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A Life Story: The Creative Magic of Art Fitzpatrick

by | Oct 4, 2017 | Art Fitzpatrick, Heroes and Icons

“Masquerade” by Art Fitpatrick and Van Kaufman. Used with permission.

Editor’s note: My husband Martin and I have been fortunate to spend time with “Fitz” and interviewing him as I prepare to write his biography. In his 70+ years of designing and creating indelible images, Art Fitzpatrick has been a master at recreating himself, reinventing his creative career path over decades and forging new platforms for artists and their work. He will always be a legend in the world of automotive art and design

Arthur M. (“Fitz”) Fitzpatrick, Jr.

Arthur Matthews Fitzpatrick (“Fitz” to all) was a noted artist, automobile designer, most famed for his long career in automotive art and automobile advertising. He and creative partner Van Kaufman most notably produced the artwork for the thirteen-year run of the Pontiac “Wide-Track” campaign from 1959-1972, the longest and arguably the most successful ad campaign in the American automobile history. With a unique and instantly recognizable “look”, the campaign is still studied as a teaching subject in automotive design and advertising curriculum.

Art Fitzpatrick was the recipient of numerous automotive and advertising industry awards and honors. In 2012 he received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena where he had been a guest lecturer since 1965. He was an honorary member of the Automotive Fine Art Society (AFAS) which has a perpetual award named in his honor given annually at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance each August.

Early life

Art Fitzpatrick Jr. was born in Nebraska in 1918 and raised in Chicago. Of Irish, French-Canadian and German ancestry, he was the grandson of famed architect Francis W. Fitzpatrick (1863-1931). His parents were Arthur M. Fitzpatrick, Sr. (1890-1990), a very successful commercial artist, and Lula C. Fitzpatrick (nee Kern) (1897-1986). Members of Chicago’s famed Bohemian Club, Art was their only child.

Art’s artistic talent was recognized early. By age 5 he had won a prize in a blinded oil painting competition where the all the other entrants were adults! Bent on a career in art and design, Art dropped out of high school in his senior year to attend the Art School of  the Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts (now the College for Creative Studies Detroit) for a several months in 1936-37. He is listed among their distinguished alumni.

Artistic talent ran deep in the family. In addition to those mentioned above, Art’s first cousin is pioneer Ballet Theater (now American Ballet Theater) dancer Sono Osato (1919-  ) daughter of his Aunt Frances Fitzpatrick and Omaha photographer Shoji Osato. Art’s first cousin once removed is the installation artist and painter also named Sono Osato (1960- ).

Early Career through WWII

Fitz’s first job was as a draftsman at the Briggs Body Company in Detroit under designer John Tjaarda in 1937. In 1938 his father, Arthur Fitzpatrick Sr., took a position with the Walt Disney Studios in the animation department. Fitz, unable to resist the opportunity to see California, resigned his position at Briggs and headed west.

Spying a custom-bodied Packard Convertible Victoria outside a workshop on Sunset Blvd on his second day in California led Fitz to meeting automobile designer Howard A. “Dutch” Darrin. Darrin immediately hired Art as lead stylist after seeing his portfolio. Major projects undertaken during the next year saw Fitzpatrick designing the one off Packard Darrin Sport Sedan and the more numerous Packard Darrin Convertible Sedans. Both were subsequently produced  for the 1940 model year.

In late 1939 financial considerations saw Fitzpatrick return to Detroit. After a brief stint in the Hudson design department he went to work at the Packard Motor Company also in car design. There he spent time working with designers such as Walter Gubitz and John Reinhardt. Projects he worked on included redesign of the Packard Clipper grille (a design that appeared after WWII), adaptation of the Packard crest and even designing a plastic car! This last design effort appeared in an Esquire Magazine article in October 1941 on new materials to be used in future car manufacture.

Advertising Career

After Naval service during WWII, Fitz shifted to automobile advertising illustration as an independent contractor. Initially sought out by independent automobile manufacturers such as Nash and Rambler he was then courted by each of the “Big Three” auto manufacturers and their ad agencies. In the early 1950’s Fitzpatrick teamed up with Van Kaufman, a friend and former animator at Walt Disney Studios.  Their method for creating an ad was such that Fitzpatrick illustrated the automobile while Kaufman did the backdrops and figurative work. The ads are highly stylized and instantly recognizable. The cars are rarely in motion (“All cars move!” Fitzpatrick dryly noted during lectures).  Rather they are placed foreground in evocative locations (European, country club, marina); and in shadow, weather, or at evening or night. The purpose was to suggest a story or vignette with a stylish car and glamorous people at the center.

The signature “AF/VK” appears on their numerous collaborations, most notably for the legendary 1960’s ad agency, McManus, John & Adams on behalf of their client, Pontiac.

During the Pontiac “Wide-Track” campaign of 1959-1972, Pontiac automobile sales climbed from 7th place overall to 3rd. Thus a single division of GM technically displaced the Chrysler Corporation as one of the “Big Three” in this era. Pontiac was unique in continuing to use automobile illustration in their advertisements during this time, an approach championed by Fitzpatrick’s friend Pontiac V-P (and later Pontiac division head), John DeLorean. All other U.S. automobile advertising (and all other divisions of GM including McManus’ client, Cadillac) had long since switched to photography.

Later Career and “Rediscovery”

Mr. Fitzpatrick left advertising and his long time base in Connecticut “retiring” to San Diego California in 1978. There he inadvertently began a new career in real estate development after initially investing in some apartment units in the Carlsbad area. He did, however, continue to draw and paint. He also designed the architectural facades on numerous apartment complexes he and his partners later constructed as well as designing all graphics and layouts for the partnership’s literature and brochures.

In 1996 Art was contacted and discovered (“still alive”) by Automotive Fine Art Society president Ken Eberts. Fitzpatrick then re-entered the world of automotive illustration, painting as well as teaching and lecturing.

Art designed two series of 1950’s themed automobile stamps for the United States Postal Service in 2005 and 2008. Both were top selling commemorative issues for the USPS.

Fitz also continued to lecture widely, appearing at the ArtCenter College of Deign, Center For Creative Studies in Detroit in 2014, and the Gilmore Car Museum in Michigan in June 2015 to name just two late examples. Mr. Fitzpatrick donated his vast archive to the Gilmore Car Museum in Kalamazoo, Michigan in 2014.

Mr. Fitzpatrick gave what proved to be his final lecture at the Automobile Driving Museum in El Segundo, California on October 31, 2015 and was in fine form that day. He passed away after a very brief illness on 16 November 2015, just eight days short of his 97th birthday.

Mr. Fitzpatrick wrote a column entitled Design Wise with Michelle A.H. Cousineau from 2012-2014 where he discussed pre-war Classic Era automobile styling.

During 2011-2015 a series of recorded oral histories were made by Art Fitzpatrick with Michelle A.H. Cousineau to provide the basis for a forthcoming biography.

The biography, also entitled Design Wise, is expected in 2018, the centenary of Art Fitzpatrick’s birth.

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From the archives: in a 2014 interview with Michelle and Martin Cousineau, Art Fitzpatrick discusses his career in automotive art and design and the notable moments along the way.

A Life Story: The Creative Magic of Art Fitzpatrick

Arthur Matthews Fitzpatrick (“Fitz” to all) was a noted artist, automobile designer, most famed for his long career in automotive art and automobile advertising.

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