Glenn ‘Fitzy’ Fitzpatrick grew up just along the road from me in Gravesend. He is now quite well known for his art. But if his name is not familiar to you yet, you may have seen his work, pretty much all of which is inspired in some way by his experiences as a trooper with the Queen’s Royal Irish Hussars during the first Gulf war in 1991.
I bought this map of Gravesend off him a while ago.
From Gravesend to the desert
Although Fitzy was noticed at school for his exceptional drawing skills, a career as an artist was nowhere on his radar at that time. Instead, at the age of 17, he left home and, like his father and other family members, joined the army. Seven months later he found himself on the way to Iraq after Kuwait was invaded by Saddam Hussein.
Fitzy’s outfit spent six months training in the desert before Operation Desert Storm kicked off. ‘By then we were so bored, we were desperate for some action,’ Fitzy remembers. ‘There was no TV, no local shops, you couldn’t do anything other than just embrace sand life.’
To pass the time, Fitzy started drawing little cartoons on the military hardware. ‘I started with a little motif of a desert rat with a samurai sword on the side of our tank,’ he says. ‘Senior ranks really liked it and asked if I’d mind drawing something on their tanks and before I knew it I was drawing on tanks and even missiles in exchange for sweets and cigarettes.’
One officer, impressed by Fitzy’s talent, asked him if he’d thought about going to Art School. He hadn’t, but it planted a seed in Fitzy’s mind.
The realities of war when they came – the fighting lasted for just four days – were devastating for Fitzy. Driving a converted tank, his job was to get casualties to safety. Among those casualties were friends and colleagues, killed and mutilated in the battle.
‘It was all too much for me,’ Fitzy explains. ‘I went into the war quite gung-ho, but I was just 18 and, apart from watching films, I’d never experienced anything like that.’
But perhaps the most shocking and confusing aspects of the war for young Fitzy were his encounters with the enemy. He describes seeing two captured, badly injured Iraqi soldiers at an allied field hospital. They were holding on to each other, crying. And he was deeply affected by an encounter with an Iraqi man found in ‘a shocking state’, in the desert at the end of the war. The prisoner, terrified that he would be shot, offered Fitzy his watch in exchange for his life.
‘I could see such fear in him that it broke my heart,’ Fitzy recalls. ‘He wasn’t anything like what I expected my enemy to be like. It brought back my humanity. I thought, “My fight isn’t against you”.’
Fitzy fed the prisoner who, as he began to recover, introduced himself as Saddam. He asked if the war was over.
‘When I said “yes”, he put his fingers to his head in a gun-like gesture and asked if Saddam Hussein was dead,’ Fitzy remembers. ‘I was embarrassed to have to tell him “no” and to my surprise, Saddam began to cry. It made me realise that this man didn’t want to fight. He only ever wanted to be at home with his children.’
At the end of the first Gulf War, Kuwait was liberated but there was no push on to Baghdad to overthrow the government. Saddam Hussein, having surrendered, was allowed to remain in power. In Fitzy’s opinion, the war had been a failure because it had failed to stop a tyrant, and it played on his mind.
‘I have always believed, along with so many men out, there that we, as a peace-keeping force, should have removed the evil dictator,’ he says. ‘The time was perfect and we were close enough to Baghdad and ready for extraction. What was the point of liberating Kuwait and saying, “Off you go, don’t do it again Saddam” Did our leaders really think that, given time, he would be good to do business with?’
Fitzy is now completely anti-war. He did not support the 2003 invasion of Iraq and joined in the mass protests in London in the run up to the attack on Baghdad.
‘I love the environment. I believe in equality and I’m absolutely sick of the wrong-doing that average people in this world are suffering at the hands of the few,’ he declares.
From soldier to art student
When Fitzy left the army, because of his experiences in Iraq, he found it really difficult to adjust to civilian life. He had nightmares, struggled with relationships and avoided talking about his experiences to his family and friends in case he upset them.
After drifting into a series of temporary jobs, including a spell tarmacking with gypsies in Spain, an old friend, now at Art School, persuaded Fitzy to come along to an open day. He loved it and that seed planted by the senior officer when Fitzy was drawing on tanks in the desert, began to germinate.
Now there was no stopping him. Fitzy signed up for an Art Foundation Course and then went on to study for a degree in fine art and then, finally, a Masters at the University for the Creative Arts (UCA) in Canterbury, Kent. https://www.uca.ac.uk/
‘It ignited something in me that I’d been suppressing for a long time,’ Fitzy explains. ‘Somewhere deep down, I knew I was going to be an artist. I was just too afraid of it.’
He talks about his decision to become an artist as a kind of ‘coming out’. ‘It’s like it’s inside you, you can’t get it out and you can’t turn it down,’ he explains. ‘Even when you’re working full time you come home and you still want to do it. That’s when you know it’s never going to go away.’
During his time at Art College, aged 27 now, Fitzy started experiencing blinding headaches. An MRI scan revealed a life-threatening cyst on the carotid artery under the base of his brain. The cyst was removed in a nine hour operation. He woke up with a new determination to make the most of his life and began to draw, documenting his illness in a series of frenetic black and white pen drawings.
From art student to …what?
After leaving the army, Art college had provided some welcome structure and security in Fitzy’s life. But when his studies were over, once again, he found it hard to adjust to daily life. He was drinking and the stress of the war, of major surgery and a badly broken leg acquired in a road accident began to affect his mental health.
‘I was no longer A1 fit and I felt that I would be a liability to any employer,’ Fitzy explains. ‘My self-esteem was at an all-time low. I felt very much alone. I’d lost touch with my army friends and everyone at art school had disappeared off home.’
It was time to seek help. Fitzy was offered professional counselling by a mental health charity for ex-servicemen Combat Stress https://www.combatstress.org.uk/ ‘That place came to my rescue and even more so, the people and comrades that I met there,’ Fitzy recalls. ‘We were all on common ground and could laugh and cry at our experiences. Just knowing I had somewhere to turn in times of trouble gave me a fresh start and a light at the end of the tunnel.’
Artist and author
In 2009, with a new commitment to pursue a life as an artist, Fitzy published a graphic novel Arts and Mines – Hell and beyond: A personal odyssey. It’s a great book, full of (true) anecdotes from Fitzy’s colourful and interesting life. One moment it’s funny and the next it’s tragic – a bit like army humour Fitzy says – and it’s illustrated throughout with Fitzy’s brilliant and insightful drawings, including those dark sketches he did while he was ill. Unfortunately the book is out of print at the moment, but I managed to get a copy second hand.
Fitzy says that working on the book enabled him to get his demons out. ‘It’s brought me closure,’ he explains. ‘I can leave this book in my past and I can run as far away from it as I choose.’
He is now working on a second graphic novel picking up his life story where the first one ended. There is a lot more to tell. ‘I never seem to have a normal life,’ Fitzy laughs. But if you want to read it, you will have to wait for a bit. Fitzy expects it will be another five years until it is ready to be published.
Art as communication
Before the publication of Arts and Mines, Fitzy had struggled to express his experiences, feelings and opinions in words. The process of writing the book showed him the power of art to communicate, not only his own experiences but also to explore current issues, such as power, conflict, consumerism, and the environment, which have always interested him.
‘Through art, I found I had a louder voice but without words,’ Fitzy declares. ‘I could go straight in and give a visual account of the state of society. And I was able to reach out beyond myself. Even when I’m absent, when the art is on display, it’s still doing that communicating.’
One of his first works, a sculpture called Symbol of society, reflects Fitzy’s belief that many wars are motivated by oil. Exploring the analogy between sticking a bayonet into the enemy and sticking a pump nozzle into a car to refuel, Fitzy attached a knife to the end of a petrol pump, to make a ‘weapon. He fixed his Gulf War medal (‘I wasn’t proud of it’) to the top of the pump in place of the energy company logo. This piece became the first weapon in Fitzy’s ‘armoury’, a large body of military inspired work that has been central to his exhibitions.
Through the armoury, Fitzy has been able to explore other issues that concern him. After the Charlie Hebdo magazine shootings in France in 2015, Fitzy added a machine gun sculpture made out of used pens, called The pen is mightier than the sword.
‘I thought, people are being killed by a bloody machine gun because of something they wrote,’ Fitzy exclaims. ‘I wanted to explore the line between freedom of speech and the freedom to offend.’
Gradually, over time, Fitzy’s armoury has increased. More recently, he has referenced environmental concerns, using discarded nitrous oxide canisters to make a series of knights’ helmets. All this, alongside numerous detailed drawings, mainly in black and white.
The Armoury Project came full circle for Fitzy, when he visited the armoury at the Wallace Collection in London for the first time. https://www.wallacecollection.org/collection/
‘It was breathtaking!’ he exclaims. ‘It solidified the armoury project for me. I realised that I had a contemporary version of what they had. I’ve got drawings and weapons too, but it’s all for art, not war.’
Send in the clowns
Recently, Fitzy has made the move from Canterbury up to London. ‘I just felt the need to kick myself up a gear, keep my brain running and add a bit of colour to my life,’ he says.
Apart from his book illustrations, most of Fitzy’s drawings have been in black and white. But his latest series, featuring clowns, are full of colour. They are inspired by a group of hairdressing clowns Tuttii Fruittii in Deptford, where Fitzy lives. If you’re interested, this video is a good watch https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MNuO57EyfNs
‘I was looking for a way to move on from black and white to colour and to incorporate everything I’d done before,’ Fitzy explains. ‘I got to know these girls and they’re quite inspirational. They liked my art and they had me do little drawings of them, in exchange for free haircuts!’
Although this new work looks very different from Fitzy’s previous art, he sees it as a progression. ‘It has allowed me to step outside the military genre and look at other things, but it is also part of a continuum,’ he explains. ’In part it’s a comment on the people running the country – I can pick on Boris Johnson quite easily. But it’s more than that. In the military we used to use camouflage cream, so this is more about the armour or camouflage that we all wear. We all have our own guises, our alter egos – make up, how we dress – and I wanted to explore how that changes our perceptions of each other.’
Now Fitzy is working up to an exhibition of his work, which will feature pieces from the armoury and his clowns. ‘You’ll be able to move from one end of the room and see a knife with a petrol pump, and then to the other end to see the clowns,’ Fitzy explains. ‘And it’s all threaded together, part of an elongated life narrative.’
Certainly Fitzy has been through some dark times but he feels that things are looking up. ‘I’m in what I consider to be one of the brightest times of my life now,’ he says. ‘I’m finding people who wear their own armour and I think, “Wow that’s beautiful, can I paint that.” Yeah, that’s where I’m at.’
If you’d like to find out more about Fitzy’s art try here:
Facebook: Glenn Fitzy Fitzpatrick https://www.facebook.com/fitzy593
Arts and Mines- Hell and beyond: A personal odyssey was published by Aerocomm in 2009.
If you are quick you can see some examples of Fitzy’s work in an exhibition Delirium he is curating at the Ridley Road Social Club in Dalston, London E8.
It runs until 16th March 2020, Monday- Saturday 10am – 9pm. https://www.facebook.com/events/2562548180534728/