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Artist Ralph Steadman: A Nice Man, For A Pictorial Assassin

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Ralph Steadman is known to most Americans for the surreal illustrations he drew to accompany Hunter S. Thompson's articles and books, including Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

But Steadman has drawn everything from extinct birds to savage political caricatures to wine and beer labels. He's even written an opera libretto.

The British artist is also the subject of a documentary, titled For No Good Reason, narrated by Johnny Depp.

Such A Nice Man, Such Dangerous Drawings

Steadman's drawings are a ferocious tangle of ink blotches and lines that famously distort but also reveal their subjects. They're scary, says filmmaker Charlie Paul.

"I was concerned that Ralph's art would be the man and that I'd end up trying to make a film with someone who had this kind of aggressive attitude towards the world," Paul says. "But Ralph is such a lovely, warm and generous man, and yet he goes to his table and creates these pieces of art which are dangerous and, to be perfectly honest, quite upsetting sometimes."

That's exactly what the J.C. Suares, the art director of Scanlan's magazine, was looking for when he hired Steadman to accompany Thompson to the Kentucky Derby in 1970, says Victor Navasky, author of a history of political cartoons called The Art of Controversy.

Suares "said he treated [Steadman] with caution," Navasky says. "He treated him as if he were dealing with a hit man, a Mafia hit man, because he saw these caricatures as the equivalent of assassins."

The film tries to understand how such a nice man can become a pictorial assassin. Steadman suggests he first learned to distrust authority in childhood in response to an abusive headmaster at his school. He was ready to take on America when he arrived in 1970, during protests of the Vietnam War.

"I think America is where all that was going wrong in the world was being nurtured," Steadman says. "It seemed to me they needed attacking. It was something that absolutely had to be done."

Steadman feels his friendship and professional alliance with Thompson sharpened his attack. The title of the film even comes from one of Thompson's cryptic explanations.

"You know, we'd be doing some ridiculous thing at the Watergate hearings or something, and I'd say, 'Hunter, why are we doing this?' And he said, 'For no good reason, Ralph.' Always, 'For no good reason.' "

Organic Blotches Of Ink

Steadman's caricatures and drawings — whether of Richard Nixon or cats and dogs — don't start with a pencil sketch. He dips his brush into an inkpot and flings the black liquid onto his paper to create a formless blot to which he adds lines.

"You don't pencil in anything; you just start going and see where it leads you," he says. "It's an adventure, a little journey. Every drawing is a kind of journey. There's an organic quality that is quite potent, you know. You surprise yourself, and that's quite nice."

Filmmaker Paul tried to capture this process over the course of 13 years. He put lights and a still camera above Steadman's drawing desk.

"I set up a button so whenever Ralph went to his drawing desk to work, he'd turn the lights on and press this button and he'd take a frame of his art," Paul says. "And he'd work a bit more and again take a picture. And I'd take the work back to my studio and I would find this incredible work that Ralph had been doing in my absence in the previous weeks."

These photographs are assembled into a kind of stop-motion animation that shows the drawing progress from a blank sheet to a finished work. Steadman ultimately found the lights and camera stimulating.

"It either electrified my work or I blew a fuse, something like that," he says. "I'm sure it was electricated."

'Ripping The Guts' From The Subject

But Steadman says one thing that didn't work so well was the after-the-fact animation of some of Steadman's most famous older drawings, like the scene of Thompson's car beset by huge bats from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

"Some of the animation, rather than release anything, imprisoned the drawing," he says.

Being unconfined is a hallmark of Steadman's approach. His political cartoons regularly ripped the guts out of his subjects, Navasky writes in his book. He says Steadman's drawings target more than individuals.

"These splatters of ink somehow simultaneously express his own disconnect with the world and his satirical take on it at the same time," Navasky says.

The breadth of Steadman's career is chronicled in his new book, Proud Too Be Weirrd, a nine-pound tome of drawings and introspective text marked in part by the same latter-day anxiety he voices near the end of the film.

"Why was I ever bothered?" he asks in For No Good Reason. "Why did I ever try to change the world? But it was --" he pauses and sighs. "It was something to do, you know; change the world."

The last page of his book says "THE END" in big letters, but Steadman has crossed them out. After all, he continues to contribute drawings to the British political magazine New Statesman. He is also working on a new book of bird drawings.

He says he makes a mark every day. "Let's see, today, yes, I dropped some egg on my shirt," he says, and chuckles.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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