Artists and others have been arguing among themselves over the merits and demerits of a mural proposed by Brunswick Public Art (BPA) for the side of the Cabot Mill on the banks of the Androscoggin.
The mural, entitled Many Stitches Hold Up the Sky, is a vision of the mill landscape being fashioned by hand by a diverse group of people.
“We find the current design to be not only problematic but also offensive in its racial, ethnic, and gender stereotypes and thus completely unacceptable as a forward-going public representation of life in Brunswick, Maine,” states an online petition (https://www.thepetitionsite.com/takeaction/896/847/254/) signed by some 500 supporters.
The petition, circulated by artist and Bowdoin College professor Mark Wethli and artist Jim Marshall, asked Brunswick Public Art, which has installed twenty-two art projects around the town over the past decade, to “revisit, rethink, and revise the current mural design.”
I did not sign the petition when Wethli, an old friend and a co-founder of Brunswick Public Art, asked me to both because I planned to write about the controversy and because I do not fully understand what some folks find so offensive about it. What I do understand is that if people of color find something offensive, it is offensive whether I think so or not.
The saddest part of the Brunswick mural controversy is not only that the mural was intended to celebrate diversity and the spirit of cooperation but also that proponents and opponents mostly share the same progressive philosophy. This is a one-sided culture war with good liberals on both sides.
The mural project has a troubled history dating back to 2012 when a Bowdoin student was commissioned to create art for the mill. The project dragged on without completion for several years. In 2018, a second request for proposals was sent to a handful of veteran mural artists. Jen Greta and Christopher Cart of Hallowell were selected
The Carts’ mural (https://www.brunswickpublicart.org/happening-soon.html) is being painted on sixty-four five-by-five feet panels and will be attached to the corrugated metal side of the mill at a cost of $70,000. Some fifty individuals and groups contributed to the mural fund.
The Cabot Mill mural is only public art in the sense that it can be seen by the public. It’s commissioned for a private building with private money. It will primarily be seen from cars in the parking lot, cars passing on Route One and cars stopped at the stop sign on Mill Street.
When the Carts’ mural design was unveiled in early 2022, it was met with a broad range of responses. A local Wabanaki group asked that a historical image be inserted of Wabanaki people portaging a canoe and the artists obliged. But the objections soon encompassed the canoeists as well as the six other figures, which some people saw as ethnic stereotypes: two white men and four women, one Black person, one Franco-American person, one Wabanaki person and one Asian-American person. The Wabanaki woman who had been the model for one figure asked to be taken out of the mural and the artists again obliged.
“It’s natural that historically underrepresented communities would seek to have a voice in this type of mural if it’s meant to be,” says Wethli, who helped start the BPA, “but the much bigger problem is that there is no satisfactory way of representing the life experiences of diverse communities, genders, and identities, or talking about diversity at all through a visual assortment of ‘types.’ It’s an outmoded idiom that’s inherently one-sided and oppressive.”
Wethli likened the mural controversy to the art world uproar over Dana Schutz’s painting of the lynched Emmett Till that was included in the 2017 Whitney Biennial. Schutz intended to memorialize the slain Black youth, but she quickly found out that in the 21st century white artists are not allowed to paint African-American subjects, even with the best of intentions.
“As a white guy in his seventies I was startled by this at first,” says Wethli, asking:
Isn’t the freedom for any artist to talk about anything they chose, from their own perspective, at the heart of artistic expression? Isn’t empathy the essence of this expression? If we “cancel” certain voices from the conversation aren’t we the poorer for it? What brings me around to the viewpoint of Schutz’s critics is that as white artists we’ve held the bully pulpit in the western world for several centuries, to the exclusion of other artistic voices. The time is right for us to defer to their deeper and greater experience in telling their own stories. We are free to try but not entitled to try.
“Is it impossible or is it just difficult?” asks BPA treasurer Steve Weems. “It’s obviously difficult, but it’s the track that we took. We wanted to show in a beautiful way the increasing diversity and cooperation in Brunswick.”
Maliseet poet/artist Mihku Paul insists the controversy caused by the mural “is about the systematic erasure of BIPOC people in Maine’s public space and that includes culture and history.”
“Settler-colonial systems impact present-day Indigenous people’s territories, livelihoods, arts, and cultures,” she writes. “What we choose to emphasize and neglect will shape public memory and understanding of place. We need to ask ourselves how art in public space can support intercultural understanding, build greater community inclusion, and educate the public on critical matters that impact all of us, including historical and environmental concerns. That is the way forward.”
The Carts revised the design this winter in response to the criticism. Then they got criticized by conservatives for knuckling under to liberals. Conservatives these days feed on what they see as “political correctness” and “woke” agendas.
Several of the figures have been changed. The Black woman who was on two knees is now on one, a nod to football player Colin Kaepernick taking a knee during the national anthem. The Franco-American woman is now in profile rather than turning her back to viewers and faceless. The figure in the bosun’s chair is now a Black man. And Coleman Burke, the late owner of the mill, is now less prominent and playing a banjo.
But it seems unlikely any revisions will satisfy all critics and all objections. The Carts, no matter how accommodating they try to be, are in a no-win situation. Damned if they do. Damned if they don’t.
“No art satisfies everyone,” says Jen Greta Cart, “but we believe we can satisfy and inspire most, because we are not painting ‘types.’ We are painting people, with empathy and respect, as fellow human beings.”
But Mihku Paul objects, “We cannot build a kinder, more aware and inclusive community by putting up pictures of everybody happily sewing a picture of a Brunswick that is almost portrayed as a fantasy place.”
Paul sees the mural as a “missed opportunity to educate visitors and residents alike on the rich, sometimes troubled history of that place.”
“BPA’s and the artists’ goal is to improve the artistic form and intended uplifting message of the mural design, without trying to satisfy all the critics,” says Weems. “This would be impossible. BPA’s and the artists’ goal is to provide a work of mural art that is beautiful, portrays community cooperation, and encourages people to think.”
My own initial thought was that the Cabot Mill mural should focus exclusively on the doves of peace in the upper right quadrant. In 2021, the Carts painted a mural of a pair of phoenix wings for the Travis Mills Foundation, which works with injured veterans in the Belgrade Lakes Region.
The bold image of the doves would be easier for a drive-by audience to read, and I doubt anyone would object to symbols of peace. But my suggestion did not make the original publication of this article because my editor was concerned that proposing that the artists pare the mural down to the doves was too dismissive.
But when I told Jen Greta Cart what I thought, she was all for it.
“I actually also submitted a just doves design but Waterfront Maine and Brunswick Public Art wanted an ‘inclusive’ mural,” says Cart. “Sure wish they’d gone with the birds.”
It’s not too late.
Edgar Allen Beem has been writing about art in Maine since 1978. This is an expanded version of a column that first appeared in the Portland Phoenix.
Image at top: Jen Greta and Christopher Cart, Many Stitches Hold Up the Sky, mural, sixty-four five-by-five feet panels, Brunswick, ME.
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