Briefly describe the work you do.
I am mainly a painter who dabbles in collage and drawing. The focus of my work in years past has explored stereotypes and oddities surrounding the ‘outdoorsman’ culture. A lot of my work deals with these stereotypes through a complex set of systems including silhouettes, collaged photos of ammunition casings, vibrant, pulsating, and disorienting color combinations, along with decorative patterns inspired by various traditional textiles produced around the world. Recently, I have been moving away from the silhouette as a central figure in the paintings and have begun playing around with pattern and mark making to express the ideas of expansive space and meditational states of mind.
Tell us a little about your background and how that influences you as an artist.
I grew up in a small rural town in Northern Wisconsin. I never felt like I related with the people and activities there. I guess I was always drawn to counter culture stuff like skateboarding, punk rock, and art. I gravitated toward doing things that gave me a rush of adrenaline. I remember as a young boy exploring the dark and mysterious places on my Aunt and Uncles dairy farm – it was such a great feeling to get lost in such a foreign space. I think the getting lost and rebellious nature of my past interests are a reflection of the dysfunction I was experiencing at home with divorced parents and the alienation I felt from my peers.
The concept of the “artist studio” has a broad range of meanings, especially in contemporary practice. The idea of the artist toiling away alone in a room may not necessarily reflect what many artists do from day to day anymore. Describe your studio practice and how it differs from (or is the same as) traditional notions of “being in the studio.”
My studio practice is more a traditional one I guess. I have white plywood walls that I hang paintings and drawings on as I work. Additionally, I have tables that I move around the space to accommodate my needs depending on what I’m doing. I generally like to paint on vertical walls but prefer the tables for laying out collages or doing certain types of drawing. On the days that I’m not teaching at the University, I will get started right away in the morning once the kids are at school. I typically mess around with e-mails and computer stuff while I get the coffee going. Then I will get to work – first taking in what was most recently done. Some days are easier than others to get going. Usually when I’m really excited about a painting I was working on the day before, it seems like I can’t get in there quickly enough. It’s important for me to be comfortable. I have a couch that I sit on and read books or look at stuff for inspiration.
What unique roles do you see yourself as the artist playing that you may not have envisioned yourself in when you first started making art?
I never really wanted to be didactic with my work and never really thought I would be attempting to create a social awareness for the people around me. My early years as a painter were really more personal and involved a world that was not necessarily so relevant for others. I guess it’s really humbling to hear someone tell me that my work is inspirational in some way or another. Being in that position where other artists are really engaged with what you’re doing and are willing to support it – that I guess is something I never really expected.
When do you find is the best time of day to make art? Do you have time set aside every day, every week or do you just work whenever you can?
I think like most people, I work when I can. Now that both of our kids are in school, I have the opportunity to work during the day, which is what I prefer. I used to have to work late at night all the time and that can take a toll on you after awhile. On the days that I don’t have to be at the University, I just get studio time all day. Very often, I will get back in the studio after dinner and sometimes work into the late hours of the night. I find that I am most productive during the workweek and tend to do more family things during the daytime on the weekends.
How has your work changed in the last five years? How is it the same?
My paintings five years ago were so different from what I’m doing today. My process used to be much more organic, ‘painterly,’ and free flowing. I used to work on the floor a lot, pooling washes of paint onto the canvases. The work was very abstract and was about the abandoned, post-industrial landscape of Milwaukee’s downtown areas that I was exploring (sometimes illegally).
The work I am doing more recently seems to be the polar opposite. I find myself measuring out the collage elements, arranging them and the other painted elements in a specific organized fashion. The work now gravitates toward balance and symmetry much more than before. I could never say that I didn’t make conscious decisions with placement or color choices in the older work but it definitely was more left up for chance than what I’m doing today. Because of my tendency to create such order with the patterns I am using now, I have to sometimes force myself to ‘let go.’ I am enjoying the unexpected outcomes of this approach and I feel it opens up the work quite a bit. The two different bodies of work may look very different visually but they do still embody my interests in altered states of the mind and exhibit meditative qualities – this all comes back to my escapist tendencies from childhood.
Are there people such as family, friends, writers, philosophers or even pop icons that have had an impact on the work you do?
Of course my family and friends influence the way I create and position the work that I make. Seeing my two children growing up and their unlimited curiosity for how things work inspires me to keep asking questions and digging deeper into my own understanding about the world. My wife Lillie continues to teach me about patience and the virtues that come with it. My younger brother David has taught me so much about deer hunting culture and has given me a more complex perspective on its moral and poetic implications. My friends and colleagues will often times come by the studio to see what’s going on – offering criticism and comments that I take to heart as I work on into the future.
If you had an occupation outside of being an artist, what would that be and why?
I really can’t imagine doing something entirely different. I guess I would be a fly-fishing guide in Colorado or Montana. Being out in the Rock Mountain backcountry is an endless source of inspiration for me. I can’t think of anything more meditative than being deep in the wild backcountry and seeing beautiful native trout. There is something so peaceful and invigorating about hiking through that environment that never gets old to me.
Tony Conrad received his MFA degree in painting and drawing from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 2009. Currently, Conrad is a Lecturer of Art at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin. Conrad’s work has been exhibited nationally in various solo and group exhibitions and has won a number of awards including the Lawrence Rathsack Scholarship and the Frederick R. Layton Fellowship. Recently, his paintings have been exhibited at the Museum of Wisconsin Art in West Bend, the Frank Juarez Gallery in Sheboygan, WI, as well as the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art in Madison, WI.
All images copyright of the artist and used with their permission.