Steinberg: ‘For a piece of bread you can hear God sing’

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Tony Fitzpatrick looks over his exhibit “The Secret Birds” at the DePaul Art Museum. | Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

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Birds do not loiter. They dart and dive, swoop and soar. Occasionally, they’ll pause at a spot, and if you’re lucky, you can steal a glance close up.

I was lucky Wednesday, crossing a bridge in Northbrook; a flash of red caught my eye. I looked up and got a good three second’s study of a scarlet tanager lingering on a branch, right in front of my nose.


Is it me, or are there more birds around Chicago this spring?

“We’ve had a solid month of rainy weather, and that’s not ideal for birds,” said James Steffen, ecologist at the Chicago Botanic Garden.

“Some springs are better than others, but it’s been pretty typical,” said Josh Engel, a research assistant at the Field Museum. “I wouldn’t say it’s different.”

OK, it’s me.

“Maybe you have more free time,” suggested Jo Fessett, of the Illinois Audubon Society.

It’s true that I’ve been in a birdish mood since I was lucky Tuesday to have Tony Fitzpatrick invite me to walk through “The Secret Birds” before the show opened Thursday night at the DePaul Art Museum. It’s the largest exhibit of the Chicago artist’s work to date, focusing on his distinctive drawings/collages of birds.


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“There are 59 birds, and in that room is DePaul’s collection of my work they already own. They have a bunch of really rare etchings,” Fitzpatrick said, his voice echoing against the white walls. “Back there they re-created stuff from my studio and more birds. I like that they put all the predators on one wall. The badasses.”

“The Goshawk and her Comets” by Tony Fitzpatrick

“The Goshawk and her Comets” by Tony Fitzpatrick

The back room had wooden birds, bird books, cast-off labels he uses in the collages around the birds, witty pieces that comment on life in Chicago and reflect Fitzpatrick’s strong sense of social justice.

I asked the obvious question.

“Why birds?”

“They’ve been around for about 100 million years, and as far as any other class of animals, they trump everything,” he replied. “You find them the middle of the Sahara Desert and Antarctica. You name it, you find them. The first bird I ever drew, when I was a little kid, my father had a heart attack and my grandmother came to live with us. Every morning she would toast a couple pieces of bread and break them all up and throw them out back for the birds. I’m one of eight kids. We never wasted food. So every morning I was up in her face about it. ‘Why are you giving our bread to the birds?’ She would lift the window, and I could hear them, hundreds of different voices. Bird song. She said, ‘For a piece of bread you can hear God sing.'”

I’ve known Tony for 20 years, at least, seen him perform in two of his plays at the Steppenwolf, and heard him read at the Poetry Foundation. But until he said the above, I never snapped to attention and thought, “I’ve got to put him in the paper.” Maybe because I figured everybody already knows Tony: he’s probably the best-known artist in Chicago, busy with his paintings, his memoirs, his acting — he was the police chief in Spike Lee’s “Chi-Raq” and his politics. If undiluted contempt could melt at a distance, then Rahm Emanuel would be a shimmering puddle long ago, thanks to Tony.

Tony Fitzpatrick

Tony Fitzpatrick

But it’s a big city, and you might not know him or his artwork, which certainly merits a visit to DePaul’s museum. The artworks are so vibrant and intense, and much is lost when they are reproduced. I’d never say the drawings are more beautiful than real birds. But they do hold still, so you can get a good look, and with the collage elements, they reward close, long examination.

Speaking of real birds. I contacted six bird groups in Illinois, wondering if there are more winged wonders flapping about this spring. Each said a polite version of “It’s the usual migration season, idiot.” But my favorite reply came from Luis Muñoz at the Chicago Ornithological Society

“Are there more birds around Chicago this spring?” I asked.

“They just had a Kirtland’s warbler at Montrose this morning,” he replied. “LaBagh Woods had two very good birds last week. A Swainson’s warbler and a Worm-eating warbler.”

My first thought was that he wasn’t answering my question. But the more I reflected on what he said, the more I realized that I wasn’t looking at enough birds, which will cure a person of excessively linear thinking.

Tony Fitzpatrick: The Secret Birds runs through Aug. 21 at the DePaul Art Museum, 935 W. Fullerton. Admission is free.

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