16 October 2014
A Portrait of Labor: Art and Politics Meet at VisArts
UPDATE: Following litigation after their removal from the Maine Department of Labor building, Judy Taylor's mural panels on Maine's labor history now reside in the Maine State Museum in Augusta on a three-year renewable loan from the Department of Labor.
Article originally appeared in The Gaithersburg Patch on 9/10/11.
Judy Taylor says her art became political when politicians got involved.
Taylor created a mural for the Maine Department of Labor that became the subject of controversy in March when Maine Gov. Paul LePage (R) ordered its removal.
"When a political figure or a political organization use the art, it becomes political," Taylor said in an interview during the opening reception of a show of her work at VisArts in Rockville on Thursday. "In a broader sense, it could be used as a messaging tool by anybody."
VisArts will host a talk by Taylor at 3 p.m. today.
The artist said that her talk will demonstrate that the mural is about Maine labor history. In researching historical material for the mural, she engaged the advice of preeminent Maine labor historian Charles A. Scontras, who also sat on the original commissioning committee.
"If you want to know Maine labor history, you have to talk to Charlie," Taylor said. "If anybody wants to learn about the panels, come to the artist talk." Taylor's panels depict Maine labor history, as well as national figures and events from the labor movement including: apprenticeship; child labor; women textile workers; the secret ballot for joining the union; the first Labor Day; wood workers; the 1937 Shoe Strike; Frances Perkins—the first U.S. Secretary of Labor and the first woman to hold a cabinet position; Rosie the Riveter; the Jay Strike and the Rev. Jesse James; and the future of Maine labor.
Click here to read Taylor's statement on the removal of the mural in The New York Times. The mural's story also has been covered in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Huffington Post and the The Wall Street Journal. When The Gazette previewed the VisArt exhibit late last month the story was picked up by Politico.
Taylor's talk will provide insight into her working process and her personal interest in labor history. She said she painted "Rumford Paper Mill on the Androscoggin" after reading Richard Russo's "Empire Falls."
Taylor is an artist based in Maine. She lives and works on Mount Desert Island and much of her work portrays daily life on the island. The Maine labor mural was her first public commission, and since then she has completed five paintings for Mesa State College in Colorado under the state's Percent for Art program. She studied art at the New York Academy of Art, the National Academy of Design and at the Art Students League in France. She has taught painting and drawing at the Austin Museum of Fine Arts and at Saint Andrews High School in Austin. Currently she teaches out of her studio on Mount Desert Island and gives workshops internationally.
VisArts will also host a panel discussion on the removal of the murals at 7 p.m. on Thursday, September 15. The panel includes Georgetown University Prof. Joe McCartin; former Treasurer of the League of Women Voters Penny Harris; Union of Maine Artists President Rob Shetterly; Susie Leong, public art director at the Arts and Humanities Council of Montgomery County; and Don Tuski, Maine College of Art president.
The show closes Sept. 20. All events are free and open to the public.
"Celebrate Labor: Where Art and Politics Meet," an exhibition of work by Tayor and by Michael Spafford, is the brainchild of VisArts curator Nancy Nesvet. Nesvet first learned about the removal of the publicly-commissioned mural from the Maine Department of Labor anteroom through an email sent to Maine College of Art alumni by Don Tuski, the president of the college, which is Nesvet's alma mater.
Nesvet saw an opportunity and answered a call to action:
"I believed, as an artist, that the public had paid for this mural, and it was commissioned by the Maine Arts Commission specifically for the Department of Labor, and specifically to depict the history of labor in Maine, and since it met all the qualifications, should not have been removed because the new governor objected," she said.
Nesvet told VisArts Executive Director Alice Nappy about the removal of the piece, which had been commissioned using $60,000 in state and federal funds. Nappy "thought it would be a great idea" to bring the multi-paneled mural—and Taylor—to the Washington metropolitan area, "where they would get national attention," Nesvet said.
"Of course, the murals were not available because they were hidden in a warehouse in Maine by order of the governor," Nesvet said.
With Nappy's support secured, Nesvet used her connections in Maine to bring the controversy to the national capital area for further discussion. She approached Andy Graham at Portland Color, a photographic reproduction shop in Maine, and asked him to lend his expertise in reproducing Taylor's 11 mural panels.
Next she contacted Don Berry, president of the Maine AFL-CIO, who enlisted the help of the International Teamsters Local 340 to ship them to VisArts. The national AFL-CIO, based in Washington, D.C., also contributed generously to the show.
(AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka was slated to attend the show's opening but was unable to due to President Obama's jobs stimulus speech to Congress.)
The multifaceted effort resulted in an exhibit featuring nine original labor-themed paintings, three preliminary paintings and four preliminary drawings for the mural, as well as all 11 labor mural panels reproduced at 6 by 3 feet each by Taylor.
The exhibit also features large-scale reproductions of both of the "Twelve Labors of Hercules" mural panels by Michael Spafford. Spafford's mural was removed from the House of Representatives chamber in Washington state nearly 30 years ago and has found a new home at Centralia (Wash.) College. Taylor's mural is being housed in an undisclosed government storehouse in Augusta, Maine until legal action determines its fate.
Berry, of the Maine AFL-CIO, attended the show's opening at VisArts. He challenged LePage's claim that the mural alienates the business community. "I went through the Department of Labor lobby a lot," Berry said. "I learned to enjoy the mural and did a lot of thinking about its meaning. It's not anti-business as the governor says. There is a history lesson in each one of its panels."
Berry wants the panels returned to the lobby because they were designed for that location, he said.
"I've never seen a businessman in that lobby anyways," he added.
"We don't know what will happen next to the murals," Nesvet said. "They are still hidden from the public at a Maine commerce department government warehouse in Augusta."
A court case will be decided by the end of the month, she said.
"As for the copies, I have insisted from the beginning that I or VisArts does not own them," Nesvet said. "They belong to the people of Maine."
They will be displayed at a convention of the Maine AFL-CIO in Augusta later in September, she said. "And then their fate will be decided."
"I am hoping that the result of this show is to open a discussion of how we treat public art in this nation, from commissioning to funding to displaying."
Terry Leonino and Greg Artzner of Magpie, a folk band from upstate New York, once based in Washington, D.C., performed a labor-themed concert at the opening reception. Their collaboration grew out of the Civil Rights movement, and they have recorded nearly 20 albums together, including several tributes to Pete Seeger.