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

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

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

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The artist Ralph Steadman is known to most Americans for his surreal and dark illustrations. He drew pictures to accompany Hunter S. Thompson's articles and books, most famously "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas." Steadman has drawn everything from extinct birds to savage political caricatures to wine and beer labels. Now he's the subject of a new documentary called "For No Good Reason." Pat Dowell has more.

PAT DOWELL, BYLINE: Ralph Steadman's drawings are a ferocious tangle of ink blotches and lines that famously distort but also reveal their subjects. They're scary, says film maker Charlie Paul.

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 toward the world. 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.

DOWELL: That's exactly what the art director of Scanlan's Magazine was looking for when he hired Steadman to accompany Hunter Thompson to the Kentucky Derby in 1970, says Victor Navasky. He wrote a history of political cartoons called "The Art of Controversy."

VICTOR NAVASKY: He said he treated him with caution. He treated him as if he were dealing with a hit man - a Mafia hit man 'cause he saw of these caricatures as the equivalent of assassins.

DOWELL: The new 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.

RALPH STEADMAN: I think America is where all that was going wrong in the world was being nurtured.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: If anything, before the election, we're going to bomb more. Believe me.

STEADMAN: It seemed to me, they needed attacking. It was something that absolutely had to be done.

DOWELL: Steadman feels his friendship and professional alliance with Hunter S. Thompson sharpened his attack, and the title of the film comes from one of Thompson's cryptic explanations.

STEADMAN: You know, to be doing some ridiculous thing at the Watergate hearings or something, I'd say, Hunter, why are we doing this? And he'd say for no good reason, Ralph, always, for no good reason.

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

STEADMAN: You don't pencil in making it, you just start going and see where it leads you. 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.

DOWELL: Film maker, Charlie Paul, tried the capture this process over the course of 13 years. He put lights and a camera above Steadman's drawing desk.

PAUL: 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. 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 his incredible work that Ralph had been doing in my absence in the previous weeks.

DOWELL: These still 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.

STEADMAN: It either electrified my work or I blew a fuse. Something like that. I'm sure it was electrocuted.

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

STEADMAN: Some of the animation, rather than release anything, imprisoned the drawing.

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

NAVASKY: These splatters of ink somehow simultaneously express his own disconnect with the world and his satirical take on it at the same time.

DOWELL: The breadth of Ralph Steadman's career is chronicled in his new book, "Proud to be Weird," a nine pound tome of drawings and introspective texts marked in part by the same latter day anxiety he voices near the end of the film.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "FOR NO GOOD REASON")

STEADMAN: Why was I ever bothered? Why did I ever try to change the world? But it was - it was something to do, you know, change the world.

DOWELL: The last page of his book says the end in big letters, but Ralph Steadman's crossed them out. After all, he continues to contribute drawings to the British political magazine, New Statesman. He's working on a new book of bird drawings. He says he makes a mark every day, even on the day I talked to him.

STEADMAN: Let's see. Today, yes, I dropped some egg on my shirt.

DOWELL: For NPR News, this is Pat Dowell.

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