May 26, 2019

Maine Capitol removes first portrait from wall

AUGUSTA – A new word is making the rounds in the state Capitol: deaccession.

Don’t worry, it has nothing to do with taxes, or consolidating schools or towns. Only those whose portraits lord over the limestone hallways need be concerned, and most of them are dead anyway. To those, the word brings a horrifying ring of political finality, as in impeachment, or even exile.

It means, quite literally, you’re off the wall.

That was the fate recently of Arba Eugene Powers, whose portrait kicked around the State House for decades. Bearing a striking resemblance to Walt Disney with a sweeping Errol Flynn mustache, Powers’ portrait depicts him sitting regally in a high-backed chair.

The Legislative Council – the House and Senate leaders from both parties – gave a final nod of approval on Powers’ deaccession in unceremonious fashion on July 30. His was the first portrait from the State House collection to be accorded such a fate.

The action followed a lively discussion that touched on a policy of gradually sprinkling the collection of gray-haired, stony-faced men who stare solemnly from State House walls with a few more women, Native Americans and others from diverse backgrounds.

“I think there are an awful lot of portraits in the State House that ought to go,” Assistant Senate Majority Leader John Martin, the Eagle Lake Democrat who himself is a walking legend in the Capitol, told his council colleagues.

The State Law Library catalogues 124 State House portraits as of 2005. The roster includes Maine governors, members of Congress, judges, prosecutors, military men, a publisher, a temperance reformer and even a British colonial statesman, Thomas Pownal.

Portraits include the likes of Civil War hero and Maine Gov. Joshua Chamberlain, American Greenback Party founder Solon Chase of Turner, and Ralph Brewster, governor from 1925-29 who later represented Maine in the U.S. House and Senate. Brewster’s political role in airline regulation was highlighted in the 2004 movie “The Aviator,” with Brewster depicted by actor Alan Alda.

Most famous and largest of all is the painting of George Washington, whose horse’s posterior hangs like a rising moon over the State House’s central stairway.

Even a dog appears in one portrait, but Garry appears alongside his master, Gov. Percival Baxter, whose bust is the artistic centerpiece of the Hall of Flags.

A few of Maine’s modern-era political towers have had honored places in the 2nd Floor Hall of Flags, including Edmund S. Muskie, who served governor in the 1950s and went on to serve with distinction in the U.S. Senate before becoming secretary of state.

There’s also a life-size portrait of Margaret Chase Smith, the first woman elected to both chambers of Congress who in 1964 became the first woman to have her name placed in nomination for president. Smith is one of few women – but certainly the most prominent – to be represented in the hallways.

That could change, due to the success of women in elections for legislative seats and leadership positions, and in races for U.S. House and Senate.

But back to Arba Eugene Powers.

There’s no abundance of biographical information about Arba Powers, but newspaper articles shed some light on his life and career.

He was born in Houlton in May 1872, and was the nephew of Llewellyn Powers of Houlton, Maine’s Republican governor from 1897 to 1901. As a lad, Arba Powers showed interest in acting and at age 18 wrote his first play, which was performed in a few Aroostook County towns. He cultivated an English accent which became his stock in trade on the stage.

Powers got his first big role in New York in “The Village Postmaster,” in which he played a farmer but before the end of the six-year run had the leading role, according to Powers’ Jan. 10, 1935, obituary in the Houlton Pioneer Times.

His portrait first was hung in the Blaine House and later displayed on the 4th floor of the State House, according to a newspaper article from October 1934. From there, Powers’ portrait bounced from room to room, but never found a secure home.

The fact that Powers had essentially nothing to do with state political or military history apparently did not go unnoticed by legislators through the years.

Council Director David Boulter said that every time Powers’ portrait appeared on the wall of a committee room, a legislator would ask that it be taken down.

With the one-time Broadway actor reduced to vagabond status in the State House, state Museum Director J.R. Phillips stepped in with the proposal for deaccession, a term that refers to a work being permanently removed from an art collection or museum.

He recommended that the portrait be donated to the Aroostook Historical and Art Museum in Houlton. The state museum board authorized the giveaway and the Legislative Council gave its blessing.

While Powers’ deaccession was the first in which a painting was actually removed from the State House collection, Phillips said the state museum removes items from its collection all of the time. Castoff items typically go to other, smaller museums.

So after a long run in the state capital, the Powers’ portrait is headed to a smaller stage in Houlton.

It may be a fitting tribute to the actor who, during one of his summer visit to his hometown, said, “Not a darned soul believes I’m an actor.”

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