Hunt Slonem
Culture — Art

Hunt Slonem

United States

Mood of Living  /  Dec 9, 2014

Slonem has had more than 350 exhibitions at prestigious art galleries and museums around the world.

With an admiration for nature, a passion for antique collecting, and a wide range of traveling experiences, Maine native Hunt Slonem’s inspiration has no bounds. Using repetition as a guiding, spiritual principle, Slonem’s critically acclaimed oil paintings of rabbits, birds, butterflies, and other animals, explores the captivating realm of the exotic. He paints in New York and has created a variety of sculptures while spending time in Louisiana. In his artistic work, as Slonem mentions, he is “talking about peace and non-judgment and a last look at nature.”

Since 1977, Slonem has had more than 350 exhibitions at prestigious art galleries and museums around the world. Recently, Slonem has further dived into commercial endeavors— a marriage of commerce and art. In 2014, he collaborated with Echo Design Group for a limited edition scarf and handbag collection. His most recent project, “When Art Meets Design,” is a glossy hardcover book that provides an inside look at Slonem’s homes and shows off his art collections and impeccable decor.

Q&A with Hunt Slonem

Mood of Living: What and/or who inspired you to become an artist?

Hunt Slonem: Well, initially I grew up in a military family and I couldn’t even dream of having followed that path. My uncle, my father, and my great grandfather were all naval people (naval academy, you know, that and submarines). I grew up with little Polaris missile models and the Nautilus, which my father helped design, on coffee tables. But my mother’s side of the family was arty and my grandfather painted a bit and he collected artist’s work and he would send us paintings and so my imagination just plugged in to that. My maternal grandparents were a huge influence in my life, so there was this art thing going on but it wasn’t allowed. You know they always said to do something else, but I couldn’t do anything else. When I was in first grade we had to draw a picture of what we wanted to do when we grew up and I drew a picture of myself painting at an easel. So, I’m an avid painter. I paint everyday. That’s my glue. I’m also an animal freak. I have 50 rescued parrots here at my studio.

MoL: Are you painting more in New York?

HS: I only paint in New York. I do sculpture in Louisiana and I just recently did ceramics in Montreal, but I like New York. Everything’s at my fingertip. Any supply I need is a few blocks away.

Slonem is known for oil paintings of animals.
Slonem is known for oil paintings of animals.
MoL: When and/or where did your love of animals start?

HS: In Hawaii, probably. And I lived in Mexico briefly. We lived in Hawaii as a kid and I grew orchids and had birds and painted through all of this. I was born in Maine, but my grandmother was from Tennessee. We used to go to the South every year and I loved it. We collected fireflies and hid under the mimosa trees—all those things you do in the South. It seemed very exotic and different to me.

MoL: What brought you to New York?

HS: I went to the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture.

MoL: Do you feel a kinship with New England, New York, and the South, or is there one place that particularly draws you?

HS: I own paintings that were done by people that traveled between Maine and New Orleans. One of the greatest houses in Portland was built by somebody that had New Orleans roots. So there’s always been an exchange of cultures between the two, at least probably maybe more after the war. I feel that I have to be in New York. I’ve lived here longer than I’ve lived anywhere in my whole life. It’s not because of family. It’s cause of the energy. It doesn’t exist anywhere else. My psychics all say, ‘why do you ask where you’re going to be?’ You’re always going to be in 12 different places, you know, so don’t even go there, but they say I’ll always have a foothold in New York. I’m happy in Louisiana, but not painting. Painting is very consuming and makes one moody sometimes.

The studio and work of Hunt Slonem.
MoL: Do you feel a strong kinship with Skowhegan?

HS: It was the most exciting thing that I’ve ever done. I got to meet Alex Katz, Louise Nevelson, and Alice Neel. Bette Davis was also there that summer for three weeks. It was just electrically inspiring and I was encouraged which I wasn’t always in other places. I got a scholarship to the Banff School in Canada—Canada has been very good to me. I got my first grant from the Greenshields Foundation in Montreal and I just got on a bus from Banff and moved to New York. I was very torn about what to do. I always liked Louisiana and I would’ve stayed there but I knew I had to get out to kind of afford it.

MoL: What was New York like when you moved here?

HS: Much more doable. There were affordable apartments. My first apartment, which I shared with three people, was 250 dollars a month. There were few jobs. I was hired luckily, under the Cultural Council Foundation Artist Project which is like the recreation of the WPA under the Carter thing and I got to paint murals at the World Trade Center and huge things for schools in Harlem and Brooklyn. I did 20 paintings of saints for churches in Brooklyn, which led to a whole body of work, and I had collected all these holy cards during my time in Central America. In fact the first painting the MET bought of mine was of  San Martin de Porres who was a Peruvian saint, not made a saint till the 1960s. Even though I was living in the East Village, this whole east village thing sort of sprung up around me. And I was already showing on 57th street, but then I was in all these shows- Precious, De Moda, Resurrection, Revelations. I felt plugged in to something. And then I had this miracle of my painting being bought by the Met on San Martin Saints day out of a group show.

MoL: Is there a spiritual sense within your life?

HS: I follow Indian/Hindu philosophy. I try to meditate everyday.

MoL: Does this influence your painting?

HS: I make these little cross hatch marks. And I kind of say it non-figuratively, make a mark based on the story of burn and ash and whatever the saint who was made rocks. Anyway I do it all with the back of the brush, the wooden part, but I carve it all the time.

MoL: Your work is stunning.

HS: Thank you, and I have a deadline. I’m always under four or five deadlines cause I have to do it within a time frame before it starts to settle, so whatever I start I have to finish with in a couple of days.

MoL: Within your artwork, there is a lot of repetition of various motifs—why is this a recurrence in your art?

HS: It’s like saying a prayer bead, why not? Repetition is divine. Repetition is nature. Look at a lawn, it’s 5 billion, trillion blades of grass that are all individual but add up to this one giant thing. Or snowflakes, or leaves of trees. So I decided that was a good thing. I mean Warhol repeated the soup can and other images—why didn’t anybody question that in the same way? Some people think I’m a pop artist because of the repetitive nature of what I do.

Slonem often repeats images and motifs within his artwork.
Slonem often repeats images and motifs within his artwork.
MoL: Do you relate to the types of work and methods of certain artists?

HS: I relate to many. I studied in Mexico and I was really familiar with Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. My grandfather really revered Diego Rivera so I knew about him since I was a little kid. I have more of a spiritual, than a political message. I’m just talking about peace and non-judgment and a last look at nature. The biggest problem on the planet is deforesting, you know the Garden of Eden—if it all goes, where is it going to go to?  I’ve just done a show in El Sao Marte and El Salvador and I try to talk about looking at what’s around you and how lucky you are to have umpteenth billion forms of morphos. A lot of people take it for granted. I was an exchange student in Nicaragua. I had a choice of four countries and I chose Nicaragua because they had the best stamps with butterflies and birds and different things that pertain to nature. I collected stamps and I got to meet the guy from whose collection most of these objects came. This man named Heller who lived in I think Matagalpa and I got to meet him and he gave me an insect that was very, very rare. It was a hooded mantis. Still have it. That was when I was 16. I used to play hooky from school and get the driver to drop me off at the jungle so I could collect butterflies.

MoL: Even at that time…

HS: Especially at that time.

MoL: Were your parents also inspired by nature and beauty?

HS: They put up with it and they humored me. My father would build me glass houses for my orchid collections, but we moved all the time so everything got left behind. But they were supporting, my father especially. They didn’t discourage me. I mean one year, I was a very young kid, I wanted to build the Eiffel Tower in the backyard and he had a really hard time explaining it to me why I couldn’t. But I had this vision that I was going to build the Eiffel Tower in our backyard.

MoL: How did your collaboration with Echo come about?

HS: I’m across the street here from Coach and I’ve known Reed Krackoff for years. A woman named Jody Koos came over to see me, and she said you should so being doing these things, you know, fashion and accessories. Most artists will have that happen to them whether they’re dead or alive at some point so why not right now/ right here? Anyway, we were talking and she said something about Echo. It’s a little family owned company and I said Echo has been echoing in my head for a long time. Then someone new came into the company and said your name has been coming up a lot on our radar and we want to meet with you. They worked very fast with the launch. The tote bags and scarves at Bloomingdales this December, I believe. I’m very happy with what they did. I mean it’s wonderful.

MoL: It’s exciting.

HS: Yeah, it’s a wonderful marriage with what I do. And I’m not smart about, you know, the latest fashion trends, but I think the products look amazing. I mean I think the bunny tote bag is phenomenal.

MoL: Do you want to continue working in this world of commerce, with the marriage of fashion and art?

HS: Well, let’s see if it wants to continue working with me. I also have this new book on my homes, fabrics, and all that stuff with Assouline which I’m thrilled about.

Slonem is an antique collector as well as an artist.
MoL: We find that people who make beautiful things are more likely to lead an artistic lifestyle. Do you cook?

HS: I don’t know how to cook. When I’ve been asked to give recipes, I give recipes for feeding birds. I don’t cook at all. I think cooking is an art and I’d rather paint. I know a lot of artists are great chefs. I’m not. I know how to cater. Oh and I give beautiful dinner parties, killer.

MoL: Could you ever imagine yourself pursuing another career path?

HS: My second career choice would’ve been something in the museum world, but I couldn’t really have done that either probably, although I did get a degree in painting and art history. I love art history. And somehow in the 80s I got married to antique collecting in a bigger way.

MoL: How did this interest in antique collecting come about?

HS: Through searching for non-contemporary versions of frames for my work that was on view at a show in Virginia at VCU. I really could not afford the frames. I’ve always gone to the flea market every week since 1973. I started realizing that my paintings and some of the frames I was finding naturally fit. And then I started painting some of those Victorian sizes (I love doing salon style wall hangings against colored backgrounds) and then I noticed, “Oh, what’s that chair?” It was a gothic revival chair and then suddenly I had 45 of them. My collections have grown and grown and it turned into buying. I have three national landmark houses. All of it influences my work. It’s all part of my art form.

MoL: What advice can you give to anyone interested in becoming an artist?

HS: I think the biggest thing that artists have to face is that nobody’s going to do it for you. It’s a real do it yourself world. And you have to really work in making your career function. It’s a rough road.

Photography courtesy of Christina von Messling

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