The old Cabot Mill, known as Fort Andross, is a looming and powerful presence in Brunswick. It sits on the historic Androscoggin River and is within walking distance of downtown Brunswick. It can be seen by all who drive along Route 1.

Recently we were troubled and puzzled to learn about plans to create a large mural representing the Brunswick community on one wall of the building. As a group of artists and activists, we see public art as a powerful place for communities to speak to themselves about who they are and who they aspire to be. What troubles us is that this new effort to represent the community is happening without much community input.

We learned about the project as part of our own effort to better represent Brunswick’s Indigenous past and present. We are part of a group of Waponahki and non-Indigenous people that includes scholars of Maine history, artists, local Unitarian Universalist Church members, and the co-founders of Mid-Coast Indigenous Awareness Group. In spite of all of our connections to the community, none of us had heard of this now decade-old project until about two months ago.

Two organizers of the mural, who work with Brunswick Public Art (BPA), graciously agreed to meet with two of our group members to discuss the project. We were uniformly surprised and disappointed with the chosen design, titled “Many Stitches.” The image is a simplified composition of a pastoral scene outside the mill, with various persons engaged in “stitching” the image together to show how a diverse Brunswick community lives and works together in harmony.

Those sentiments, while admirable, are poorly represented in the composition. While artful and attractive in a certain sense, the image does nothing to illuminate the rich, complex history of Brunswick, the river, or the mill itself. Rich with sea-run fish, the Androscoggin River had been used for thousands of years by Waponahki peoples as a food source and travel route. European colonization made it into a bitterly contested waterway during the 1600s and 1700s. The industrialization that occurred at the mill during the 1800s brought new prosperity to many, but that prosperity depended on men, women, and even children working long hours in often poor conditions. The image does more than obscure our human history. It also does not take into account the creatures who call the river home. The lives of cormorants, shad and alewives have all become more difficult because of the dam that sits at the center of the image. The placement and postures of the figures in the image also reflect old and problematic power dynamics, with the people of color less prominent than the central White male figure.

We believe that this composition is not only a missed opportunity for a more engaging and meaningful piece of public art; it actually reinforces cultural stereotypes about race, gender, and the natural world that are the opposite of what BPA has stated as the intended theme of its mural.

A mural titled “Many Stitches” suggests that it takes a tremendous amount of work to bring a community together. For all of the work that BPA has done so far to make this mural possible, it has not done the work needed to understand and represent the many stitches that actually compose this community. Stitching a community requires a commitment to conversation and compromise. Inclusion and positive change can only happen with meaningful engagement with residents, business owners, historians, and even activists. Brunswick is a wonderful place to work and live. In its current design, “Many Stiches” is not a wonderful piece of public art.

Mihku Paul, a Maliseet poet and artist, lives in Portland; Lee Cataldo and Jim McCarthy live in Brunswick. Their commentary reflects the views of the Pejepscot Portage Mapping Project, a local group that’s working to uncover the Waponahki landscape.

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