of straight road, he turned toward a low-slung building that the government rents for state agencies.

Inside, Jackson walked down a gray hallway and abruptly turned right. “Here’s the notorious room,” he said, in a borderline French Canadian accent. White blotches mottled the bare beige walls from which workers had removed the mural. The space was no bigger, and no more glamorous, than a dentist’s waiting room. “Look at how bad it looks now,” Jackson said.

He started making inquiries and was politely asked to wait in the Cesar Chavez conference room. As he lingered, he explained that the governor had demonstrated his intention to crack down on workers early on when Republicans folded the legislature’s Labor Committee, which Jackson chaired, into the Business Committee. “Everyone knew he was a shoot-from-the-hip kind of guy,” he said. “But now he’s shooting everybody.”

After a few minutes, Jackson grew impatient and continued his search out in the hallway. He arrived at a door in the corner of the building. It read Maintenance Personnel Only, and some peering through the glass brought out a stony-faced worker who referred Jackson to Bill Dowling, the building manager.

“We’re not disclosing the location, and I don’t see this happening,” said Dowling, a former mayor of Augusta and member of Le­Page’s transition team. He assured Jackson that the mural’s panels were “in storage, high and dry,” and explained that the state was “one of my biggest tenants” and that he had promised the governor not to “release it until I hear from you moving forward.”

Jackson then rang Bennett in the governor’s office. The spokeswoman echoed Dowling, assuring him that the panels were in a “high and dry place.” Jackson appealed to Bennett as a taxpayer and elected official. She replied, dryly, “I understand it keeps the story going, Senator.”

The controversy continues

On Friday afternoon, the Portland Museum of Art held a panel discussion about the mural. It drew such a large crowd that museum workers set up live feeds on two televisions outside the auditorium. The panel included Taylor, art historians and a conservative radio host who, to snickers and gasps, argued the side of the absent governor. A large white screen above the panelists displayed a projected image of the mural.

After the discussion, Taylor, 56, wearing a pink button-front shirt, black skirt and glasses, looked at the projected panels with more than a hint of exhaustion and called the governor’s criticism “silly.” Still, she offered to take LePage up on his call for a complimentary mural featuring businessmen, though she had some reservations. “How boring would that be as a painting? People talking on cellphones — who wants to see that?” she said.

She had another idea. She could paint a mural of LePage surrounded by all the episodes of his life. And what would he look like in the panel depicting the great public art controversy of 2011?

“Despair,” she said.