The first thing you see when you step out of the elevator outside of Hunt Slonem’s converted-warehouse studio in Brooklyn, New York, is a flyer for a missing White Cockatoo, promising a reward if found. Wander deep into the studio itself, and it’s obvious why. A long corridor lined with neo-gothic furniture and paintings of rabbits and birds opens up to an industrial-looking chamber. There, suspended from the ceiling, are 40 or 50 birdcages with their doors left open. A cacophony of squawks fills the air, and the occasional loose feather decorates the floor, attesting to the inspiration reflected in many of Slonem’s paintings.
Slonem’s exotic pets are both his companions and his muses. Just as real parrots, macaws, and cockatoos surround him in his workspace, they constantly pop up in the jarring, fauna-inspired patterns he makes—works of art that are showcased in his new anthology Birds. The book’s sweeping pages are filled with bright tropical birds such as toucans and lories, styled to match the artist’s whimsical nature. “I like to put unlikely groups together,” he says. There’s also the occasional peacock—a nod to the birds he breeds on his estate in Louisiana, a state to which he feels rooted after attending college in New Orleans.
Painting birds is a natural combination of Slonem’s long-held curiosities. “Birds have captured my imagination since I was a little kid,” he says, as long as he’s wanted to be a painter. Once he became an artist, he realized that he had begun to see the world as if through the grid of a birdcage. So, he began incorporating crosshatching to add that perspective to his pieces. He scratches the sharpened tip of a paintbrush through wet paint, creating an obstructed view to reflect how a human might see a bird in a cage. This technique grew into his distinctive style, reflected in hundreds of his avian-centric pieces.
The birds in the paintings seem happy in their crosshatched shelters, and Slonem hopes the same is true for the flock he keeps in his studio. These days, he mainly keeps parrots—many of which are abandoned rescues—because of their shrewd intelligence and long lifespans. (He claims that one of his macaws is about 75 years old.) He loves living and working among the thriving avian community, but admits it’s a challenge to keep up with; each species has a unique diet and the upkeep is costly. “It’s not for everyone,” Slonem says. “They’re all different and you have to really study them.”
While he enjoys learning about each species, he doesn’t call himself a dedicated birder. “In my homes, yes, I sit on the porches and see amazing things fly through,” he says. “But I don’t have that much free time.” He keeps himself busy with his paintings, and other artistic endeavors, too. Slonem travels frequently, both for shows overseas and across the country; he has more than a dozen coming up. And he’s currently tinkering with a series of metal bird sculptures that will be installed in Louisiana—“a nice diversion and a new way of working,” he says.
No matter where he is, Slonem sees birds, including as symbols in religion and fashion, two of his other interests. Still, he worries that they pass under most people’s radars. “They aren’t high up on the list of sacred things to fight for,” he says. That, in turn, is why he turns to art. “The point of my painting is to give people an awareness of something that they probably overlooked their whole lives,” he says. “Fortunately, I love what I do and I’m fascinated by the worlds I get to create.”
Birds, by Hunt Slonem, Glitterati Incorporated, 272 pages, $58. Buy it on Amazon.