Ceri Levy tells us how ‘Critical Critters‘, his latest book collaboration with the artist Ralph Steadman, came into being
Two years is a long time to gestate. Elephants take 22 months to give birth and our latest book, Critical Critters, has taken a fraction longer than that. But it’s done and Ralph and I have finished our tour of the endangered animals of the world. It’s been a chastening adventure and the constant decimation of our planet’s wildlife and habitat is particularly saddening. There is a multitude of people who are working extremely hard on behalf of so many desperate creatures and with each positive action they change the status quo. But more people are perpetually needed to aid the workforce.
We didn’t quite know where to start when we decided to write a third book after Extinct Boids and Nextinction but we knew we fancied the idea of completing a trilogy together, which we would call The Thrillogy Trilogy, for no good reason. We decided to move away from birds and chose the subject of animals that are facing immediate hardship. We looked at mammals, trawled the seas, explored rocky outcrops, examined bugs and went in search of troubled critters. Critical Critters if you will. And that became our working title and we sought a way in to the project. Ralph was concerned about how to draw the creatures, for as he said, “Birds are easy. You can bung a beak on anything!” Then one day in his studio, he accidentally spilt the leftover container of dirty water he uses to clean his brushes, all over a sheet of paper, which was lying on the floor. At first annoyed, he became fascinated as the mucky greenish-blue inky mess spread all over the sheet. He decided to let it dry over night. The next morning he showed it to me on Skype and we started to see shapes in it much like a Rorschach inkblot. I said it looked aquatic and he asked what should we draw in it and I replied, “The sea-dwelling, endangered Humphead Wrasse,” and with that our journey truly began. Day after day Ralph would throw splattered dirty water onto paper, and we would determine the next critter to come into view and I termed this method as the Ralphschach Technique.
Our world began with dirty water and Ralph’s art reflected this reality as creatures began to step out and greet us from his very own brand of evolutionary water. This gave us both the impetus to tackle the gargantuan task of telling their stories and to try and explain just why so much of our wildlife is threatened. Without that accident at the studio we may still be staring at blank paper. Picasso had his Blue, Rose and Cubist Periods. This is Ralph’s Dirty Water Period.
At one point we invited the famous Norwegian crittologist and art critteric Bent Girders over to the studio, to appraise the work we had been doing. I will leave the last thoughts to him. This is an extract from an article he wrote for the latest issue of his very own arts and nature magazine enDanger:
This is animal magic at work, conjured up by a sorcerer of art. I look across the room at the drying paper and marvel at the inventiveness – from the painter’s very own wastewater, if you’ll pardon the expression, comes life. The critter world should be thankful to have such a champion of filth in their corner and I predict that this collection of critical critters will prove to be the filthiest book ever made.
Critical Critters is published by Bloomsbury and is out on 27 July.
Ceri & Ralph will be launching the book with a talk, Q&A and signing at Rough Trade East on Thursday 20 July. Info here.
Ceri will also be joining us at Port Eliot this year, talking Critter business with Pete Fowler on the Saturday afternoon. See our full lineup here.