Inside the Minds of Ralph Steadman & Ceri Levy
interview / liz rice mccray

What would you expect when two idiosyncratic, creative, passionate, courageous, engaged, mischievous and curious jokesters collaborate on an important endeavor together? Ralph Steadman and Ceri Levy’s latest contribution to the literary world offers one wonderful answer, the unexpected. They have managed to take on the very serious topic of environmental crisis with upbeat, humorous, informative and beautiful abandon. Following their previous works, Extinct Boids (2012) and Nextinction (2015), Critical Critters is the third collaboration between artist/cartoonist Ralph Steadman and filmmaker/conservationist, Ceri Levy. The “Gonzovationists,” as they call themselves, hope that through this epic trilogy covering extinct and critically endangered animals, they can awaken and spur other Gonzovationists to action on the behalf of so many creatures who are at risk on this planet.

Ralph Steadman is a Welsh-born, world-renowned artist with a wide and wild repertoire from truculent political caricatures, book illustrations, beer, wine and musicians’ labels to the numerous books and articles he illustrated for his old creative partner (counterculturist and founder of the Gonzo journalism movement) Hunter S. Thompson. Known for his unique, spontaneous, and uncompromising style, Steadman is the recipient of numerous awards including the “Francis Williams Book Illustration Award” for Alice in Wonderland, the “American Society of Illustrators’ Certificate of Merit,” the “W H Smith Illustration Award” for I Leonardo, the “Dutch Silver Paintbrush Award” for Inspector Mouse, the “Italian Critica in Erba Prize” for That’s My Dad, the “BBC Design Award” for postage stamps, the “Black Humor Award” in France and several Designers and Art Directors Association Awards. In 1979 he was voted “Illustrator of the Year” by the American Institute of Graphic Arts.

The charming Ceri Levy is a writer, filmmaker, producer and catalyst – bringing together talented people from various fields to promote awareness of important global issues. He started with directing music videos and moved into documentaries and now writes for various venues. In Critical Critters his style is marked by his tendency for “beastly sneers and callous observations,” as noted on the books cover.

Together Steadman and Levy aspire to awaken and inspire the layman to get involved in the fight to protect our furry and feathered friends who share this beautiful yet broken habitat with us. As in their prior works, the book weaves in diary-style a record of the creative madness that inevitably ensues when these two brilliant minds work together. Via their preferred avenues of satire and raucous wit, coupled with Steadman’s explosive, sometimes gruesome but always captivating illustrations, they plan to drag you into their world, the one in which we all live, and to enlist you irrevocably into the fight for the delicate species that we are rapidly losing. Many Thanks to the lovely Ralph Steadman and Ceri Levy for taking the time to answer our questions. And special thanks are in order to Rachel Ewen of Bloomsbury Publishing and most importantly Sadie Williams for making this interview happen.

We’re always curious where people are at the present time that we interview them; will you please describe where you are right now? This way everyone reading along can imagine the setting.
Ralph: I am in the kitchen eating a home grown apple and cleaning my dear daughter Sadie’s pie dish, in which she cooked us a delicious potato dauphinoise. I was determined to clean off every last burnt area of milk burn from the pottery impressions on the dish.

Ceri: I am sat at my computer drinking a cup of filthy tea from a cup that Ralph hates and looking out over the garden on an ingloriously miserable damp grey English September morning. It’s meant to be late summer but we have bypassed the whole summer season this year and we are heading into the darkness of autumn. Cheerful, huh?

So when someone asks, “What do you do?” how do you answer?
Ralph: Attempt to change the world with every line – and I have succeeded! It is now worse than it was when I started. And Ceri is the cause of my stiff neck from all the signing we did at a talk we did in Rutland as I realised that it hurts when I flick my wrist.

Ceri: I always get the blame for everything and here we go again! That’s my role at times, to bear the weight of Ralph’s barbs! I guess I would say I do whatever comes next. As I have got older I have found it exciting to say “yes” more than to say “no.” This has led to interesting projects appearing. So I guess I would say I’m a filmmaking writer of a Gonzovationist!

You two have such a creative, humorous, mischievous and productive relationship, how did this collaboration start?
Ralph: I answered his [Ceri’s] request to produce one extinct bird drawing for an exhibition and I did 99 approximately!

Ceri: I remember waiting for months for a reply from Ralph and when it came I wasn’t disappointed. At first, he replied, “I have no idea what you want from me but it sounds intriguing! We should talk.” And we haven’t stopped since!

You both have been very informed and far from naive about politics. We take seriously your noting that global environmental issues are the most important political concern at this time. How do you hope Critical Critters will address this?
Ralph: We are all animals – we are supposed to be the most intelligent but I don’t think it’s true. If anything, I think we are getting more idiotic by the year. Some of the pictures inform a reader/viewer by expression – sometimes accidental and with the aid of Skype we have managed to chat things through and I say to Ceri, write that down. Unfortunately we did think of the funniest joke ever and I did not tell him to write it down. When we had finished laughing we could not remember it! If you find it, do let us know!

Ceri: It actually was the funniest joke ever! Possibly too funny for the rest of mankind. It could have led to the collapse of the modern world, which may not be a bad thing. Our wildlife may get a chance to survive again. I hope Critters inspires people to look into the world around them and see what they can do to help the world around us survive a little better than it is at the moment.

How about an attempt at explaining what a “Gonzovationist” is, and how it differs from an environmentalist?
Ceri: “I’m a Gonzovationist, an alternative conservationist.” I believe a Gonzovationist is any normal regular person who decides to support and help conservation continue its work. We are the untrained who care. We are the people who want to mobilise but need to know what to do. This is the problem with conservation today. Everyone wants you to tick a like box or donate $3 a month for this cause but that is not enough for us. We want to participate and conservationists have not really addressed how to utilise the many people who care. It is not enough to stand by and watch in this age of instant information. We want to be hands on. That may be as simple as planting a particular bush that butterflies like, or certain plants that appeal to great pollinators. It could be signing up for voluntary work to help adapt land for the benefit of creatures… It could be anything as long as it gets us out of our armchairs and connects us with nature.

Ralph: Well, the attitude that I explain of sometimes accidental enlightenment, which is what it is, makes the surprising discovery into a Gonzotic experience and I don’t know if you know this but the word “Gonzo” is Portuguese and means “hinge,” so Gonzo is unhinged.

Why use humor to address such a serious question to [as you have said] “massage the message?”
Ralph: If you can introduce a smile into such a serious subject it makes people think and it attracts others who may not bother to look if it were that serious.

Ceri: Exactly. Get them laughing and the audience engages and the payback for laughter is the serious knowledge that follows. Well, that’s the idea and sometimes it will work and sometimes it won’t.

Though your previous books were indeed very lively and humorous, they also included many interesting facts. What information is included in Critical Critters? What assumptions of the reader might be challenged?
Ceri: That everything is all right! We live in a period of time where big business runs the world. Businessmen now run countries and by the laws of business will deny there are problems within the world such as climate change. This is an economic age where every cent is important, much more so than the life of a bee or a wolf or the ecosystems of the world. Damage is done to find the dollar. We need to regress a little but I fear that will not happen until it may be too late. Economics are not progress.

Ralph: A lot of people will hopefully say, “Damn, now I will have to give up my membership of the shooting club.” We are dangerously close to making terrorist attitudes a more everyday experience and that includes animals as well as humans.

Mr. Steadman, how does your creative approach to drawing animals and bird species differ from drawing politicians or other questionable people?
Ralph: I started using my dirty water technique. I throw dirty water from the water I wash my brushes in, down onto white paper, 300gsm, and wait three days at least for it dry. The surprising result and effects encourage me to use my inventive aptitude and it challenges me to draw something that simply would not be there before. There is nothing more challenging than a white sheet of paper.

Mr. Steadman, you are legend and your portfolio is massive. The scope of your work is so impressive, spanning decades, can you tell us a little bit about your early beginnings as an artist and how/when you knew it was what you wanted to do for the rest of your life?
Ralph: I tried everything else first.

Is there a project that sticks out in your memory as pivotal to launching your career as a world-renowned artist?
Ralph: Meeting Hunter S. Thompson in 1970. He was the one person in the entire world (oops, excuse me, my wife has just sneezed) who I needed to meet. So I bought the ticket and took the ride!

How has your style changed and your attitude to your work over the years?
Ralph: It has become much freer.

Have there been mentors, people (past or present), circumstances or life events that have and/or continue to influence your creativity, approach, outlook, etc.?
Ralph: George Grosz, Andre Francois, Picasso and my dear teacher and mentor, Leslie Richardson.

You have a crazy list of people you have worked with. Will you tell us a few of your favorites?
Ralph: Hunter Thompson, Tim Robbins, Will Self – from whom I learnt the word exegetical. So for example, feeding the 5000 was an exegetical story.

What artists are you really into right now and do you collect art? Anything in particular?
Ceri: I collect art and sometimes Ralph looks at it sniffily. But I do love some of the modern artists around and at the moment I am particularly interested in Augustine Kofie and have recently bought a large canvas by him. He’s one of L.A.’s finest! I’ll send you a picture and Ralph likes it too. I also collect art from the 60’s including South American op artists.

What would your theme song be… or song to take into the fray of activism to help change the world?
Ralph: Bob Dylan’s “There’s something going on, but you don’t know what it is, do ya’ Mr Jones.”

Ceri: Today’s tune that works for that is “Have Some Love” by Childish Gambino. Ralph’s track is actually called “Ballad of a Thin Man.”

Mr. Steadman, I just received your 7″ vinyl record, “The Man Who Woke Up in the Dark,” and really enjoyed the song. Are you the one singing?
Ralph: Yes, I am the one singing. I was a choirboy! I learned to play the guitar with Alan Hodgkin who played with Django Reinhardt and the Hot Club of France. Django played with only two fingers.

Will you give some words of wisdom about life, the environment, politics and creativity?
Ralph: Doesn’t matter how thick a pane of glass is, you can always break it with a heavy hammer!

Ceri: Do it so you mean it.

This may be a depressing question but when it’s all said and done how would you like to be remembered?
Ralph: The man who swam every day in a very cold pool!

Ceri: To be remembered is not a bad place to start.

Do you have any upcoming projects you can share with us?
Ceri: The book that has no pictures, I am working on. Also there is a retrospective of my work planned next year, touring the USA. It starts in Washington next June.

Very last question, any last words for our readers, shout-outs, declarations of love or hate?
Ralph: You can shout by all means but not in hate.

Ceri: We want everyone to shout out, “I’m a Gonzovationist!”