On a sun-drenched Philadelphia day, Lynnette Shelley settled outside a warehouse at the Tioga Marine Terminal, paintbrush in hand. The warehouse didn't allow for much natural light, and to finish her masterpiece on the sixth day (on the seventh, she rested), she needed to see its vivid colors and make sure they matched. She touched up images of flora and fauna, and complex geometric patterns, until her donkey was resplendent.
Let's backtrack a bit.
On Friday, in celebration of the Democratic National Convention, 57 fiberglass donkeys are coming to town, courtesy of the Philadelphia 2016 Host Committee, the city Mural Arts Program, and ArtJawn. Each sculpture represents a U.S. state or territory - except one for Democrats who live and vote abroad. Donkeys will be posted at 48 locations all over town - Independence Beer Garden, the Philadelphia Art Museum, Comcast Plaza, the Porch at 30th Street Station, and elsewhere.
The prototype, Pennsylvania's donkey, has the Liberty Bell, the state flower, and an Amish buggy. Delaware's has a tribute to the late Beau Biden. New Jersey's bears images of Frank Sinatra, Atlantic City, and the "Trenton Makes" bridge.
Donkeys Around Town was herded into being by former Pennsylvania governor and host committee chair Ed Rendell, whose enthusiasm for these decorated animals was "contagious," said Jane Golden, executive director of the Mural Arts Program.
"I love the project," Rendell said, "because I thought it up."
Apparently, his excitement spread. Applications poured in. A panel judged each submission and eventually selected 30 local artists. Most were assigned two donkeys each from randomized locations (many of which they had never visited). Democratic delegations provided a list of six icons they'd like to see on their state's donkey. Each artist was required to use at least three of them.
The journey truly began when, in early June, all of the painters assembled for seven days by the docks.
"It was rough, but I considered it kind of like donkey boot camp," Shelley said. "We were all in it together."
It was industrial. It was hot.
"It was a warehouse, so walking in there, it was like, 'Oh, my goodness, this is a little creepy,' because there were all of these white donkeys," said Jeleata Nicole, who took on South Carolina and West Virginia.
While her West Virginia jenny behaved, South Carolina proved more headstrong. Nicole repainted its crown three or four times, finally settling on a view of Myrtle Beach, with the lighthouse running down its neck.
Others cited the mule's three-dimensional nature as their particular challenge. Many artists were used to flat surfaces.
Brad Carney struggled with his spheric hinny from Michigan. He had painted a hippopotamus in the past, but never had he dared to investigate such a majestic creature as the ass. Of course, he learned a lot. His studies enlightened him about factoids like the origins of the American car and Motown music.
Shelley, who depicted Missouri and Oklahoma, went with a naturalistic approach, incorporating state insects and wildlife into her works. "I'm really good at drawing bees, so I thought, 'I'm going to paint a bee on this donkey,' " she said of her Missouri burro.
She also put a bison on Oklahoma and weaved elm leaves into its mane to represent the survivor tree from the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.
For Oklahoma's connections to American Indian culture, she incorporated aesthetics from Cherokee basket-weaving and pottery.
"I wanted to do some research on the tribes that were in the area, so it wasn't just Native American designs, but something more specific," she explained.
"We spent a week straight painting a donkey, so you've got to have fun with it."
By the end of their time together, the artists could boast a drove of pimped-out Eeyores, including a tribute to the one and only Prince on the rump of the Minnesota donkey.
"In essence," says Golden, the artists "were storytellers about the states."
"I went to visit the donkeys last week, and they absolutely blew me away," Rendell said. "You have to see the Kansas donkey. It has almost an exact replica of Judy Garland and Toto."
Rendell did concede that he wanted to embargo the Massachusetts mule after he noticed it laid claim to Benjamin Franklin, who clearly belongs to Philadelphia.
The asses descend on Center City on Friday, prepped for their close-up. From July 21-28, the DNC host committee will hold an online scavenger hunt with the sculptures as a nucleus. Prizes include a package of Philadelphia sports tickets and a three-day getaway in the City of Brotherly Love. Surveillance will watch exhibition spaces at all times, but in case of emergencies, donkey doctors are on-call for repairs.