“THE HISTORY OF ART is filled with portrayals of birds,” Hunt Slonem points out. “I’ve been painting birds for 45 years; I’ve been fascinated by them since I was a child growing up in Hawaii – their form, movement, colour, their influence on fashion. I live with 60 parrots in my studio!” A new book by the artist who was born in Kittery, Maine in 1951 is aptly and succinctly titled Birds (available in Singapore at Books Kinokuniya). Published by Gliteratti, the 270-page hardcover tome is a vibrant follow-up to Bunnies (incidentally, Slonem was born in the Year of the Rabbit), and pays homage to cockatoos, lorikeets, peacocks, macaws and cardinals, among other feathered fowl.
“Currently, I’m working with parrots and lories, very colourful seed-eating and long-lived birds. There are probably 50 to a hundred kinds of lories from the south seas and Asia, and they are of particular interest to me. Sometimes, I do 50ft paintings of repeated forms of birds with their myriad shapes and colours,” says the painter, sculptor and printmaker who relocated to New York in 1973, and moved in the same circles as Truman Capote, Liza Minelli and Andy Warhol.
Last year, the prolific artist – who is represented in over 100 museums including The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Solomon R Guggenheim in New York – exhibited his sartorial flair when he collaborated with Jason Wu on a series of rabbit-inspired prints, jacquards and knits for the renowned fashion designer’s Grey Jason Wu label. Here, Slonem lets us in on his creative process, his artistic influences and his great multitude of pets.
What’s your creative process?
I start my day out with little 10x8 paintings, a technique inspired by [abstract expressionist artist] Hans Hofmann’s warm-ups – mostly of rabbits at this point, but I paint butterflies and birds as well. I’m painting even when I’m not painting!
What’s your earliest memory of art, and how did your upbringing affect your career?
My grandfather painted. I was very sick when I was about three, and I was put in a room in his studio, and I memorised all the paintings and the brushes and the smells. The first time I held a paintbrush, I was very unsure of myself and it’s taken me my whole life to learn how to use it. I was also asked as a child what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I would paint a picture of myself standing at an easel. My father was a career naval officer, and helped design submarines such as The Nautilus, but I was never conflicted. I always knew I wanted to paint full-time and that’s what I’ve been doing my whole life.
Who or what are some of your biggest influences?
Probably the biggest influence on me was the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine which I attended between my junior and senior year in the south at Vanderbilt and Tulane Universities. I’ve been influenced by so many kinds of art and artists – the ancient art of Pompeii and Herculaneum, the mosaics, early Egyptian flat mural painting, the artists in New York where I’ve lived since 1973, Howard Hodgkin; I was very excited by Warhol and the pop idea of repetition, and I love how Picasso would buy chateaus and fill them up with art, and then get another one – I think artists’ homes and studios are as interesting as the art itself sometimes, and. I myself love to save historic homes and re-do them with my vision of pumping life into them through colour and my work, and re-doing antiques to fill them. I’m up to six large houses and two plantations in the south.
Speaking of large houses, you must have plenty of space for your many pets! Tell us about them.
I’ve kept many animals – I’ve had monkeys (when it was legal), hedgehogs, fish, turtles. I have 60 birds that live with me in my studio that are a tremendous influence as inspiration and as personalities. They’re highly intelligent! And in the south, I have peacocks.
What’s next for you?
The most recent thing in my work is the addition of diamond dust to the rabbit works. I’m also doing large-scale outdoor metal sculptures in the state of Louisiana – some of them are 18ft tall, many of them are birds. And when I’m in town, I paint every day or think about it daily – I’m obsessive about it! I collect old frames, which I use with my work to create the salon-style format. I also travel a lot; I just got back from a show in Frankfurt, Germany. I’m off to Saint Petersburg for another show in May – there’s quite an itinerary of shows planned in the near and distant future!