TREMONT – It started with a walk.

Judy Taylor, as she so often does, hiked Beech Mountain near her home at Seal Cove to clear her head and step away from the clutter of a busy life.

And there they were, in front of her. Men working. She heard them before she saw them — the sound of their rakes and shovels scratching the dirt, their voices rising in the heat of a steamy summer day. Before her stood a cluster of young men, shirtless, improving the park hiking trail.

The image stuck. Taylor turned that scene into two finished paintings, and when she answered a call for proposals for a public art project at the Maine Department of Labor in 2007, those Acadia trail workers came first to mind. She proposed a multi-panel narration of Maine’s labor history. She was awarded the commission, and on Labor Day in 2008 the state dedicated Taylor’s 11-panel installation in a public celebration.

In the weeks that have passed since Gov. Paul LePage ordered Taylor’s mural removed from the labor department headquarters, the artist has become a reluctant figure in the resulting controversy. Newspapers around the world have reproduced images of her work, and talk show hosts, comedians and others have bandied her about as if she were a famous artist with a household name.

Taylor has tried to tune it out, though that has proven difficult. Early on, her husband monitored email and filtered her phone calls to help protect their privacy.

But Taylor finally addressed the situation last week, participating in a panel discussion at the Portland Museum of Art — where she received a standing ovation — and inviting a reporter and photographer to her studio on Mount Desert Island.

She decided it was important for her to say something.

“People seem to want to know what I think,” said Taylor, who until this incident was best known for her portrait work and landscape paintings. “I’m not sure I get the scope of it yet, but I must say that I’ve been very touched by a number of things. I’ve heard from a lot of artists and a lot of people, and I’m very touched by the response.

“I just feel kind of dazed. I’ve been dazed for two weeks. But I feel hopeful. I hope things work out. I certainly don’t feel angry.”

Taylor speaks softly with a hint of an accent, perhaps left over from the years she spent in Texas. She is a relative newcomer to Maine, although she has painted during summers here for years. She was an artist-in-residence at Acadia National Park in the mid-’90s and kept coming back until the lure proved too great.

She and her husband, Larry Turner, moved up from Austin, Texas, to live full time in 2002. In doing so, she followed a legacy that has defined Maine art for hundreds of years.

“This is the place I was destined to be. Ever since I was a kid, I was intrigued by Winslow Homer and Edward Hopper. I always had a pull to Maine. I came to paint in the summer, and kind of stayed,” she said.

She was born in Nebraska and raised in the Midwest. Living on the prairie conditioned her to look at the world through a wide lens, and helped form her perspective as a visual artist.

Taylor is classically trained. She studied at the New York Academy of Arts and later at the National Academy of Design, also in New York. Her figurative work falls into the tradition of Rockwell Kent or George Bellows, artists who place their subjects in the context of their world.

Her first love is drawing, which forms the foundation of all her work. A week from today, she leaves for Italy to teach a week intensive in drawing.

“It’s all sketching,” she said. “No painting whatsoever. We’ll do a lot of pen-and-ink and a lot of graphite. We’re going to focus on composition and tone value.”

Before moving to Maine, Taylor taught advanced painting and drawing at the Austin Museum of Art in Texas.

Carl Little, who writes about Maine art, has known Taylor several years. A few years ago, he sat as a subject for one of her portraits.

“She is a terrific painter and a terrific person,” said Little, who noted the irony of the mural controversy. “This great work is finally getting the attention it has deserved all along.”

That fact is not lost on Taylor.

While she is personally uncomfortable with the focus, she is pleased that so many people are talking about her labor murals and what they are about.

“It’s nice that they are getting the attention in this way, so they can be an educational tool. That was the objective of the murals in the first place, to educate,” she said.

She rejects the idea that her murals serve as left-wing propaganda. The panels are not meant to be political in any way, she said. Some involve conflicts between workers and management, but the notion that the panels advocate an agenda that might be construed as anti-business is something she has a hard time understanding. They simply reflect Maine history, she said.

“Propaganda art is angry. My murals are not angry. They are warm,” she said.

The other irony in this situation involves Taylor’s initial motive for entering the call for art in the first place. She was less interested in the subject of the project than in the opportunity to paint the human figure in a large and historically accurate setting. It tied all her training together.

“It gave me the chance to work with the human figure. I was interested in showing the worker over time, so I created this narrative time line. I wanted the muted-color figures in the foreground, and wanted the background to tell the history of that particular period.

“For me, to work with the figure in a historical setting and in that context was exactly what I was trained to do. I was just exercising my training as an artist,” she said.

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

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