Creative Quarantine: Artist/Writer/Actor Tony Fitzpatrick

1. How are you holding up?

I’m okay. You know, I was worried at first because I’m a heart patient. And the one thing you’re extraordinarily susceptible to is infections and viruses and stuff like that, but I did what my doctors told me and what our leadership in the state and the city has told us which I think has been extraordinarily good.

I think Governor JB Pritzker and Mayor Lori Lightfoot have gone way out of the way to try and keep people safe. I quarantined for two months and then I realized that there’s nobody at my studio. It’s like a Stephen King novel.

So I went back and I socially distance when I’m not in the house. I wear a mask. I think it’s really pretty easy to avoid this if you’re vigilant. I got tested for it because I had to go see my doctor face-to-face to have my labs and all that stuff done because I had a quadruple bypass five years ago.

They gave me a COVID-19 test – I went through a drive-thru and they stick this swab up your nose and it goes way the hell up your nose probably into your brain and then back down behind your navel.

It doesn’t so much hurt is it’s incredibly uncomfortable and unsettling. But I tested negative so I feel lucky. I’ve already lost some friends to this – John Prine died, some of the older people that I knew passed away because of this and you know, we’ve never lived through anything like this, so I’ve kept a diary about it. It’s gonna be the last third of my next book and it reads like nothing so much as a guy who just doesn’t know what’s next and I don’t.

It’s weird. To get through it I’ve spent a lot of time in Humboldt Park. I read, I do my walk, I can’t go to the pool because the health club shut down. So I walk around the lagoon with about three or four other guys – we socially distance, walk around, sit on a bench and you know what? Now I know what it feels like to be an old man. This is when you go to the park and sit on a bench and bullshit with everybody.

You know, I’ve taken great solace in nature. And I mean, it’s only four blocks west of me, I walk into Humboldt Park to where the bird sanctuary is, and I’m there, you know, there are herons, there are geese, wood ducks. I saw a rose-breasted grosbeak there the other day. It’s really a treasure, you know, it’s a shame that it took this pandemic to show what I had just a few blocks away. We always think of nature as something hundreds of miles away. Chicago is a large and complex ecosystem. The minute you walk out your front door, you’re in nature.

2. Has this dystopian nightmare changed the way you work at all? You said you were working at home for a little bit and then you realized you can just go into the studio because nobody’s there.

I go to the studio every day with this one thought in mind – that after this you know that everything matters. You know, it all matters, and largely [itr’s about] how you live your day-to-day. A month and a half ago, I was sitting in Humboldt Park and I realized, wow, I no longer have an income – studio shut down, the galleries just shut down, and I think, “what am I going to do?”

[My wife] Michelle had suggested for a couple of years these would make great jigsaw puzzles, so we started a puzzle company. And one of the corollary benefits of this has been that people are sending me pictures of them finishing the puzzles, and working on the puzzles.

I read this great article about how jigsaw puzzles help you with mental engagement and problem-solving and taking away stress. I think if you can take people’s minds off of this crap for even a few hours, you know, you may be helping serve your fellow man. Also, I turned the TV off. The 24-hour news cycle is just the worst thing for us.

When I go out in the morning, all I hear in the park by the lagoon is the sounds of the wind and the birds, the first kind of music. The primacy of all of it just kind of grounded me. It’s like oh, yeah, this is where you can find some semblance of peace.

And where things make a little more sense, right?

Yeah, yeah. Yeah, but art-wise I am reacting to it. I mean, I don’t think – at least for myself – I can’t not, you know? I think we live under a wannabe dictator and yeah, I think at every juncture you have to call [it] out. I felt guilty a few days ago because I’m constantly going off the rails about politics. But I think if you don’t – I think you’d become complacent [and] just accept “well, okay, this is where we’re at now.” No, fuck no. We’re a better people than this, [and] normalizing it is fucking lethal.

It’s a fascinating social science experiment but it’s also lethal. There’s so much collateral damage being done.

Have you seen that movie The Invasion of the Body Snatchers?

It also reminds me of They Live a little bit.

Yeah, no shit. He gave license to every slithering vile kind of bigotry and misogyny and xenophobia. He’s the one who came and said, “Hey, that’s okay, you’re right.” He absolved a bunch of really frightened, mentally deficient people of the consequences of their own shitty choices. It’s like “oh, it’s not your fault, it’s the Muslims it’s the immigrants, and the women.”

Back to your art practice. It sounds like it’s giving you focus.

Yeah, absolutely. You know what? I’m 61. And I work differently now than I did when I was 14. I used to go 8, 9, 10 hours at a time. I can’t do that anymore. I can concentrate on something for maybe 4 or 5 hours, and then I need a break. Then I need to go write something, or take a walk, or let other stuff sneak in.

This gets harder as we get older, you know. It’s like juggling one ball, you got to keep finding a way to reinvent that, and you know, the one great thing about what this has done for us mentally is that it brought me back to books. I’ve been reading a lot of poetry by Jim Harrison, late, great writer from out west. And, man, his last act was just a towering engagement with nature.

I was headed to anyway, was headed in that direction. It was a great way to bolster [me]. You know, I would read the poems and find myself kind of nodding my head. It’s like “this is kind of how I feel, I’ve just never been able to say it quite as well. And so that’s kind of where it’s led me. I think that’s a good place.

It sounds like what you’re saying is that this forced quarantine has focused you back on first principles.

Absolutely, absolutely. Yeah. I think that’s a good thing.

That’s the point of origin for you, right? That’s the source of what you’re doing.

Yeah. I recently agreed to what will be my final museum show and it’ll open in October. It will be at the Cleve Carney Museum at the College of DuPage. You remember Cleve – he was a big supporter of Chicago artists and very good to me.

I just decided “you know, I’m still gonna go to my studio and make that work every day but as far as climbing the career ladder I’m pulling the pin. I’m done.”

It’s weird – your ambition for those kinds of approval and approbation just kind of drifts away like leaves in a pond. What only matters to me now is making the work. And, you know, stopping and smelling a lilac bush every once in a while, remembering why we’re here. Yeah. Life is good.

When this is over, do you think that’s a headspace you’ll be able to carry with you? What’s changed in your practice that you think you’ll want to hold on to after this is done?

I think the greatest thing, and the only great thing about it is that it’s allowed me to shed careerist ambitions. Which I think I started as a young man, probably because of a myriad of insecurities I carry with me. I got to drop it like an anchor. You know, it’s like sometimes survival is triumph enough.

It sounds like you’re saying the opposite is true. Not that there’s something that you’ve picked up that you’re going to carry with you. There’s something you let go that you’re not going to pick back up.

Yeah, yeah. I mean, that is a beautiful thing. When we come into the art world, we don’t realize what a small dark little closet we’ve entered, and so the kind of elevation in it becomes more rarefied and more lonely. The more you achieve, you know…

It’s what I’ve never liked about art fairs. It’s like there’s this pyramid type pecking order. I pulled out of those 10 years ago, and I’ve never been happier. Yeah, I’ve never been happier not to go somewhere.

I can’t wait to not do that.

First of all you save 30 bucks, right? You don’t have people who look at your clothes from the soles of your shoes, and there isn’t that predatory moment of appraisal of everyone and everything. Yeah, fuck that. Yeah, not gonna miss it

You’ve got such a wide network of creative people – writers, musicians, visual artists – of the people you keep track of. Who’s handling this particularly well?

I think Steve Earle is. Yeah, I think [the new record] is the best record of his life and he went back to a very basic, a very generous thing. He wrote this record for people who do not vote the same way he does. And held it out [as] what I’m thinking in part as a peace offering. And it’s about the importance of labor unions. The record is called Ghosts of West Virginia and the kind of foundational event of the songs is the tragedy in the Upper Big Branch in 2010. 20 minors died because they had a non-union crew, mining the coal. And of course, they didn’t know what they were doing. These guys, to a man, were Trump supporters.

Steve wrote a really compassionate, loving, kind of eulogy, I think it’s what this record amounts to. I mean, there’s one song in particular, called It’s About Blood. Listen to it because at the end of the song he invokes the names of all 29 men who perished in that disaster. So I think this thing has led him back to a foundational belief in union, God, and country. That’s really kind of an important thematic. The thread running through all of his music – even from Guitar Town on. I think he’s handled it beautifully.

I think my friend, Rick Kogan, who survived COVID-19, has written beautifully about what’s important. Even in the shape that newspapers are in, furloughing people and letting people go, him and Neil Steinberg, they’re tall as the oaks. They file four or five stories every week, and they keep us informed. I think news outfits like Block Club are incredibly important.

So much of the media is corporate-owned gobbledegook. And there’s a whole bunch of voices out there that if you listen, you’ll hear them. And they’re telling you the truth. So I think I’m really, really proud of the journalists that I know, hanging in there, against overwhelming odds. I mean, newspapers are getting thinner and thinner and thinner. And owned by more and more kind of nefarious presences who want to manufacturer a certain consent.

How many more fucking people have to die before [they] get it? Time to show this asshole the gate.

Tony Fitzpatrick is an artist, writer, gallerist, and actor living in Chicago. You can follow him at his website.