Tony Fitzpatrick returns to College of DuPage for one last museum show, but 'it's not the end of anything'
He's a man of many trades, varied interests, disparate influences.
He grew up in an Irish-Catholic household in Lombard, an "accomplished delinquent" in his youth. He's been a boxer, bouncer, tattoo artist and bartender. He once played an ogre in a Chicago theater production.
His collages and paintings fuse his love of working people, public parks, birds, Dick Tracy comics and poetry. He's as much a visual artist as a writer.
But if there was one job, one defining experience essential to understanding Tony Fitzpatrick the Renaissance man, it might be the gig that let him kick off his shoes, light up a cigarette and answer to a boss for just four hours.
Fitzpatrick used to be a golf caddie. And a good one at that.
"I learned how to win graciously, how to lose graciously," he said. "I learned how to drink and smoke and tell a proper dirty joke."
It should be noted Fitzpatrick has never played that "silly game" in his life. But he has such fondness for his caddying days at Glen Oak Country Club near Glen Ellyn because of the personalities he met around the golf course. Guys with names you don't hear anymore. Like Marv Carney and his son, Cleve, who turned a teenage Fitzpatrick on to Picasso etchings and Hogarth.
"When I started making art seriously, he made it a point to seek me out and to find my studio," Fitzpatrick said.
He honors their friendship with his new exhibition at a museum named for Carney, the late Glen Ellyn philanthropist who supported Fitzpatrick's creative pursuits and those of so many other Chicago-area artists.
"Tony Fitzpatrick: Jesus of Western Avenue" opens Saturday at the Cleve Carney Museum of Art on the campus of the College of DuPage. Fitzpatrick insists it's his last museum show, and he's completely at peace with that.
"It's not the end of anything," he said.
'A heart of gold'
The exhibition provides a fitting bookend for Fitzpatrick.
He's a former student of the Glen Ellyn school. It's where he "righted" his compass and had instructors who encouraged a multi-hyphenated career.
Like Carney, former college president Harold McAninch left an indelible mark. As Fitzpatrick describes him, McAninch wasn't the ivory-tower type. You could level with him.
So when McAninch asked him about his future, Fitzpatrick gave an honest answer.
"I told him I didn't know whether I was going to be an actor or an artist," Fitzpatrick said. "And he goes, 'Well, hell, kid do both.' And I thought I met a genius that day."
Fitzpatrick recalled those formative years at COD during an unveiling of his murals off Main Street in downtown Glen Ellyn. The two pieces launched the DuPage Public Art Project, an initiative led by Diana Martinez, director of the college's McAninch Arts Center, to create public art and events around the county.
"He is a larger-than-life person with a heart of gold," Martinez said of Fitzpatrick.
One of his murals shows a cardinal, and the other a red-bellied woodpecker, both surrounded by an intricate collaged background. Cardinals were his mother's favorite bird.
"Like these birds, Tony Fitzpatrick has spent most of his career and life in Chicago and the greater Chicagoland area where he has also had a front-row seat to the complexities, beauty and diversity that defines this place," Cleve Carney Museum curator Justin Witte said at the mural event last month. "Tony's work reflects that experience and is unique in its deep connection to the city of Chicago and our surrounding communities."
Fitzpatrick found himself more emotional than he expected dedicating the murals "to the people of Glen Ellyn."
"I started to remember all the people who so graciously helped me out there, Cleve Carney, the people of Glen Oak, the people of College of DuPage," he said.
Fitzpatrick has reached the stage of his career where his ambition for institutional recognition "drifts away like leaves in a pond." The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art and The Art Institute of Chicago all house his works in their permanent collections.
"It's time for 62-year-old white guys to get out of the way. I've gotten mine. My career has rewarded me," Fitzpatrick said. "I'd like to make some institutional wall space for people who do not look like me. Black artists, Brown artists, Asian artists, LGBTQ artists, people who have been traditionally underrepresented."
And institutional settings, Fitzpatrick said, were never really his jam.
"That said, working with Justin Witte and Diana Martinez, they're the two best institutional people I have ever worked with, and they should give lessons in how to do that because they do it right," Fitzpatrick said. "They've been nothing but accommodating, nothing but kind, nothing but generous in spirit."
"Jesus of Western Avenue" will feature more than 60 of his works, reflecting two different ideas: the sacred and the profane, Fitzpatrick said.
"I really feel like this show makes a cumulative statement," he said.
But again, it's not the end of anything. His murals in Glen Ellyn and outside Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre emboldened Fitzpatrick to start a public art company with his studio partner, Danny Torres. More murals are in the works. He's releasing a poetry book, "The Apostles of Humboldt Park." And he'll still do gallery shows.
"If you've done anything right with your work at all, it eventually belongs to the public, and it belongs to a culture," Fitzpatrick said. "And that's kind of my new ethos, and I'm kind of hanging tough with that."
The tickets to get into his College of DuPage show? Free.
'Jesus of Western Avenue'What: Tony Fitzpatrick's final museum exhibition
Where: Cleve Carney Museum of Art on the College of DuPage campus, 425 Fawell Blvd., Glen Ellyn
When: Oct. 16, to Jan. 31, 2022. The gallery will be open Wednesdays through Sundays from noon to 6 p.m.
Admission: Free; Timed tickets are required for entry. To reserve a free ticket, visit theccma.org.