The Spark of an Idea
An Interview with Ralph Steadman and Ceri Levy
May 3, 2022
Have you always aspired to create art, or did you discover your calling later in life?
Ralph: I originally wanted to build airplanes. I used to rush home from school and do my homework so I could work on my airplane models. But when I finally started working at the de Havilland Aircraft Company, I realized that I couldn’t stand factory life so I quit after 9 months.
Ceri: Over the years I have worked in many creative mediums. I started out as a documentary film maker working in the world of music and have gone on to test myself in other creative fields. I have always written and always enjoyed talking to people, hence it was a natural step to write books on subjects I cared about, and to create a podcast series, Gonzovation Conversations, as it allowed me to chat to an array of personalities that intrigued me and who I felt had something to say that may not have been heard by many before.
Ralph: I saw an advert in the paper saying “You too can learn to draw and earn ££££’s”. It was the Percy V Bradshaw Press school art course and was paid for it as she was relieved I had found something. I did it while I completed my national service. The other lads would play cards back at the barracks and I would draw my boots, draw them, anything I could. When I moved down to London I started going to life drawing classes at East Ham Tech College. I met my lifelong friend and mentor, Leslie Richardson there – he was a wonderful teacher.
Ceri: I studied very little as I wanted to get out in the world and discover my path. Film making fell into my path when I went to see a film director friend of mine at work just to see what it was like. There was a night shoot happening and I was standing on an empty set when I heard a voice shout, “Hose the set down, please!” Near me a hose lay on the ground, but no one appeared, and nothing happened. Then the voice rang out again, a little louder and more urgent, “I said, hose the set down!” Again, nothing happened, and the hose remained untouched. Then finally the voice bellowed in rage, “Hose the fucking set down!!” I thought to myself, “I reckon I just pick it up and turn it on.” I reached down for the hose, turned it on and sprayed everything in sight and the set sprang to life as the newly drenched street scene sparkled and glistened under the film lights. A man came racing over to me, “Who the hell are you and why are you here?” I stammered my name and that I was just visiting the set and he said, “Thank God you did! You showed some initiative there. What are you doing for the next three days? Want a job in the art department?” This was a moment for me I always look back on as a turning point in my life. I accepted his offer immediately and I was given all sorts of things to do. My friend, the director, Matthew Longfellow, saw me lifting objects and working on set and I told him what happened. He just looked at me and said, “Typical! Enjoy it!” After that I never turned back and Matthew and I would work together as producer and director for a number of years creating a body of work.
What artist or artists informed your development? And what artists do you look to now for inspiration?
Ralph: I like George Gros, Francis Bacon and Picasso of course. Leonardo da Vinci is a bit of a hero, Freud called him “the man who woke up in the dark”. He had a burning curiosity to understand the world. I did a book about him in 1980’s called “I Leonardo.”
Ceri: The world is an art piece that continually informs and inspires. Nothing is or isn’t art. The Pop Artists of the 60’s understood this by making the everyday important and that credo stays true to this day. The key is to never stop looking at the world we live in. That’s why the last couple of years of the pandemic have been difficult as it has meant very few visits to cultural settings. No gigs, no exhibitions, no shows, but the exploration of life and art has been able to continue thanks to the online world. I discover a new and incredible artist every day and I wonder how I had never seen their work before and the same is true of music and musicians.
What was a pivotal moment in the evolution of your work?
Ralph: Meeting Hunter S. Thompson at the Kentucky Derby in 1970. He was the one person in all the world I needed to meet. We had fun.
Ceri: The greatest moment was to get a response from Ralph to an email whereby I had asked if he would be interested in taking part in an exhibition about the threat of extinction that faced many of the world’s birds. I waited two months for a response and from the moment he eventually replied, we embarked on an incredible journey across the worlds of wildlife and conservation that is still going strong after 12 years working together. Long may it continue as I love being immersed in the Steadman space/time continuum. Bring on the blockchain as our next adventure!
Tell us about your process. Do you begin with an image or a concept?
Ralph: It has changed a lot over the years. Now I use my Dirty Water Technique. I pour the water that I have rinsed my paintbrushes in onto a piece of paper on the floor and let in dry for 3 days. Then I put it on my board and see the drawing through the stains and silt. It makes the most wonderful textures. Critical Crtters, my 3rd book with Ceri, was done almost entirely in this way. The animals just peered at us from the ink.
Ceri: Everything begins with words. Every film I have made, every programme I have directed or produced, every book or piece I have written. It all begins with a word. The most important thing is to ‘write it down’ as Ralph continually says to me. Every conversation we have, contains nuggets that we will use down the line and sometimes we may say something extremely funny, (even though I say so myself), and the act of laughter can make you forget what has sparked the laughs. It’s strange but true and the prime example of this is that we once came up with the funniest joke ever and laughed so hard that we laughed it out of our minds. When we had stopped laughing, we couldn’t find that joke anywhere. The universe gives gifts constantly but always remember to acknowledge that and record the delivery immediately.
Ralph: Well, Leonardo da Vinci inspired me to do a book about him, as did Sigmund Freud. I have even done a book about God. Sometimes it’s just about the spark of an idea and before you know it you are halfway through 100 pictures. The Gonzovation Trilogy was almost accidental like that. Ceri and I just started a dialogue and 10 years later we are still talking, bouncing ideas back and forth.
Ceri: Facts and nonsense inspire my work in the world of conservation. The two must go hand in hand as the nonsense takes the pain of the facts away while I write. I am talking specifically about Gonzovation here. Humour is essential when dealing with the darkness of the modern world.
What was the most challenging project that you worked on?
Ralph: Every single one is the most challenging at the time because you never really know what’s going to appear on the paper – if it will work.
Ceri: The Gonzovation Trilogy was the most challenging project so far, but it was a labour of love, and honestly, every day I work with Ralph is a joy as I never know what will happen. When you least expect it, expect it, as they say. In the books, I felt a duty to get the factual content right for every species. It was our job to do justice to every single creature we featured and to get the tone right so it would engage powerfully with an audience. As opposed to telling everyone how dreadful mankind is and the damage we have done to the environment we needed to provide the belief of hope and that we can all inspire each other and do our part to help the world around us. Every little helps.
Ralph: The freedom to follow my own ideas and see them realized on the page, and all the interesting people and places I have been able to meet along the way, with just a pen and ink as my introduction.
Ceri: The moment when a job is finished and out the door, ready to face the world.
How do you think NFTs will change the future for artists?
Ralph: Hopefully it will make it better. It’s another medium. I still prefer wet ink and I don’t know that anything can replace the link between hand, eye, brain and pen. But each to his or her own.
Ceri: No one can say with certainty how a medium may or may not alter the future of art or artists. What I would suggest is that NFTs may prove to be an interesting point in history much like the moment people could create music in their bedrooms. In music, there was suddenly no longer the need for expensive studio time being booked and having to be surrounded by professional engineers and producers. Everything could be handled at home. There was an outcry that this was the death of music, and that terrible undercooked music would appear. No one would be safe as the quality of music would be in a downward spiral. Basically, the established music business was very afraid that control was about to be lost. And of course, a lot of bad music was and is still being made. But this changing of the guard has resulted in many wonderful voices being heard that could never be heard before. And that is magical. Perhaps NFT’s will do the same for artists in the digital age. And of course, there will be ‘bad art’ and ‘good art’. The differentiation between the two is for the audience to decide. But opportunities that may not have been possible will appear for many. Will this prove to be a fad? Who knows? All I know, is there should be no fear in exploring new worlds and that is what the NFT arena is all about. Again, bring on the blockchain.
Ralph Steadman is drawing, splotting and blotting somewhere in Kent today!