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The American artist speaks to Rob Chilton about art, birds and those jackets
Hunt Slonem is famous for his ‘bunny paintings’ and also his work depicting tropical birds. Bright, colourful and loud – no wonder Slonem gets on with parrots so well.
The hugely successful artist flew to the Middle East on no sleep to unveil an exhibition and also a new book. Slonem, 68, has compiled a coffee table book titled Gatekeeper: World of Folly, that charts his acquisition of the Scranton Armory building in Pennsylvania, which houses some of his art. It’s one of many historic American houses that Slonem owns. “I guess you could say I collect them,” he chuckles.
Part of the Neo-Expressionist movement of painting, Slonem has exhibited his work in galleries around the world including The Met, the Guggenheim, the Smithsonian, the Whitney and the Miro Foundation.
Your work is labelled as Neo-Expressionism. Is that accurate?
I like the term used by the English painter Howard Hodgkin: ‘non category’. I’ve been called almost everything from pop artist to Neo-Expressionist to a Realist. I’m my own painter, I’m not part of a movement particularly, I’m an observer. I like the spirituality aspect of what I do, I think a lot of artists have that as a unifying theme. I was once in a show in New York that an art critic put together that was called ‘exotica’. I like the word ‘exotica’.
What does that mean?
It means the unknown. To me, it means tropical, foreign, from a faraway place – but it doesn’t really mean that, it could mean a typewriter or a computer. I like that double-edged meaning.
You mentioned spirituality. When you paint does your mind shift into a spiritual place?
I have a lot of ‘aha’ moments when I paint. I say mantras when I paint. I have four or five; my mind just says them. I don’t want to reveal them, they’re not a big secret, but they’re my mantras. I say them out loud, but some are silent. I sit on planes playing with my beads, even in my sleep I’m still moving them and saying the mantras. If I’m in a really good place I’ll do that.
When you paint do you go on a mental journey?
Absolutely, it happens every time I paint because you can’t control it. When I paint it’s always a surprise of some sort. I know what I’m going to paint but I can’t tell you how it’s going to turn out. I couldn’t tell you ‘I’m going to paint a red flower now’. I go into this thing and it happens.
Do you paint every day?
Every day when I’m in New York, yeah. I do sculpture in Louisiana where I have three plantation homes I’m restoring. I'm not painting today, I’m trying to sleep, I haven’t slept in three days! I don’t do well on long flights.
Do you get frustrated if you don’t paint?
No, I like to have breaks. I paint from early morning to late at night and I’m happy when I paint, I’m so thrilled to do this. But then I need to do something else.
Do you take breaks during the day?
Yeah, I have to. I have meetings or sometimes my birds will get really out of control and start screaming.
Do you paint standing up?
I stand and sit. I do very little paintings to huge ones. I have to get up on ladders sometimes or often I turn things upside down.
You work in Manhattan?
I live in Manhattan but I work in my studio in Sunset Park in Brooklyn. I’m not a Brooklyn person but it’s a great space to work in. I have gardens, I grow orchids, I keep birds. I need to have texture in the studio. People think being a painter means you just stand there and paint and the earth moves! But I have a team who helps me. I ship my work all over the world. I micromanage everything.
You’re 68 and you've been painting for more than 50 years. Do you still have the appetite to create?
Yeah, I want to live till 100 million so I can paint every day. I don’t want to stop. What am I going to do? Play golf? I’m doing everything I want to do, there just aren’t enough hours in the day. I never feel I can rest on my laurels, never! Every day is a struggle to breathe, I feel. You have to keep pushing and trying. I’m grateful for everything that’s happened, it’s a blessing and a miracle. But it’s hard to run all this stuff. The bigger I get, the less downtime there is.
I read you have 60 birds in your studio. Is that right?
It varies. I paint them, they’re my models, they’re working animals! One of my birds is 75. Macaws can live to 100. I have mostly parrots. They all have names. Parrots are smart, much smarter than dogs and cats; some birds can sing whole operas. Sometimes I ask my birds what they think of my paintings and they make a noise of some sort.
You’ve mentioned houses. How many do you have?
I have seven. Cordt’s Mansion [New York]. Albania Plantation [Louisiana]. Lakeside Plantation [Louisiana]. Scranton Armoury and the Woolworth Mansion in Pennsylvania. Belle Terre [New York]. Most recently I got Madewood Plantation in Louisiana. The movie Beguiled was shot there, Beyoncé shot her Lemonade music video there. All the King’s Men starring Jude Law and Kate Winslet was filmed at the Albania house; Lakeside is where Jeremy Irons and Emma Thompson shot Beautiful Creatures. It’s fun.
Would you say you collect houses?
It appears that I do! It’s not intentional. I just fall in love all the time. I have one more goal which is Linwood Hall in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania. It’s my dream but I don’t know if it’s going to happen. It has 54 bedrooms, it’s amazing. The guy who built it financed the Titanic. His son and grandson died on the Titanic. He never recovered and built the Widener Library at Harvard in his memory.
The subject of your book is the Scranton Armoury. It's a striking building, isn't it?
Love it or hate it, it’s certainly striking. A neighbour of mine told me about it. I went to check it out and on the way into Scranton I saw Charles Sumner Woolworth’s house and said, ‘what is that?!’ We stopped the car and I ended up buying that two years later. It’s four blocks away.
I want to ask you about your style. Who makes your clothes?
My friend Timothy Christopher Jackson. He’s a character. He’s very late, often. I used to yell and scream and jump and down. He comes to me with samples and I say yes or no. Then he brings me something else entirely. It’s a pretty kooky relationship. I try to meet up with him every few weeks but he doesn’t quite make the deadlines.
What do you like about his designs?
The colours and fabrics. He comes up with things that are so thrilling. People constantly ask me about my clothes. I don’t fit into anything that’s in a store so I need to have things made for me because I’m not a normal fit.
What do you wear when you paint?
An old orange shirt and cut off black gym shorts. I usually have to change four times a day because I get so much paint all over me. It gets everywhere!
Is the American art scene healthy, do you think?
There’s so much talent it’s nuts. There’s amazing talent on this planet and so many great artists working today, producing so much variety. I just keep my blinders on and chug ahead. Social media gets your face out there and more people come up to me these days and ask if I am who I am, blah blah blah. I’m doing better and better, thank goodness. Why? I don’t know.
Gatekeeper: World of Folly by Hunt Slonem is out now
END OF INTERVIEW