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The Squirrel Who Paints

Winkelhimer Smith is an Eastern gray squirrel with a talent for creating art, and the story of her discovery is fascinating.

Rebecca Stout
Posted: October 15, 2014, 9:40 p.m. EDT

Most artists have clay, paint, fabric or a variety of other supplies on their desk. But there is more on Shyla Mouton’s desk than just your typical art supplies. Also present is her companion and fellow artist — a tiny, furry one of the squirrel persuasion. It was three and a half years ago that Winkelhimer Smith burst onto the art scene with her unique and colorful paintings.


From Baby To Artist

Winkelhimer, an Eastern gray squirrel, had unfortunate beginnings before she came to live with Mouton in her Louisiana home. The wild squirrel was enjoying one of her first ventures out of the nest outdoors on the Saturday before Easter in 2011 when something terrible happened. A stray cat appeared. Mouton had been joyfully watching the squirrel climbing up and down the trunk of a tree from her kitchen window as she did the dishes. She frantically banged on the window to warn the baby about the cat, but it was too late. The cat leapt up and snagged the poor baby squirrel by her leg. Mouton ran outside in her pajamas, caught the cat and wrestled the baby squirrel out of his mouth. The tiny squirrel was in shock and barely breathing. 

Mouton took the badly injured baby inside to recoup in quiet. It was terrible timing, as all of the wildlife rehabilitators were closed due to the holiday. Mouton feared the baby would not pull through, but she survived the night! It took a week for any rehab to get back to Mouton, and by then she was in love with the furry critter. It was also obvious that the little one’s injuries would prevent her from ever being released.

squirrel with injured leg
© Courtesy Shyla Mouton
The injury to Winkelhimer's leg prevented her release back into the wild.

With the help of a wildlife rehabber Mouton had contacted and with advice from a few vets, the squirrel, now named Winkelhimer, not only survived the attack but also flourished in her new home. She spent much of her time in a hangout spot on the desk that Mouton had made for her. It was from here that Winkelhimer watched curiously as Mouton worked each day. 

"They are extremely bright creatures, so she was curious about what I was doing,” Mouton said. "She would pick things up and try and figure if she could do what I was doing. Finally she would come and take brushes and sweep them around like a mop. On a lark I let her have one with food coloring on it. And to my shock she actually mopped it around on the paper I put for her to sit down and play with the brush on.” 

Out of this humble beginning emerged beautiful art.

Now you might be skeptical about whether what Winkelhimer produces is art. What is art exactly? The painting is definitely a bonding activity or game and it is no doubt enriching for Miss Squirrel. But I, and many others, believe that it is also a form of expression. Art!

Winkelhimer Makes A Name For Herself

Mouton and her friends enjoyed watching the furry phenom create her little masterpieces. Mouton chose to share her little one’s brilliance online with those who had helped her and with people in the squirrel community, so she posted a video on YouTube of the tiny animal holding a brush with her mouth and uninjured hand joyfully sweeping it over paper. Eventually, Felix Salmon, who was the finance blogger at Reuters, found it and posted the video on his Tumblr page. It seemed to take off from there. Soon after the squirrely artist became a celebrity featured on ABC, MSNBC, KFLY, KATC, Wake Up With Al, America Now, NPR Radio, Metro UK and more. 
It was then that people began to ask where they could buy one of the paintings. Mouton said she put one up on eBay and promised to buy Winkelhimer a carpeted pet tree if the painting sold. It cost a little more than $40. They got the money. "I kept my word and went straight out and got her the play tree, which she loved,” Mouton said.

 squirrel holding paintbrush
© Courtesy Shyla Mouton
Winkelhimer learned to paint by watching Shyla Mouton paint.

Helping Others

More and more people asked to buy paintings, so Mouton came to a decision. "Because Winkelhimer was so lucky to survive her attack and I was so blessed by her because I enjoy her so much, I figured it was only right to start to help other pets or people in need.” Mouton began donating money from sales to help critters or people in need.

Ironically, tragedy struck in February of 2012, and it was Mouton and Winkelhimer who needed help. A tornado hit their home and a large tree demolished it. Luckily, although everyone was shaken up, no one was hurt. They were homeless for a long time before getting back on their feet. Mouton said the Red Cross helped her in those first days, but it was friends she knew online and had never met in person who rallied around them and took care of them when they were scared and alone. 

"It was just so touching I could cry even now just thinking about it,” Mouton said. "Because of that it's one of the things we try and support as much as we can. I think it's something I had to experience to understand how to not only give charity but also get it. Having people help me made me understand even more how important is it to help out those in need.”

Profits from the paintings have helped numerous organizations including cancer cure efforts, natural disaster relief and children in need. However, they mostly help independent animal charities, wild animal rehabilitators, sugar gliders and even bats. 

At this point, Mouton is Winkelhimer’s personal assistant and secretary — because the squirrel can’t reach the computer. You can find and contact Winkelhimer via numerous social media, which are listed on her website. And most importantly, you can find her art prints for sale at Etsy.

painting by Winkelhimer Smith

© Courtesy Shyla Mouton
Paintings like this are sold and proceeds go to help other critters and people in need.

Karen Clark runs Lovely Lita's Sheltering Tree Foundation, Inc. It is a 501c3 not-for-profit organization for the rescue and rehab of squirrels in the Tampa Bay area of Florida. Mouton and her squirrely artist have donated some of the proceeds from the paintings to the foundation. Clark has also helped Mouton with advice and is now a supportive friend. 

"Shyla loves Wink very much and is making every attempt to give her the best life she can give her, which includes learning all about how to properly care for a captive squirrel,” Clark said. "In most cases, I don't think people are prepared for the life change that caring for a captive wild animal entails.” 

Stephanie Stronsick is a wildlife naturalist for Wildlands Conservancy and volunteers at Aark Wildlife Rehabilitation and Education Center in Pennsylvania. In addition, she is a bat rehabilitator in Pennsylvania. She has been a longtime follower of Winkelhimer’s rescue story and became a long-distance acquaintance of Mouton. 

"Shyla and Winkelhimer donated beautiful art pieces to Pennsylvania Bat Rescue's fundraiser to help with the cost of rescuing native bats,” Stronsick said. "Mouton sent one of her dolls, and Winkelhimer sent a painting. Shyla is such a wonderful individual, and all that she does for the critters around the country is amazing!” 

Today, Mouton and Winkelhimer live in Texas with Mouton’s fiancé, Jim, her mother and other pets. However, the squirrel star artist has taken over the entire bedroom. 

"I play with her,” Mouton said. "She jumps on my bed in the morning to wake me up. If Jim and I sit on the bed with a snack to watch TV she will get her a snack out and have what we like to call a ‘squirrel picnic.’”

Meanwhile, followers watch for adventures to unfold online and avidly await new paintings. But Mouton wants her story and her little squirrel’s fame to lead to something even bigger: Awareness. "Hopefully we can continue to help people and also help spread the word that small animals like rodents are wonderful beings — not pest or vermin.”

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Posted: October 15, 2014, 9:40 p.m. EDT

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The Squirrel Who Paints

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What a wonderful story! Bless your heart for taking Winkelhimer in, and I love those paintings! ;)
Autum, Caldwell, ID
Posted: 3/16/2015 5:29:04 PM
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