Bunnies, Butterflies and Mantras

Bunny Wallpaper
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A shot from artist, Hunt Slonem's industrial-sized Brooklyn studio. It houses his colorful artwork of birds, butterflies, turtles, bunnies in a captivating installation.

On a sunny morning in Sunset Park, Hunt Slonem is moving about in a hum of constant activity that has made him so prolific as an artist. Large collections of his paintings of tropical birds, butterflies, turtles, bunnies and mysterious women are hung on bold-colored walls. Violet, chartreuse, and lovely, pale cyan blue vignettes line the massive 30,000 square foot studio. The space blurs the lines between studio, gallery and art installation. It is like walking through a rainbow of emotions, filled with Slonem's array of eclectic collections, carefully arranged to awe-inspiring effect. Surrounding glass walls overlook the Statue of Liberty. It's like traveling through a picture book: modern, juxtaposed with a Baroque charm; it is truly the most original studio you will ever set eyes on.

Slonem has an affinity for the 19th Century. His antique collections include Victorian Gothic Revival scent bottles, so rare he's only seen one outside his collection (at The Metropolitan Museum of Art), Old Paris porcelain, Belter Furniture, one of the largest collections of American Gothic Revival sofas in the world and American gilded furniture and colored ink wells.

He avidly collects Palais Royal perfume bottles, nineteenth century portraits (including a very good collection of Louisiana Antebellum portraiture), 19th century American cabinets, Antebellum beds (particularly Mallard and Half-Testers), and 19th century picture frames (or just extraordinary picture frames from any era).

"What I love and adore, 1850s to 1870s, is one of the most unpopular periods of aesthetic choice." He goes on to say that he thinks there are cycles. "Bouguereau was out of fashion forever, along with Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, and now they sell for... Well I don't care what things sell for," he remarks, adding "Things are rediscovered, re-appreciated." He can appreciate classic, fine pieces of art from many generations; however, his one-of-a kind personality and unique paintings, are what will perhaps one day be his legacy.

Does he think about his own legacy? He claims not. "Who knows where the world is heading? We may all be in some technological device and not even exist some day!" he tells us.

Rabble Fabric
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Alluring butterflies in green and blue shades tenderly peek through the gorgeous tones of the fabric used to recover an eighteenth century Rococo chair.

"Seeing my first morpho butterfly at a coffee plantation in Nicaragua was such a memorable experience; I have captured the essence of that over and over again."
Miffy Wallpaper
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Part of what pushes along this momentum of productivity is his daily quick painting of bunnies: exercises in gesture, mood, and repetition. (The rabbit chosen, because that's his sign in Chinese Astrology.)

Fly away A wall of inspirational butterflies which are clustered near where he paints.

We are led to believe that a search for permanence and rescuing things of beauty from ephemeral fates are what motivate his collections, which include furniture, properties, especially rescued pets. "I am not a dog, cat or horse person," he says, as he's surrounded by the cacophonous, but enchanting, sound of birds.

"I just fell in love with birds as a child in Hawaii. My parents allowed me to have birds and I came from a military family; so we moved a lot and I didn’t get to bring them with me. My goal was to move them with me when I grew up" he says. Many times in the past, he’s moved his entire aviary, most recently when he moved from his Manhattan studio that was about to be demolished to the new and modern one in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.

"I’m just endlessly fascinated by their colors and shapes," he explains, adding "at one point I had sixty­-two Toucans; the problem with a lot of the soft-bill birds is that they only live to twenty, so unfortunately you outlive so many of your pets....or fortunately!"

"I am not a dog, cat or horse person," Hunt says, he has an affection for birds which he developed as a young child in Hawaii. "I’m just endlessly fascinated by their colors and shapes," he explains.

The massive studio is broken up into small "rooms," this bright mint vignette showcasing his antique furniture and an interesting candle arrangement

"Parrots are highly intelligent; they are as smart as three-year-old humans" says Hunt.

Now he's committed to parrots, which have a much longer lifespan, some over 50 years. "Those are my eclectus parrots," he explains drolly as they interrupt the interview. Their sounds are transporting, as if suddenly being in the Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude, likely a rarity for Slonem. There are also occasional squawks from Perky, a yellow-naped Amazon parrot perched on his shoulder, whose very presence seems to relax him.

"Parrots are highly intelligent; they are as smart as three-year-old humans. And they are long-term, which is something that appeals to me a lot, having come from a very transitory upbringing," he says with tenderness in his voice.

His affection for birds is evident in his paintings. Last year, he created a line of fabrics and wallpaper for Lee Jofa, based on the exotica motifs of his paintings that include turtles and butterflies. He believes there’s been a reduction of artists working on this form of media and that it’s been slightly frowned upon. He says, “I just feel like another generation has come and gone and it’s ok for artists to be working in multiple areas again.” He uses his fabrics to bring new life to the furniture collections in his old homes.

When Art Meets Design
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A stack of Slonem's books sit atop a brightly painted antique bombe chest

A stunning scene: the massive gold-dusted butterfly painting, juxtaposed with the lovely cobalt blue, velvet upholstery.

"I love saving things that are about to be demolished and lost forever," he says commenting on all his passions. He owns six properties, including three national landmarks and he moves about from place to place every week, hopping between two plantations in Louisiana, his Manhattan loft home and the Cordts Mansion he restored in upstate New York. Yet he's quick to assert that he's not an interior decorator. "It’s a passion really, of collecting and of making them pop and shine,".

Recently, he found a new home-project that could also double as an institution to store his art; it’s a 150,000 sq. ft. armory (a fortress, or "castle" as he's referred to it) in Pennsylvania. "It has hundreds of rooms and we redid every nook and corner”, he says. Within it exists a 50,000 sq. ft. drill hall with four-story ceilings where he intends to house his very large-scale paintings and a grand staircase with symmetrical double stairs and Gothic chandeliers. “I have all my hundreds of marble busts on columns lining the hallway that are fourteen feet ceilings. I did the hallway in Mykonos Blue; I graded the different blue schemes going up and it has towers with crenellations at the top and nine round rooms­” he says. To top that off, there’s a swimming pool from 1870, that he says is “just amazing."

"I wish I could leave it as a study center or institute," he says. "But it's so hard to keep those things going after you're gone; so many artists have done this...” he explains, while providing the one example he can think of where this idea became successful: Picasso.

Glitter dusted bunnies

Colorful painting portraits of Abraham Lincoln.

He also realized that the armory is a chance to fulfill a childhood fantasy. He told his mother, who currently suffers from Alzheimer's, about this castle in Pennsylvania. Her response was “You have always wanted a castle since you were a little boy.” Slonem was amazed that she could remember this and tells us “It really touched me, because her mental abilities are impaired. It was so sweet; yet so true!”

Wearing a striking, blue paisley blazer (after changing from a paint-stained pink seersucker) Slonem projects a jolly weariness while being interviewed. He'd rather be working. "Can I go paint now?" he asks at one point, getting antsy when kept from painting and drawing for too long. "You know, this is what I do all day and all night, if I don’t have to go out. It’s my glue."

Part of what pushes this momentum of productivity is his daily quick painting of bunnies: exercises in gesture, mood, and repetition. (The rabbit was chosen because it's his sign in Chinese Astrology.) It is painting as meditation, in a way. "Sort of what I call My Warm­-Ups of Little Rabbits Every Morning," he laughs.

"I have a lot of kinds of things that keep me going on my daily ritual of activity. I have breaks in my rituals where I regroup and meditate and light incense, and it really helps a lot. But I also can fly off the handle at the drop of a hat," he laughs.

The heavily splattered easel in Slonem's studio

The far end of the studio filled with an array of plants, set on the edge is Slonem's desk among the foliage.

Almost everything that I paint is a symbol of an experience, metaphysically. Every mark I make, I evoke mantras and it’s quite a ritual...

A collection of Mid-20th Century Glass Vessels and decanters, a stunning illustration of the vivid, mineral-based colors that are no longer available. The new synthetic colors lack the brightness and intensity seen throughout Slonem's large collection.

Slonem working on a large butterfly painting

There is a fascinating sensory overload in his work, the way he arranges it in its ideal form, with layers and color, creating tension between opposites: wet and dry, ephemeral, but permanent, matte and shimmer. Also captured in his art is the distance, the fragmentary nature of these fleeting childhood experiences, just a little out of reach.

His signature hatch marks in the canvas convey both this movement and distance. "I carve into the painting… so it has just the right state of dry and wet and there are a lot of variables and unknown surprises that occur in the paint… so it’s a very finely tuned harmony of understanding the materials, so you know more or less what happens.” He tells us that sometimes when he’s interrupted with work, he “breaks new ground, but not by choice!” Everyday he progresses in a stream of activity as he makes new work, adds to his collections and fills his properties with colorful pieces and antiques.

He enlightens us with a sense of what set him on this path: "My great grandfather's house was torn down in Tennessee, six months before I was born. So, I have kind of always been trying to recreate that, as an art project... My goal would be to have a great house saved in every state, if I can......”

The far end of Slonem's Sunset Park studio flooded with morning sun

Galápagos Wallpaper
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A collection of Mid-20th Century Glass Vessels and decanters, a stunning illustration of the vivid, mineral-based colors that are no longer available. The new synthetic colors lack the brightness and intensity seen throughout Slonem's large collection.

A portrait: one of the many paintings of mysterious and beautiful women in Slonem's new Brooklyn studio