SOMETIMES IT takes a prominent visiting writer or artist — from de Tocqueville to, say, Bono — to serve up a storyteller’s view of the United States that is one shot of awed wonder and two shots of bracing honesty. Along that continuum of colorful outsider perspectives sits Ralph Steadman, that savage ink-slinging satirist from Kent who depicts the land of the free as a minefield of bullies and blowhards and presidents, not necessarily in that order and not without some redundancy.
Steadman is the British/Welsh illustrator best known to the American masses as the journalistic “gonzo” accomplice of Hunter S. Thompson. While Thompson’s altered-state takedowns often skewered his homeland — including the bourbon-soaked Kentucky Derby “gentry” of his old Kentucky home for Scanlan’s Monthly — Steadman provided the gorgeously grotesque art. While they lived alongside the purposefully trippy prose, his images retained their own critical distance of the gimlet-eyed foreign tourist satirizing the trappings and illusions of the American Dream. They still reflect the resonant reason “Breaking Bad” creator Vince Gilligan calls Steadman “the Walter White of artists” whose “dark genius” — including his graphic knack for exposing us to raw, visceral truths — is “disturbing.”
“I was the innocent abroad,” Steadman says of that inaugural Louisville teaming with Thompson in 1970 that kicked off years of fruitful, sometimes fractious collaborations, including their tales of “Fear and Loathing,” from Vegas to Washington, as published in Rolling Stone. Yet even the year before that, Steadman had cast his skewed view toward the United States in a profanely flatulent take on President Richard Nixon.
Sitting a stone’s throw from the White House not long before Independence Day, the visiting Steadman reflects on Nixon — on what fun the president was to caricature, including for Thompson’s dispatches that were collected as “Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72.”
Steadman then pivots to the present day, drawing a comparison to President Trump. “With Nixon, he was at least a politician,” says Steadman, letting his words hang in the air like a satiric word balloon.
The rock-star illustrator’s renderings of Nixon and Trump are rightly included in an exquisite exhibit titled “Ralph Steadman: A Retrospective,” originally curated by the Cartoon Museum in London and now on view at the American University Museum’s Katzen Arts Center through Aug. 12.
For all Steadman’s fame due to his wild “gonzo” work, though — and for all the boozy, white-knuckle fun he had riding with Thompson — no project has quite so engaged him as his undertaking in the early ’80s, when he says he indulged his obsession with another artist enchanted by flight: da Vinci.
“That’s why I called the book ‘I, Leonardo,’ “ Steadman says of his 1983 masterwork, while sitting in a historic Washington hotel shortly before tea time during this trip far from his Kent countryside studio. “I needed to become him.”
Included in the touring show at the Katzen is Steadman’s “My dream is to be a great bird . . .,” an engrossing monochromatic illustration. In the dynamic artwork, a wild-maned Leonardo, his hands clutching makeshift wings, hurtles down a hillside as if wishing to slip not only the surly bonds of earth, but also the mudbound terrestrial tones with which he is painted.
By dint of these gritty tints, Steadman has effectively cast Leonardo’s dream as a fruitless pursuit of flapping, the Italian inventor doomed never to soar into clean white skies. Yet Steadman’s lively lines also celebrate the kinetic spark of madness that lights such genius imagination.
It is rather easy to look at Steadman, a glint of creative abandon sparkling behind his black-rim glasses, and realize why he so identified with da Vinci for that project — “going Method” by hurtling himself into his obsession as if dreaming to become the great Renaissance forebear, even painting his own take of “The Last Supper” on his bedroom wall and constructing his own da Vinci-inspired device.
A visitor to the Katzen, too, can stare at da Vinci-themed originals and see that Steadman — who was by then drawing and painting at the peak of his powers — finds his own sublime elevation through the act of illustration.
Shortly before the recent opening reception for the exhibit — where beer drinkers clutched bottle labels adorned with some of Steadman’s wild flying beasts — the artist drifted back to a launch point of his estimable career.
Growing up, “I designed my own model airplanes. I wanted to be an aircraft engineer and build my own designs,” says Steadman, who was born in 1936 in Wallasey, near Liverpool, in England, and notes his family had to hunker down in shelters and sometimes relocate during the air raids of the Blitz. Planes fired his imagination, but ultimately, engineering did not; he studied technical drawing, but the demands of factory-life designs, he says, were deadly dull.
So he set off on a career in cartooning and illustration, gravitating toward gigs that let him make a statement. “What’s the point,” he says, “if you don’t say something in your art?” Good cartooning, he likes to say, should live on the edge.
The new retrospective tracks his creative takeoff, as his lines became looser and his art increasingly radiated with the energy of burning-hot ideas. During the turbulent ’60s, Steadman’s pen also discovered confident ways to unleash his anger at those in power, as he began to cement his personal identity as an artistic assassin.
Raised as a sensitive choirboy in Wales, young Steadman endured a brutal school headmaster, an experience he says began to spark his hatred of bullies and his distrust of authority. That feeling made Steadman an ideal stylistic match for Thompson during the Watergate and Vietnam era. In the ’70s, Steadman increasingly slung his brushes like a weapon — and flung his right painting wrist in spontaneous barrages — the ink fittingly hitting like concussive sprays of shrapnel.
The artist and writer remained friends till the end. Thompson killed himself in 2005, and that summer, Steadman created the illustration “Hunter’s Memorial,” depicting how Thompson chose to go out: His ashes fired into the Colorado sky from a 150-foot-plus cannon topped by the figure of an immense raised fist.
Steadman pauses to think about another traveling storyteller who possessed something of a “gonzo” persona — and who also committed suicide in his 60s.
“About this time last year, he came to my town, and we went down to my local pub,” Steadman says of his visit from “Parts Unknown” TV host Anthony Bourdain, who died last month. “They set up for us — to have a little lunch — and it was filmed. We shared pies, and . . . the time we spent together was jolly. He was really looking forward to what they would [serve].”
Steadman pauses. “There wasn’t a sign of anything troubling him.”
Steadman — who created the cover art for Bourdain’s 2016 cookbook “Appetites” — could relate to the chef’s creative curiosity. Steadman’s approach to art is forever changing, shifting, as fluid as the “dirty water” from his brush jars he now puts onto paper, looking for inspiration — for elevation — in the wet works.
“I’m not in control, so it surprises me,” Steadman says. “It helps me to become creative.”
Steadman smiles a warm smile, eyes dancing, conveying a look of sly playfulness that sits somewhere between Anthony Hopkins and Pablo Picasso. He knows the spontaneous interplay with his media and tools — whether splashing his cleaning-jar water or blowing blasts of saturated-color ink from a mouth atomizer — helps tease out his artistic inspiration.
“That’s nature,” Steadman says of his process of the brush leading the mind. “You’ve just got to get yourself somewhere.”
Ralph Steadman: A Retrospective Through Aug. 12 at the American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center, 4400 Massachusetts Ave. NW. Free. american.edu/cas/museum.