Artists and others have been arguing over the merits and demerits of a mural proposed by Brunswick Public Art 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 created by Hallowell artists Jen Greta and Christopher Cart of the mill landscape being fashioned by hand by a diverse group of people.
When the Carts’ mural design was unveiled in early 2022, it met with a broad range of responses. A local Wabanaki group asked that an 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, one Franco-American, one Wabanaki and one Asian-American. The Wabanaki woman who had been the model for one figure asked to be taken out of the mural and the artists again obliged.
“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,” reads an online petition signed by 380 Maine supporters and another 48 out-of-staters.
The petition, being circulated by artist and Bowdoin College professor Mark Wethli and artist Jim Marshall, asks Brunswick Public Art, which has installed 22 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 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, and the Carts were selected.
The Carts’ mural is being painted on 64 5’ x 5’ panels and will be attached to the corrugated metal side of the mill at a cost of $70,000. Some 50 individuals and groups contributed to the mural fund.
“It’s natural that historically under-represented communities would seek to have a voice in this type of mural if it’s meant to be,” said 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.”
BPA treasurer Steve Weems sees it another way.
“Is it impossible or is it just difficult?” Weems said. “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.”
To Maliseet poet and artist Mihku Paul, the dispute is about “respectful inclusion in the public space” for Wabanaki and other people of color. Without that inclusion, Paul views the proposed mural design as “about the systematic erasure of BIPOC people in Maine’s public space and that includes culture and history.”
Paul was raised in Old Town. She remembers being required to study the U.S. electoral college system in school, yet all the while her grandfather reminding her that “Indians can’t vote.”
“You cannot imagine the impacts of that status,” Paul said, “to be disenfranchised and invisible in your own community yet required to learn all about a historical narrative that was framed and contextualized to keep you, your family and your community marginalized.”
“Settler-colonial systems impact present-day Indigenous people’s territories, livelihoods, arts and cultures,” Paul told the Phoenix. “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 design will be made public in the next few weeks. Most of the figures will have been changed, but it seems unlikely any revisions will satisfy all critics and all objections.
“No art satisfies everyone,” Jen Greta Cart told me last week, “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.”
An earlier version of this article featured a different, earlier draft of the mural design by Jen Greta Cart and Christopher Cart.
Edgar Allen Beem has been writing about art in Maine since 1978. He also writes the Universal Notebook opinion column.