What began as a potential epic fail for SXSW quickly turned out to be one of the best conversations of the fest so far.
Seemingly at the last moment, with hundreds of fans already queued, news arrived in bits and pieces that the iconic artist Ralph Steadman had cancelled. What was slated to be an on-site appearance suddenly morphed into a flawless Skype video confab between moderator Doug Brinkley, Steadman's For No Good Reason doc director Charlie Paul, and Steadman himself. The end result turned out to be the best and most revelatory conversation with Steadman possible.
The artist, avuncular and eager to talk all things Hunter S. Thompson, invited the audience, via Skype, to watch him work in real time. Resembling one of his own India-inked splatter portraits, with his tangle of white hair spilling out of a Greek fisherman's cap, Steadman came off as a pleasingly eccentric and wryly humorous link to Thompson's equally gonzo literary career, the ultra-politicized times of the Nixon era, and, above all, a cheery master who encouraged the parents in the room to help their offsprings' budding artistic talents.
Speaking of his early relationship to Thompson, Steadman recalled:
"I was kind of viewed, I think, as poor dog that you put a lead on and take him around, you know? But that was how it worked [between Thompson] and me, and I can't imagine it working any other way. It wasn't an editorial decision [via Jan Wenner's Rolling Stone magazine], it was more like, let's take this thing and make it practically unpublishable. That was the way we thought it should be, and in a way, we failed miserably because people liked gonzo and what we did."
On Jackson Pollack and the drip method of painting, Steadman said there was no connection. In fact, Steadman insisted, "He got that from me!" Whereupon he proceeded to create a brand-new work of art live from the UK. And on William S. Burroughs: "A gentleman, a great chap.
"They [Thompson, Burroughs, et al.] live within their work. I mean, that's where they reside. But as people there was such gentleness."
On which city he would choose were he moving to the U.S.: "Santa Fe, I think, because I'd like to go meet the Indian who sold me this" – holding up a scruffily aged Native American necklace – "for $14! I bought that off him and would just like to say hi and thank you. This has protected me from evil spirits all of my life."
The Skyped Steadman, more so than if he had actually been able to fly out to Austin, provided a thousand-and-one ways, and saucy comments, to view his singular artwork. Somewhere, Hunter S. Thompson's spirit guide is laughing his ass off … and Ralph Steadman wouldn't have it any other way.
Keep up with all our dispatches from SXSW at austinchronicle.com/sxsw.
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