WICKER PARK — Tony Fitzpatrick, the artist, has hatched a plan to escape Chicago.
Maybe “escape” is the wrong way to put it, but come winter Fitzpatrick said he intends to move to New Orleans to open a studio, study ornithology (birds) and avoid Chicago winters, among other things.
There was a time, Fitzpatrick told me, when certain Chicago arts critics preferred to describe him as anything — Buzz Killman's former radio sidekick; South Side storyteller; rebel poet and tough-guy playwright; collage-maker, etcher and maker of prints — rather than artist.
Those days are long over. Fitzpatrick earned his rightful place in the modern art scene once his works were displayed and archived at the Art Institute of Chicago — and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, too.
On July 11, you’ll be able to see more evidence — impressions in some cases — of Fitzpatrick’s influence on the future of Chicago’s art scene when the crop of young artists who earned their stripes working under his “benevolent dictatorship” display their work at the opening of “Small Fictions: Works on Paper” at Adventureland Gallery in Wicker Park.
With Fitzpatrick’s coming departure, the show also amounts to final projects for the students at “The School of Tony.”
No one decides to attend the School of Tony, it sort of picks you, said Ashkon Haidari, 22, an artist and assistant to Fitzpatrick at Black Shamrock Press.
Haidari said he got picked not long after Fitzpatrick saw (and secretly bought) one of his drawings — an impressive doodle on the back of a test he failed in school — at a tiny art show.
“I had this old BMW. Tony saw it and asked me to run an errand for him. I got back and he said, ‘Hey kid, wanna start working for me?’” Haidari said.
“So I did. Before I met Tony my whole life was drawing … but I never had any direction. I had a bad view of artists, most of them just like to say they’re artists. And Tony brought me into this cool world, this very serious and cool world and showed me being an artist can be bada---, and he pushed me to step up my game.”
Fitzpatrick likes to describe himself and the young artists working at Black Shamrock Press as a “certain kind of people who needed to find each other and thankfully we did.”
“The truth is I’ve learned more from all of them than they learned from me,” Fitzpatrick said. “At any moment any one of them can teach me a multitude of things.
"Will taught me an economy of lines. From Ash I learned that without great conflict there isn’t any art. Zoe has patience. Jesse has a fearlessness. Each of them are very different but somehow, all together, we work.”
At Adventureland last week, Fitzpatrick’s in-house artists whose work will be included in “Small Fictions” shared their “How I met Tony” stories and a little about what they’ve learned since.
In some ways, the upcoming art show aims to capture a defining moment in their lives as they contemplate where they came from, how they’ve changed and where they’re headed next.
For Fitzpatrick’s master printer, Will Sturgis, “Small Fictions” comes at a profound moment in his life.
“I’ve got a kid on the way, any day now. Tony might be leaving in December. I’m reaching a point where I’m building confidence to really pursue a body of etchings attractive to more important institutions and collectors,” he said, staring at the floor and tugging at his white T-shirt.
“I feel really good about my art right now, but what’s the next move? Where am I going? That’s this show, I’ve thought a lot about it.”
Jason Barrera, 20, and Darius Airo, 19, aren’t as worried about the future. For them, “Small Fictions” is the beginning — a first for both of them.
Airo’s debut of black-and-white etchings was made possible because he was an obnoxiously overeager skater kid who rang the doorbell way too early in failed attempts to summon Fitzpatrick’s son to skate park shredding sessions.
“I realized pretty young that I was good at art, and I couldn’t do and didn’t want to do anything else, and I was pursuing that as much as I could,” Airo said.
“I knew I wanted to work for the guy. I knew that we had that connection, and Tony remembered me. … A white kid named Darius, he thinks that’s funny. So I kept after him. And he hired me.”
Zoe Xanos, an the aspiring video game maker, had a little help from her fiery Greek mother, who Fitzpatrick said called him and said, “My daughter is coming to you. She will be there in an hour. She is the one you want,” in response to a help-wanted ad for an assistant to work Sundays.
“Tony asked me weird questions. Are you a vegeterian? Do you like the Sox or Cubs? I came and ended up working every day but Sunday,” she said. “Luckily enough, I’m a meat eater, Sox fan and South Side kid.”
Xanos, 22, will show her drawings of a sweet, yet terrifying anime character that Fitzpatrick fell in love with after he spotted one scribbled on scratch paper.
After Kelly Houlihan, 22, was introduced Fitzpatrick by her aunt, she changed her major to art and went to work for him. She started out as a muralist, but scaled down the size of her paintings and began working on collages, some as small as beer coasters, under Fitzpatrick.
“It’s hard for me to look back from where I started two years ago. I used to work with a lot of patterns and a lot of color and now I’ve fine-tuned all the overwhelming ideas in my work to one cohesive idea,” she said. “I’m hoping that this show will be a culmination of what I’ve learned.”
And Jesse Sioux Achromowiz, an abstract painter and musician, said Fitzpatrick taught her something that art school never did — how to make a living selling your work.
“When he told us about the show I knew in the back of my mind that this was the last moment we would have together as a group, as a team,” she said. “A lot of us have worked with him for two years and this is our chance to summarize all he’s given to us and make him proud.”
And he is.
"They all have what it takes to be terrific artists and assets to their communities," Fitzpatrick said. "I think that's one thing I've done OK teaching them."
Even if you look closely it's not easy to spot many similarities in the works that will be included in “Small Fictions,” but it’s there, Sturgis said.
“We’ve all worked together, but our work is very different. Be if there is a common thread in all of us, it’s probably that you can see a little of Tony in our work that ultimately comes through,” he said. “He makes an impression. He can’t help himself, you know.”
If you go:
“Small Fictions: Works on Paper”
When: 7 p.m. Friday
Where: Adventureland, 1513 N. Western Ave.
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