Clip: Tony Fitzpatrick's magical remembrances of his dad's city
Fitzpatrick's magical remembrances of his dad's city
May 14, 2006
BY MARK ATHITAKIS
Tony Fitzpatrick is a well-known Chicago artist, but for many years he
was probably most familiar for being the kind of guy you had a hard
time pinning down. In his many lives he has been a boxer, a bouncer, a
radio host, and an actor. But the first two volumes of his series of
books, The Wonder: Portraits of a Remembered City, shows that he is
finally settling into a niche -- as an artist, for the better part of
a decade he has worked almost exclusively at being his father's son.
Fitzpatrick, 47, grew up on the South Side, on the edge of Marquette
Park, near 72nd and Racine, before his family (he is one of eight
children) moved to the west suburbs. His father, James, sold burial
vaults, and growing up Tony would often tag along on his routes,
looking for excuses to getting out of school so he could explore the
city. "My map posts for the city were funeral homes," he says,
speaking in his Bucktown studio, whose walls are covered in
bookshelves, concert posters, White Sox pennants, and pinups. "My dad
covered the whole city. He had a story. And it stuck in my brain for
The Wonder is a continuing chronicle of the Chicago Fitzpatrick
inherited from his father. (The first volume was published last year
by La Luz de Jesus Press/Last Gasp Press; the $26.95 follow-up,
subtitled The Dream, appeared this month.) By the late 1990s
Fitzpatrick had established a successful career -- he ran the popular
World Tattoo Gallery in the south Loop, claims famous fans like
Jonathan Demme and Lou Reed, and painted record covers for musicians
such as the Neville Brothers and Steve Earle. But in 1997, when James
Fitzpatrick fell ill -- he died a year later from skin cancer -- his
son scaled back his obligations to be with him. His art shifted
accordingly, and he began working on the works that would become The
"He had a box full of matchbooks, gambling slips, old Lotto tickets,
just ephemera," Fitzpatrick says. "A month before my dad died, I made
these kind of memory objects to show him. It was all made of his
stuff." The pieces are similar in general form if not content,
combining drawings and paintings along with those bits of his father's
life. Generally, a large central image like a flower, a dog, a dancer,
or a moth, is surrounded by smaller pieces like a matchbook cover for
a long-gone South Side lounge, playing cards, notes cut out of sheet
And, not unimportantly, words. Brief poems are embedded in many of the
pieces, built on punchy observations about the ignored or unnoticed
denizens of the city -- a Chicago Republican ("lonely as the last
stolen vote"), a waitress ("change jingles in her pocket like keys to
a tiny jail"), a spider on a skyscraper ("whirling over the magic
streets like the smallest acrobat of an eternal and radiant bigtop").
The pieces are more abstracted remembrances of his father's Chicago
than clear memoirs, though occasionally he'll focus on a specific
experience. One of the earliest pieces in the series, "White Flowers,"
includes the ticket stub from a Sox game, with a handwritten caption
reading, "Dad -- last night I went to Comiskey and remembered you.
Cheering for Luke Appling and Nellie Fox; under the stars -- rounding
3rd -- you held your son's hand."
Fitzpatrick argues that the works in The Wonder are written as much as
they're painted. "If you ask me who my biggest influences are as an
artist, I'll tell you," Fitzpatrick says. "Carl Sandburg, Studs
Terkel, and Mike Royko. I don't think any of them ever painted a
picture. Octavio Paz, Anne Sexton, Pablo Neruda -- those are the
voices I hear."
Fitzpatrick's interest in connecting art, poetry, and his father's
memory was crystallized in Bum Town, a haunting 1999 book of poems
paired with etchings and graphite drawings. Together the words and
images called up old Sox lineups, boxing matches, Richard J. Daley's
reign, and trips in his father's Oldsmobile. But though that book and
the two volumes of The Wonder are essentially elegies for his father,
their mood of the books is consistently positive. Fitzpatrick uses the
words "dream" and "magic" regularly in conversation and in his writing
-- the new volume of The Wonder is subtitled "The Dream City" -- and
his nighttime imagery, full of constellations and luminescent moths,
emphasizes the breadth of the city sky and busy clubs instead of
bleakness and dark alleys.
"Every time I teach Chicago writers, I teach Bum Town," says Bill
Savage, a Northwestern English professor who specializes in Chicago
literature, and who is writing the introduction to the upcoming third
volume of The Wonder. As far as Fitzpatrick's optimism goes, Savage
lays out a spectrum that moves from local writers from the grimmest
(Richard Wright) to James T. Farrell to Algren and ultimately to
Fitzpatrick. "Tony moves on the other side of [Algren]," Savage says.
"Yes, he sees what's wrong with the city, how the city demonized
people. But he also sees the natural beauty of the place. He doesn't
deny the night, but he's looking at the day."
The first two volumes of The Wonder include about 30 images each;
Fitzpatrick says the third, which is still in progress, will have
about 50. The mood of the third book, he says, is "more mythic" --
more removed from the hardscrabble tone that defines a lot of Chicago
writing. Part of the inspiration for that shift is reflected in his
experience watching the Sox win the World Series on TV last fall,
where the broadcaster ignorantly expounded about proud, working-class
South Siders toiling in the stockyards. "Who are all these people
working in these slaughterhouses?" he recalls saying. "The
slaughterhouses closed when I was 12 years old!"
"There's an old Chicago that I kind of wish would go away," he says.
"It's the old Chicago of dross and heartbreak and steel mills and
railroad tracks and slaughterhouses. There's also a magical Chicago,
and that's the one I want shine a light on."