Reimagining the American Goldfinch

Cultural icon Tony Fitzpatrick blends folk art with his bird obsession.

Tony Fitzpatrick’s first impression of a goldfinch was stunning. He was weeding dandelions in his father’s garden when he saw the songbird hit a window. He watched, enthralled, as it “jumped around like a drunken sailor,” regained its wits, and burst up and away. “In my six-year-old mind, I thought that he’d become part of the sun,” he says.

By that time, Fitzpatrick was already fascinated with birds, in large part thanks to his grandmother. “For a piece of bread you can hear God sing,” she would tell him as she fed jam and toast to the feathered visitors in the backyard.

He soon combined that interest in birds with a penchant for art, which sometimes landed him in trouble: Drawing avian heads on naked humans during class resulted in a suspension from Catholic school and a visit to a shrink. He kept at it, and over the decades, created a body of prints that fuse an array of mediums, such as etchings, watercolors, photos, comics, and words.

Today the 58-year-old Chicago artist’s work is more bird-obsessed than ever. Each of the four-dozen or so collages in his new book, The Secret Birds, blends personal history, folk art, regional artifacts, and pop culture to portray a different avian species. Behind the American Goldfinch, for example, Fitzpatrick artfully layered Japanese flowers, a haiku, the silhouette of his nature-loving grandmother, and a whimsical portrait of Steve Zissou, a kooky Wes Anderson character played by Bill Murray. He also inscribed in the collage a poem that stems from his childhood memory of watching the bird thrashing among the dandelions. The influence of John James Audubon’s own goldfinches is subtle and, in Fitzpatrick’s mind, inevitable. “The minute you make an image of a bird,” he says, “you make a dialogue with Audubon, whether you’re conscious of it or not.”

Unlike Audubon’s work, Fitzpatrick’s mosaics are more like scavenger hunts than field studies. In the introduction to Secret Birds, author Helen MacDonald notes that by injecting multiple streams of symbolism into his work, Fitzpatrick shows that one species can represent something different for every individual and culture. His portraits illustrate birds as “scraps of moving, animate life,” she writes. “The more you look at these pictures, the more things change and speak inside them.”

Fitzpatrick recently experienced some jarring changes himself. He had a heart attack midway through the making of the book, and almost nixed the project. But he came back and channeled his sentiments into a hopeful kingfisher, a ruthless Gyrfalcon, a romantic towhee, and an omniscient Short-eared Owl. He has a special affinity for the latter. When Fitzpatrick was 13, he and his sister raised an orphaned screech-owl they named Oliver. The artist would sketch it, feed it, and clean up the pellets it coughed up in his mother’s laundry. “He taught me to listen and how to wait, and most importantly, how to search,” Fitpatrick says. He, like so many others throughout history, gained a deep respect for the bird. “In nearly every culture, owls are fraught with symbolism,” he says. Just like Fitzpatrick’s art.

Click through the slideshow below to see more of Fitzpatrick's creations: