“Tony Fitzpatrick” sketch by Dmitry SamarovAnybody who has been involved in Chicago’s creative scene for a length of time has crossed paths with Tony Fitzpatrick. I remember his World Tattoo Gallery on South Wabash from when I was a painting student at SAIC in the early ’90s. It was a large space in an area of town that was sparsely inhabited at the time. If I’d had any concept of the art world and the way it worked, it might’ve behooved me to spend more time there to learn a bit about working artists and the ins and outs of conducting a career after school. I didn’t. The concept of an artist making a living off his work seemed but a pipe dream. Instead of making a go of it, I moved back to Boston with my BFA and got behind the wheel of a cab.
Tony maintained a storefront studio on Damen Avenue in Bucktown for many years. It was on one of my regular circuits around the city, so occasionally he’d flag me off the street. I knew who he was, of course, but it’s never been my way to break the ice with strangers—especially well-known ones. The rides would pass in silence, but he always tipped extravagantly. Sometime in 2007, I picked him up on Damen and introduced myself. It wasn’t that I’d suddenly become outgoing, but that we now had a friend in common: Kelly Hogan. It’s much easier for me to start a conversation when there’s some bit of pretext for it. Tony has never had that problem. He asked what I did and said he’d look at my website. Many people make promises in the art world, but it doesn’t take most of us long to find out what those promises are worth. So when Tony called a day or two later with praise for my work—and an offer to buy one of my drawings—I was floored.
“Alley” charcoal drawing by Dmitry Samarov
The piece he wanted was long gone, but he wrote out a check for $500, saying, “Will you draw me another one like it, pal?” Not long after that, he was calling for cab rides regularly. Life around Tony was rarely dull. A parade of collectors, assistants, fans, enemies, suck-ups, and celebrities shuttled through his front door. And Tony was always at his drawing table, gluing bits of cut-up old matchbooks to make a new drawing-collage, blasting Steve Earle at deafening decibels. He thrived on all that noise, and he was always busy. There was always a new show to get ready for, a book to publish, a research trip to make. He employed a crew of young artists to help him meet the deadlines he set for himself. I’d drive many of them on errands around the city when I wasn’t transporting the man himself to a dinner, an art opening, or home. Dinner with Tony was often quite an event. He had his favorite spots: Avec, Blackbird, Keefer’s, then later, The Publican and Big Star. All the places he went were run by friends, and he was greeted warmly on arrival. He’d walk in and always know a half dozen diners as well. I’ve never known anyone better suited to being the center of attention. As someone who has taken great pains to avoid just such situations, it was quite an education.
collage by Tony Fitzpatrick
Artists as rule aren’t the most outgoing types, and that reluctance to engage with people is what so often prevents us from making a living by our work. Selling artwork is a nebulous enterprise on a good day. It’s a transaction in which what’s being sold is not of any obvious necessity to the buyer. What collectors so often want is some piece of the artist himself to have as their own. The whole process has repulsed me for as long as I’ve been making art. To hear Tony tell visitors why they need to buy one of his pieces was fascinating. It’s one thing to be sure of what one does; it’s quite another to tell others that it is so. Tony’s conversations were nonstop hustles—they would continue out of the studio and into the restaurant. There were other lessons as well, chief among them the importance of a mailing list to keep potential buyers’ eyes on new work as it was completed. Tony was always talking about taking the reins of one’s own career, about not letting the gatekeepers and tastemakers dictate the terms. I’d pretty much walked away from the art world, but his words were a way back in—a way to participate without feeling that I’d compromised my humanity in doing so. I’ve never made work for any peer’s approval, and that’s insured my continued employment in the service industry. But here was a person who didn’t seem to suck up to people—but was still successful. There was something to be learned there.
“The Devil’s Handshake” collage-drawing by Tony Fitzpatrick
Tony included my work in several group shows at the studio. After the openings—most of which I’d spend outside chain-smoking American Spirits rather than attempting to chat up potential buyers—he’d get frustrated with me. He expected those around him to do as he did, but I was temperamentally incapable of doing so. He stopped including me after a time, and I didn’t really blame him. The thing about making art is that in the end we all have to do it our own way. This goes for marketing it as well. We can’t force ourselves to do what is against our nature.
After some two years of seeing the man most every day, there was suddenly a change in his routine. Tony changed studio managers, and the new guy had a car; my services were no longer needed on a regular basis. There was still the occasional run to Portillo’s for a dozen Italian Beefs for the whole crew, but the days of daily rides were over. He also converted the studio on Damen into a gallery and started working more from home. We didn’t see each other much anymore. There’s a reason that I’ve chosen cabdriving for a day job: my patience for bosses and co-workers is very thin. It’s a wonder then that Tony and I got along for as long as we did. In fact, we still get along. I visited him at home two weeks ago to thank him for the generous quote he provided for the back of my book. He showed me a suite of his new etchings. We had a good talk.
“Mr. Chooch” etching by Tony Fitzpatrick
It’s rare that an artist is gracious and giving to other artists. Often, our world is an arena filled with outsized egos, malicious backstabbers, and piddling beefs. Tony certainly doesn’t lack for ego, but he’s done me many a solid throughout our acquaintance, and I know I’m hardly alone. He is unlike anyone else I’ve run into in my meanderings around Chicago, and it’s an honor to count him as a friend.