I hate jigsaw puzzles and so does — make that did — Tony Fitzpatrick.
This man, who has spent his life and his career in the successful pursuit of a variety of endeavors — visual artist; radio host; columnist for New City; author of books; podcaster; playwright; poet; actor on stages, TV and movies — is now in the puzzle making business and he was telling me the whys and the hows of this latest chapter in his life, now in its 62nd year.
“Never finished a puzzle,” he says. “Can’t do crosswords either.”
We are sitting on a bench in Humboldt Park. He comes here every day when the weather is agreeable and this day was lovely, sun-splashed and warm enough. He walked from the house in which he lives with his wife (Michele), two grown children (Max and Gaby), Max’s girlfriend (Zoe Pike) and a friendly and large dog named Henry. The house is five blocks away.
“That’s how I get my exercise now,” he says.
He used to swim daily, a pursuit he adopted after suffering a heart attack and undergoing quadruple-bypass surgery in 2015. But the place he swam, like so many other places where we drank and ate and watched movies and plays and listened to music, is shuttered, so he walks, making the best of our closed-down world.
“You do what you’ve got to do,” he says.
And now he is doing puzzles.
“So, here I am one day sitting on this bench and worrying about what I am going to do,” he says. “I am not able to sell my work and I had to close my studio and galleries,” he says, referring to the artistic complex — his own workspace and two exhibition spaces, where he features the works of newer artists, taking none of the commission generally extracted by traditional galleries — that he has operated not far from where he lives.
“Like so, so many people I had no income,” he said. “Yeah, I was getting worried.”
Thus, was born his business idea. He would make puzzles from his art.
“The idea was really Michele’s,” he says about his talented interior decorator wife. “She’s a puzzle fan and was the one who suggested a while back that we make for a craft fair some simple puzzles, just a few pieces each and meant for kids. It was fun but I didn’t pursue it.”
He told his family of his park bench idea. They were enthusiastic and quickly found a firm, Puzzles Unlimited, to make four jigsaw puzzles — two small (108 pieces) and two larger (672 pieces). They sent photographic images of four of Fitzpatrick’s art pieces that they especially liked and they waited.
“Michele and the kids are really handling the whole thing,” Tony says.
And an amazing thing happened: In 15 minutes, they were all sold.
“I was stunned,” Fitzpatrick said.
“I think we all were but mostly happy,” said Michele. “And I knew the appeal of puzzles.”
Wisely, they decided to make more. They ordered 4,000, and now eagerly now await delivery in the next week or so. Again choosing four of Fitzpatrick’s works, these will be more complex, 1,000 pieces each and will sell for $40.
Though there is ever the shadow of risk in any new business venture, the Fitzpatricks’ timing seems wise. Puzzles have become a hot commodity in our stay-at-home era.
A quick internet search will provide you with all sorts of puzzle statistics and purchasing possibilities. It is a dizzying display, puzzles far more complex and colorful than the jigsaw puzzles you may remember from your youth. There is one outfit called Par Puzzles that makes “one-of-a-kind, custom, hand-cut wooden jigsaw puzzles.” One, “Breaking the Glass Ceiling,” is 700-some pieces, features Marilyn Monroe and was recently sold for $2,900.
Nothing you might see on a puzzle prowl resembles Fitzpatrick’s. His work, which sits in the collections of the Art Institute, Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Philadelphia Museum of Modern Art and other museums and has graced the album covers for the Neville Brothers, Lou Reed and others, is compellingly complex, colorful and striking. He makes paintings and collages that incorporate … well, almost everything: matchbooks, streets signs, words, faces, flowers. Most are passionately Chicago-centric and many feature birds.
“There is something calming about doing puzzles,” says Fitzpatrick, who has tried his mind at puzzles though he has yet to tackle crosswords. “The world has gone crazy and we need to escape, even for a few minutes. That’s why I come to this park, to get away from the news.”
Sitting with him is Nick Bubash. He is a sculptor, visual artist and tattoo artist who is another member of what Fitzpatrick has dubbed the “Goose Pack,” a gang of five or six others who regularly feed the birds in the park.
“I did have some bread,” Bubash says. “But I decided that today it was for me, not the ducks.”
Fitzpatrick, who is an ardent and knowledgeable bird person, says, “These ducks and birds are the best fed creatures in the city. But those geese here are like the Sopranos. They swim up and just take over the territory of the other birds.”
The park is relatively crowded with masked people.
“I think a lot of folks are discovering what a great park this is,” said Fitzpatrick.
Yes, people are discovering many things about the city, and about their lives during this time.
I ask the two artists about the future.
“Next time I come here, I’ll bring some bread,” says Bubash.
“I always bring food. I stole some of Gaby’s Cheerios for the ducks,” said Fitzpatrick. “The future? That’s tomorrow. I think past that and I do not know if I will ever be able to open my galleries. You’ve seen what they are like on opening nights — jammed, shoulder to shoulder. I just couldn’t live with myself if I was responsible for people getting sick.”
Talk turned to some brighter future possibilities.
For instance, Fitzpatrick is having a special puzzle made to benefit the Hideout; all proceeds will go to that unique venue and its employees. “I can’t imagine this city without this reliquary for artists,” says Fitzpatrick.
There is a book in the works: “Jesus of Western Ave,” featuring his art and writing with some new COVID-related pieces and words. He is talking with Ann Filmer, the artistic director of the 16th Street Theater, about collaborating on another play; they have done so successfully on four previous productions. Depending on the sales of the latest batch of puzzles — no one will get rich off this business — he expects to keep at it, intrigued that people “will be spending a lot of time with my work, more so than they might working past it on a wall.”
There is also exhibition of his art planned for the College of DuPage.
“When?” he says. “Who knows about any of that?”
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