Updated: Sep 12, 2019
When Ralph Steadman first met one of his closest friends and collaborator, Steadman was sketching the scenes of the Kentucky Derby with Revlon makeup samples.
“They said you were weird, but not that weird,” Steadman said Hunter S. Thompson, an outspoken gonzo-journalist, told him when they first met.
Steadman, a satirical cartoonist and illustrator, was using makeup as art materials because he had lost his inks.
The two met to cover the 1970 Derby for Scanlon’s Monthly. Their first collaboration was also the first instance of Gonzo journalism.
Gonzo journalism is a style of journalism where the writer inserts themselves in the story and reporting and writing is done without claims of impartialness— a style of journalism “where you do not simply cover the story but become the story,” Steadman’s biography states.
Works of Steadman’s Gonzo-style art are being shown in “Ralph Steadman: A Retrospective,” an exhibit at the University of Kentucky Art Museum until May 5.
The show is a traveling exhibition created by the Ralph Steadman Foundation, and the foundation wanted a major venue in Kentucky. The UK Art Museum typically does not feature travelling shows, but Janie Welker, curator of the UK Art Museum, and Stuart Horodner, director of the UK Art Museum, both agreed this was a show that the art museum needed to have.
“When we started really looking at it, it just really made sense for us to have it,” Welker said. “This is such a politically divisive moment in the United States and in Europe as well and so I think his work is more relevant than ever.”
Steadman’s work ranges from satirical social commentary to “wonderful, magical” children’s book illustrations; however, Steadman is most known for his cartoons commenting on the social and political climate of the times.
“He’ll take aim at anyone that he thinks is behaving badly,” Welker said.
The exhibition features Steadman’s cartoons, illustrations, collages and “artifacts” from his pieces, including some of the original Derby makeup sketches.
Steadman’s first job was as a radar operator at the de Havilland Aircraft Factory. It was here that Steadman learned technical drawing, which became a recognizable characteristic in his illustrative style. Steadman referred to mixing technical drawing with organic shapes and lines in his work as “clumsiness and refining.”
Steadman’s first cartoon was published in the Manchester Evening Chronicle in 1956.
Steadman continues to create, claiming “I wouldn’t really know what else to do,” and adding there may even be two more books in him if he tries hard enough.
Steadman said that along with his daughter, Sadie, the completion of his book I, Leonardo, a humorous biography of Leonardo da Vinci, meeting Thompson was one of his top life experiences.
Steadman and Thompson remained collaborative partners and friends until Thompson’s death by suicide in 2005.
Steadman said he knew Thompson was going to commit suicide.
“Hunter told me — when he did commit suicide, I knew it was going to happen,” Steadman said. “It was a very strange thing.”
Steadman went with Thompson to a funeral director in Los Angeles to help design the funeral. Thompson wished for his ashes to be shot out of a cannon, topped with a symbolic, Gonzo fist.
Thompson’s wishes came true, six months after his death, with a large monetary contribution from Johnny Depp, according to the UK Art Museum and various media outlets.
Approximately 250 of Thompson’s friends and family came together to watch the 153-foot, fist-topped cannon fire off at his ranch, Owl Farm, in Woody Creek, Colorado, dispersing Thompson’s ashes over the valley.
Ralph recalls trying to sketch the fist that would top the cannon. He said Thompson stopped him and said, “Two thumbs, Ralph. Two thumbs.” A Gonzo fist has two thumbs.
Steadman did eventually draw the fist in his piece, “Hunter’s Memorial,” featuring an illustration of the cannon topped with a Gonzo fist.
A print of “Hunter’s Memorial” is included in the Steadman exhibition at the UK Art Museum.
Story Written by Arden Barnes