Art, Pedagogy, and Self-Actualization with Antonia Contro

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In some ways I see you as a modern day, female Moholy-Nagy. How do you connect your experience growing and running Marwen for nearly twenty-five years with your artistic expression?

So much of my personal evolution has been about realizing that being a whole artist involves much more than working in isolation in my studio. It is about how I conduct my life, both in and out of the studio; and the recognition that my artistic practice is equally about collaborative partnership. Yes, I make, and deeply value making, discrete art works but my talent and practice are also about bringing people from diverse experience and disciplines into creative dialogue and “co” production. In that sense, I am a curator and producer as well. 

I generate projects which I invite other artists, thinkers, and makers to participate in. I am fueled by the question of what, if we imagined and made together, we could create; and by the belief that what we forge collaboratively can be more complex and compelling because it contains all our voices, skills, experiences, and aspirations.
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Creative practice for me is not just about making an image or an object but about all the research, experiences, encounters, and thinking that lead to the artistic output, the “thing.” The monolithic artist in the studio, creating in a vacuum, is a throwback to an anachronistic model.


I would feel hubristic to compare myself to Moholy. That said, I have always admired how Moholy "was" in the world—his tireless experimentation, his spirited collaboration, his commitment to education and learning, his idealism and energy. 

In my case, teaching led me to arts management and ultimately to arts leadership. In all these roles, I was conscious of bringing design thinking and collaboration into my work. The way I work in the studio shaped my management style, and I certainly drafted many of the skills learned in industry to studio management. I  urged my staff and colleagues to think out of the box, to be conscious of practical realties but to always consider how those restrictions could open up creative directions and solutions.

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I am fueled by the question of what, if we imagined and made together, we could create; and by the belief that what we forge collaboratively can be more complex and compelling because it contains all our voices, skills, experiences, and aspirations.

Can you talk about your current project--the book?

For the past two years, I have been working in collaboration with poet Elizabeth Bradfield on a visual and literary book entitled Theorem. Through, spare images, distilled text, and the resonant space between, Theorem investigate the legacy of secrets acquired in childhood and held through a life. Theorem will be released this fall by fine arts publisher Candor Arts in a limited edition of 30, and a trade edition will be published by Poetry Northwest in 2020. 


"As soon as they committed to collaborating, the perfect pairing of Bradfield and Contro’s aesthetic sensibilities— rigorous, spare, redolent-- began to materialize on paper. Consummate artists with unquestionable command of their separate vocabularies, their barrier-free interplay of words and images provokes associations, connected yet never literal, accessible but fluid. “I’m still trying to map it,” Bradfield writes at some point. Me too.  Just as it should be."     Philip Yenawine, arts writer, educator and former director of education, Museum of Modern Art

Theorem has spawned a transdisciplinary collaboration including violinist Clara Lyon, composer Eliza Brown, animator Joseph E. Merideth. We are currently working on a performed version of Theorem, to be premiered at Farnsworth House in September of 2020.



Why is collaboration key to your work?  

I value collaboration for many reasons; these two are core: because I learn from others, and because if conducted with generosity of spirit, care, and a shared goal, the product is almost always deeper, richer, better.


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I love visiting your studio because it feels more like a constantly evolving gallery as opposed to merely a workspace. What inspires you on the day to day?


My studio is a place where I make objects but it has also become a sort of salon, where I gather my collaborative partners and others who inspire. It sometimes serves as a staging space, and a place where I invite collectors and colleagues for a particular kind of immersive encounter. 

I am a personality of extremes and dualities. Though I love the concept of inspiration, and seek it, I abide by rigor and discipline. What I have been able to achieve over the arc of my career has mostly to do with showing up, day in and out. Inspiration is elusive—hard to pin down and plan for. Ideas most often come from paying attention; and most often from what you catch in your periphery versus what you see straight ahead. It can appear and disappear in a nanosecond, and might be a microscopic detail. To that, I say always live and conduct your life in a state of heightened observation and awareness, remain open to nuance, and lead with a generosity of spirit.

Katerina Liakos