When asked to paint a picture of what he wanted to be when he grew up, the 2-year-old Hunt Slonem painted a picture of himself painting. In 1977, at the age of 24, he had his first professional show in New York’s Fischbach Gallery. Today, his works are represented in many museums including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Spain’s Miro Foundation, The Pulitzer Collection of Amsterdam, The Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C., and a number of other private and public collections worldwide. Slonem’s early work depicts saints but the artist’s principal source of inspiration comes from the animal world. Since the 1980’s, exotic birds have dominated Hunt Slonem’s artwork. While his works have featured monkeys, rabbits, and butterflies, vibrantly colored birds are his trademark.
When entering his vast 11,000 square foot studio, it becomes clear to the observer where the inspiration for his canvases originates. The eccentric artist shares his space with hundreds of rare birds including toucans, cockatoos, African grey parrots, hornbills, Lories and macaws. At first meeting, Slomen was surprisingly shy. Wearing a t-shirt, shorts, and slippers all covered with paint, he excused himself and returned moments later in a sharp black shirt, black pants, and his notorious pink Alain Mikkali glasses. According to the artist, he tries to wear pink during the day so that he’ll have a “rosier outlook.”
As the tour of the enormous loft began, we slowly moved through the red room, the pink room, the green room, the blue room, and finally, the pièce de résistance, Hunt Slonem’s legendary indoor jungle. “Hello Oliver,” says one of the green parrots as we enter the aviary. Two walls are floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the Hudson River while the other two are a visual field of paintings that range from one square foot to 9 x 12 feet. There is a massive dinning room table that looks as though it belongs in a castle and a giant red sectional sofa from Andy Warhol’s estate. “Living space is everything for me when it comes to producing art,” says Slonem. Soothing white noise is provided by the hum of saltwater fish tanks. Birds, however, dictate the sentiment of the room with over five giant cages garnishing the space. At one point, Slonem had over 40 exotic avians, but has since lost count.
Also housed in the loft are a hedgehog, several salt water tanks filled with colorful fish, and a cat. A slave to his birds, one wall of the gallery is decorated with thousands of feathers collected during his daily tending to the birds. He calls it “Feather Wall, Not Plucked.” So enamored by his birds, Slonem once went as far as to have them shipped to him in Syda Yoga Ashram in Ganeshpuri, India. “I like fanaticism,” he says. “It’s not changing the world but it makes people think. I also had some pet squirrel monkeys and painted them, but they were too much to handle. They kept steeling my paintbrushes and hiding them!”
In reference to his artwork, his style is almost hyperrealist, incorporating a grid texture to the canvas. “I got the idea for the grid from literally looking at the birds through their cages. I began to include the cages in the paintings as well. You never know. What’s right in front of you just might work,” he says. Exquisite colors and textures bring Hunt Slonem’s canvases to life; however, the most exotic and captivating pieces of art are his living and breathing feather friends.