“Spring is sprung, the grass is riz. I wonder where the boidies is…”
It started out simply. Ceri Levy, a film-maker, inspired by the subjects of his most recent documentary, The Bird Effect, embarked on an exhibition of extinct and endangered birds, soliciting work from a number of artists, writers and musicians, including one Ralph Steadman. Asked to produce a single extinct bird illustration of his choosing, Steadman, a life-long balker of rules, created more than 100 avian masterpieces; birds of every species, including the newly ‘discovered’ Lousy Grudgian, the Humpbacked Blue Mult, and the Gob Swallow. A special room was dedicated to his illustrations for the duration of the Ghosts of Gone Birds exhibit in 2011, and in 2012, in collaboration with Ceri Levy, Extinct Boids was hatched.
There are many great things about Ralph Steadman, not least of which is the fruitfulness of his imagination. No sooner had I ordered Ralph Steadman’s Cats (to be reviewed), Extinct Boids showed up on his website, and shortly thereafter, under my Christmas tree. It’s a hefty book. The long, rectangular shape is perhaps a nod to the over-sized John James Audubon Birds of America portfolio produced in the late 1800’s, minus the field guide accuracy (and ornithological death count.) Most of the birds in this tome are extinct or endangered birds, like the Great Auk, whose last surviving member supposedly caused a great storm off the coast of Scotland and was therefore killed as a witch, but not all. Attention is also paid to the long suffering residents of Toadstool Island, accessible only by the HMS Steadmanitania, where a ‘confusion of boids’ have lived relatively unobserved, until now…
To say that this is a gorgeous book is to understate the obvious. To say that is it informative and, in equal parts, sad and joyful, is pure fact. The premise of the Ghosts of Gone Birds exhibit, which is ongoing, is to bring awareness to the conservation movement via artistic representations of extinct birds, in effect, to ‘breath back life’ into them. Steadman’s contributions to this exhibit, and especially this book, re-animates these lost avian souls to such a degree that each bird is imbued with its own narrative and quirky personality.
“I love to get to the beak of the bird. It fascinates me drawing beaks, such strong features with so much character. They define the bird’s face and give it gravitas and expression.”
Consider the stately Pallas’s Cormorant, for instance, eaten off the face of the earth by Aleut settlers on Bering Island in the late 19th century, or the Maggot Angered Sleet, ‘incandescent with rage’, believing it can camouflage itself by ‘standing stock still, closing its eyes, and imagining it has slipped from view.’ Of course, very few Steadman illustrations stand stock still. His signature spray of ink is but one of the stylist methods he employs to create a sort of visual velocity so distinctive and artistically satisfying, it has been copied by many (including me), but alas, mastered by just one.
One of my favourite boids is the Choiseul Crested Pigeon, who by name and appearance should be one of Ralph’s fanciful creations, but is an actual bird native to the Solomon Islands, now extinct. The pigeon’s lavish crown of turquoise feathers, like some sort of Aztec ceremonial headdress, is at odds with the birds’ dignified yet faraway expression, as if it has seen…and accepted its doom. Most likely, the bird fell prey to dogs and cats, like the Dodo. This is news to me; it’s not just human predation, it’s also what humans bring with them: dogs, cats, rats, and other introduced predators. You just can’t take us anywhere.
Included in Extinct Boids is the wonderfully entertaining email correspondence between Ceri Levy and Ralph as the request for a single illustration blossoms into a full-on collaboration between two affable, dedicated, and very funny men. Each illustration of a real or imaginary bird is accompanied by a short, historical blurb and a commentary by Levy, consisting almost entirely of Levy’s gob-smacked reaction to Ralph’s art and their burgeoning, if unlikely friendship. I understand. Ralph Steadman has this affect on me too. I am so in awe of his talent I have a physiological reaction to his art. A slackening of the jaw mostly, a quickening of the heart, occasionally a tear, always a laugh. I can think of no other artist who puts everything on the page at once: humour, empathy, cynicism, love, satire, anger, charm, ‘wierrdness’, and above all, exquisite, unwavering beauty.
Extinct Boids does something that most books of a conservationist bent fail to do: it makes me giggle. It is joyful. Ralph Steadman’s ‘giant thumping heart’ is at the core of this book, and while the message is serious, it is delivered with the utmost levity and warmth. Ultimately, I believe this is a more effective call to action than a soapbox, but regardless of the method, the message is the same. We must be better stewards of this planet. Also, Ralph Steadman is awesome.
Extinct Boids by Ralph Steadman with commentary by Ceri Levy. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2012
Previously reviewed: The Ralph Steadman Book of Dogs