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Meet My Friend Tony

Tony Fitzpatrick and I have more than a couple things in common. We grew up in the same neighborhoods. We know a bunch of the same people. We both did less than savory things for some pretty shady characters in our youth. We’ve both graduated Magna Cum Laude from the School of Hard Knocks. When we finally ran into each other a few years ago, I discovered another thing we have in common, and the reason I’m introducing him to you here. We share a passion for birds.

I’ve known of Tony for a long time because of his art. Anyone that pays even the slightest attention to what’s going on in Chicago knows of the man. He’s a bit of a living legend … as was his pal Studs Terkel.

tony_fitzTony’s life is a bit of everything. He’s an actor, not only in his own theater productions, but he’s appeared in 15 major motion pictures including The Fugitive, Married to the Mob, Mad Dog and Glory, and Philadelphia. He’s an author and a poet, and has so far published eight collections of his art and poetry. He’s a playwright, having written and starred in This Train, Stations Lost, Nickel History: The Nation of Heat, and his latest, Midnight City. And of course, he’s a fine artist. His work has been displayed at MoMA, the Chicago Cultural Center, galleries all over the place, and on album covers including the Neville Brothers’ Yellow Moon and Steve Earle’s El Corazon and The Revolution Starts Now. In short, he’s an immensely talented dude.

Tony told me once (or was it from one of his plays that I’ve seen? … his stories blur like that) about his earliest encounter with birds. He was playing in his front yard as a small child, and the yard was overrun with dandelions. Suddenly, some of the dandelions got up and flew away! He was shocked and mesmerized, and ran straight in to tell his mother about them. Of course, the “flying dandelions” were American Goldfinches.

The secret lives of birds intrigue him. In Midnight City, he talks about how birds don’t give a damn about us, and how their lives go on above and around us, but are to themselves. He finds beauty and worthiness in all, even the “pests” like European Starling:

Lunch Drawing #38: The King Bird

Lunch Drawing #38: The King Bird

The common starling or European starling was introduced to North America a couple of centuries ago by enthusiasts of Shakespeare. That’s right, Shakespeare. I had to read that twice, myself. Evidently, the Bard was fond of the plucky bird’s gift for mimicry and a bunch of blue-bloods thought it would be jolly-good fun to have the little winged gangsters over here. The first thing the common starling did was muscle as many songbirds out of nesting spots as it could. It spread wildly, becoming one of the most successful species in the history of the continent. Particularly hard hit were bluebirds, who were pushed damn near across the Mississippi River, population wise. They are just beginning to come back now.

The common starling is a striking bird that gives off a metallic sheen of purples, reds, greens, bronzes, and bright yellows when the sun shines on its plumage. They are hearty and boisterous and given to spectacular flight when in large flocks that often result in “murmuration,” which often makes the sky itself appear to be changing shape.

Last week, my wife Erin, and I went to see Tony’s latest production at Steppenwolf Theater, Midnight City, in Chicago (extended to October 19!). He opened with a story about his false start at becoming a birder at Cape May in the 1980s. Thankfully, he’s met some birders here in Chicago, that are uh, a bit less wound up. I had been told that this story was in the production, but what I wasn’t quite prepared for was that the whole thing was intertwined, interlaced and moving through time and space with birds.

The play is a back-and-forth of story-telling and banter between Tony and his best friend, Stan Klein. They talk about their lives, goals, failures and hopes. A tangent about a gym locker room leads into a tribute to Lou Reed. Tony talks of his time as muscle for the mob. Stan tells of his many jobs, his career as an artist, and his infatuation with Wrigley Field and the Chicago Cubs. Tony tells of meeting a hobo, who when at his worst place in life was going to kill himself. As he stood beneath the tree, with rope in hand, he suddenly became aware of the beautiful bird songs all around, and decided today was not his day to die. Through it all are the verses of Wallace Stevens’ Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.

I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.

Birds inspire his art, and he cares deeply for their well being. At his backyard feeders he gives them “bird crack” … black oiler sunflower seeds. He recently completed a collection of pieces depicting Hawaiian endemics to help draw attention to their plight. He connects birds with people he admires and presents them as beautiful “gifts” in his work.

Is Tony Fitzpatrick a birder? Even though he says, “field identification is not my strong suit” (and we’re working on that), of course he is. He gets as much enjoyment and inspiration being outside observing as he does in his studio creating. He takes the birds he sees, and “jazzes ’em up a little” for his fantastic collages and etchings.

After the play, the four of us (Tony and his wife Michelle, Erin and me) were in his car driving to 3 Aces for some late-night food. As we navigated Saturday night Chicago traffic, Tony tells me of a piece he’s working on that features a Cuban Trogon. We were like two kids discussing new Hotwheels:

Me: “Oh man! That’s one of my favorite birds”.
Tony: “I know … trogons are something else, huh?”
Me: “…and that tail. It’s awesome!”
Tony: “What’s the one in Arizona?”
Me: “Well, there’s two … you’re thinking of the Coppery-tailed. No wait! It’s Elegant now.”
Tony: “Yeah, I’d really like to see one. Or maybe go to Costa Rica and see different ones.”

Uh, yeah … he’s a birder. And I’d like to introduce the birding world to Tony Fitzpatrick and his art:
(when you’re done here, check out some of his etchings: Alphabet of Songbirds…)

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