John Harlow, who is helping to organize the placement of artwork on buildings in downtown Skowhegan, is shown Monday next to a mural that adorns the outside of Skowhegan Savings Bank on Elm Street. The mural replaced another art display that was initially placed there. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel

SKOWHEGAN — A worker strike more than 100 years ago continues to reverberate today after critics took to social media to complain about the recent removal of an art display from the exterior of Skowhegan Savings Bank that included an image depicting the strike.

The criticism took aim at the bank for expressing an anti-labor sentiment by having the image removed last Wednesday after it was up for a week. But bank officials say that was not their intention and that they simply wanted to swap one art display for another.

The display is part of the Skowhegan Mural Project, which is spearheaded by the Wesserunsett Arts Council in an effort to make art accessible and interactive in the community. The murals were funded by grants from the Maine Arts Commission and Maine Community Foundation.

“Sometime pre-pandemic I really wanted to start a mural project in Skowhegan,” said John Harlow, president of the arts council. “There aren’t really any significant murals in Skowhegan.”

After securing funding, the group posted an open call to Maine artists to produce three murals that represent the past, present and future of Skowhegan. The project was delayed by the pandemic but eventually a panel was created to select the artists who would be assigned the job.

The panel consisted of Harlow and Saskia Reinholt of the arts council, Sarah Workneh from the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, Town Manager Christine Almand and Dan Tilton with Skowhegan Savings Bank. When the project is completed, art displays will be found at Skowhegan Savings Bank, Hight Chevrolet and The Space on the River.

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“Somebody from the bank was involved in selecting the artists,” said Tilton, who’s a senior vice president with Skowhegan Savings. “We support our communities in many, many ways. Through this process, Wesserunsett Arts Council engaged with multiple artists to create the murals.”

The removal of the artwork at the bank was due to confusion around which display would be installed at each location, Tilton said. The display now affixed to the bank’s operations building, by artist Iver Lofving, reflects to some degree the bank’s history. Lofving’s piece depicts a timeline of Skowhegan spanning 1820 to 2022 and includes an image of one of the bank’s founders, former Maine Gov. Abner Coburn.

This painting depicts the 1907 Marston Worsted Mills strike in Skowhegan. It was placed on the exterior of Skowhegan Savings Bank in downtown Skowhegan before being taken down and replaced by other artwork. It’s shown Monday at The Space on the River. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel

The piece also includes an image representing the same strike depicted on the artwork that was displayed earlier on the bank — the Marston Worsted Mills strike of 1907.

“The same strike is included in (Lofving’s) mural (as well as) Abner Coburn, a founder of this bank,” Tilton said. “There are a lot of other scenes from around Skowhegan that are included in (Lofving’s) mural.”

“The history goes deeper than the mural,” said Thomas MacMillan, a doctoral student and teaching assistant in the history department at Concordia University in Montreal.

The 11-week-long strike was spearheaded by 17-year-old Mamie Bilodeau, who worked alongside about 225 others employed at the Marston Worsted Mills in Skowhegan, MacMillan said. The strike was prompted by a decision to rescind a wage increase, as well as the firing of Bilodeau, who had made complaints against her boss of sexual harassment, he said.

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Workers walked out, demanding such things as a hike in wages, the abolition of fines against workers and employee representation on an arbitration committee.

When the strike concluded, it was followed by a historic move: Workers organized the Industrial Workers of the World for male and female workers.

John Harlow, who is helping to organize the placement of murals on buildings in downtown Skowhegan, is shown Monday with a painting that depicts workers at the Marston Worsted Mills in Skowhegan who went on strike in 1907. The painting, along with two others that accompanied it, recently were removed from the exterior of Skowhegan Savings Bank on Elm Street. The paintings by artist Gordon Carlisle are being stored for now at The Space on the River in Skowhegan. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel

MacMillan wrote about the strike in April, connecting the 1907 movement to later efforts by workers to launch unions at Amazon, Starbucks and elsewhere.

In the early 1900s, MacMillan said, mainstream unions had no interest in organizing women, especially immigrant women. The Industrial Workers of the World, however, agreed to organize anybody.

“It speaks to a number of problems in the history of workers in Maine and it was one of the first strikes that included both men and women on equal footing,” MacMillan said. “There were also more women strikers than men and that’s why it was successful. I think it speaks to the power of unity.”

This moment, he said, is important to share because of how it changed Maine labor and the push toward making the labor movement “open to more than just English-speaking white men.”

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“The strike particularly is important in context to today, where we’re seeing a lot of workers unionizing and fighting for better working conditions, which is exactly what these women and girls (wanted),” Harlow said. “I think that all of those things are still relevant now and can kind of contextualize where we are as a culture and as a society.”

Harlow is the son of a former longtime reporter for the Morning Sentinel, the late Doug Harlow.

The social media criticism in Skowhegan is reminiscent of a 2011 dispute in which Maine Gov. Paul LePage ordered the removal of a mural depicting the history of the labor movement in Maine from the lobby of the state Department of Labor. The mural was sent to the Maine State Museum.

LePage’s action drew widespread criticism and a federal lawsuit was filed by several parties. A judge later determined that LePage was within his right to “government speech” when he had the mural removed from a government building.

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