Ralph Steadman wants to show me his birds.
The drawings are all around him. From his office in Kent, England, the famed artist—known for his collaborations with gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson—holds painting after painting up to his webcam. An eagle on its nest. Several species of vulture. A recent drawing of an American crow prepared for Audubon magazine. An owl, chickens, more vultures. Some of the artwork is brand-new. Other images date back decades.
Almost each time Steadman pulls another painting from his drawers, filmmaker and conservationist Ceri Levy—joining us via Skype from his own office outside London—exclaims “I’ve never seen that one! I’ve never seen that one! I would have put that one in the book!”
The book he’s talking about is a massive new hardcover called “Nextinction” (Bloomsbury), Steadman’s and Levy’s second team-up on behalf of the world’s endangered birds. The first volume, “Extinct Boids,” looked at birds we’ve already lost, along with more fanciful, fictional boids that never existed except out of the splashes of Steadman’s brushes.
The latest volume, which hit the shelves last month, points Steadman’s canvas and Levy’s keyboard toward the critters we’ve come close to losing but which could be saved if we try hard enough. It contains nearly 200 drawings of endangered or critically endangered species ranging from the kakapo to the California condor to the forest owlet (plus a few more fictional boids to help round things out).
A portion of the proceeds from the sale of each book benefits BirdLife International’s Preventing Extinctions program.
Despite their heady topics, the two books are much, much funnier than you’d expect. Every image is full of sight gags; the text pages that accompany them often take the jokes further while sending serious conservation messages. “It makes people notice if you can make them laugh,” Steadman says between bouts of mimicking the magpies that walk along the fence outside his kitchen window each morning. “You get people’s attention that way.”
Levy—a filmmaker and conservationist—agrees. “You can message people much easier when they’re laughing and smiling,” he says. “Ultimately we’re trying to get them to say the words ‘I had no idea.’ Because once they say those words, that means they have an idea. Then they’re mentally at a crossroads.” He says the humor helps point readers, who may have never considered conservation issues, toward a new way of viewing the world. “That’s all you’re trying to do, bring them to the table,” he says—just before Steadman makes a joke and Levy nearly spits his tea all over his computer.
The teasing is not an isolated occurrence. As we talk, the two of them gently mock each other with banter that sounds like a cross between an old married couple and a 1940s comedy duo. New ideas and puns bounce around and Levy dutifully jots down the best of them.
That’s an essential part of the process. The conversations they’ve been having for the past four and a half years form the basis of the text for much of the two books. Levy details their email, phone and Skype conversations that led up to and followed each painting, while then describing each creature that Steadman has painted. It’s a unique format, one that celebrates the art, tells a story, captures the Levy-Steadman banter, and educates the reader about the endangered birds and the threats they face.
I asked Steadman about the kind of impact he hopes the books will make. “Well, if you hold it and drop it and it hits the ground, the impact is a hell of a bang!”
Levy has a slightly different take. “With the first book, that was about all the birds we’ve lost,” he says. “Now it’s the ones we can save. These birds have stories worth telling and that we can still do something about. It’s a positive book.”
He’s been on the front lines himself, traveling the world for a new documentary about how people relate to birds. Along the way Levy’s seen species-saving conservation efforts at work first-hand.
He’s also been to less positive places, such as Malta, where he has traveled the past five years to help stop the island’s rampant hunting of birds, a horror show that threatens dozens of species. He hasn’t always been welcome. “I’ve been shot at and attacked,” he admits without blinking an eye.
It’s one of the rare serious moments in our conversation.
The discussion of today’s hunting plight sends Steadman looking back in time. “There’s an old Punch magazine cartoon from the 1930s,” he recalls. “‘Fetch me my gun, my dear, there’s a rare bird on the lawn!’ They realized then what a silly, fatuous thing it was to do, going out and killing rare birds.”
Returning to the present, I ask the duo about their favorite birds from the two books. Steadman picks one of the first fictional boids that dripped from his pen, an odd little disapproving busy-body called the Needless Smut. “That’s still the funniest bird,” he says.
As for Levy, he’s fond of the sociable lapwing, one of BirdLife’s core Preventing Extinction species. “To me it’s a very important bird because it has taken me around the world a bit. I went to Kazakhstan and saw the work that was being put in place to try to save it from extinction. I’ve been so engrossed in its story and what’s happened with it. It really resonated with me.” (Steadman, for his part, also created a boid called the unsociable lapwing, which is not quite as inviting.)
Steadman and Levy are already hard at work on their next book, which will move away from the bird kingdom into other endangered species. “I just drew a rhino, which I hear are critically extinct,” the artist says. “I’m doing them life-sized this time.” I’m not sure whether or not to believe him.
With that, he starts holding up more bird drawings to his webcam, one after another in rapid-fire pace. He has bad news as he flips through them: “That one’s extinct,” he says. “That’s extinct. That’s extinct.”
Alas, this time he’s not kidding.
Photos courtesy of Ralph Steadman and Bloomsbury Publishing PLC