Jonathan Mandell painted the life-size Fiberglas donkeys representing Delaware and Connecticut.
Jonathan Mandell primarily uses tile, glass shards, minerals and semi-precious stones to create elaborate mosaics, but he jumped at the recent chance to paint a couple of the 57 DNC donkeys displayed around Philadelphia.
Mandell applied to participate in the Donkeys Around Town program conducted by the Mural Arts Program, arts group ArtJawn and the Philadelphia 2016 Host Committee for the Democratic National Convention. He was chosen to paint the life-size Fiberglas donkeys representing Delaware and Connecticut.
Each state selected six representative icons, of which the artists had to incorporate three. He had a whopping one week to use acrylic paint to complete the task.
“It was a lot of fun, but the time frame was compressed,” he said. “It was like donkey boot camp.”
For the Connecticut donkey, Mandell chose an author more closely associated with Missouri — Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain.
“I wanted to tell a story about Connecticut that a lot of people wouldn’t be familiar with,” he said, noting that aside from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Twain also wrote A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. “Twain lived in Connecticut for 20 years.”
Mandell said he inserted Twain’s head on period book-jacket art over a portion of the donkey, with a Monty Python-esque reference to the Naval Submarine Base in Groton as well. The Old State House building in Hartford and the Charter Oak landmark tree also are depicted.
The Delaware icons were easier to incorporate, Mandell said. They included a blue hen, as adopted by the Delaware Democratic Committee, the state flower (peach blossom) and the state flag.
There also is a tribute to Beau Biden, the late Delaware attorney general and son of Vice President Joe Biden. The Bethany Beach scene features a plane pulling a banner reading “Remembering Beau!!”
The Delaware donkey can be viewed on Market Street between 11th and 12th streets at the Pennsylvania Convention Center, while its Connecticut counterpart is located at Independence Mall South near the Independence Beer Garden.
The donkeys will be on display through Sept. 9, then auctioned off. Mandell said the artists got a stipend and will receive a percentage of the sale proceeds.
Although there are no Jewish themes associated with Mandell’s donkeys, the artist said about 25 percent of his work is Jewish in nature.
That includes wall-mounted installations at Temple Beth El-Beth Hillel in Wynnewood and Adath Israel on the Main Line in Merion Station. And there’s an interactive “Western Wall” at Abramson Center for Jewish Life in North Wales.
“The grout joints are open, so people can insert notes,” he said, adding that the notes are periodically taken to Israel.
There’s also a timeline of Jewish history at the University of Pennsylvania’s Hillel.
Meantime, Mandell’s working on ark doors for Hillel at Drexel University and a project involving hand-blown glass and semi-precious stones for the new Jewish Family and Children’s Service (JFCS) building in Merion.
Mandell, who didn’t take his first sculpture class until his senior year at Northwestern University, later obtained a master’s degree in fine arts from the University of Pennsylvania. He started with sculpture, but mosaics were his true calling.
“I like to think of them as tactile paintings,” he said. “I like to have a playful take on perspective.”
Even if you weren’t previously familiar with Mandell’s work, there’s a good chance you’ve seen it, as he has installations locally at Lower Merion High School, Citizens Bank Park, the National Constitution Center, Overbrook High School, Bryn Mawr Film Institute, the National Museum of American Jewish History and Bryn Mawr Hospital, to name just a few.
Mandell joked that the latter installation is one of his claims to fame.
“It’s safe to say I’m the first artist to do a mosaic of knee-replacement surgery,” he said.