I read Theorem in the bathtub. My feet were propped up as I made sure I didn’t get the bottom of the pages wet (a bad habit I have). The book opens with an image of a red cube and an off-white cylinder. “At 13, I fell in love with the tidy solution of geometry,” reads the text. Theorem is not what you may expect from a book of poems. The long text is a push-pull relationship between writer and artist. The reader is immediately thrown into the conversation between two artists, separated by distance. Elizabeth Bradfield‘s text poses life’s questions, while Antonia Contro‘s drawings, watercolors, and collages reference time and travel. In a year so hectic, so traumatic, I found myself pausing for the first time in what felt like months. While holding this book, I think I found the ability to relax.
Bradfield and Contro were friends for many years before they began their collaboration. Bradfield, located in Massachusetts, and Contro, located in Chicago, were introduced through a mutual friend. “Different as our worlds were, we recognized one another as dedicated artists who also lived in other worlds and, indeed, who valued those other worlds,” explains Bradfield.
For years, the pair talked about collaborating. “Then, in 2017, when Antonia was on Cape Cod, she handed me a maquette [a mock-up] of a book she’d made from her journals for another project,” Bradfield says. “I think she said, ‘What about this?’ She went upstairs to her studio space in the temporary rental, I settled in on the couch below, and, ‘Yes,’ I thought. ‘This could be the thing.'”
When Contro traveled back to Chicago, she left Bradfield the book. After ignoring it for days, and eventually months, she began to write in a dune shack in Provincelands. From her writings, she explains that she tried to find a genuine story to engage with. “And from that, Theorem was born,” she says.
I ask Contro the same question about their collaboration and friendship. I’m interested in how Theorem came to fruition, how these two artists decided to work together. Contro explains that when she left Bradfield the book, she wanted her to sit and ponder it. “Later that fall, she sent the book back to me—accompanied by text she had written in response to my images. It took my breath away.” Conversations, planning, collaboration, and years of ruminating were put into Theorem. It is a very intentional art project and it’s clear when turning each page.
In much of Bradfield’s text, she questions childhood memory. Alongside a drawing of a mountain and clouds, Bradfield writes, “We lived on the west side of the western mountains yet / I don’t really remember rain. / (I am very good at forgetting. I still am).” This particular image strikes me—both the drawing and the text—as I grew up in Appalachia, in the foothills where it seldom snows. I’m back there again for two months, taking care of some family business, and it’s currently snowing heavily outside of my window. Last week, I had to abandon my car on the side of the road because it wouldn’t make it up the mountain. As a child, I don’t remember any of this. As a teenager, I only remembered rain. When reading Bradfield’s words, I’m struck by our childhood memories: what we choose to remember and what we don’t. How are our memories formed? How do we choose what we want to permanently stay?
With memory, comes the feeling of loss. Whether that’s between Bradfield and her sisters, or the mystery of what once was, themes of loss and secrets recur throughout the book. This reflects painfully on our year livingin a pandemic. A year of bereavement, pain, and confusion. But this feeling of loss doesn’t hurt the book. Bradfield writes about childhood in a curious way. It’s all a mystery, rather than a casualty. Complemented by Contro’s intentional and soft drawings, the book gives the reader the gift of reflection, beauty, and repose. After I turned the last page, I sat with it for a while before opening it up again and rereading it for a second time. I simultaneously feel the weight of this last year on my shoulders in addition to the weightlessness of letting go.
Contro has been an artist since she was a young girl. Though she got her MFA in painting later on in life, she says that drawing has always been at the foundation of her work. She describes herself as an artist whose work lies anywhere from site-specific installations to collaboration that engages artists from various disciplines.
Bradfield is a naturalist, a guide in her everyday life. When I ask her about the influence of her career on her writing she says, “I balance my life between two vocations: biology (natural history, in particular) and literature (poetry, in particular). I call them both vocations because while sometimes they are jobs, I pursue them both because they feed more than my refrigerator. Both are vocations dedicated to close observation and to the seeking of questions. Both push me to ask: ‘What puzzles me here? What moves me? What seems strange? What do I know or not know?’ And then to seek answers—either through research or through writing.”
When reading Theorem, the images complement the text; however, they do not entirely illustrate the story. Contro explains that this was “absolutely critical.” The two artists wanted the text and artwork to stand on their own. There are two versions of Theorem—the fine art edition and the trade edition. In the fine art edition, the text and images are displayed on independent pages, and in the trade edition, the artists worked to see which images and text should be displayed together.
“We want the text and images to have an associative rather than descriptive relationship—neither text nor image illustrating or mapping the other but expanding and deepening the meaning of each other; and in key places and moments, provoking questions and presenting complexities of interpretation,” says Contro. “Theorem posits that we have experiences, and memories of these experiences, that we spend a lifetime trying to understand, calculate, feel, and see.”
I’m particularly interested in the inclusion of maps in the writing and in the imagery of Bradfield and Contro’s works. Collaged maps, and text alluding to direction, fill up a few pages of the book. Bradfield explains that she loves the physical and applied use of maps. When I ask her more about the tie to maps, she says, “Place, too, is something that looms large in my writing. The nuances of how place influences memory, experience, and even ‘truth’ obsess me. What does a pitch pine mean on Cape Cod, where I live, compared to a muskeg in southeast Alaska, another place I hold dear? The resonances are different. How do we map those geographies? I don’t have an answer, but I think the pursuit of such an answer is valuable.”
There’s also a distance between the two artists—one from the Cape, the other from Chicago—which I find interesting in their relationship. Collaborating via the post office, mailings, technology, and FaceTime calls were all a part of the design and production process. Though they weren’t collaborating side by side, their process and means of communicating culminated in a dialogue of words and images.
Theorem begins and ends with a red image. When I finish the text, it almost startles me. After pages upon pages of fine drawings and muted hues, the red color cleanses my palate. Contro says, “Red saturates the two final images of the book. We both wanted a concluding image that was powerful, emotional, engulfing, transportive.” The saturated page makes me feel like I’ve just finished a long walk. The words are lyrical as they carry you along the journey of Theorem. Bradfield’s recollection of time and Contro’s smart drawings propel readers into a contemplation of the self. I found myself sighing, stopping and reflecting, radiating, and by the end of it, I felt—most importantly—at ease. v