Behind Artist Hunt Slonem’s Obsession with Birds

"Birds" is a new book dedicated to the artist's greatest muse

Photo: Courtesy of Glitterati Incorporated
Hunt Slonem with one of his feathered friends. Photo: Courtesy of Glitterati Incorporated 

New York–based artist Hunt Slonem may be best known for his personality-filled paintings of bunnies, but birds are the literal company he keeps. Visitors to his sprawling 30,000-square-foot Red Hook studio will quickly discover that it’s as much a bird sanctuary as it is his art space. Taking prime place alongside his easels, a collection of stately cages housing squawking rescue birds hangs from the ceiling. Inevitably, over the past few decades, his feathered friends have become the subject of many paintings–and are now the topic of his gorgeous new book: Birds (Glitterati, $95).

The artist’s cross-hatching technique evokes the bars of a birdcage. Photo: Courtesy of Glitterati Incorporated

Slonem has been a self-proclaimed bird fanatic since childhood when he lived in Hawaii and kept parakeets as pets. But more than just a childhood memory, the creatures have taken on an almost deity-like quality for the artist, and he considers painting them a form of meditation or offering, akin to saying the rosary. “Birds are so smart and mystical and amusing and full of wonder and awe,” he says while painting a new canvas with red lories. “And gorgeous!”

One of the vibrant canvases featured in Slonem’s new book. Photo: Courtesy of Glitterati Incorporated

When asked how many he has, the larger-than-life artist quips, “I don’t know 40, 50, 60. I don’t know how many I have. You can come count them if they hold still!” In addition to the parakeets in New York, Slonem also keeps peacocks at his plantation, Albania, in Louisiana. “All day long we have a dialogue. They mimic what I’ve said. They sing Happy Birthday. When one new bird arrived he said, ‘Hello, let me out of the cage please’ in Spanish.”

Hundreds of paintings of birds line the studio walls. Photo: Courtesy of Glitterati Incorporated

The book features 180 of his bird paintings from as early as the 1980s, featuring a staggering range of colors, size, and species. There are parrots, toucans, doves, and finches, all rendered in his signature thick layers of oil paint. Editing down the selection was no small feat, and took several years to put together. It’s not easy, after all, “to tell the story of a lifetime with a theme that never ends. My whole life for the last 65 years has revolved around birds. This is a memento of that experience.”