Adele Renault Will Make You Become Obsessed with Pigeons

We spoke with the Belgian artist about appreciating the misunderstood bird and discovering a wonderfully weird community of pigeon lovers.

Pigeons are everywhere. They’re picking at your food, they’re flying at your head at the most inopportune of moments, they’re squawking about in intimidating groups. Yep, the urban bird is almost an aesthetic ingredient of grimy and smoggy city life—but Belgian artist Adele Renault doesn’t see it that way. Based in Amsterdam, the graphic designer and muralist is pretty much obsessed with pigeons and the beauty your average person typically ignores in their feathers and personality. As a result, she’s constantly exploring new ways to depict the infamous bird; when she’s not doing that, she thrives off of the unique relationships she gets from creating people’s portraits in places like San Francisco and Burkina Faso.

We spoke to Adele about weird and wonderful pigeon communities, the magic of portraying new people and just straight up loving feathers.

Hi, Adele. Can you give us a short introduction to yourself and what it is that you do?

Hello! I’m Adele Renault—born in Belgium, based in Amsterdam. The past few years I’ve been mainly painting realistic portraits of pigeons and people, both on canvas in my studio and on large murals around the world. Some people gave me the nickname Pigeon Voyageur.

You’re French/Belgian originally, but moved to Amsterdam a while ago now. Why did you go to Amsterdam and what were you hoping to find in the city when you first moved?

I was studying graphic design in Brussels at the time and I researched all possibilities to do an internship abroad. A lot of good graphic designers are Dutch, and Amsterdam is a lovely city with more work opportunities than Brussels in the world of graphic design, so I figured it would be a good choice.

While looking for graphic design studios where I could do an interesting internship, I met my husband, Niels Shoe Meulman. I did a great internship at Dog and Pony where I ended up working for two years as a graphic designer before committing to being a full time artist.

And after starting as an artist, what was your first breakthrough—personally or for your career?

My first US solo show in San Francisco was a breakthrough for me in terms of the quality of the work, the story behind it, and success of the sales. Everything kind of made sense. I started making portraits of pigeons in some dirty alleys in the Tenderloin in 2012 and 2013, and then soon enough I decided to also make portraits of the homeless people that I would encounter in the same alleys. The gallery where I was exhibiting was also based in the Tenderloin. I had spent a lot of time on the streets there, and all the stories and experiences really fed me mentally during the months I spent painting the whole series back in my studio.

Last month I was in San Jose for Pow Wow and I went up to the Tenderloin for half a day. I found Flash right away (one of the guys that I’d painted.) We were very happy to see each other again! Once you’ve painted someone’s portrait it’s like you’ve built a connection for life. At least that’s how it works for me.

What is it about pigeons that makes you keep coming back to them?

At first it was their ‘street’ attitude. But it’s also that they are actually beautiful birds with shiny, iridescent colours—but because they’re usually dirty and against a grey urban background, most people don’t see that. I called my latest series of pigeon feathers “Gutter Paradise”; that kinds of sums it up. It’s like a diamond—you have to polish it first before you see it shine.

Is there a big pigeon community and are you a part of it?

There is, and I only started to learn about the ‘racing pigeon’ community and ‘pigeon fanciers’ after I started painting street pigeons. I mean, I knew some people had pigeons on their roofs and stuff like that, but the closest I had been to that was watching the movie Ghost Dog many times…

I also knew Mike Tyson always had pigeons. Three years ago I decided I would love to make his portrait with his pigeons, which led me to meet a Dutch breeder who is kind of famous in the pigeon world. He used to advise Mike on breeding better racing pigeons. Also, through Instagram I met Camp the Pigeon just by searching the hashtag #pigeon, and that became a long story, too. I made 20 portraits of him and ended up showing the work in Chicago where Camp was based.

And with the internet, of course, some pigeon lovers and breeders found my work online. I get tons of Facebook requests every day from pigeon breeders all over the globe. A few months back I got an email from a Chinese company called One Pigeon: they were organising the first ‘Pigeon Convention’ in Nanjing and were interested in showing my work there in a booth. They organised an exhibition of my work in a museum in Beijing. It’s a whole new world that I’m slowly discovering. And the funny thing is that the best racing pigeons all come from Belgium—a coincidence because now I’m on my way to the convention (where my work will also be exhibited) with a whole Belgian delegation. I’ve been hanging with the president of the Belgian Pigeon Association and the Belgian Embassy for the past couple of days. It’s kind of surreal.

How would you describe the transition of your practice? It seems like you first started with smaller works, moved on to the collaborative murals and lately you’ve been painting huge murals.

I was painting graffiti way before I touched a brush or canvas, so painting murals with the rise of popularity for street art has been a natural transition. Scale has never been an issue for me.

How do you go about with these massive murals? Is there a plan when you get to the murals, or are you able to take a more freestyle approach to the walls?

It depends, but usually you can get a picture of the wall before arriving somewhere so you can start making a plan or getting an idea beforehand. Lately I’ve been doing a lot of pigeon feather murals, which kind of work like wallpaper. That’s handy because I can pretty much freestyle it and it works really well on walls that have many obstacles like windows, cables, roll up doors, etc.

After having painted a lot of pigeon portraits and focussing on feathers, what’s next to explore with pigeons?

I don’t know yet, but I know I’ll find something new soon enough. I can’t be doing the same thing all the time. Right now I’m still enjoying painting the feathers, though: there’s something very meditative about it.

Aside from pigeons you are a very gifted portrait painter. I’ve been very intrigued by the Les Hommes Intègres series. How did this series of paintings come about?

I travelled to Burkina Faso with my father in 2015. We stayed in a small village for a month (he goes there every year and kind of knows everyone there, it’s his way of breaking the winter and coming back inspired to compose music.) I had been wanting to join him there for a long time.

While I was there I saw so many interesting faces (a lot of the older people still have beautiful tribal scarifications.) Because I had privileged access to the local community through my father’s friends it was easy to find all the oldest people in the neighbouring villages. I wanted to record these faces before they disappear because they are the last generation to have known that continent ‘pre-colonisation’. A year later I went back with good reproductions of the paintings to give to them. One had passed away, unfortunately, but I still had the great opportunity to see smiles on 9 of 10 the faces while discovering their portraits, It was fantastic, and I’ve built a lot of friendships there.

Aside from being an artist yourself, you’re also the founder of Unruly gallery. How did this move come about, and why did you start the gallery?

It sort of happened naturally. Niels Shoe Meulman had friends who had a tiny garage space in Amsterdam that they weren’t using. We first thought we would use it as a studio but very soon after decided to turn it into a gallery; that was back in spring 2011. We both didn’t know much about running n a gallery but we learned as we went along. I guess we are surrounded by artists and friends and felt the need to give them and ourselves a podium that we wouldn’t find in the more established gallery world. We both have a very DIY mentality, and the same goes for artist’s residencies: instead of waiting to be invited/selected for one, we sometimes create our own residencies.

As an artist, do you have insights into the gallery process that another gallery owner maybe lacks?

I wouldn’t call myself a gallery owner; I’m an artist, first of all, and we do this on the side. We learned a lot from having a foot on both sides, but it mostly helps understanding the gallery world and protecting yourself as an artist when working with other galleries.  Being an artist run gallery, you have more trust and understanding with other artists but we also are pretty bad gallerists because we don’t do it full time and it really is a full time job. That’s one of the reasons we decided to continue as an online gallery instead of a having a physical space. This way we can focus more on just the ‘curating’. All the artists have one thing in common and that’s the unruliness, and a background in the streets.

Any parting words? What are you working on for 2018, and where can we see your next mural?

I’m working on some new pieces for a group show at Antler Gallery in Portland and working on a solo show at Clara Arts in Jersey City in May 2018 which will be called “Tyson’s corner”. I will also be painting several murals across the States the coming months. The next one is Atlanta. And I’m also working on a book! So I have a lot on my plate, which is good because I work better under pressure.

Thanks, Adele.