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'The Secret Birds' is Tony Fitzpatrick's Chicago swan song

After this Poetry Foundation show, the longtime Chicago artist will fly south to study ornithology in New Orleans.



For as long as Tony Fitzpatrick can remember, he's been preoccupied with birds. He blames his grandmother (a loyal staffer in Cook County assessor P.J. Cullerton's notoriously corrupt office in the 60s), who made a habit of feeding feathered flocks. "Shut up and listen," she'd tell young Tony. "For a piece of bread you can hear God sing." The artist's earliest drawings were of naked women and birds; sometimes he'd cap nude torsos with avian heads.

"Birds add color and beauty and music to our lives," says Fitzpatrick, who was born on the south side and raised in Lombard. "They see the world from above, they get to take the very long view.

"Every time I sit down and think, I'm going to draw something else, it ends up being a bird."

His latest show is the product of that impulse. Fitzpatrick dedicates each collage to a different bird, the central image around which he packs the busy composition with his signature mix of scrawled poetic text and clippings from comics, maps, science books, and other texts. The brassy former boxer brings street savvy to these surveys of nature. In Lunch Drawing #38: The King Bird, for example, Fitzpatrick labels the European starling a stone chicago gangster bird, the invasive species having been known to muscle other birds from their native habitats. A speech balloon beside its beak reads i'll cut you.

"The Secret Birds" is Fitzpatrick's swan song before he flies south to New Orleans to enroll in classes at UNO and Tulane. He'll study natural history and (naturally) ornithology. "I've done a good job making art about birds, but I've realized I don't know as much as I should," the 55-year-old says. "I'm going to be the world's oldest, ugliest college freshman."

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