Writer and filmmaker Ceri Levy pictured with artist Ralph Steadman
Six years ago, when I first approached Ralph, it was with the idea of creating one piece of work for a group show about bird species that had become extinct. Ralph started to draw. Then he drew another bird, and then another, and he couldn’t stop drawing them, and we couldn’t stop talking and laughing together. I began to write about our creative process and the stories of the birds and with that, Extinct Boids, our first book, was born.
We decided our second book would be about the birds that were next in line for extinction: the ‘nextinct’. And so Nextinction came to life and appeared in the world. What to tackle after this was a tougher question. Creating a book about all the happy, well, and un-endangered birds in the world didn’t really fit our M.O., so we thought why not turn our hands to all the other animals that were in decline. Mammals, sea creatures, amphibians, reptiles, bugs, and we soon realised that a huge proportion of our planet’s inhabitants are in deep trouble. And here we are, fighting to tell the stories of the many animals that face the biggest issues: the Critical Critters.
We’ve always maintained that you’ve got to make people laugh in order to engage with them. If you just tell people, “You’re all dreadful bastards, you’ve screwed it all up and the world is suffering,” people say, “Yeah, whatever.” But if you can make them laugh, then there is a chance of interaction. They may then come to the table, switch on to the cause, feel involved enough to become ‘Gonzovationists’ and stick up for the endangered.
Addax (White Antelope)
Embarking on our journey, Ralph discovered a new technique for creating these characters by spilling dirty, filthy, inky water onto sheets of paper and letting them dry. Looking into the mess on the splattered pages, he saw animals appear within and drew them into being, and thus the critters evolved from filth. As Picasso had his Blue Period, Ralph has his Dirty Water Period.
Ralph Steadman demonstrates his ink blowing skills on a picture of a Panda
Once our latest Gonzovation volume was complete, we wanted to create a complementary series of prints. We needed to work with printers who could handle the vibrancy of colours and textural feel of the originals, as there had been difficulties reproducing these for the book. I was certain Jan and Ian at the Goldmark atelier would be the perfect people to handle the job. It was down to gallery supremo Mike Goldmark as to whether he wished to work with us.
Asian / African Elephant
As it turned out, Mike was a long-time admirer of Steadman’s art and all fell into place. Time was taken in correcting colour balances and perfecting tones, and when I look at these prints I am thunderstruck by their beauty. Ralph, who has created more editions than most, said to me, “No-one has ever made better prints of my work. Never.” This is printing alchemy.
Ralph’s animal portraits are humorous and moving. We laugh and then we think. Take the Indri, who comically chomps away and yet stares at us balefully from within his splatted green foliage. Have we caught him doing something, or does he look at us in disbelief that we could treat his environment as we have?
Appearing out of an explosion of black ink, the Mountain Gorilla heads towards us in a fit of rage, angry with us for messing up his world, while Przewalski’s Horse is calmer and invites us to stroke him or walk through his herd.
There is a poignant pleasure in being surrounded by Ralph’s creatures and I continually change my favourites. One minute I love the Fin Whale most, as he leaps from the confines of the page; the next I adore the Hawksbill Turtle, paddling for dear life in the effervescent turquoise water.
Then I see the Rat-arsed Skunk turning to look at me as if I have just witnessed him stepping into something nasty, while the Hippo unapologetically bellows and belches and the Aye-aye gives mankind his percussive finger.
This is a cast of characters that could populate a movie – and who knows, that may be where Gonzovation goes next. For some critters, Ralph’s portrayals may be the only way to keep them in existence; but with perseverance, we might just be able to turn the corner and save some from extinction.
Ralph Steadman and the 'Aye-Aye' - a self-portrait perhaps?...
Enjoy Ralph’s art, let it entertain and amuse, but remember the message and become a Gonzovationist. You could plant bee and pollinator-friendly flowers in the garden, hang up bird feeders, or discover a charity working with your favourite species and get involved. The act of doing something, anything, can change our critters’ world forever. It is the reason Ralph painted them, and the reason they are still here.