Interview – Raoul Deleo

Once upon a time I went to Rotterdam. While I was there, I made a visit to a crazy little natural history museum, because I love natural history museums. This one, in comparison to the one that is in London is tiny. The downstairs was filled with the usual things you would expect to find in such as establishment… questionable taxidermy, things in jars, a display on the impacts of humans on the world. Some bones and the likes. Upstairs however, I was completely transported into a world that was completely enveloping and I was instantly in love. This was a world created by Raoul Deleo. Adorning the walls were paintings of bizarre animals that looks familiar and peculiar all at once. I was totally mesmerised in the detail and style of the work. Once back in my hotel room I sat and wrote a brief article about what I had seen as I didn’t want to forget it. Imagine my surprise when the artist contacted me to tell me that he liked my article, but also to tell me that I had spelt the name of the piece incorrectly! I was elated and totally embarrassed in the same moment. Since then, I have followed Deleo with great interest, and I was absolutely overjoyed when he agreed to answer some questions for me.

As ever, before I dive into talking about his work, let’s hear from Deleo himself.

Your work is so fantastical, how did you start on your amazing adventures with these creative creatures and where do you draw your inspirations from?

It all started decades ago when I came across an article in the Daily Discoverer.  The article mentioned the salvation of an old ship of the Dutch East India Company (V.O.C.). The ship, named the ‘Postiljon’, had gone lost more than 400 years ago, but never sank but roamed the oceans ever since without its Captain (Gilles Jansz) or it’s crew. In it’s hold appeared to be a huge collection of drawings and collected specimen witnessing the discovery of an immense continent named ‘Terra Ultima’. When I saw copies of the elaborated illustrations, I was baffled. They revealed a fascinating wildlife reminiscent of animals we know, yet very different. From that moment on I was hooked. I needed to find all there was to know about this continent. And, if possible, trace back the exact location. It took me nine years of extensive research in museums and (mostly private) libraries, but in the end I succeeded.  My expeditions to this vast and unexplored continent and my encounters with the unimaginably rich flora and fauna continue to generate an overwhelming flow of inspiration for me.

You have done many collaborations and won awards, what is your proudest moment to date?

Without any doubt it is the moment I first set foot on Terra Ultima! When I planted my feet in the wet sands of Elephant beach and realised that I finally found the continent, four centuries after captain Gilles Jansz and his crew, my chest felt about to explode.  I must admit that, after all these years, I was starting to doubt the very existence of the continent myself. 

You have worked on some diverse projects – what has been the hardest thing that you have been asked to create?

I’m sorry, but again it is related to Terra Ultima. The book I was asked to compile about my discovery and exploration of Terra Ultima was quite an Odyssey.  When people observe my art, they do not expect me to be chaotic or inefficient, but the truth is that I very much am.  I am extremely bad at organising and keeping an overview of what I do and have done. I lose myself in detail and the here and now. In my art that might be my strength, but when making a book about my expeditions to Terra Ultima, I found it to be quite the opposite. So I asked an archivist and colleague explorer Noah J. Stern to compile a book of all the objects, drawings and logs I found, sketched, painted and wrote during my expeditions. He received five sea chests cramped with materials.  Still, the perfectionist I am, it was hard to restrain myself and leave Stern to the task. I’m very happy with the result, but it was quite a struggle for me.

Terra Ultima is my absolute favourite of your projects as it is so well
created and thought out – what is your process for creating such a complex and detailed other world?

That is so nice to hear. I found out that, for me, the best things in life are not intentionally created but mostly stumbled upon. I try and trust to let nature (in me and around me) have it’s way. The article in the Daily Discoverer planted a powerful seed. I could not resist it’s need to grow. The urging vitality of the idea that there could be another continent, a new world, an unexplored reality, took command over me. From that point in time it all slowly, day by day, evolved without a strict plan.

You have a book coming out of Terra Ultima in April, but at the moment it will only be available in Dutch, are there plans in the future to extend this to other languages? Are you planning to bring any other of your projects out on general release moving forwards?

You are right, the book will be, for now, only available in the Dutch language. But there are certainly plans to extend it to other languages. Some translations have been confirmed already, but unfortunately I cannot yet reveal which. As I said I’m more of a “here and now” person. My plans for the future are short term and often short lived.

The book will be available on the 20th April 2021.

What is coming up next in your pipeline? Do you have something that you really want to undertake in the future?

There were plans for an exhibition of my (new) Terra Ultima findings simultaneously with the release of my book. However, the current situation is not very favourable. Maybe, when things change within a few months, this idea can still carry through. Besides that, I really look forward to my next expedition to Terra Ultima. It has been too long since my last journey to the continent. There is so much that needs to be explored, researched and that I cannot wait to share.

Swirling Swan Snake 2020

I can’t express, how excited I was when I received the answers from Deleo, he is such a genuinely nice person, and it is so easy to feel part of his world when you read the answers and see his work.

One of my absolute favourite pieces of the Terra UItima world is the Pallid Octopossum (Octopossum Luecostolum)…

How cute is this guy? What never ceases to surprise me is how completely thought out Deleo’s work is. Take the name for example. Pallid – meaning pale, but also lacking in vigour which links to the sloth element of this creation.

The creature itself, appears to be a combination of a sloth, an octopus, an echidna or anteater (literally for the mouth and tongue – your guess is as good as mine) and a possum. I feel that octopus part is fairly obvious, the sloth traits come from the head, mixed with the possum for the ears (both enjoying a life in trees). I love how Deleo has created the texture of the fur in a direct juxtaposition of the tentacle suckers which also contrast the bark of the tree. You can feel the shy nature of the creature and easily imagine the way it moves. You are also treated to an insight into the way it eats and its diet with a small bird moth and a worm like tongue sneaking out of its mouth to capture it.

This work, harks back to the explorers from the expedition age, who would bring home documentation of creatures from far off lands which felt totally unbelievable. Can you image the first person who came back to England and tried to describe a giraffe for the first time? People must have thought that they were completely crazy. Deleo injects that excitement and wonder back into life with Terra Ultima.

For me this is a truly complete example of imaginative illustration and at its absolute finest. This picture leaves me with no questions and just makes me feel happy and intrigued which is what good art should make you do – it should leave you with an emotion and a want.

You can see more of Deleo’s work here, I really recommend viewing more than just the Terra Ultima project (I particularly like “That Damn Day”).

His book will be available in Dutch from the 20th April 2021 and can be reserved online (just search Terra Ultima, the discovery of an unknown continent”.

What do you think of Deleo’s work? Why not tell me in the comments? Like this post? Why not share it?


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