The time for Democrats to dump the donkey has come, says Boulder-based illustrator Stephen Parlato. What does he think should replace it? His Flag Horse.
He initially created the collage character for his 2003 children's tale, The World That Loved Books.
"The premise of that book is that there once was a world where even the animals loved to read and what everyone read, they became, until they closed their books and became themselves again, only smarter," Parlato explains. "So the horse image is for a horse reading about flags and feeling so proud waving at even strangers. It was sort of an anti-xenophobic message within the book; the flag was welcoming, and that there was reason to be proud."
Shortly after the book was published, a Republican candidate running for office in Florida contacted Parlato about licensing the image for his campaign. "I had to tell them, "No. I’m a lifelong Democrat, and I couldn’t in good conscience allow you to use it,'" Parlato recalls.
It didn't occur to him then to hoist up the Flag Horse to represent his own party. But he finally did when the 2018 midterm election rolled around.
Last fall, Parlato hung a 6-by-18-foot banner depicting the Flag Horse facing off against Trump's head made with snakes, along with the caption "Your vote is the only antidote," on Folsom Street in Boulder. He also rented a mobile billboard to drive the design around Washington, D.C.
“People began saying that would be a great image for the party," Parlato recalls. "A friend’s cousin who does work with the DNC in California made the comment that if they were smart, they would dump the donkey and use this, so that stuck, and that’s when I actually got serious about campaigning."
As the icon of the working party, the term "jackass" was first hurled at Andrew Jackson by opponents during his 1828 campaign to become the seventh president of the United States. Political cartoonist Thomas Nast began sketching the donkey in his own iconic works, and the image stuck.
"In almost prescient-Trump-like fashion, Jackson accepts it as a label," Parlato recalls. “So it seemed serendipitous that here’s the Jackson jackass, and we have our own jackass who has the Jackson portrait hanging behind him in office."
Under #DumptheDonkey, Parlato is urging Democrats to retire the stubborn old mule and embrace the new energized Democrats — which should be symbolized by the Flag Horse.
"This is such a crucial election that is coming up, that, yes, we need to have a vigorous, no-holds-barred debate among the party, but in the end it has to coalesce into a single political force," Parlato says. "The idea of the moderate, of the Joe Biden coming to the rescue — it's time has passed. The energy is with the young, but it’s got to be a decision at the end of this process, and everybody’s got to be on board, because as I say, this guy in office, we can mock him all we want, but he is canny, and he’s effective."
A traditional collagist, Parlato collects photographs and attaches them to thick paper. Instead of gluing the photos in place, he fixes them with sequence pins, maintaining fluid control over the evolving image. The resulting collages are bizarre and intricate, surreal and striking, reminiscent of Eric Carle on acid, or a postmodern take on Giuseppe Arcimboldo.
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Originally from Long Island, Parlato studied at the Cooper Union School of Art and Architecture and the Maryland Institute’s Hoffberger School of Graduate Painting. In 2017, he moved to Boulder from Baltimore, Maryland, where he was previously occupied as a social worker addressing the drug and gun crisis. Parlato moved out west to marry the love of his life, but admitted that it took him a while to get used to living in "the Boulder bubble" because "the lack of stress at first was stressful.”
Last week, Parlato held his poster of the Flag Horse up high outside former governor John Hickenlooper's presidential campaign kickoff event in Civic Center Park. Armed with 1,500 prints, Parlato plans on attending college campuses and rallies leading up to the election, sharing his message of unity, pride and patriotism.
Catch Stephen Parlato signing copies of his newest publication, Dragons Love Art, at the Colorado Book and Art Festival from noon to 4 p.m. Saturday, March 16. Tickets are $5.