Tony Fitzpatrick’s American Etchings is a projected series of some 50 prints based on the artist’s long-standing interest in the lost histories and cultures of the American past. In the tiny space of A Blue-Eyed Story he packs in ante-bellum New Orleans, Native Americans and hobos.
The wide-open, blue eye at the center of the image is encircled by a symbol from the Hobo Code: a green ring broken by two short arrows pointing outwards. Such marks were used by itinerant workers riding the rails in the mid-19th to early 20th century: some offered advice on where to find food or shelter, others were urgent warnings. This one, Fitzpatrick says, means: “Get Out Fast! Off the Tracks. Head For The Road.”
For Fitzpatrick, these symbols invoke dense historical narratives: after the Civil War, the railroads became a freeway for the unemployed and dispossessed as well as for union organizers. But where the labor organizers went, so went the cops, Pinkertons and railroad bulls. Trains were busted, and both hobos and organizers were beaten and killed. The innocuous green ring in The Blue-Eyed Story is an alarm bell: the train has been compromised and railroad bulls are hiding in wait.
Fitzpatrick is at core a storyteller. In addition to this small etching, A Blue-Eyed Story exists as a collage, an oral narrative and a brief essay on his website. All refer to William Faulkner’s short story Barn Burning: the collage is inscribed, “It is a story that ends with barns burning, and horses screaming, just trying to stay in the world.” The bright blue eye is joined by a long tear, dripping from the eye’s outer corner, which contrasts with the rays that Fitzpatrick has drawn shining out from the pupil.
1939 to 2012, from the Great Depression to the Great Recession: American workers remain caught up in the struggle for a better life. Bulls no longer hide in train cars to prevent workers from organizing, governors simply sign new laws. As in all his American Etchings, the background of A Blue-Eyed Story is strewn with symbols, artifacts, and metonyms pointing to another chapter of the story at hand, which Fitzpatrick will eventually untangle. Fitzpatrick wanders across the print surface, like hobos across the continent, leaving coded traces behind: the rainbow-colored balloons, the planted oar, the lampposts, the target-like marker and the green, antique cartography of roadmaps. This is the story of America.