Etch, He Said | Our Town | Chicago Reader

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Etch, He Said



Tony Fitzpatrick lumbers through the subdivided confines of his new Dime Museum, occasionally stopping to bum a cigarette or write up another sale. Alert and poised as usual, he's duded up and in the mood to celebrate. It's a "private opening" in early February, sort of an informal dress rehearsal for the museum's official public opening next Friday, March 12. Surrounded by a bevy of friends, family, and coworkers, Fitzpatrick is king of the night and loving it. Looser and more candid than this type of function normally allows, he works the crowd without playing favorites--a difficult task with so many fans under one roof--smoothly shifting gears between small talk and sales patter. Make no mistake: private or public opening, he remains all business and PR, having just pulled another creative scheme from his long sleeve of tricks.

It's been a busy week, Tony informs a few wide-eyed guests: he spent most of the past seven days shooting his scenes in Andy Davis's film version of The Fugitive starring Harrison Ford. "I play Harrison's cellmate. I don't talk much, but they used a bunch of my etchings to hang in my cell, so my art will talk for me." He lets this remark dangle for a moment before confiding that Ford is "OK. He bought some of my art, so he can't be all that bad."

In the awkward postjoke pause Fitzpatrick politely revels in the evening's success: "I guess you could say we're moving some stuff tonight," he says as he taps the filter of a cigarette-on-loan against the hem of his pressed jeans. "Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go collect some cash from a waiting customer."

To hear Fitzpatrick tell it, the crowd's buying mood represents something of a switch from his days as full-time curator and outspoken partner (he prefers "benevolent dictator") of the World Tattoo Gallery, which occupies the sprawling space next door. There he learned that people will always show up when there's free booze, but not always to buy art. World Tattoo was (and remains) a popular gathering spot for just about every one of its openings, but fronting the most coveted notch in the local party circuit wasn't what Fitzpatrick the artist (and reformed drinker) had in mind. So now he's got a new gallery that will serve as an outlet for his freshly honed passion--etching--and at the same time make art more accessible to the fledgling collector.

A few days before the opening, taking a break from a morning proofing session at his South Loop studio, Fitzpatrick tells of his disengagement from World Tattoo. "I guess our eyes were bigger than our stomach with World Tattoo. And for a while we weren't sure if it was going to make it. We started off with four partners, then we were down to three and we were having some real problems. Personally, I wanted to spend my time making art, especially etchings. When I had to deal with the day-to-day involvement of [World Tattoo] and had to deal with every little thing, I would lose my mind."

So last year Fitzpatrick tossed responsibility for the gallery's operation into partner Jonathan Lavan's lap and started moving ahead on the Dime Museum, whose name he borrowed from the carnival book of slang: "In the old days of the traveling carnival, kids could pay an extra dime to see all the wacko performers, like the guys who would bite the heads off of chickens."

Needing money to acquire a press and a space, Fitzpatrick started some friendly lobbying within his circle of friends to drum up interest in his idea, which was basically for a smaller gallery with a strict printing-house agenda.

"Before I could get this together I needed my own press. As I was beginning to get more involved with etching, I started becoming frustrated with the facilities at Landfall Press, where I was doing most of my printing. Those guys work from eight to five and at five is when I'm just getting amped. I'd go there and the door would be locked and I'd have to wait another day or two before I could have access.

"That's when I decided to get my own press. "

Joe Shanahan, owner and proprietor of the Metro, happened to be standing a little too close when Fitzpatrick coughed up the plan. He recalls the occasion:

"I remember hanging out at Tony's studio last summer. He said 'Joe, I got this idea...' We talked for ten minutes and emerged with a deal. I didn't say 'I'll sleep on it' or My fax will talk to your fax.' I just said, 'Hey, Tony, you want me for something, I'm there for you.'"

No contracts. No lawyers. They spit in their palms, shook hands, and went out and bought themselves a press with a long price tag.

Shanahan hastens to clarify his motives: "This is not all philanthropic," he says. "Maybe we'll make some money. But I just wanted to be involved with something I could be proud of. I look forward to this opening some doors for me, in addition to the fact that it's leading me into a different cultural aspect.

"It is, however, an important step in the city's art world. I'm just someone on the other end of the culture--the music--making a contribution. I see two cultural ends coming together: one is definitely very north side, the other very south."

Both Fitzpatrick and Shanahan agree that the most important function of the Dime is to issue truly limited editions while still keeping prices low.

"We laid down the rule that people were going to be able to afford these prints. The price structure will be between $300 and $800 so that you don't exclude people who are just starting to collect or people who want to add to their collection but don't want to spend a lot of cash," Fitzpatrick says.

Plans are already in the works to put out a book of etchings and poems from a variety of artists and writers, in a limited edition scheduled to appear near the end of the year.

"What makes this unique," Fitzpatrick says, "is that we're not owned by anybody, we did this ourselves and saw this as an opportunity to further the cause of printmaking and publishing while taking control of our careers.

"And when I invite an artist to make artwork here, we pay for everything. They dont buy ground or copper. All we're trying to do is bring etching into a larger alignment, trying to honor one tradition while breaking in some new ones at the same time."

Fitzpatrick's quest for the Dime has paralleled his desire to master the technique of etching, a huge leap for a man whose medium has been predominantly drawing and painting. Fitzpatrick says the most daunting challenge he faced was learning to work without text, which has been a trademark from the very beginning of his career.

"I just had to try it straight and define my atmosphere without my usual tools. Not having any color, only tinting, really made me think about my drawing and expanding my language in a controlled medium.

"My work is still drawing and that is what etching is all about. What it did was get me to rethink the way I drew. When you rethink the way you work, you rethink the way you see."

He pauses to reformulate.

"I think it's important to note that a lot of American artists use printmaking as an adjunct, however it has grown quite stale on the whole because I don't think anyone has really brought anything new to it. This medium speaks to those people who can't afford my paintings. I'm really trying to leave the mercantilism out of it."

Fitzpatrick says he eventually would like to see the Dime Museum become a fertile, creative crest somewhat akin to Warhorl's Factory. He has not, however, officially laid out the welcome mat for every starving painter or poet with a brimming portfolio.

"We've got a skeleton staff and we're only printing very limited editions, so we're working with artists on an invite-only basis.

"I know it sounds elitist, but when the time comes to expand, we'll be able to sponsor all sorts of creative types. Hey, I'd like to see three or four etching presses in here. There are a ton of great artists I would love to bring on."

One prominent artist who has already been tapped on the shoulder and handed an etching plate is local guru Ed Paschke. As a friend and mentor to Fitzpatrick, he seems pleased to be able to contribute to the Dime's groundbreaking.

"You know, Tony has really captured the spirit of what the Hyde Park Arts Center has done for so many local artists with the Tattoo and now the Dime," Paschke says. "I see the seeds of something very exciting down there. Personally, I think the medium of etching is something he has gravitated toward very naturally. It forces you to do things in stages, slows you down. It's something I've done off and on through the years and I like it very much."

Paschke remembers a day shortly after Fitzpatrick purchased the press. He wasn't in Fitzpatrick's studio more than a minute when he was invited to "grab a plate and see what I could do."

"Yes, Tony has a way of infecting people with his enthusiasm. The man does a lot of things well and that is definitely one of them."

Another thing Fitzpatrick does well is play the quintessential art-scene host, and he's doing it gleefully as his opening winds down, catering to those serious souls whove stayed well after the open bar shut down. Bumming one last cigarette, he reels to field a guest's snotty question regarding the longevity of this, his latest project.

"How long do you plan on doing this bit, Tony, before you get into something else?"

"Well," says Fitzpatrick as he lights his smoke, "I just bought myself a press that weighs a ton and a half. I guess I'm just going to have to live with it for a while."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Eshelman.

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