A mural of Portland Harbor recently acquired by Southern Maine Democratic Socialists of America is being stored in the Biddeford studio of artist Peter Haller. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Claude Montgomery used the money he earned from selling his paintings to help feed homeless people in Portland. An artist of national renown with roots in Maine and Oklahoma, Montgomery and his wife, Louise, tapped their savings to buy a home in Portland in 1985 and convert it into a homeless shelter for men. Five years later, after her husband died, Louise Montgomery opened a second homeless shelter in Portland, this one for women, using donations given in recognition of her husband when he died.

Today, just as the memory of Montgomery and his art might be beginning to fade from Portland’s collective consciousness, the Southern Maine Democratic Socialists of America are bringing his name and work back to the fore. The left-leaning political group that advocates for social and economic justice has acquired a 6-foot-by-12-foot canvas-on-plywood mural of Portland Harbor that Montgomery painted in 1950 and, in partnership with the Save the Working Waterfront coalition, is trying to find a public home for its display. Painted in two 6-foot squares displayed side by side, the mural was a central feature of Montgomery’s home in Georgetown and destined for the dump when a contractor working on a home renovation recognized it as too valuable to throw away – and too big for his own wall.

“It was just so big, no one could do anything with it,” said the builder, John Hart. “I thought, ‘Well, I’ll take it, but where am I going to put it?’ ”

Artist Peter Haller with the mural of Portland Harbor recently acquired by Southern Maine Democratic Socialists of America. Haller is storing the mural in his Biddeford studio. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Instead, he contacted his friend Kate Sykes, co-chair of the Southern Maine DSA. She and Peter Haller, co-chair of the organization’s arts and culture committee, looked at the mural and decided to search for a public home for it. For now, the mural is wrapped and stored in Haller’s Biddeford art studio, but the DSA is actively seeking ideas for a permanent location. Espousing ideals of stewardship over ownership, Sykes and Haller are most interested in finding a home for Montgomery’s mural where it can be seen by everyday, working-class Mainers.

“We consider it to be public art,” Haller said. “The concept of ownership is very difficult for social democrats. We’re just stewarding it until we find a home.”

They have lots of ideas.

Given the Montgomerys’ concern and advocacy for homeless people, perhaps it would be appropriate for the city’s new homeless shelter, if and when it opens, Sykes said. City Hall, Ocean Gateway, the Gulf of Maine Research Institute or another location with a lot of visibility would be good, too. “Ideally, it would be a big interior wall space,” Haller said. “It could be a vacant space, it could be a city building. We’ll ask everybody. and we’re willing to talk to anybody.”

Montgomery’s children had hoped a museum might be interested, but none was, Haller said. “It’s a big piece for a museum, which I understand,” he said.

They’ve labeled this effort the Southern Maine DSA Bread & Roses Project. The name refers to the “Bread and Roses” textile strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts, in 1912, which was given its name because of the strikers’ demands for fair wages and dignified working conditions. “The DSA is all about working-class and that art should stay in the public domain,” Sykes said. “Poor and disenfranchised people need art as much as rich people do.”

Montgomery would agree with that sentiment. He was an artist by training and a progressive advocate by practice.

Claude Montgomery, August 1951 Portland Press Herald photo courtesy Portland Public Library Special Collections and Archives

Born in Portland in 1912, Montgomery went to Portland High and graduated from what is now Maine College of Art in 1935. He painted icons of the state and country, including Leon Leonwood Bean, Edmund Muskie and a portrait of John F. Kennedy that hung at the Harvard Club in Boston. A drypoint etching of an old man on the waterfront, called ″Ol’ Joe,″ was judged one of the best 100 prints of the year in 1937 by the Society of American Etchers. Two years later, it won a silver medal at the Paris International Exhibition.

Montgomery’s subjects also included Maine Gov. Kenneth M. Curtis, philanthropist Charles Shipman Payson, publisher Guy Gannett and his daughter Jean Gannett Hawley. He painted many Maine landscapes and seascapes, and Down East magazine frequently used his paintings on its covers in the 1960s. He was a member of both the American Watercolor Society and the Royal Society of Arts in London, which named him a fellow in 1971.

When Maine College of Art moved into the Porteous Building in downtown Portland, it named a gallery in his honor.

“He did a lot of important work,” Haller said. “He was not a minor artist.”

Montgomery’s death in 1990 made national headlines. At the time, Portland gallery owner Tom Crotty praised Montgomery’s painting skills, and added, “But his work with the homeless ranks with equal importance to his career as an artist.”

In 1985, Montgomery and his wife sold art and pooled savings to open the shelter, called Friendship House, in Portland’s West End. They lived there as well and helped 600 homeless people in five years, according to his obituary. Louise Montgomery said her husband suffered from alcoholism until 1969, and felt empathy with many homeless people in recovery.

In addition to Maine, Montgomery lived more than 30 years in Tulsa, Oklahoma, beginning in the 1940s. He brought his family to Maine each summer, and returned to live in Maine year-round in 1979. The family bought a home on Indian Point in Georgetown. Friends described it as rustic and cluttered, with portraits of friends and family and books piled high. There was a stone hearth, piano and a large window with a view of the ocean.

It was in this Great Room where Hart found the painting when he and another contractor began working on the house after it had been sold. The new owner couldn’t tear down the home and had to rebuild in sections. The mural didn’t fit with the new floor plan, and the owner wanted it removed. “It was sort of nailed to the wall, with some little trim around it,” Hart said. “We were told people were going to come and look at it, so we covered it and protected it and continued tearing the place apart.”

Two months later, the mural still didn’t have a taker, and it was time for the wall to come down. The owner told them to get rid of it. “We took it down as best we could to not mess it up, and stored it in this old shed that was on the property,” Hart said. “We used to eat our lunch out there.”

Finally, last winter, Sykes and Haller showed up with a van to rescue the mural.

Montgomery painted a view of the city looking across from South Portland, and took great liberties with both time and space. He elongates time to include three-masted schooners, steamships, ferries and working boats in the harbor to show Portland’s rich maritime history, and compresses space to include Fort Gorges, the Portland Observatory and City Hall, as well as what appears to be, perhaps, Portland Head Light in the location of Bug Light.

He fills his city with red brick buildings and the sloping hills of Mount Joy.


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