Photo by Roger May
As a young man, Fr. Joseph “Joe” Mullins, MFA ’78, volunteered for military service in 1960, in the early years of the Vietnam era. This service to the country would be life-changing, culminating in a monumental opportunity to ensure that his fellow West Virginians—those who made the ultimate sacrifice—would never be forgotten.
“College was a pretty distant idea,” the Charleston, West Virginia, resident recalled entering the workforce after graduating from high school.
When he was laid off from construction work one winter and the house was running low on food and his mother was in the hospital, a knock on the door of friends who were volunteering for military service prompted Mullins to join them.
“I knew I could get out in two years and it would be at least a month before I was called back to work, so I decided to put it out of the way,” Mullins said.
He spent the next two years in the Army infantry and was stationed in Germany during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.
“We were the new ones on the block. They put us right in front of East and West Germany. We didn’t even know the Cuban Missile Crisis was underway,” Mullins recalled. “But they sent 88 cans of morphine to our train, so they expected serious pain. … Later we were sent to Berlin.”
During his service, Mullins became known for his shooting skills, which he had developed since childhood summers spent hunting with his father. He had the best gunnery performance in his 220-man company and served as the leader of a machine gun unit.
Mullins had the skills and respect of his comrades, but when he was inspected by his lieutenant, “who was in every way inferior to me,” he said, he realized something.
“He has a college degree; that’s the only reason he’s in charge. There are certain things you can’t achieve just by being good. They need an education,” Mullins said of the moment. “I remember the place. I remember where the sun was in the sky. In that second I thought I was going to get a college education. That’s what I’ve made up my mind to do.”
An aptitude test showed that a career in architecture was a good fit for Mullin’s skills, so he enrolled at Morris Harvey College, now known as the University of Charleston, to major in art – the closest major to architecture. There he met Ohio University graduate, MFA ’61 James Gibson, who taught sculpture and opened Mullins’ eyes to a field he didn’t even know existed.
“Sculpture chose me. I didn’t really go into sculpture,” Mullins explained.
While completing his undergraduate degree, he accepted a position at the West Virginia State Planning Bureau. Mullins felt that his art degree was “marginally qualified” for the position and he began to consider pursuing higher education.
He and a group from Charleston decided to attend graduate school at Ohio University, where Mullins enrolled in the same program that Gibson, his former sculpture professor, was completing: the College of Fine Arts MFA in Sculpture.
“It’s a reach if you’re trying to do something different in life,” Mullins said. “You have to reinvent yourself to a certain extent. And it helps when other people reinvent themselves at the same time.”
It was at OHIO that Mullins found that sense of community.
“Ohio University had a wonderful graduate student body at that time and a talented and fascinating body of people,” recalled Mullins, who studied under the late Henry Lin, professor emeritus of ceramics and former dean of the College of Fine Arts. “It’s the only place I’ve ever felt fully accepted, comfortable and with a family.”
Mullins not only left OHIO with his master’s degree, but he was 20 pounds lighter and debt-free — thanks to his GI Bill benefits, a scholarship, and creative planning, he built a tiny house to live in near Zaleski State Park and a local worm farmer for whom he worked as a night watchman.
“That covered my housing expenses, so I was able to get through OU and never borrowed a dime,” he said.
Returning to West Virginia as a sculptor, he subsequently served as executive director of the Parkersburg Arts Center and opened his own art studio in Charleston.
In 1987, Mullins was given the opportunity of a lifetime and the chance to serve his country again – through sculpture. Mullins’ design – one of about 180 submitted – was selected for the West Virginia Veterans Memorial, a nearly $4 million tribute to the more than 10,000 West Virginians who served and died in the first four wars of the 20th centuryth Century.
Constructed on the grounds of the West Virginia Capitol, the two-story oval memorial is surrounded by a reflecting pool. The names of the fallen are engraved on the black granite of the inner walls. In niches on the outer walls are four 7-foot, 2-inch bronze statues — sculpted by Mullins — honoring each of the conflicts and the branches of the armed forces: a World War I infantryman, a World War II sailor, a aviator from the Korean War and Marine from the Vietnam War.
Committed to building a “world-class monument,” Mullins conducted extensive research while working on the project, speaking to veterans, reading books, and even traveling to Vietnam.
Ground was broken for the memorial in 1990, and the last of the four bronze statues was installed in 1999. It was work, Mullins noted, that involved a variety of skills — from stonemasons and concrete pavers to backhoe diggers — and even some Ohio university connections.
Lyn Wyatt, MFA ’78, who graduated with Mullins, helped with the monument’s first two statues. For the bronze casting, Mullins turned to Art Research Enterprises, an art casting and fabrication company in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, owned by OHIO graduate Becky Ault, BFA ’69, MFA ’79, with whom he attended grad school, and Mike Cunningham, BFA, was co-founded in ’74.
“They cast the purest bronze… and I think it’s significant that the bronze portion of the memorial is an all-OU activity,” Mullins said.
Just as work was completed on the West Virginia Veterans Memorial, Mullins was brought in again—this time to create a bronze statue honoring the state’s female veterans. He finished this work in 2003, but disagreements over the statue’s clothing and location delayed its installation until 2010.
Today, the West Virginia Female Veterans Memorial is on the Capitol grounds across from the West Virginia Veterans Memorial. His 7ft 2in statue was placed on a 9ft pedestal, making it the same height as his counterparts.
Mullins, now largely retired, looks back on his career – a journey he described as “fame over fortune”.
The creator of the West Virginia Veterans Memorial—the largest public work of art in Charleston, taking nine years to build—Mullins is also the creator of the city’s smallest public work of art, which was completed in minutes.
“Oh, my greatest work!” Mullins joked, referring to “Mortar Man,” a 4″ x 2″ sculpture he quietly created out of extra concrete while working on a restoration project in downtown Charleston. Hidden on a ledge between two buildings, “Mörsermann” sat there for a few years before anyone even noticed him. Today Mortar Man is one of the top 10 attractions in the city.
But just a few miles away is the masterpiece that Mullins will forever be remembered for.
“Each of these individuals named on the Veterans Memorial was the most important person in a person’s life and was taken in the prime of life,” said Mullins, who has heard the stories of many of the fallen when family members reached out to him to make sure their loved one was included in the memorial. “I thought they deserved something to indicate that there is a nation and state to be grateful for their service and they need to be recognized for their sacrifice and for upholding their oath – the Constitution to defend against all enemies at home and abroad. America is not America without the Constitution.”