Meet the man and his passions — then see the exhibit
Mystery shrouded the owner, sometimes resident, of Albania Plantation — rumors said he was very private. Any prior references to visiting the plantation home nestled between Louisiana 182 and the Bayou Teche, between Jeanerette and Franklin, seemed to indicate “don’t ask.”
In retrospect, as a private home, the solitude of the inhabitant should be his own. Until the invitation came to meet the artist expected to open a new exhibit at the Bayou Teche Museum in September.
Hunt Slonem is the artist, a world-renowned painter, sculptor and collector — and, the owner of Albania.
Slonem has exhibited extensively in New York City, his primary residence and the location of his studio. A list of U.S. cities far too long to include here is available on his website but includes The National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., The Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans and Newcomb Art Gallery at Tulane. Collectors from, and shows in, China, Spain, Haiti, the Philippines, Holland, Germany, Dubai and India, to name a few of the countries presenting his achievements, speaks of his international popularity.
He has started preparing for next year when he will show in St. Petersburg and four other cities in Russia. He has exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in Moscow and received the Medal of Honor from the Royal Academy of the Arts.
In September he will break from the norm of resting at Albania, one of his two Louisiana homes, and will present a talk and exhibition in New Iberia.
“Hunt Slonem is coming to the Bayou Teche Museum,” said Marcia Patout, director of the museum. “We are beyond thrilled that Mr. Slonem chose the Bayou Teche Museum to exhibit Bayous, Birds and Butterflies. The installation will be unveiled following a unique lecture by the artist.”
Slonem speak at the Sliman Theatre Sept. 16 followed immediately by the opening of Bayous, Birds and Butterflies at the Bayou Teche Museum. The installation will remain at the museum through the beginning of December. Tickets to the lecture and sneak peak unveiling will be available soon, Patout said.
Meeting Hunt Slonem
The drive through the Albania gate and up to the Greek Revival three-story home is impressive amid large oak trees, expansive lawns and tropical landscaping with sugar cane boilers — a reminder of the land’s heritage.
Slonem bought Albania in 2003 after learning of its availability during a show at an art gallery formerly on Julia Street. The closing for Albania occurred 40 years to the day after “Miss Emily” bought it, Slonem said. The previous owner, Emily Cyr Bridges, died in 1996 and the home was in bad disrepair. It was built by Charles Grevemberg in 1842 and remained with his family until Isaac Delgado, of the New Orleans Delgado College and Museum of Art, purchased it in 1900.
Slonem said the check written that built the Delgado museum represented proceeds from the sugar cane crops of Albania Plantation. Other New Orleans connections to the artist of Albania include Tulane University, where Slonem studied Louisiana architecture. While there, he frequented the antebellum homes along River Road and first fell in love with the Southern culture that continues to inspire him.
“I just fell in love (with Albania),” Slonem said. “I didn’t know where I was. I’d never been to St. Mary Parish. Never heard of Albania Plantation, but I sensed I better get a bid in before the auction (of furnishings).”
The lawyer handling the auction called and although there were other offers told Slonem that “Miss Emily loved artists” and would have wanted him to have it.
Collector of Beauty
Slonem’s first historic purchase was Aug. 17, 2001, before 9/11. An intuitive purchase that came after an unction to divest of some financial holdings. This began a series of historic home and building purchases as a result of international sales of his massive paintings and sculptures. The first home was in Kingston, New York, the Cordt’s Mansion overlooking the Hudson River. He describes it as being cosy like a cocoon.
Lakeside Plantation in Batchelor, one of the largest homes in Louisiana, was bought in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina. The land was presented by Andrew Jackson to the Marque de Lafayette whose descendents continue to recognize, with visits, the former family property. Slonem splits his time in Louisiana between the two homes.
“I love them all. They are all constantly growing and changing,” Slonem said. “Movies have been shot here (at Albania). ‘All the Kings Men’ put in the temporary wallpaper, still here. ‘In the Electric Mist’ shot an outdoor party scene in the back yard.”
Other properties include the 30,000 square feet studio in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park, bought prior to it being called the “hottest new place in New York.” Slonem’s most recent purchases are the Watres Armory and F.W. Woolworth Mansion in Scranton, Pennsylvania. The Scranton properties were built by the same architect and are still in the restoration phase, a constant with each as he often redecorates.
The armory includes a 50,000-square-foot room and is believed to have been part of the Underground Railroad. Slonem said researchers estimate 20 miles of tunnels have been found underneath the structure that fills a city block.
“I’m never investing in a paper thing again,” Slonem said. “If I can’t live in it, walk on it, touch it, feel it, find it beautiful, I’m not doing it any more. So I started taking baby steps into this. It’s hard and I’ve been very lucky to find the people I work with.”
Albania has all the original mantels and hardware. The chandeliers, some walls, ceilings and new bathrooms were restored or built by Slonem. Every room has closets, a rarity for an antebellum home. At the time it was built, the owners were taxed on closets and so they used armoires. The original owners weren’t concerned with the extra expense and built for storage.
“I love each house because they all have such unique collections. I’m constantly adding to them and the gardens,” Slonem said. “This house is very dear to me. I learned to walk again in this house after a near death experience. Cathy and Chuck Thomason from Avery Island came to New York and brought me back down here.”
Arriving first in a wheelchair, walking the unique crescent three-story staircase helped restore Slonem’s health. He is still searching for a fine woodworker to help restore the upper third of the staircase to its original beauty. Carpet covered the bottom two-thirds. It is the largest staircase of its kind in the state, he said, having been brought over from France at the time the home was built. “It’s hard to find great masterful workers,” and a full time struggle to coordinate them, he said.
Albania is only one of six historic structures owned by Slonem.
“I was always moved by Picasso who would buy château after château, fix them up and turn the key to move onto the next one,” Slonem said, “I don’t know what he did for sure, but he bought a lot of real estate. Artists collect. Andy Warhol was an insatiable collector of things. Rembrandt was a big collector. ‘Where Muses Dwell’ is an incredible book about artists and their collections.”
Slonem not only collects the structures, but the furnishings and beautiful things inside including portraitures of Louisiana people or by Louisiana artists. The walls of Albania are filled with classic portraits of land owners, their family members or political figures. Dabbled throughout are touches of Slonem himself, modern art blended expertly with his creative eye for color and context.
Artist at Work
Slonem doesn’t paint in Albania, he is inspired there.
“It’s such a piece of paradise and the land around it,” Slonem said. “It’s exhilarating. I come here to pull myself together.”
Traveling throughout the world as an artist or lecturer, as well as managing his studio staff of nine full-time employees responsible for cataloguing, crating, shipping and coordinating his international collections, keeps him busy.
In the New York City studio, Slonem is engaged in painting or creating his art.
“I paint huge things,” he said.
Commissioned works are part of his responsibility. Those are often painted on canvases that are stretched for installation in public places. When asked if he had any favorite pieces, he hesitated and said he doesn’t “play favorites.” Then the story of one forever lost was told.
“I’ve only done one painting directly on the wall. That was at the World Trade Center, 43 floor of Tower One,” Slonem said. “Under the Carter administration, Joan Mondale came in to inaugurate the mural. When the building was attacked the first time, I was brought in to repair it. Then I watched the tower collapse from my window on 9/11. I thought I was going to die that day. For a year we suffered, the air was unbelievable.”
His studio building was taken over by the FBI in part because of the vantage point of having the largest terrace in New York City, he said. Nineteen FBI agents took over his space, including the parking garage.
“It was like going through a war,” he said. “It really hurt a lot of people. I hope we don’t ever go through anything like that again. That was just crazy.”
Exquisite and Unique
An artistic collector of historical and beautiful things, Slonem’s modern art fits right at home in his antebellum residence. Fabrics and textures play into his decorating and artistry. Later this summer another Teche Life article will explore his art and forthcoming show.
Prior to the Bayou Teche Museum exhibition opening in September, his unique treatment of color and finery through the blending of the old and new can be seen at a grand exhibit at the Shaw Center for the Arts in Baton Rouge.
Using furnishings from his own collections, large and small paintings — some of which have been recreated in fabric for furniture, window or wall coverings — are on display through Aug. 5. Enormous rooms styled by the artist bring a real sense of “Antebellum Pop!” to the viewer.
That exhibition, organized by the Louisiana State University Museum of Art and curated by Sarah Clunis Ph.D., assistant professor of art history at Xavier University of Louisiana, is of a size that prohibits its transfer locally. It is worth experiencing before meeting the artist at the Bayou Teche Museum opening.