Painter Hunt Slonem never happier than when he’s winging it

The tropical forest sound effects are always there.

Call Hunt Slonem at any time, and you’ll hear them. Birds singing, whistling, squawking.

Then again, why not call them Louisiana sound effects? Stand on the banks of any bayou, and you can hear the same symphony of birds. Well, there may be different birds performing these symphonies; those in Slonem’s spacious New York apartment are indeed tropical.

“I just returned from the opening of my exhibit in San Francisco, and I adopted another African gray parrot while I was there,” he said.

He sighed.

“I have birds everywhere,” he said.

This is OK, because the birds have and continue to serve as a major source of Slonem’s inspiration. And paintings of these birds are featured in the exhibit Birds and Bayous, which opened Feb. 8 in the Gallery at the Manship Theatre in the Shaw Center for the Arts.

The show runs through Saturday, Feb. 23, and its presented by BankcorpSouth in cooperation with the Manship Theatre and Ann Connelly Fine Art. And the show, as indicated by the title, features a mixture of Slonem’s paintings of his birds and the bayous of Louisiana, where he owns two plantation homes.

“There may be a few other paintings in the show, too,” Slonem said. He spoke from his New York apartment a few days before the opening.

“A lot of the paintings in this show haven’t been exhibited in years,” he said. “It will be interesting to see them in the gallery.”

Slonem traveled to Baton Rouge for the opening. Any trek to Louisiana is a trip home.

Slonem’s work is known throughout the world. That’s no exaggeration. Collectors and museums seek out his work. His pieces even hang in the Louisiana Governor’s Mansion.

“I painted the image for the poster used for the governor’s second inauguration last year,” Slonem said.

So now there may be some people wondering about the connection between a world-renowned New York artist and Louisiana. The timeline is simple. Slonem earned his bachelor of arts degree from Tulane University in New Orleans in 1973. He later returned and purchased two historically important Louisiana plantations: Albania Plantation on Bayou Teche in St. Mary Parish and Lakeside Plantation in Batchelor.

Albania once was owned by the Delgado family that founded what would become the New Orleans Museum of Art. Lakeside once was owned by the Marquis de La Fayette, whose circle of friends included Thomas Jefferson and played a key role in the Louisiana Purchase.

Slonem is on a continuous commute between New York and his Louisiana home(s).

Home is a key word here, because Louisiana is as much his home as New York.

His paintings fill the plantation houses’ walls, and Slonem opened Lakeside’s doors to a committee appointed by BancorpSouth in preparation for this show.

The committee visited the house and chose paintings for the Baton Rouge exhibit, deciding upon a Louisiana theme.

Birds and bayous. The state is filled with them, and Slonem depicts them in his paintings. He recently showed a collection of bayou-inspired paintings at a solo exhibit at Chaisson Gallery in New Orleans, and he created a series of paintings inspired by his plantation homes and the state’s bayous for the 2010 exhibit, Hunt Slonem: On the Bayou at the Paul and Lulu Hilliard University Art Museum in Lafayette. Slonem also has been featured in solo shows at the Louisiana Art & Science Museum and the Alexandria Museum of Art.

“And my Lincoln paintings have been on exhibit at the Louisiana State Archives,” he said. Abraham Lincoln has been another source of inspiration for the artist. But his birds and bayous are in the spotlight for now.

These works usually are large, and when standing in front of his birds, you can almost hear his feathered entourage somewhere in the background. “I’m always adopting new birds,” he said. “The pets I adopt are homeless.”

And they’re irresistible. For any pet lover knows that one more is never too many, and Slonem definitely loves his birds.

As much as he loves Louisiana. “I’m always coming to Louisiana,” he said. “And my plantations have been used for a lot of movies filmed there. Albania was used for 20 different scenes in All the King’s Men, and Lakeside will be seen in the upcoming film, Beautiful Creatures, starring Jeremy Irons and Emma Thompson.”

And in the midst of it all, Lee Jofa is creating fabric designs using Slonem’s paintings for a series of furniture and interior pieces to be released next year.

His paintings also have been used for ties, among other items, sold through the newly established Hunt’s Pet Shop.

“And there will be a book of my rabbit paintings released next year,” he said.

But Baton Rougeans will be able to see his paintings this year. Just walk into the Shaw Center, pass the Manship Theatre and continue upstairs.

And there they are.

Slonem’s colorful birds happily singing among Louisiana bayous.