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Tony Fitzpatrick’s ‘Nickel History’ centers on dads

Tony Fitzpatrick

Tony Fitzpatrick

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◆ July 19-Aug. 5

◆ Steppenwolf Garage, 1624 N. Halsted

◆ Tickets, $27

◆ (312) 335-1650;

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Updated: August 13, 2012 5:32PM

HE (Tony Fitzpatrick, 53, the internationally admired Chicago-bred artist, actor and poet), is a big bear of a man with a full wardrobe of tattoos, many fiercely held opinions, a boundless imagination, a unique hold on nostalgia and a carefully hidden heart of pure cane sugar.

SHE (Kristin Reeves, 35, a multimedia artist who, since 2005 has been contributing moving images to live solo and collaborative projects, including Fitzpatrick’s distinctive shows, “This Train” and “Stations Lost,” produced at the Steppenwolf Garage), is a petite woman with a flair for blurring the lines between poetry, documentary, portraiture, and social critique. And, as she puts it, “I can most often be found laser-cutting 16mm film and building experimental art installations with my always-expanding projector collection,” whether in Gainesville, Fla., where she is operations manager for the Florida Experimental Film/Video Festival or beyond.

Now, Reeves is engaging in her third artistic dialogue with Fitzpatrick as they prepare for the premiere of “Nickel History: The Nation of Heat,” the final installment of his trilogy — a verbal, visual and musical saga that thus far has dealt with hobos and the homeless, neighbors and friends, travel and the homefront, and, more generally, the world according to Tony.

Like its predecessors, “Nickel History,” opening July 19 at the Steppenwolf Garage in a co-production of the 16th Street Theater and Firecat Projects, will be directed by Ann Filmer, with Fitzpatrick joined by co-author Stan Klein, his longterm, Sancho Panza-like associate. Also on hand will be Chicago actress Carolyn Hoerdemann and musicians John Rice and Anna Fermin.

This time around the focus will be on dads. In 1943, both Tony and Stan’s fathers joined the military to serve their country in World War II — one sent to the Pacific, the other to Europe. Of course as anyone who has experienced the Fitzpatrick narrative style will tell you, there will be many detours in this tale.

“The idea here is really to look backward in order to look forward,” said Reeves. “One of the many anecdotes in the show concerns Tony’s uncle who would frequently tell him, ‘If you can get a nickel smarter every day you might eventually be worth a dollar.’ It’s about how men figure out the trajectory of their lives.”

The show focuses on a series of Fitzpatrick’s etchings rather than his widely admired collages (hand-painted cutouts and bits of ephemera mixed with his own richly imagistic poetry). So the trick has been to figure out how to express the differences in media, and to overlay past and present.

“With etchings you are, in a sense, using a process of destruction for your creativity rather than building up a surface as you do in making collages,” Reeves explained. “You are burning into a metal plate that becomes a negative. There is a sort of alchemy to it. The process also can be seen as a metaphor for the violence and tragedy throughout history. And on some level it also suggests the interesting relationship between fathers and sons.”

Reeves described her job as “devising a parallel narrative” for Fitzpatrick’s show which, as she described it, “was all part of the collaborative process of text-making in which Ann [Filmer] takes Tony’s writings and weaves them into a cohesive structure.”

She began by shooting about 40 minutes’ worth of grainy black and white 16 mm film from a car window — driving along Western Avenue from South 79th Street north to Touhy. She then did the same drive in reverse, shooting in video. (The final product will be projected as video, but it contains filmed footage that has been subjected to a special transfer process. Talk about layering.)

“The path I followed for shooting loosely covers the territory in Tony’s book, ‘Bum Town’,” said Reeves. “That book is about a journey he takes through Chicago with the ghost of his father, revisiting places, observing the changes, and remembering an uncle who died when he tried to jump a freight train during the Depression. The idea is to unite the poems, etchings and storytelling, and to make the whole thing elastic enough so that it can flow with the live performance. Our fabulous stage manager, Jennifer Aparicio, who has worked on all of Tony’s shows, can play all these components as if she were playing an instrument.”

Reeves noted that haiku — that very brief Japanese poetic form — has been a big inspiration for Fitzpatrick, and Hoerdemann will be reading some of Tony’s twists on the form.

“Tony talks a great deal about how artists bear witness,” said Reeves, who grew up in Indiana, lived in Chicago from 2004 to 2009, and has always loved the city. (She will return to Indiana this fall to serve as a visiting lecturer at Ball State University.)

“He believes artists weave the worlds of reality and fantasy together, and that they have the right to take liberties in the process. And it’s interesting: He is constantly telling stories, but he is so quiet and gentle when he’s drawing.”

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