Tulane University’s most illustrious living artistic alumnus shares his wisdom and muses on Louisiana, life, spirituality, creativity, and Abraham Lincoln.
Hunt Slonem sits in a chair that once belonged to Napoleon Bonaparte’s brother Joseph. “Believe it or not, he lived in New Jersey,” he tells me. Slonem is a baritone who speaks with a punctuated, deliberate cadence. He chooses his words carefully, and he loves sharing pieces of arcana, like the one about Joseph Bonaparte.
He’d once called himself “a glutton for color.” The room he’s in, I learn, is painted “cerulean blue.”
Originally, we had intended to talk in person, at Madewood, his home on the banks of Bayou LaFourche about an hour south of Baton Rouge, outside of the small town of Napoleonville.
But now, we were in the middle of a global pandemic, and Slonem wisely decided to remain in Brooklyn. At one point, his partner politely interrupts our conversation. He places me on hold.
A few minutes later, he’s back on the line. “They just announced a two-week lockdown,” he says. “Well, this is the scariest thing I’ve ever heard.”
Without even taking a breath, his tone shifts. “Anyway, let’s get back to the magic of Louisiana.”
“My work is about a last look at a lot of these things before they disappear forever.” – Hunt Slonem
Hunt Slonem is— arguably— the most important artist to emerge from Tulane University since Ida Rittenberg Kohlmeyer.
He’s a painter, a print-maker, a sculptor, an entrepreneur, an educator, a writer, a historic preservationist, the subject of several books- including one in Italian and two in Russian, and a conservationist.
Four years ago, Lee Jofa, the high-end interior design firm, approached Slonem about launching his own luxury fabrics, wallpaper, and carpet. “Charles E. Burchfield, who was one of the most important American watercolor painters, created wallpaper for most of his life and used that wallpaper with his work in shows and museums, and I am following in his mold,” Slonem says.
In a separate arrangement with Penelope Scott Kernen, Slonem designs scarves, bags, and household goods for his “Hop Up Shop.” He once created a decorative tabletop for Tiffany & Co. and collaborated with Audi on the design of a one-of-a-kind A5 coupe art car as a fundraiser for cancer research.
His works are featured in the most respected museums and private collections in the world. And although he’s based in New York, Slonem has devoted outsized attention to Louisiana.
Since his career launched into orbit in 1977, he’s returned to the state for at least 32 different solo exhibitions, including six recent events at Martine Chaisson’s dazzling, eponymous modern art gallery on Camp Street in New Orleans.
(Publisher’s Note: If you’re a collector of Louisiana political trivia, Chaisson’s father is former state Senate President Joel Chaisson, the Democratic lawmaker who presided over the legislature’s upper chamber from 2008 through 2012. Today, he is the District Attorney in his native St. Charles Parish).
“There is nowhere else that has the flavor and the sensibilities of New Orleans— the way it is put together with such particular flair and taste and sophistication and history.” – Hunt Slonem
New Orleans, of course, is what first drew him to Louisiana, nearly fifty years ago, when he was a wide-eyed college student still trying to figure out the beginning of his life’s journey.
But unlike other prominent artists who visit Louisiana, Slonem hasn’t limited his shows, or his love of Louisiana, to New Orleans.
He’s hosted multiple major museum exhibitions in Shreveport, Lafayette, Baton Rouge, and Alexandria. He’s even hosted an exhibition in New Iberia and participated in another one in New Roads.
Slonem has always enjoyed traveling to far-flung destinations. Officially, he’s a native of Kittery, Maine, a seaside village near the New Hampshire border, but because his father was in the military, Slonem’s childhood was spent bouncing all around the country.
In high school, he spent a few months in Nicaragua as an exchange student, and before his time at Tulane, he spent a year in San Andrés Cholula, in the central highlands of Mexico.
Among critics who ascribe to the Aristotelian maxim that art must be placed into categories, Slonem’s work is considered American Neo-Expressionist. He calls his audacious style “exotica,” though he also likes the neologism “non-category” as well.
Henry Geldzahler, the powerful and controversial contemporary art curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, named Slonem among his 14 favorite artists, and shortly before his death in 1994, asked for Slonem’s work to be displayed in his hospital room when he died.
Although you won’t find his signature on the front of any of his works, Slonem’s art is distinctly his own and somehow still remains instantly recognizable.
When asked about his influences, Slonem often mentions Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso.
Like Picasso, Slonem also has a portfolio of incredible homes, which he purchased because of their architectural significance and beauty. Most of his homes are way off the beaten path, beacons of bygone architectural triumph on the cusp of ruin that he has saved and painstakingly preserved.
Like Matissse, Slonem draws inspiration from the things he collected inside of his own studio as well as from the studio itself.
But more than anyone else, the person who inevitably draws comparisons is Andy Warhol, the iconic pop artist and polymath who helped to shape the American zeitgeist of his time.
Slonem, who first established his career as an artist in 1977, had actually known Andy Warhol. Like others who belonged to the generation that followed Warhol, Slonem frequently and graciously acknowledges how he’s been influenced by the pop art movement. Slonem’s brother, the immensely talented and well known journalist and reporter Jeffrey Slonim, who passed away unexpectedly in 2016, even worked for Warhol at Interview Magazine. And his cousin, the novelist Tama Janowitz wrote the book Slaves of New York, which Warhol intended to make into a movie.
A few years ago, the Shaw Center for the Arts in Baton Rouge had heavily promoted “Antebellum Pop,” an exhibition of Slonem’s work.
There’s another name that inevitably comes up in stories about Slonem: The prodigiously gifted writer and icon of the American avant-garde, Truman Capote. Although neither of his most memorable works, In Cold Blood and Breakfast at Tiffany’s, were set in the Deep South and despite spending the entirety of his adult life elsewhere, Capote could never escape the gothic south of his childhood.
Filmmaker Albert Maysles, whose work included the acclaimed short film With Love from Truman, started on a documentary about the artistically prodigious Hunt Slonem. Maysles had been working on the project until his untimely death in 2015.
Slonem’s studio in Brooklyn is a tour-de-force for the senses. Even the sound is curated.
When we spoke on the phone in March, there was a concert of tropical birds playing in the background. His legendary menagerie of more than 60 rare and exotic birds all live in the personal aviary Slonem installed inside of the 30,000-square-foot studio. Almost all of his birds were unwanted pets or adoptions, and some are up to 80 years old.
His passions—for art, for his birds, for collecting things, and for architecture- animate his creativity.
“I collect top hats, scent bottles, Old Paris Porcelain, marble busts, chandeliers, 19th century paintings, and earlier, all kinds of furniture, I am just insatiable, and I am able to house it and work with it, it doesn’t go into storage,” he says.
He then makes what strikes me as a profound insight about the artistic impulse to collect. “Collecting is a passion that so many artists have,” he explains. “Damien Hurst is a collector of manors and period furniture. Andy Warhol was an insatiable collector. Andre Serrano, even Rembrandt was a collector. I think to be an artist somehow you are a gatherer and a forager, and this is a practice that has been going on forever.”
Above: A gallery of Hunt Slonem’s collections in his Louisiana homes.
“I believe in the magic of Louisiana so enormously that it brings tears to my eyes. I have come back to Louisiana every year since I graduated from Tulane in 1973,” Hunt Slonem tells me. “I’ve been fascinated by Louisiana and its history and just mesmerized since the day I arrived to go to Tulane.”
Even though I had never spoken with Slonem before— and still haven’t met him in person, he treated our conversation with the warmth most people only reserve for a lifelong friend. I’d initially approached him with questions about art and architecture, but we ended up speaking about spirituality, grace, and how he finds purpose and joy.
As a fellow graduate, I saw my conversation with Slonem as a way of shining a spotlight on Tulane University’s most important living artistic alumnus. It was also an opportunity, more broadly, to explore Slonem’s strong connection to Louisiana and his artistic legacy.
First, though, I wanted to know why he had been drawn to Louisiana. “There is just this uncertain survival aspect to Louisiana which makes it even more romantic,” he says. “The stories, the dusting of cobwebs with gold for wedding parties, just the whole magic of all of it captivated and mesmerized me real early on. Listening to all these stories and the remnants of it that still exist and that you participate in are just magic.”
Slonem’s love affair with the state is plainly evident in his artwork.
Nearly 80 years ago, writer Horace Reynolds described the area around Bayou Teche as “a land of ghostly cypresses, sleepy waters, noisy birds, and deep skies.” Slonem captures the ethos of the Bayou in paint as eloquently as Reynolds had in the written word.
He tells me about helping to plan a solo exhibition in Lafayette’s Paul and Lulu Hillard Univerosty Art Museum about a decade ago. He’d recently purchased Albania Plantation in Jeanerette, 35 miles down the road. The exhibit was a tribute to the natural beauty of Bayou Teche, the waterway that serves as the center of Acadian civilization.
“I was so impressed with the (museum’s) space,” he says. “It is just magnificent.”
He poured all of his energy into creating an exhibit that would appear it had always belonged there, working to the point of exhaustion.
Ultimately, the exhibit culminated into 22 individual square paintings, each one spanning nine feet by nine feet. To put this into context, that’s approximately half the size of the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling, which took Michelangelo more than four years to complete.
Slonem spent a year creating his exhibit at the Hillard.
“It was a pretty ambitious body of work,” Slonem recalls. “(The experience) revived my interest in painting landscape, particularly bayous, which I had done while I was in school. Nothing really leaves my work. It was a revival with a new twist, and everything seems to stem from the waterways of Louisiana. I live on two Bayous, LaFourche and Teche, and Teche has so much ancient history connected to it.”
Today, the paintings are on permanent display at the Jefferson Parish Performing Art Center.
In addition to Albania Plantation, Slonem has also spent considerable time, toil, and treasure restoring Lakeside Plantation in Pointe Coupee Parish, a home that been given to the Marquis de Lafayette as a gift, and Madewood, famed architect Henry Howard’s crowning achievement and considered to be the finest example of Greek Revival architecture in the American South.
There was, of course, a terrible price that was paid for all the beauty that remains. Slonem understands this.
“I once changed the name of Madewood Plantation to ‘Madewood Mansion.’ But as someone told me, ‘You can change the name of Auschwitz, but it is still Auschwitz.’”
Louisiana continues to grapple with the complicated legacies that these homes carry. Until the recent restoration of the Whitney Plantation and its reopening as a museum honoring the lives of those enslaved on its grounds, there had been a tendency to avoid the subject entirely in most of grand homes that open their doors to the public. As recently as the 1990s, schoolchildren were sometimes taught a sanitized version of history that excused the institution of slavery as an economic necessity and presented those who fought to prevent emancipation as noble and distinguished men who should not be judged.
Slonem’s homes are not tourist destinations, nor are they museums glorifying a distorted version of history.
“My interest begins and ends with the architecture of these structures,” he explains. Slonem has gone to great lengths to transform the energy of the homes. His homes now celebrate color, art, and architecture, and of course, Abraham Lincoln, a man the properties’ previous owners likely reviled.
“Lincoln was one of our greatest Presidents. He was a complete free-being and a great soul, and he changed American life in ways that were profound and wonderful. I am fascinated by who he is and who he continues to be in our popular culture,” he says. “More than any other President, he’s had a profound and lasting effect on America.”
Abraham Lincoln is more than a historical curiosity to Slonem. To the artist, there’s a kind of spiritual connection between the two men. “I have always been sneered at for being metaphysical and talking about spirit and the divine and joy. These are not loved subjects in the art world,” he explains.
Slonem’s paintings have given new life to Lincoln, presenting him in the vernacular of modernism and pop art.
When Slonem was a student at Tulane, for the first time in his life, he was able to study art, history, and architecture, subjects that would define his career.
“When I got to Tulane I was able to take courses that mesmerized me. I got an A in Italian Renaissance Art History from Professor Shapiro which I consider the greatest accomplishment of my life,” jokes Slonem. “My favorite Tulane memory was taking Louisiana architecture from Sam Wilson.”
Wilson, who is responsible for ensuring the rehabilitation of the Cabildo and the Pontalba buildings in Jackson Square, was widely considered to be the “dean of historic preservation” in New Orleans.
“Look what it led to later in my life,” Slonem tells me.
Looking back at his time at Tulane, he says, ”It was a rich lifestyle just being enveloped by history, and not to be tacky, but ‘vestiges of grandeur,’ to quote Richard Sexton. It gave me a sensibility that has lasted my entire adult life of patina and the mixture of periods.”
In Wilson’s class, Slonem visited Madewood, the home he would one day own.
Some of Slonem’s fondest Louisiana memories came while he was a student at Tulane University. It was there where he first developed a passion for architecture, graduating among the top of his class with degrees in art history and painting.
Slonem is the first modern artist to utilize both ends of the paintbrush, pioneering an artistic method he dubbed “cross-hatching.” This contemporary take on sgraffito, the Italian word meaning “to scratch,” involves scratching through a surface to reveal a lower layer of a contrasting color.
I asked Slonem about how he pioneered the artistic process. “It was not an abstraction. It was a play on realism,” he explains. “ It was the most daring thing I had done in my career: I am very traditional with my use of the brush most of the time, but now I use it to paint whiskers on bunnies and to portray bird cages.”
Slonem also uses his cross-hatch method to portray the world through the lens with which he became quite familiar: Seeing things through the grid of a cage. “I noticed that I had been living with a 40-foot bird cage for 45 years, and I came up with the idea as nod to modernism. The grid is such a mark-maker of modern painting.”
Slonem explains the technique. ”I just picked up the back of the brush, and at first just used the back of the brush to make the marks of the cage as if I was watching everything through It. Then I started whittling the brush and doing a finer pattern,” he says. ”Originally it was a five-part process of lines going in every direction and completely repetitive and completely the same. I sometimes feel like a robot making these marks, but I have simplified it in my work since then to preserve more color.”
Another artistic mark of a Slonem work is the antique, intricate, often gilded frames that accompany his modern, vibrant paintings.
“It came from necessity. I had a show at VCU in Richmond and they wanted every piece to be framed, and at the time, I could not afford contemporary framing,” he tells me. “I have been a devotee of flea markets in New York since the early 70’s, and I discovered that many antique frames fit the painting sizes I was using, particularly 8×10’s. So, I framed this show 99% in antique frames and loved them. It is part of my art form to collect, and collect rare, antique, and unique frames.”
As a way of displaying his collection of frames, he created ”bunny walls,” which are now a major part of the Hunt Slonem brand.
“They have even made wallpapers out of my bunny walls,” he says.
In Slonem’s work color abounds, but his love of color does not stop there- his homes, studio, and wardrobe are bursting with color- in a world of beige and grey, Hunt Slonem is a luminous advocate for the transformative power of color.
“The Egyptians and Romans painted sculptures bright colors. Then contemporary interior magazines came along and created beige, to beige out the world. Color has been used for centuries,” he tells me. “The color palates of the 18th and 19th century were wild. Louisiana has a history of painting houses (the color of) shrimp and pinks and lavenders and orange.”
“We are in a color revival,” Slonem declares. ”Color is candy for the eye, it is mystical: each color has its own propertIes of inspiration and joy. In an age of grimness and bad news, we need color.” Slonem makes a connection between the news that had forced him to remain in New York and interrupted our conversation earlier.
One attribute of a great artist is when their works are immediately distinguishable from anyone else‘s. Slonem— through his unique perspective, iconic subjects, use of color, and the cross-hatching technique that he invented—has managed the difficult task of being utterly singular and worthy of emulation.
I ask Slonem about how he developed his aesthetic. “It was always my goal to develop my own unique style and vision. It is hard to say how you arrive at where you are: from travels, from seeing things in every corner of the planet,” he says. ”I lived in Hawaii as a kid and I was influenced by nature. My style was an evolution, like the rainforest, 69 years of evolution and constantly painting.”
Today, Slonem is widely acknowledged as one of the most prodigious and in-demand living American artists. A productive day in the studio for him can yield numerous small paintings. He often spends days, sometimes weeks, perfecting larger works.
“I am able to experiment with mediums a lot more, like diamond dust and metallics, because I am not struggling with endless subject matter searches,” he says. Indeed, although there are a number of subjects in Slonem’s repertoire, he frequently returns to his favorites.
“I decided repetition was not a dirty word. I talk about the connection to the divine when looking at nature. When I was in India, I would go on japa walks and look at nature— everything from the blades of grass to leaves on trees. And these things are completely dissimilar yet they add up to something that’s recognizable and beautiful.”
It’s an apt metaphor for how Slonem approaches his artwork.
Slonem has studied the power of repetition across religious traditions throughout the world. Incantations, mantras, prayers, liturgies, and song, all sharing the commonality of repetition.
“I repeat subjects that mean a lot to me, like repeating a divine name or mantra, and I often say mantras while I am working.”
Slonem’s credo echoes the landmark scholarship of cultural anthropologist Victor Turner, who argued that the power of ritual is at the foundation of the religious experience.
“There is power that is built up through repetition. Like Tirupati (the city) in India where the thousand names of God have been repeated endlessly for 1,200 years, and the power that builds up from it.” – Hunt Slonem
Slonem paints birds, butterflies, bunnies, bayous, flowers, and other aspects of the natural world. His life’s work is a celebration of nature, so naturally, he is passionate about environmental conservation and wildlife preservation, both of which are critical issues in Louisiana.
“I think they are among the most important causes,” he says. “I am still recovering from the burning of the rainforest in Brazil and the loss of a billion animals in Australia. Conservation is profoundly important. The rainforests are the lungs of the universe. I am not sure why anyone dares tamper with it. The Sahara used to be green and tropical, and they cut all the trees of the great forests.“
He connects the issue back to Louisiana. “Louisiana has suffered from deforestation as well,” he explains. “What a cypress tree looks like at 1,000 years old is little-known. There are only a few of them in the Lake Martin Preserve (in Louisiana’s Atchafalaya National Heritage Area), and they’re pretty magnificent. But they should be everywhere.“
As our conversation draws to a close, Slonem reflects on the connections between his work and the natural world.
“I am not a naturalist painter. I am a painter of the inspiration of nature and its energy and more of a metaphysical recorder of nature than an absolute documenter of it,” he says. ”Nature is a joyous gift to mankind, a great beauty that influences fashion and art and music, gifts from the divine realm to the inhabitants of the Planet Earth. We should treat them as such.”
For me, the conversation with Slonem was a lot like his art. It provided a much needed escape from the less-than-joyous realities we are confronting every day.
On the subject of art and life, he left me with one final musing.
“Joy,” he tells me, ”is precisely what we need right now. People gravitate to art because of the joy that comes out of it. In times of trouble, we turn to art, and we see art’s true value.”
Acknowledgements: In addition to Cayman Clevenger, publisher Lamar White, Jr. served as a contributing writer in drafting this profile of Hunt Slonem. On behalf of the Bayou Brief, Clevenger and White wish to express their gratitude for Louisiana native Catherine Casanova, who works as Hunt Slonem’s Gallery Liaison and Project Manager, for her unwavering support and kindness throughout this process. And a special thank you to Butch Bailey, who graciously gave us a fascinating tour of Albania during a global pandemic. We would also like to thank the caretakers of Lakeside Plantation for providing access to the property in March. Finally, we are grateful for Wally Pierce, whose profile of Slonem in the Acadiana alt-weekly The Independent provided a valuable template in approaching the subject, as well as Dr. Richard Gruber for the brief but insightful biographical profile of Slonem he contributed to the publication 64 Parishes.