In April, artist Lynnette Shelley walked into a primitive, dirty and hot warehouse in Pennsylvania and was stared at by 57 “ghostly white” donkeys with their “creepy” eyes.
She spent the next six days in that warehouse, along with 28 other artists, painting the fiberglass mammals.
Shelley, of Ambler, Penn., and the other artists worked on the exhibit “Donkeys Around Town,” a program for the Democratic National Convention. The donkeys represent U.S. states, Washington, D.C., or U.S. territories. Shelley painted the donkeys for Missouri and Oklahoma.
Artists applied to be part of the project and were selected by a committee. Each artist was given a choice of six symbols that represented each state to paint on their donkeys. For Missouri, Shelley chose the state flower, the White Hawthorn blossom; the state bird, the Eastern bluebird; and the St. Louis Arch.
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“I am known for animal art, so it was natural for me to pick the bird and the flower,” Shelley said. “And the arch tied in really organically. I liked the shape of the art and it really fit in.”
Edgar Jerins, from Manhattan, N.Y., painted the donkeys for Kansas and Nebraska. Jerins said he feels “deeply connected” to Kansas — he has visited his family in Lindsborg, Kan., since he was young, and many of his drawings are of the Kansas landscape. Jerins chose sunflowers, the Kansas state flag and a “no brainer” — Dorothy and Toto — for his donkey.
“Once I had Dorothy and Toto, I knew I wanted to make the donkey really fun,” Jerins said. “I added in a big Midwest sky and the yellow sunflowers, which remind me of the yellow brick road. I wanted to make everything Technicolor, whimsical and fantastical.”
Jerins and Shelley agreed that painting the donkeys was a challenge. Neither had worked on a three-dimensional surface, and each is known for different kinds of art — Jerins for charcoal on paper and Shelley for ink and acrylic on wood panels.
“It was amazing to see the variety of artists painting the donkeys, and what everyone was doing,” Shelley said. “There were artists that were used to painting textiles, mosaic and portraits, all painting on the same thing. Everyone was stepping out of their comfort zone.”
Jerins said the work was a challenge for everyone because of the textured fur, rather than a smooth surface.
“I had to really push the paint down into the grooves,” Jerins said. “Dorothy and Toto had to be perfect, and I had to work up a level of detail to make it look real.”
The Missouri and Kansas donkeys are painted very differently, except the for hooves. Shelley gave the Missouri donkey a “gold pedicure” and Jerins painted Dorothy’s ruby slippers on his donkey.
“When I look at the donkey, I smile,” Jerins said. “It makes me really happy, and I think everyone will like Dorothy and Toto, especially kids.”
▪ The donkeys will be on display around Philadelphia through July 31. The Democratic National Convention is July 25-28.