Bare buttocks of Adam and Eve in Wyeth mural trigger military art controversy

The Wyeth mural has been on display at the Delaware Air National Guard for a half-century. The artist calls the notion of covering up the bare cheeks ‘absurd.’

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Jamie Wyeth, then in his early 20s, works from a stepladder while creating the mural for the Delaware Air National Guard. (Courtesy of Jamie Wyeth)

Jamie Wyeth, then in his early 20s, works from a stepladder while creating the mural for the Delaware Air National Guard. (Courtesy of Jamie Wyeth)

A painting by artist Jamie Wyeth depicting Adam and Eve gazing at a military cargo plane has graced the walls of the Delaware National Guard since the height of the Vietnam War.

But the bare derrieres of the biblical couple has periodically raised some hackles at the military base near New Castle. And recently, the mural was the subject of what Wyeth says would have been a shameful cover-up.

Jamie Wyeth is a renowned artist, just like his late father Andrew Wyeth and late grandfather N.C. Wyeth. But in the late 1960s he served in the Delaware Air National Guard, albeit as an illustrator for the DANG Truth, the base newsletter.

And during that turbulent time when anti-war protests swept America, Wyeth was asked to paint a mural to be displayed at a military ball on the base.

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He chose to depict a naked Adam and Eve — their bare rear ends visible — staring at the mammoth C-97 aircraft. The 10-foot-by-30-foot work has Eve dropping the apple rather than eating it at the urging of the talking serpent.

“It’s enormous,’’ Wyeth told WHYY during a telephone interview from his home in Maine. He also lives on a farm that straddles the Delaware-Pennsylvania line.

Wyeth’s mural is entitled “Adam and Eve and the C-97.” He created the work at the Delaware base in 1969, and it has been displayed there since. (Courtesy of Jamie Wyeth)

Recalling the creation of the work with a chuckle, the 73-year-old Wyeth said he would stand on a stepladder, with his supplies on the floor. “I remember Chief Master Sgt. Larry Vieth would hand me up, instead of a pallet, he would use trash cans,” Wyeth said.

The painting was done on parachute fabric with aeronautical paint. It even has a skull concealed in the cloud. That’s Airman Death, a creature Wyeth created for his Guard illustrations that he said infuriated base leadership.

“After the ball I was thinking it would be destroyed. And of course it has gone on to have a real life,” Wyeth said.

‘Have you ever heard of such prudishness?’

The mural has been a fixture at the Air Guard operations center, but in recent months the Guard’s new commander, Maj. Gen. Michael Berry, discussed with his staff ways to alleviate concerns about the bare cheeks.

WHYY learned about the possible cover-up from a source who is friendly with Guard members who like Adam and Eve just the way are and were aghast at the notion of altering how it looked.

The Guard’s new commander, Maj.  Gen. Michael Berry, had discussions with other officials this year about covering up Adam and Eve’s bare buttocks. The idea drew fire and was jettisoned, his spokesman says. (Delaware National Guard)

Gen. Berry would not speak with WHYY but Guard spokesman Bernie Kale said no discussions centered around altering the actual piece in any way.

“The plaque would just conceal the buttocks of Adam and Eve and tell the piece’s history,” Kale said. “There were lots of conversations but there were no conversations to paint over or deteriorate the integrity of the painting itself.”

Kale said conversations about doing something about the bare butts (the painting also shows part of Eve’s bare breast) date to 2004.

“There were some issues with some airmen who just commented that it was inappropriate to have the buttocks of Adam and Eve on the wall of an operational groups building,’’ Kale said. “It’s not a museum. It’s not an art exhibit, It just sort of stands out.”

But after the concept came under fire from within, the Guard stood down.

“We looked into it and there’s no plans currently, right now, to cover it up,’’ Kale said. “So that’s where we’re at.”

Wyeth learned after the fact about the discussions to “sanitize’’ his art.

Artist Jamie Wyeth says it’s “absurd’’ that the Delaware National Guard would think to cover up the bare ‘buttocks of Adam and Eve.’ (WHYY/file)

“It’s just bizarre, absurd,’’ Wyeth said. “I cannot believe this is 2019 and somebody is offended by the buttocks of Adam and Eve, this allegorical sort of epochal couple. It’s sort of inconceivable to me. Oh my God, have you ever heard of such prudishness?”

Wyeth added that censoring or altering art is not a novel idea.

“There’s a whole history with paintings,’’ he said, noting that “they covered up all the genitals’’ in some works by Michelangelo. “That’s happened throughout history. There’s nothing new with this but I didn’t think I would experience it during my lifetime.”

He hopes the mural “lives on and we’ll see what its next incarnation will be.”

Art conservator Joyce Hill Stoner says it would be shame to tinker with Wyeth’s piece. (Courtesy of Joyce Hill Stoner)

Joyce Hill Stoner, a professor in the University of Delaware’s Department of Art Conservation who has worked with the Wyeths, said it would be terrible to tinker with the piece at the air base.

“It was a fun thing for a big dance and it’s amazingly – as you say, 50 years young – been preserved all this time,’’ she said. “And it would be just a shame. It preserves the whimsy of the 1969 period and heaven knows during Vietnam we all needed whimsy.”

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