She Is a Dying Star

Thank you, New Orleans, for your authentic, fierce and relentless poetry. . .

Thank you New Orleans for your authentic, fierce, and relentless Poetry.....

She is a dying star;
A winter dervish,
A shaking semaphore of white lights,
A lovesick comet.

Published in: on March 18, 2012 at 11:03 pm  Comments (2)  
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The Atlantic City Moth

Everything dies baby, that’s a fact
but maybe everything that dies, someday comes back. . .
Put your make-up on, fix your hair up pretty
and meet me tonight in Atlantic City. —Bruce Springsteen, Atlantic City

The Atlantic City Moth by Tony Fitzpatrick

There is a huge set piece in the Green Point neighborhood in Brooklyn.  It’s right on the water, and from a distance it looks a bit like a palace of some kind, or an urban mirage.  It is the set for Boardwalk Empire, the hugely entertaining tale of Prohibition-era Atlantic City on HBO.

It stars Steve Buscemi as Enoch “Nucky” Thompson, who is based on the real-life politico and racketeer of the ’20s, Enoch “Nucky” Johnson.  It is thinly-veiled fiction and is filled with a lot of very good actors doing some of the best work of their careers, most notably, Dabney Coleman and William Forsythe, playing a couple of homicidally despicable motherfuckers, and the great Chicago actor, Michael Shannon, as a Prohibition agent with a bad case of Jesus.

Its plot line is dense and rewarding and historically somewhat accurate, even though it claims to be fictional.  If only the real Atlantic City were still somewhat like this.

The first time I ever went to Atlantic City, I was struck by the sheer polarities of its landscape.  Donald Trump had just built a huge, glittering obscenely fucking-ugly casino there (the Taj Mahal, I think) and directly across the street was the most austere ghetto I’d ever seen in America.  The people of New Jersey had been sold that “casino gambling” cultural band-aid. You can damn near forgive them.  It was 1978 and Atlantic City had to do something.  Like the saying goes, “A drowning man will grab a snake,”
which is precisely what Atlantic City and the state of New Jersey did.

Casino gambling was supposed to be the cure-all for schools, jobs and housing for the Jersey shore.  What it did was provide a lot of shitty service-industry jobs or make-work jobs and opened the door for organized crime to come in and loot the profitable elements; slots, dealers, food concessions, linen services, and garbage collection to name a few.  Atlantic City was a shithole with casinos.

Everyday the buses full of the geriatric trade would pull in from New York, Philly, and North Jersey and wheelchair-bound old, blue-haired ladies would pile off of them with their jars of nickels and play the slots for a few hours.  It wasn’t sexy like Vegas and, unlike Vegas, nobody in Jersey knew how to smile.  It was a city of gray, desultory old age limping through the sequential lights, or young men in SUVs, packing ‘nines’ in their waistbands, plying the crack trade on and around the Boardwalk, speeding down Ventnor and Atlantic Avenues being chased by squad cars and blaring rap music.

But boy, what it had once been!  Like Coney Island, it was one of those places wherethe playful American imagination took hold; a P.T. Barnum-type of place, complete with spectacle and architectural curiosities like “Lucy,” the six-story elephant ensconced on the 9200 block of Atlantic Avenue–kind of a knockoff of the one on Coney Island except, ’til this day, through a lot of local boosterism and fundraising, it still stands. . .like a  Looney Tunes Trojan horse for the American promise.

The spoils of the new gambling fortunes in Atlantic City were bitterly fought over by the Jersey, Philly, and New York mobs.  The “Chicken Man” in Bruce Springsteen’s sad, beautiful and elegiac song that bears the city’s name was Dominick Testa, a Philly gangster who tried to muscle in, along with the Bracco family on the Jersey and New York outfit’s turf.  They blew his house up–with him in it.

Casino gambling breathed new life into the organized crime of the East coast, including the nascent Russian mob who quickly took over the “street trades of drugs, guns and prostitution.  The Italians still had gambling, garbage and labor, still after all of these years, the best things to have.

Boardwalk Empire has also generated new interest in this place.  A lot of the Boardwalk is being renovated to old-timey, amusement-theme places and no doubt they will fuck it up.

My favorite images of Atlantic City come from the elegant Louis Malle film from the early ’80s that starred Burt Lancaster, in the best role of his life, and a ripe Susan Sarandon who, at one point, squeezes lemons all over her delightfully naked upper body to rid herself of the scent of seafood, while Lancaster surreptitiously  watches.  The look on his face is one of sadness, regret and animal longing.

A few scenes later, Lancaster is trying to explain this place to a young, idiot wannabe coke dealer. As they are walking down the boardwalk, Lancaster, resplendent in a wintery white overcoat and fedora, suddenly stops and looks the punk in the face and tells him, “See that ocean, kid?  Now 30 years ago, that was something, that was an ocean.”

The dope doesn’t understand, but at this point, we sure do.  At one time, this was a place of dreams; and Lancaster remembers because he now knows he is this dream’s last, faithful inhabitant.

Published in: on November 29, 2011 at 6:17 pm  Comments (1)  
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The Autumn Tiger

The Autumn Tiger

“We die of cold, and not of darkness. . .” – Miguel Unamuno

A great many Chicagoans will tell you they love living here because of the seasons. We actually get four seasons here; not in any kind of equal proportion, but we get all four seasons. There are two months of blazing hot, humid summer, nine and a half months of gray-layer-cake sky and nut-numbing winter, and two days of Spring.

The season I live for in this city is Autumn. There are trees on my block that turn to pure yellow fire and at dusk or dawn are unspeakably beautiful. There is a bit of a bite in the air and nature, even in the city, begins to pare down to its essential shapes and colors. The landscape shows its bones.

October has always been my favorite month. It has its sadnesses; the end of baseball for the year, which in Chicago–at least this year–is a welcome relief. October seems to me a month of reckoning. Whatever one failed to do with the rest of the year? Well, this is a good month to rectify this. It seems to me a month that is good for coming clean. Twenty-nine years ago, I got out of rehab in October.

Every morning the sun came up and some sense of contentment, if not happiness, seemed at least possible. I almost always have a winter exhibition to prepare for; it takes my mind off of other memories. I lost my beloved grandmother and father in autumn, and I think often of both of them.

The end of autumn seems to be Thanksgiving, which is the holiday that means the most to me. It is when I take the day and remember to be grateful for the immense luck of my station in life, and remember those whose strength and forbearance got me here. Autumn is a time of reflection for me.

Last year, I spent part of the autumn in Istanbul and unlearned a lot of crap I’d been told and taught about Islam and Muslims, and it was good. I had this hopeful feeling standing outside the Spice Market, next to the Sea of Marmara; that we pretty much all want the same things. I was far away from the poisonous 24-hour news cycle which is there only to scare us and divide us as people.

Autumn is tough on moths. The first chill usually kills them. A few hearty bugs make it until the second or third frost, but eventually they die of cold, and not of darkness.

The Autumn is also when the new art season begins every year. This year, I opened the season at Pierogi in Brooklyn with my new etchings. In the front gallery, there was a wonderful show of graphite drawings by Michael Schall, a gifted young artist from Brooklyn. I had the smaller room in the back and the new etchings looked great there, like a small box of jewels. I had a great time with all of my friends and my crew from Chicago flew out in force and had a lot of fun.

What I love about Pierogi is the shared sense of community. There aren’t a bunch of asswipes standing around and staring at each other’s clothes and appraising one another. It is a place about the community of artists; long on goodwill and short on pretense. Every exhibition I’ve ever had here I felt I was among my friends—that after a long, fractious journey through this career, I’d finally found my community.

It is a marvelous bunch–odd, funny, journeyman, and women—artists, who are in it for the long-haul; and yet have an immense sense of communal pride. This is the community Joe Amrhein and Susan Swenson built, and were kind enough to welcome me into.

It is also the beginning of football season. Usually, I have all of my pals over every Sunday to watch the Bears. This year, I’m just not feeling it. I’d rather work on my etchings and walk my dog.  Ever since they let Michael Vick back in, I can’t get interested in the NFL.  And I used to be a fanatic.

I don’t have three hours to burn on this stuff anymore. I think autumn is nature’s momento mori–a reminder that we will all attend ONE funeral–and I won’t waste the time anymore. I often tell young artists that the only thing on this planet worth buying is your own time. And I am right.

With the three hours I bought myself every week, I read more poems–James Wright, Wallace Stevens, Anne Sexton, Mark Turcotte and Reginald Gibbons. . .the good stuff.

I joined a health club and go swimming and it wakes you up and breathes new life into you on a daily basis. I allow myself to watch more nature shows on the Bug Channel–the oceanic stuff hypnotizes me in a wonderful way. I take walks and I watch the every-morning drama of my bird feeder. . .the cardinals, house finches, sparrows and blackbirds. . .I have it made.

Published in: on September 29, 2011 at 11:05 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The Winter Tiger

The Winter TigerIn the past couple of months I’ve designed a couple of signs.  It’s kind of a natural fit because my work has a strong graphic component.  In both cases I did these for friends of mine.  Anthony Potenzo from Three Aces and Donnie Madia of Big Star, are both old and dear friends of mine.  Both are Chicago Italian guys who remind one of how this city used to talk.  Both have thick Chicago accents and a curbside eloquence that reflects their respective upbringings.  Donnie is a West side Italian and Anthony grew up on Taylor Street in a tight-knit Italian American enclave that used to be notorious for protecting its borders from ANYONE whose last name did not end in a vowel.  They are the kind of guys I met and had felt like I’d known them my whole life. . .and in a way I had.  They are guys who love this city and devour anything having to do with its history.  Both are consumate storytellers who evince a remarkable generosity of spirit.  They are my friends and I am fortunate for having them.

I liked making the signs because they are very public works of art.  They may be signage but they are also the visual lingua-franca of HOW I understand this city.   When I was a kid there were some incredible signs in Chicago; The Magikist lips on the Eisenhower Expressway. . .the Ferrara Pan Candy Company sign just off of Harlem and the Ike, and downtown there was a Winston cigarette billboard that actually blew smoke rings.  I was enthralled with these images, as well as a Bay’s English Muffin sign I used to see on the expressway as well.  They captured my imagination as a little boy and seemed to be a primary American language writ large. There were other signs. . .the Baby Ruth sign off the Kennedy, the Beatrice food sign that functioned almost like a trompe l’oiel device; all of them tricked out in neon.  The Star Carwash sign on Elston is still one of my favorites, enough so that I’ve included it in several drawings.  After a certain amount of time these images become iconic, like the Shell sign that used to loom large over the west side years ago.

I like the idea of making public pieces and I’ve not done much of it, mostly because I couldn’t find a medium I liked.  Now I have.  I designed these and with the help of Seaton Scarf’s flawless fabrication and Deirdre Boland’s elegant layout, I have a couple of public pieces and I couldn’t have done it without these two fine artists.

What’s kept me from trying to make public works before is just dealing with the city.  If you want to do a public commission in Chicago, it is best if you prepare your ass-kissing technique.  It helps if you use Preparation H for lip-gloss.

It is very political and the artist is made to jump through a shit-ton of hoops and be always hat-in-hand.  Fuck a big bunch of that noise.  I think I have found a coll way around this.  Signs.  I dig them.  They speak to me and one doesn’t have to subject one’s self to the verbal rectalingus of other public art projects.  Artists should not have to massage some bureaucrat’s sack to add beauty to the city.

The best thing about my signs is I’m getting paid in food.  These fuckers have no earthly idea how much me and my crew can eat.  Fuck, they’d have been better off paying my ass.  If I wanted to, I could eat a dozen of Paul Kahan’s tacos without breaking a sweat.  You include my crew, (where even the girls eat like a pack of fucking timber- wolves) jesus. . .we could bankrupt these poor bastards in NO time.  Anthony is getting off a little easier because Taylor Street is farther away from Ukrainian Village than Big Star.  Still, his day is coming.  We will eventually show up, forks in hand and eat the ass out of that place too.

The food in both of these joints is outstanding.  The music is good and it isn’t full of frat-boy fuckheads with their hats on backwards.

I’m really proud of the signs.  More than once I’ve had my driver, Ashkon, drive me by Three Aces late at night to see my work up in neon.  I never get tired of it.  It lets the city know I was here.

This new piece is called The Winter Tiger. More and more I like drawing moths;  almost as much as birds.  There is a ferocious poetry about them and their jittery flight and need for warmth.  It speaks to something ancient and human.

Published in: on November 15, 2010 at 6:26 pm  Comments (2)  
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The December Moth

The December MothI found this moth in a book.  Startlingly and chillingly white, like the Angel of Death or the Eucharist of Winter, these elegant ladies seem to entreat the abandoned Catholicism in me.  That radiant white always was part of the church’s ritual; the death flowers. . .white calla lillies and roses. ..this powdery white essence, as ephemeral as ashes.

We are creeping ever closer to winter here.  The  six months of  slush and gray that turn this city into a Ggulag.  I get a ton of work done in the winter.  I go out of doors less and travel more.  I’ve slowly but surely embraced a more monastic existence.  I don’t really go to art openings at all.  This will change when FireCat Projects opens publicly.  That is the one opening a month I will HAVE TO show up for; seeing as, along with my partner in crime, Stan Klein, I own the place.  I used to make it a point to go to the galleries and see stuff; still do. . .but quietly now; never at openings.  Openings here tend to bring out every jag-bag in the village and you can smell the desperation, resentment,  jealousy and petty vindictiveness on them .

Our shows have never attracted that crowd of butt-wipes.  We get a healthy balance of real world and art world.  We keep things lively, we play music, give away the beer and always have a bit of food.  The vibe is always convivial and friendly.  Assholes and drunks are dispatched quickly and with all necessary encouragement, if they misbehave.

I’ve not had a show in Chicago in a few years and to be truthful, I was not in a big hurry to do this one.  The logic among my partners was that I had enough marquee value to assure  an audience for our first outing.  It also made sense as my last act there, in that space. . .the place I made my work for 17 years. It is your space now.  This show is really a way of saying goodbye.  I won’t have a public studio again.

More than likely when you visit FireCat Projects, you will meet my partner, Stan Klein, whom I’ve known since 1985.  Stan runs my career and Firecat Publishing as well as the exhibition space.  For the last year, we’ve quietly contacted the artists we wanted to shine a light on and we feel like we have a compelling collection of talent. We will release our first 18 months of exhibitions in the next couple of weeks.

I’ve been working like a fool to finish my pieces for this show.  I’ve always felt the toughest audience to please is here, and I really kicked it out for this show.  My first success was in New York and to a large extent this is where the lion’s share of my work goes to be sold.  In the last few years I’ve actually sold most of the drawing-collages  in Chicago, which was a huge and welcome surprise after 25 years of doing this.  I actually have a hometown audience.  I always had them for my etchings, but Chicagoans were slow to warm to my drawing-collages, but man, once they did, it was kind of amazing.

These pieces–the moths and superheroes–will be part of my next theater piece, “Stations Lost,” which I am writing as I make these.  It kind of builds on the questions that “This Train” asked–“What is home?” and “Who are we in the world neighborhood?”

Istanbul and its citizens made an immense impression on me as does the continual myth-making of the American narrative.  This body of work provided me with some answers.  I’ve outgrown the motives I had as a young artist and had my eyes opened a bit; enough so that the sight of moths circling the light, help lead me into the world.

Published in: on November 8, 2010 at 5:39 am  Comments (1)  
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The Apollo Moth

The Apollo MothWe die of cold, and not of darkness.“–Unamuno


The first frost is hell on moths.  On window sills they lay, powdery and seized up, each a mirror of another after the killing frost.
The first frost  is your for real, no-shit sign winter is here.  In the Midwest, this means it gets dark at 4:30 (Daylight Savings0,  to which I say, “What the fuck are we saving it for?  And can I withdraw some when I need it?”   Winter is a merciless bitch here; six months of gray layer-cake skies and  ankle-high slush.  Moths in late fall fly a desperate kind of flight; a trajectory against the dying of the light.  I love autumn.  For me, it is when things become more spare, simple and stripped-down.  Nature bares its elemental shape, and lines and color take over.  There is a tree across the street from where I write this that turns to a firey yellow and at night in the street lamps; you’d swear it was ablaze.

It is also the political season and I cannot bring myself to vote.  I don’t believe any of those running of either party.  They seem to be part of the aural wall-paper, the fuzz -laden white noise on televisions and radios I pass by.  A cacophony of babbling assholes who  promise public service and in the end serve themselves and their  friends, as well as the particular party of mouth-breathing geeks they sallied forth from.

I used to think freedom demanded participation; that it was one’s duty to vote.  I don’t think that anymore.  When your choices are between the crabs and the clap, you can choose “none of the above” and leave me the fuck alone.  I will deal with the consequence that one of these civic midgets will have an enormous amount of discretionary power over my life later.  Don’t vote for these idiots; it only encourages them.

People will tell me that then I will get the government I deserve.  Like I deserved Bush?  I voted against him.  No, this dodge doesn’t work on me.  I don’t need to be part of the collection of hand-jobs out there pimping the bozo they LEAST hate.  That is not democracy– that is  picking at the fruit stand at the end of the season looking for the least fucked-up banana.  This is choosing the leper with the most fingers and the prettiest scabs.

In Greek and Roman mythology, Apollo is the cheese;  the god of war, love, you name it he is the alpha-god.  He is god of so many things, you wonder if it was all too heavy for him. You wonder if he ever told Zeus, “Fuck this.  Give me a break.  Let me kick back, drink some mead and score some goddess pussy. Would that be so bad?”

The Apollo moth is actually a butterfly.  I turned it into a moth because I’m an artist and I can do whatever the fuck I want.  The mating habits of the Apollo moth are hard on the female.  The bug book describes a “saw-like” penis.  Ouch.  Well, sometimes it’s hard to be a woman.

What I love about them are the big bloody spots on their wings.  I saw one of thse at ‘”Evolution,” a great natural history store in Manhattan on Spring Street in Soho.  The kids who work there are enthusiastic and really helpful and knowledgeable and if they get the feeling you are genuinely interested in natural history, they will go to any length to help you out.  My last day in New York, I needed a better source book for moths, and the last book they had was their display copy and they sold it to me anyway, which many natural history stores will NOT do.  They could tell I was excited and showed me through their excellent collection of species in the drawers upstairs.  This is my favorite store in New York.  I got introduced to species I’d never seen in any of my books and learned a lot just in a cursory conversation with the young woman who showed me the moths.  I’ve watched all of the Bug-Channel shows and there is never much about moths; they have a bad reputation among bugs.

There are silk moths in China and Taiwan that women hold in their mouths to keep them warm while they spin silk–these I have to find.  I couldn’t believe this story.  Moths are reviled the world over for their destructive appetite for paper and cloth; they are symbols  of death and dessication.

They are also luminous and beautiful in a way that is scary and unnerving; like some art.  They are a fun thing to draw because of the myriad of textures and patterns in a moth’s body.  They are creatures of problematic definition and I love the fuckers.  If you’ve never seen a luna moth shimmering in the evening light, well, then you are not completely alive yet.

Published in: on October 16, 2010 at 9:13 am  Leave a Comment  
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The Devil’s Moth

The Devil's MothI recently gave up my studio. I’ve been there, on North Damen, for 17 years.  I decided after watching some artists that I admire getting stuck in the mud of the art world, that this 1900 square feet would be better served by  providing a space for them. I mostly make small work and I have a huge 4-bedroom apartment.  I have more than enough room to make my work at home.

Of course this is not all there is to it.  To be completely honest, having a public studio finally wore me out. As I get older, this gets harder, and this thing I do is not a career; it is a vocation. . .a calling.  I have the attention span of a flying insect (ADD doesn’t even cover it).  I am like a chimp in a camera store. “Oooh! Tony see shomething SHINY!”  In other words, I am easily distracted.  I also wanted to write a lot more. The success of This Train emboldened me to think of ways to incorporate my drawing-collages into performance pieces and the idea excites me.  Writing is hard fucking work, but it’s not labor.  Work dignifies us.  Labor kills us.

I’ve had the luxury for 30 years of not having a boss; nobody carving on my dick or trying to tell me what to do.  You get used to it.  Don’t get me wrong.  In the art world you have your share of asshats trying to manipulate your world, but power in this setting is extremely fungible.  One week one person has it, the next another.  It is a schizoid business run by fashionable mental-defectives.  What passes for wisdom  in this racket is the last thing you heard.  The theorists make up for the fact that they actually have no skills  be denigrating those who do.  These are the squishy people who mostly staff museums and galleries.

I also badly wanted out of the idiot parade of the Chicago art world; the social orbit of resentment, petty jealousy and bone-deep grudges.  I stopped giving a fuck about the local art world a long time ago, but as long as I had the studio, people were free to come in and piss in my ear about it every day and it got to be a huge pain in the balls.

I won’t reiterate what I think about the merchant class of art-wankers.  Everyone knows that I think this town’s art world is run by pygmies, midgets and chihuahuas.

I decided to set an example.  Why not try an exhibition space that takes NO percentage from the artist?  It is an interesting thought that finally got the best of me.  It is what FireCat Projects will do.  We’ll try it for a year and see how it works out.  The place is booked for the next 12 months and I’m excited about the possibilities.  People will be curious to know how we will fund this, and we thought of that.  Our other projects, publishing and swag like T-shirts, posters and stuff like that, should defray most of the costs.  We will not be a not for profit.  While there are many fine organizations that choose this route, I feel that by and large, they’re set up to lose.  We’ll sell popcorn, just like movie theaters.

This has taken some getting used to.  For the past 30 years I’ve had a studio.  At times, when I didn’t have a home address, I always had a studio.  I come from working class stock.  You get up in the morning, have your coffee and get out the door to work.  This is the way it made sense to me for all of those years and now it doesn’t.

One pays a  price for always being visible and if one does this for too long, one loses himself to the consensus that surrounds them.  No thanks.

I like getting up and walking my dog, enjoying my neighborhood and the oddball configuration of my apartment now that my kitchen is a studio.  My books are nearby and it’s quiet.  I don’t have the phone ringing off the hook because nobody has this number.  I still take my calls at the gallery.  My partner and publisher, Stan Klein, is in charge there now.  I will be there a lot.  It is the place I built and I’m very proud of it.  My show will be the first exhibition at FireCat.  It is a way of saying “hello” and “goodbye” at the same time.

I will be a mile and a half south in Ukrainian village, a wonderful neighborhood that reminds me of this city 30 years ago, full of cranky old Ukrainian ladies, trees that this time of year turn to a firey yellow and one asshole with a leaf-blower.

There is also a gelato place, Black Dog, where, if I stick to my diet all week, I am allowed one scoop of the most exquisite sorbet I have ever eaten.  I have a fire-pit and cable and a jillion books.  I work ten hours a day and walk around in my pajamas.  I am primed to become the eccentric old codger my father did not live to be. Mostly. I get to make my work, all day, everyday.

I have it made.

I returned to making moths because they still speak to me in a way that sends ice through my veins, and yet I am awed by their beauty and otherness; their appetite for destruction and gogeous flight. . .even this late in the year.  Look up at any street lamp and you see them, slugging it out with the light, trying not to die.

Published in: on October 12, 2010 at 3:46 pm  Comments (1)  
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