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Tony Fitzpatrick's Art Institute of Chicago Debut Makes Mom Proud

THE LOOP — Tony Fitzpatrick remembers when he decided to become an artist. So does his mother.

"That's the same day I took you to Loyola?" Annamae Fitzpatrick asked her boy.

"Yes, to see the shrink," Tony says, laughing. "The nuns were mad at me because I was drawing pictures of nuns being attacked by eagles and stuff. The nuns suggested that I go see somebody."

Later that afternoon, Annamae and her boy visited the Art Institute of Chicago — a trip that Tony says changed everything.

"I stood in front of the Edward Hopper painting, Nighthawks, and hairs on my arm stood up. It's like a gangster movie, this picture. I don't know what it was saying, but knew it was saying something to me," Tony says. "That's the day I started making drawings with a certain intention."

That was nearly 50 years ago.

Since then, Tony's drawings, collages and etchings have hung in modern art museums in New York and Miami. His drawings have graced album covers of the Neville Brothers, Lou Reed and Steve Earle. The kid who hated school became a poet, playwright and actor.

Each accomplishment made Annamae proud, but Friday, well, that was "the ultimate."

That's the day she returned to the Art Institute with Tony to see his drawings — tributes to bygone parts of Chicago like the Stockyards, Black Sox and Bum Town — hanging in the "The Artist and the Poet" exhibit on display alongside the popular "Picasso in Chicago" exhibit.

"So magnificent," Annamae, 88, says, squeezing her boy's hand as she gazed at Tony's drawings, each inspired by his working-class Chicago upbringing.

Tony often went to work with his late father — an embalmer — just to hear stories about the city as they traveled to funeral parlors all across the city.

"It was like the city was one big house and every day he's showing me a different room," Tony says. "So I intentionally got kicked out of school because that meant the story would continue."

When Tony started to choke up a bit, Annamae intervened. This was no day for tears.

"It was only a few days at a time now, Tony. Let's not talk about you being thrown out of school," she said — and they had a good laugh.

"This would have delighted him," Annamae said of her late husband, James "Ace" Fitzpatrick.

A crowd of Tony's artist friends gathered as he read a passage from "Bum Town," an illustrated lyrical portrait of the Chicago of his childhood published as a tribute to his late father.

The Great South Side, all steel mills, stockyards and the scene of "my Mom and Dad's romance on 72nd Street, where he would get on a street car and two others … just to look at her," Tony read.

Resting in a wheelchair at the back of the gallery, Annamae thought about the day, a lifetime ago, when her boy dedicated himself to being an artist and how far he'd come to get right back where it all started.

"It's beautiful. I had very happy days … bringing up my eight children, especially one here who was a bit of a challenge," she said. "But I always knew he would make it because he worked very hard."

Annamae asked Tony how he felt about that, knowing full well that her son always felt his art was more appreciated in New York City's art scene than in his hometown.

"It's the high hurdle. Getting into this collection allows me to drop my armor. That's something I carried for a long time and it's wonderful I can shed it," Tony said. "They say if you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere. The real truth of it is if you make the high hurdles in Chicago — you've done something."

And his mom couldn't be prouder.