Black ink streaks across the page and ends in a violent splatter. Color follows in splotches of reds, greens and blues. At times, the shapes are whimsical, other times weird and sometimes downright psychotic. Introducing: the work of Ralph Steadman.
If you’re not familiar with the unique and outrageous illustrations he created while working with writer Hunter S. Thompson during the birth of gonzo journalism, or the political characters he sketched for the New Yorker and Rolling Stone, you’re in for a treat. The man’s mind just isn’t normal, but that’s to our advantage.
When filmmaker Ceri Levy asked Steadman to contribute a bird illustration for his London art exhibit titled Ghosts of Gone Birds, he did not realize exactly what he would be unleashing upon the world. One illustration became two, and then three, and soon a flock formed, increasing in numbers that would have awed even Alfred Hitchcock. That was when Levy and Steadman realized that they had a book on their hands and Extinct Boids took flight. To make things even more interesting, the two decided to expose all of their intimate emails and correspondence during the process. The result is a front-row seat for the reader, who gets a chance to experience their artistic endeavor evolve as if standing over the artists’ shoulders and listening to the back-and-forth that often takes place between creator and creation.
I recently caught up with both men and had the chance to ask them a few questions about their work, themselves, and just what possessed them to take on such a topic.
Into the Mind of Ralph Steadman
Starr: Your career has spanned decades, and you?e done everything from illustrating George Orwell? classic, Animal Farm, to working with writer Hunter S. Thompson. What inspired you to write and illustrate a book about extinct birds?
Steadman: Since I have done everything, I thought Wow! Of course, birds. Not a politician in sight! Next, it’s a book about screwdrivers. Now that is an interesting subject. It is an object that has been used for so many things: bank robberies, DIY and threats.
Starr: Once you began, were you surprised at how many parrots and other fowl forms there are?
Steadman: I was surprised at how few parrots were left in this world. But, there are still a lot of chickens!
Starr: Your book takes a lighthearted, and sometimes dark-humored, approach to the topic. Some pages feature actual birds with silly names, such as the cover subject, the dodo, while other entries are tongue-in-cheek, like the jail bird, a species I suspect we won’t ever see truly extinct. Where did you get your inspiration?
Steadman: I am compelled not to take myself so seriously. If I did that, the book would not be half as entertaining, wouldn’t you agree?
Starr: Of all the locations you traveled to, which was your favorite and why?
Steadman: Hawaii has been the best but, at the time, I was thinking about gonzo [journalism]. (Steadman is referencing his trip with Hunter S. Thompson to cover the Honolulu Marathon for Running magazine in 1980. Editors). So, there was no contest! Now, a visit to Hawaii in search of birds would indeed be of some interest.
Starr: Before the introduction of your book The Joke’s Over, which talks about your adventures with Thompson, you actually have a quote from him that says, “Go on, write, Ralph. You’ll bring shame on your family.” But the fact is, you’re a very funny writer and the book is engaging. When did you start writing? Have you always been inspired to do so or has your first love always been art?
Steadman: Hunter just could not draw, but I can write. He was scared that perhaps I could write better than him. But that is impossible. Hunter always had his own voice. He was unique!
Starr: If you could pick one bird to turn into, which one would you be and why?
Steadman: I would choose the bird that is not yet extinct, like a humble pigeon. People are always throwing them bread and anything edible. What else do you need?
Starr: You’ve covered politicians, Sigmund Freud, Leonardo da Vinci and other famous figures. Who was your favorite subject and why?
Steadman: Leonardo inspired me to paint my own Last Supper on the bedroom wall, which is still there, and probably will be long after I have gone.
Ceri Levy Revealed
Starr: What inspired you to organize the art exhibit in London entitled “Ghosts of Gone Birds”?
Levy: I had started making my film, The Bird Effect, about the effects of birds upon people. At first, it had been about the eccentricity of birdwatchers, but as I traveled more and more through the bird world, I discovered the conservation issues that faced so many of our birds today. I became extremely interested in conservation and wanted to try and make people aware of the very real threat of many bird extinctions.
Starr: At what point did you and artist Ralph Steadman decide it would be a good book subject?
Levy: I had asked Ralph to create one bird for the show, and then he couldn’t stop. I didn’t know how to ask him to stop, and it was so exciting with each new bird that appeared in my inbox that we just continued until we suddenly realized we had a major body of work. At that moment we thought that just maybe we had a book on our hands. And so it has proved to be. To accompany the art, I delved into my not-inconsequential pile of emails, phone messages, Skype calls and remembered conversations to create a companion piece for the paintings. As a documentary filmmaker, I hoard everything.
Starr: How long did it take the two of you to put together your new book, Extinct Boids?
Levy: Just about a year. Although, we only realized we had the chance to create a book after eight or nine months. So once it was decided it was a book, it took four or five months to complete.
Starr: Have you always been drawn toward birds, or is this something new for you?
Levy: It was totally new to me. But now I cannot imagine a life without birds in it. I liken my life before to having lived a life in black and white and mono, and now I see in color and hear in stereo.
Starr: If you could be any bird, extinct or otherwise, what would it be?
Levy: I reckon I would be either a kingfisher or a bee-eater. Just love the blues!
Starr: You are now working on a documentary called The Bird Effect. When do you think it will be complete?
Levy: It has been a journey through the bird world and what I have discovered there: from birdwatchers to conservationists and all points in between, including artists, writers and musicians. I never know when the film will finish, as I keep on discovering new things that fascinate me and that I want to show to an audience. But mostly, I want the film to show the amazing work people do in the name of birds and also just how little we care about the natural world around us, and try and impress on people just how much needs to be done right now to help our avian companions. My last film took 9 years, so who knows with this one?! Much sooner, that is all I can say!
Learn more about Extinct Boids at the Bloomsbury Publishing website here.