Jim FitzPatrick, Celtic Artist.
The self-professed “eccentric voice that questions everything,” Jim Fitzpatrick, is far more than a Celtic artist.
We know him for his beautiful artwork depicting heroes, gods and goddesses of Irish mythology and his album cover artwork for Thin Lizzy, Led Zepplin, Donovan and T Rex to name a few. Fitzpatrick is also a writer, photographer and historian. The portrait of this artist is as complex and intricate as the Celtic art he creates.
Fitzpatrick grew up in Skerries, north of Dublin. The grandson of Thomas Fitzpatrick, the Victorian illustrator who produced drawings and cartoons for ‘Punch’ and ‘The New York Gaelic American.’
The recent passing of a grand aunt promoted a cousin to gift Fitzpatrick some of his grandfather’s work.
“The proportions were exactly the same as mine. Big loud sort of baroque Victorian borders around a centrally placed religious theme,” Fitzpatrick said.
Fitzpatrick’s first painting was of a yacht sinking out at sea, struck by lightening. Then four or five years old, Fitzpatrick was trans-fixed by ball lightening which hovered at the mast and then dissipated. He tried to capture the scene in his first painting using his own father’s paints and brushes.
Fitzpatrick’s talent grew during many bouts of childhood illnesses that left him bedridden. A coughing fit resulted in an extended hospital stay and a diagnosis of T.B. His mother and aunt told him stories about heroes from Irish mythology during this two-year ordeal. American comics also helped to pass the time whilst he recovered at Peamount Sanatorium.
Fitzpatrick progressed into advertising and remained there for over seven years, “enjoying every minute of it,” he said and made an excellent living. At one point he was making more than the president of Ireland.
Once described as “the most eloquent Irish poet to ever wield a paint brush,” it was not a paintbrush, but a process called silk-screening which brought Fitzpatrick into public view.
In 1968 Fitzpatrick self financed and produced over a thousand posters of Alberta Korda’s now famous photograph of Argentinean born Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara.
Fitzpatrick met Guevara in 1962. Fitzpatrick was working as a barman in a hotel in Killkee, County Clare. Guevara was on an enforced stopover at Shannon airport.
“When he walked into the bar I recognized him immediately as I was a fervent admirer of Guevara,” Fitzpatrick said.
The two conversed, the meeting engrained in Fitzpatrick’s memory. Guevara was surprised that anyone recognized him.
“Not only did I recognize him, but I also recognized his bodyguards, the Cuban revolutionaries Willy and Benjamin, who later died in Bolivia by his side,” Fitzpatrick said.
Guevara explained his Irish background; his grandmother was Lynch from Cork. He did not know a great deal about Irish history except that Ireland was the first country to break free from the British Empire.
“I was more curious about the Irish-Argentinean connection”, Fitzpatrick said.
To Che Guevara, the Irish-Argentinean communities were wealthy conservatives. “Beggars on Horseback”, Fitzpatrick said. “Polo playing Gauchos”, Guevara called them according to Fitzpatrick.
“I was so struck by him that years later I produced a very strange quasi-psychedelic drawing of him to commemorate his arrival in Bolivia,” Fitzpatrick said.
The silk screening process Fitzpatrick implemented in his treatment of the original Korda photo captured something in the public psyche and catapulted Fitzpatrick’s artistic career.
Fitzpatrick believes the Che Guevara image has come to symbolize martyrdom, which he says, “is an unpopular word nowadays.”
In popular culture the Che image has appeared in one of The Black Eyed Peas music videos, comedian Ricky Gervais emulated the silk-screened pose for promotion of his comedy tour ‘Politics.’ More recently, American artist Shepherd Fairey, uses Fitzpatrick’s Che image to promote the ‘Progress’ image of Barack Obama.
“A professor from Stanford overlapped the image of Obama and Che and compared them. The difference in the eyes, the elevated gaze,” Fitzpatrick said.
The image is not popular in every part of the world.
“It was banned in Poland and they can pull you off the streets in China if you wear a
t-shirt with the image on it. For these people it has come to represent the old order,” Fitzpatrick said.
The Irish government is assisting Fitzpatrick to attain full copyright of the Che image. Currently he has copyright by default. Once the issue of copyright has been resolved, profits from the sale of the poster will go to charity.
Fitzpatrick vowed to draw and paint what he wanted to and left his lucrative career in advertising. Work from his Celtia series and Thin Lizzy kept him afloat.
The Celtia series, his best-known work, motivates continued interest in Celtic Mythology. Fitzpatrick’s childhood, partly based in County Clare, enthused the youth with visions of Irish myths. His aunt would leave a bowl of milk out for the fairies every night.
“All these strange habits, at the age of 12 or 13, I was totally absorbed by them,” Fitzpatrick said.
The Children of Lir was “drilled” into him he said, and begins to recite the beginning of the myth in perfect Irish.
Fitzpatrick imagined the Celtia series initially in Japanese Manga art style. In May of 1973 a vision changed that decision.
Described on the artist’s website, the vision is terrifying and negative. From this vision, the most intricate, bold and unique Irish artwork evolved.
“Unfortunately it was my one and only vision,” Fitzpatrick said.
The artwork in the Celtia series is influenced by the Book of Kells, the work of British artist Aubrey Beardsley, Czechoslovakian artist Alphonse Mucha, Austrian artist Gustav Klimpt, and Japanese artists Utagawa Kuniyoshi and Utagawa Hirosighe. The list displays Fitzpatrick’s awareness and respect for international artists.
The artist’s own personal favorites among the many beautiful images from Celtia are Morpheus the Druid, Diarmuid and Ghrainne and Conann and the Fianna.
In 1977, Fitzpatrick moved his wife and three children to America. By 1997 Fitzpatrick was back in Ireland. Paper Tiger, the company that had commissioned him to do Erin Saga, The Book of Conquests and The Silver Arm had gone into liquidation. Fitzpatrick had earned nothing from his collaboration with the company.
“My son loves the work,” he said, “He loves the books, the way I write. He wants to pin me down and I’ve kind of agreed that I’m going to spend the first three months of 2010 writing the third volume. Once he has me, I’m hooked,” and added, “I’ll be doing the painting as well.”
Fitzpatrick hopes that the Celtia series has added to the growing interest in Irish Mythology.
“It used to annoy the hell out of me when I was in history in school, that the entire history of Ireland up to the historical age was simply dismissed as fantasy. Only one paragraph in the history books about it!,” Fitzpatrick said.
“The earlier stuff is the richest part of our heritage,” he said and continued the history lesson describing the five invasions of Ireland. The first inhabitants were moors, “not quite the lily white Irish.” The international influence does not end there.
“Your classic Irish word ‘shamrock’ is not an Irish word at all. It is a Berber word meaning plant with three foils,” he said.
Fitzpatrick celebrates the “extraordinary cultural heritage” of Ireland.
“It is rubbish to say that we are all one species,” Fitzpatrick said and added,“The Celtic race, people don’t understand how widespread they were.”
Religion loops and threads its way into the dialogue. Fitzpatrick recalls a priest who compared a painting of the Virgin Mary on clouds to a painting of the Celtic goddess Eire done by Fitzpatrick himself. Initially Fitzpatrick was appalled when the priest pointed out that the artwork showed religious iconography influence.
“He was quite right. It seeps into you and I was unaware of the influence until he pointed it out,” Fitzpatrick said.
Fitzpatrick is deeply affected by all the scandals that have rocked the Catholic Church.
“Artists understand the meaning of loss,” he said. “We have lost something beautiful with all the scandals, the artists will rescue it. The Catholic Church gave us a three dimensional world full of beautiful imagery that seeped into us,” Fitzpatrick said.
Fitzpatrick acknowledges all the good the church has done too.
“The church kept us alive during Imperialistic British rule, we do owe them something. They betrayed us though, we didn’t betray them.” Fitzpatrick said and mentions Catholic martyr Oliver Plunkett .
“Its people like that, dying for people like me. I’m staying,” he said.
Fitzpatrick’s relationship with Thin Lizzy front man, Phil Lynott was a close one. Both were abandoned by their fathers, and raised in homes surrounded by women.
Fitzpatrick called “Phillip” his “best friend.”
“The Philip that I remember to this day was full of life and energy; black, beautiful and charismatic; kind, gentle and generous,” Fitzpatrick said.
Surrounded by powerful strong-minded women in his formative years, Fitzpatrick pays homage to these beautiful women in his current project, Mostly Women, inspired by the beautiful women he saw walking down Grafton Street in Dublin.
“I thought I should paint them,” Fitzpatrick said and is considering returning to the Celtia style, but using real women in his artwork.
Jim Fitzpatrick’s dream is to find a gallery in County Clare to house his collection, paying homage to another powerful woman in his life, his mother. Clare is his mother’s home county.
Jim Fitzpatrick sells prints of his paintings directly from his website; http://www.jimfitzpatrick.ie/