Tony Fitzpatrick: Shapechanger

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My journalistic credo is borrowed from the theater world: dont steal focus. As an interviewer, Im a supporting player, my subject, the star. To this end, I strip questions to the bone, cut most personal asides, and shy away from quoting those capricious compliments the average interviewee pays.

Enter artist Tony Fitzpatrick; generous, insightful and endearingly loquaciousnot your average interviewee.

I worry that including my end of our discussion appears self-indulgent. However, in the interest of accurately rendering Tony, Ive put my usual reticence aside. As personable as he is talented, Tony has plenty to say about his politics, his travels, his inspirations, but hes also genuinely curious about others. To interview Tony is to step into an ongoing conversation, one he carries on through his visual art, poetry and acting; one he has with neighbors and hobos and strangers who quickly become friends. Here’s my contribution.

Our Town What inspired your new play, Stations Lost?

Tony Fitzpatrick I went to Istanbul to meet Muslims. I realized I didnt know any. I had some a**hole at a dinner party tell me that the world wouldnt be a peaceful place until we dealt with the Islamic problem. I said, what do you mean by that, and he said, well, till we get rid of all the Muslims. I said, jihadists are like two percent, you understand that, right? He goes, name me one place in the world where Islamic people live in peace. I said, Istanbul, since 1927. So, then he slides his glasses down his nose and he goes have you beeeeen to Istanbul? I said no, but Ill tell you what, the next time we speak I will have been. And I went. And Ill tell you, I found more brotherhood and kindness and generosity among a culture of Muslims than I did driving across America. So much for who we fear.

OT This is your second show with Ann Filmer. To what do you attribute the success of your collaborations?

TF Her laser sharp ability to adapt. We carved away a lot of great pieces and went down to the most muscular ones. Just as with [first collaboration]This Train, she very gently told me where the lines were, let me know what was germane, helped prune what didnt belong and shape it into a really dynamic piece. Were it up to me she would have taken a co-writing credit for Stations Lost, but she said, every word is yours. I showed her my diaries and told her, I think theres a show in here about fear and faith and the folly of wanting faith. I worked in radio for ten years. When I hear OReilly and Limbaugh, these are the guys who chased me out of radio. Theyre the reason I didnt want to work there anymore; it became this culture of hate. They wrap it up in fear and they kite tail it with faith, like if youre a Christian you believe this or that; well, thank God Im an atheist. So, the show is about the aural wallpaper that surrounds us as Americans and how they attempted to teach me faith as a kid. Now look, this all sounds really heavy, but its really funny. Youve seen my shows; Im a funny motherf**ker. So whats going on with you?

OT Me? I have a book coming out next spring.

TF Its about time, goddamnit.

OT I dont know what to expect-

TF Expect to spend no small amount of time promoting it and let me know what I can do to help.

OT Thats really generous, but you dont have to do that.

TF Id like to. You want to do a book signing at the gallery? My gallery is a cool place; people come there.

OT Tell me a little about your gallery.

TF Firecat? It was my studio for seventeen years and I closed it as a studio and turned it into a gallery where we show artists who I think deserve to be better known. You know, Stan [Klein] and me made a list of artists, and everyone on the list it was like, why arent these men and women a bigger part of the conversation? I said to Stan, what could we afford to lose between us, and he said, comfortably, maybe $3000 a month. We figured that was enough to budget the gallery. We take no percentage of the artists sales. We print a poster, do a mailing and invite all our collectors. Our friends from 3Floyds supply the beer, and then we usually throw a little after-party at my house.

OT Speaking of Stan, he was part of This Train and I hear he has an even bigger role in Stations Lost.

TF The second show we find out how Stan got to be Stan, how Mr. Excitement became Mr. Excitement. Hes from Cleveland and he is exactly what Cleveland prepared him to be. The Indians never won the world series when he was a kid and hes a lifelong baseball fan. Hes a jazz guy, Im an R&B guy. He likes Aretha Franklin, I like Dionne Warwick. He likes the Four Tops, I like the Temptations. Hes the rational, ordered guy, and Im the wackjob who goes spinning around the world with sparks shooting from him. Stan has to be like Stan for this to work and I have to be like me for this to work.

OT How did you two connect?

TF My former assistant, Micheal Pajon, during the years I was making the New Orleans book, which I never published– someone in Chicago accused me of profiteering off the misery of New Orleans and the charge shook me up so much I put the book in a drawer, its finished if youd like to read it. Anyway, Michael got to love New Orleans so much he moved down there. Whats that noise?

OT Oh, Im on an Iphone…?

TF I hate those motherf**kers. I have one too. I got word Stan was heading back to Chicago and was looking for a gig. He had worked for Kenneth Noland, the great minimalist painter. Stan called me up and I said “I cant afford you, youre working for one of the most famous artists in history, but I can promise you, as it gets better for me it will get better for you. When he came to work for me I was just discussing This Train with Annie. I didnt want it to be a one-man show. I think those things tend to be gloomy exercises in ego. I wanted the audience to get the feeling of the community that surrounds me. Stan was a good counterpoint for that. He is perpetually and always himself. He watches everything and misses nothing. We eased into a really good working relationship during a difficult period for the art world with the recession in 2008. It became really hard to sell art and Stan navigated me through it.

OT I get the sense youre always working.

TF I work all the time. Were in rehearsal for Stations Lost right now, Im still working on etchings every single day. If we rehearse at night, I work during the day, if we rehearse during the day, I work at night. This is the life I asked for. A reporter once asked me, is it because you dont think youre any good at any one thing that you have to do them all?

OT What a bulls**t question!

TF It was, and it came from a friend, which was even more painful. And I thought, well, Im in MOMA buddy. I had a hit show last year. I think this is all part of the same thing, a body of work. Im an artist, I wake up everyday and I go make art, whether its a drawing, a collage, an etching, a poem or a theater piece, it is all the same body of work. If you stay creatively engaged, one thing does not build a barrier to the other, one thing nourishes the other. Its really important for the artist to defy type. When they find the box to put you in, change shape.

Stations Lost runs July 7-July 24 at The Steppenwolf Garage Theatre. Purchase tickets here, and follow Tony on Twitter.

A writer with an MFA in Creative Writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sarah Terez Rosenblum freelances for a number of web sites and print publications. Her debut novel, Herself When Shes Missing,” is forthcoming from Counter Point Press. She is also a figure model, Spinning instructor and teacher at Chicagos StoryStudio. Inevitably one day she will find herself lecturing naked on a spinning bike. She’s kind of looking forward to it actually.

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