Friday, February 6, 2015

My 2001 Interview With Illustrator and Author Ralph Steadman

In 2004 my feature story on printmaker/artist Joe Petro III of Lexington, Kentucky appeared in Screen Printing Magazine. The story was a couple years in the making and came about like this. I was a huge Jonathan Winters fan as a kid and had been looking, by means of the internet, for recordings of his improvisational insanity. As it turned out, I discovered that Jonathan Winters was also an artist, specifically painting. I learned this through the website of Joe Petro. Petro was a screenprinter for a number of high profile people who also did art on the side, including Kurt Vonnegut, Winters himself and British illustrator Ralph Steadman. As things unfolded I was given the opportunity to interview all three of these major figures for th-s article.

Having previously purchased a book of paintings by Jonathan Winters called Hang-Ups, I used that material as background for the interview he graciously gave me. It was a tremendously fun to be on the receiving end of his compulsive persona-shifting, as captured here in one of my early blog entries.

My interview with Mr. Vonnegut, also pre-arranged, took place on a Sunday afternoon during a New York Giants football game that I could hear playing in the background when he first answered the phone.

This conversation with Mr. Steadman was an overseas call that (I believe) took place in 2001. I'm guessing it took place on a Saturday morning, because otherwise when I get home from work it is middle of the night in Great Britain. Wikipedia identifies Steadman as "a British cartoonist best known for his work with American author Hunter S. Thompson." Certainly his illustrations for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas put him on the map as far as American audiences go. He has illustrated numerous books and won numerous awards including being voted Illustrator of the Year by the American Institute of Graphic Arts in 1979.

EN: What are you working on now?

Ralph Steadman: It’s a picture for an article by Will Self, Tough Tough Toys for Tough Tough Boys. I’m doing a series of drawings for an independent newspaper. It’s a series called Psychogeography.

EN: Your mind has gone quite a ways over the years, hasn’t it.

RS: Tried to. But my intellect is weak.

We talk briefly about various things ending with how I came to be a writer.

EN: I gave up art to try to change the world.

RS: You did the opposite of me. I gave up writing to do art to change the world. Writing’s no good. Nobody reads any more. There’s so much stuff written. Less people read than they ever did.

My favorite Steinbeck is Cannery Row. Then I read The Grapes of Wrath. He’s the kind of writer where you sense his authority in what he says.

EN: I remember Coetze, South African writer…

RS: It’s a sad world, Ed.

EN: Man’s inhumanity to man makes countless thousands mourn.

RS: I think there’s something of that in the fertilizer of life.

We talk around other themes and come to this comment on America.

Every conceivable nation on earth has arrived and lived there. That’s a funny thing. That should make it the rich melting pot you were supposed to be. It’s gotten bland. It’s gotten banal. That’s what I think has gone wrong.

In effect, we need to appreciate difference as a virtue.

Travels with Charlie… a wonderful book. He went out to discover his America with his dog.

EN: Do you have a dog?

RS: I did, but he died a couple years ago and I don’t want to replace him. He had to be put down. I went to the vet. His beautiful eyes looking at me. Trusting. That’s the horrible part. Trusting me, and I knew with the injection he would slip away.

I had to do the thing and Anna my wife came with me, and they had to let us out the back door because we were crying too much.

I didn’t think I would think that about dogs because I did a book about dogs…

EN: I’m calling about your relationship with Joe Petro. How did you guys meet?

RS: I’ll tell you how we met. Have you ever heard of Oddbin’s, the English wine merchant? One guy started it, I can’t remember his name now, by going to Europe, France and Germany, and buying odd bins of wine… a batch of wine from one year that wasn’t sold. They’d buy it up, bottle it, and it became Oddbins in England.

The first ever wine merchant in England who appreciated wine and sold it like that. They got good stuff. It wasn’t commercially done, It was by weird guys, making wine. So I did drawings for them.

So I started getting letters and cards from Joe Petro, who actually did drawings for Greenpeace.

Bats Over Barstow
We were on an Oddbins trip and we’d been to George Dickel Kentucky Wines … I was doing whiskey for them, and my wife and I were at the Cincinnati airport and were so near that we said, “Let’s just ring Joe and see if he’s there. If he’s there, let’s go and say hello.”

We rang up and said hello, and we caught him just ten minutes before he was about to leave for Nashville. And he said, “I’ll come and get you.” So he actually came to Cincinnati and got us and we got on great. We liked him very much and became friends. He said, “Would you like to do a print with me?” so we did a print and I said “What should we do?” and he said, “I’d like you to do something from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. So I did Bats Over Barstow. From cold, on a sheet of acetate. So that was the first thing we did. October 10, 1993.

He (Joe) is a nice man, and very conscientious. He knows a lot of people. He gets in touch with Rosenquist, and he gets in touch with Rauschenberg. He’s a friend of Kurt Vonnegut. And he’s a friend of so many people. He’s so likeable. That’s his strong point. He gets along with everybody.

EN: What’s it like to work together?

RS: He had a little studio in downtown Lexington, which is a bit of a mess because they restructured the whole place so it became kind of a no-man’s land. And it was so small, we nearly got ruptured every time we went passed each other around the tables.

Anna does diaries of our various visits, and that is how I even remember how we met because she’s brought it up since. He put off his visit to Nashville to see his mother to come and pick us up to spend two or three days with him.

I did a drawing down in his basement. He had all his stuff down there as well, all his light boxes and things like that. And then we went and printed in his little studio downtown. That was such a lovely thing to do that we did it for several years afterwards.

EN: How often did you come to America then?

RS: Every year. Two or three times as year sometimes.

EN: What is your favorite piece that you collaborated with him on?

RS: When we did the Lizard Lounge together, just to see the colors go down, trying to make it work. It was kind of a big thing, huge. That one to me is one of the best. People can’t quite get it when they see it on the website because it’s small, but it’s a huge f-ing thing.

A discussion on Nietzsche, art, geography and weather followed.

To discover more about Ralph Steadman visit 

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