The War of Art

“It’s a beautiful piece of art. It’s just not what West Virginia veterans think of when they think of women in the military,” said Christie Utt, an Air Force veteran who chaired the Veteran Affairs committee.

Say what?

“That was the state of West Virginia’s idea,” Charleston, W.Va., artist Joe Mullins said. “It also needs to be made clear to my future clients that I’m not the bad guy here.”

Mullins had previously sculpted four statues for a War Memorial at the West Virginia state Capitol Complex. In 1999 the state Division of Culture and History commissioned him to do a work honoring West Virginia’s 7,000 women veterans. He created a figure of a muscular woman in military fatigues and T-shirt.

Charleston, W. Va., artist Joe Mullins stands next
to a model of his sculpture of a female veteran.
(Courtesy of Graffiti – West Virginia’s News Alternative)

It seems that the idea was for Mullins – who is renowned for his rendering of military and veteran themes – to produce a fitting memorial to female veterans. Mullins, you understand, is a busy guy. After he received the commission (and its $50,000 check), he quickly went to work, and four years later he presented the Division of Culture and History with his proposed sculpture.

The figure’s striking resemblance to West Virginia native Pfc. Jessica Lynch is probably purely coincidental, and – in any case – was not material in the subsequent two-year controversy.

Somehow, a committee of twenty-two female veterans from around West Virginia got into the act. I don’t know how often it met and what was its actual agenda, but Mullins described it this way: “…basically [it’s] degenerated into amateur hour…It’s like trying to sell a water buffalo to a bunch of Bedouins. They don’t know what they’re buying, so it’s hard to negotiate with ‘em.”

Remember, this is a committee consisting of twenty-two fine West Virginia ladies who have exactly one thing in common – they all served in the military in some capacity at some time. Naturally, therefore, they know a great deal about the military, fighting, war, battlefield femininity, and – especially – art and sculpture.

Deputy attorney general Christie Utt, herself an Air Force veteran, chaired the committee. According to Utt, a 2004 survey of female veterans state-wide indicated that the figure simply was too muscular…and it wasn’t properly dressed. That’s right, you can tell she is a woman by what pokes through her clothing. Now don’t get me wrong, This is no Venus Di Milo – this lady isn’t missing any body parts, and she’s fully clothed. Her T-shirt definitely covers all the important stuff.

It’s just pretty obvious that she’s not a guy.

And it’s also pretty obvious that she got through basic training without too much trouble. This clearly is one tough chick.

Utt said, “It’s a beautiful sculpture. It’s just not what the women veterans of West Virginia wanted right now.”

Okay – so what do they want?

Mullins said, “My understanding … is that a panel made up of someone did meet somewhere. Really, quite frankly, I’m in the dark otherwise.”

And that about sums it up.

Oh yes. Somebody mentioned a living memorial…a flower garden, perhaps.

Robert G. Williscroft is DefenseWatch Navy Editor

Submariner, diver, scientist, author & adventurer. 22 mos underwater, a yr in the equatorial Pacific, 3 yrs in the Arctic, and a yr at the South Pole. BS Marine Physics & Meteorology, PhD in Engineering. Authors non-fiction, Cold War thrillers, and hard science fiction. Lives in Centennial, CO.

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