The controversy over removing a labor history mural because it was demanded by Skowhegan Savings Bank doesn’t involve me personally, but I care about it for many reasons.
It’s partly because I’m working on a novel about the sexual exploitation of girls in poverty. The offending panel of a triptych that the bank originally asked be removed depicts young women mill workers on strike in 1907, an historic event in that it was the first successful strike of the IWW, Industrial Workers of the World. The catalyst? Sexual assault by a boss on 17 year old Mamie Bilodeau, followed by retaliation for reporting. A union organizer, Bilodeau was fired but in the end got her job back along with a raise and provisions for a union-elected grievance committee.
With union organizing enjoying a surge right now, I would have loved for the young fast food and convenience store workers in my area to see an example of their great-great-great (-great?) grandmothers standing up for their rights by withholding their labor. (Full disclosure: I was a union organizer for teachers.)
And, with the right to be free of sexual harrassment in the workplace top of mind right now, a victory in this regard is worth depicting. Sexual assault survivors often suffer in silence for fear of retaliation. I think they deserve to know about Mamie Bilodeau and the power of collective action.
Why would the bank that guards the wealth of old Skowhegan feel threatened by that?
Another reason I care is that I was a history major and taught history in public schools. I also taught the bill of rights with its 1st Amendment protecting speech and a free press. Since none of the corporate news outlets who carry advertising for the bank cared to cover the controversy, I’m doing so here. (RIP, D.H.) Cue the chorus: “The bank owns the building, they can suppress all the speech they want.” It’s true that money buys access to speech under late stage capitalism. But that’s not a good thing and, predictably, has brought us to the point where we only have the best “free” speech money can buy.
Another reason I care is my deep and abiding love of art. Gordon Carlisle’s mural was aesthetically excellent. He has a national reputation as an accomplished muralist with good reason.
Carlisle’s mural was designed for the site, painted to be seen by thousands of passing motorists heading south on Route 201, the major highway in central Maine. The artist and the sponsoring organization, the Wesserunsett Arts Council, were originally asked to remove only the panel with the women on it. That bank managers are philistines who think removing one panel from a triptych is a “solution” doesn’t surprise me in the least. Kudos to WesArts and Carlisle for refusing to do that.
The replacement mural by Iver Lofving on the bank’s highly visible wall also depicts the IWW strike, but only in the sense that a Where’s Waldo? book depicts Waldo: it’s there, but you’re really going to have to look closely to find it. Lovfing has said that he’s disappointed his mural won’t be installed on a side street park with a deck so people can examine it up close. He also wote, “I said that they’re replacing a nationally famous muralist with an unknown artist.”
Public art often gets people upset, especially when it includes political content.
Diego Rivera famously refused to remove parts of his frescoed mural in the Rockefeller Center in 1937, and the patrons had the whole mural destroyed.
A former governor of Maine who term limited out and is now running again made headlines nationally in 2011 when he removed and hid a history mural from the labor department’s offices because he claimed that business owners found it offensive.
That story has a happier ending in that Taylor’s mural is now displayed in the foyer of the building that houses the state library, archives, and museum. I was happy to see school children on a field trip viewing it there with their teachers.
Fact is, the wooden Bernard Langlois sculpture referred to in Skowhegan as “the big Indian” has long been controversial, and Penobscot Nation members I know would love to see it removed. The statue figured prominently in the controversy over changing the last Native-themed school mascot for sports teams as it served as a rallying point for those who objected to the change. They received national news coverage for holding an event there on what used to be the holiday honoring the genocidal maniac from Europe who ushered in colonialism on this continent. A partial happy ending: Maine now celebrates Indigenous People’s Day, and the school teams are the Riverhawks — while the statue remains.