Do what you Love: Q & A with artist Lisa Congdon

I am so excited to be hosting a solo exhibit of work by Lisa Congdon. I met Lisa years ago and have always admired among other things, her creativity and disciplined studio practice.  She has a boldness for going after what she wants and an amazing ability to make it seem easy and entirely enjoyable.  

Lisa's career has taken off and she has become quite a public figure, showing up in numerous magazines, writing books, giving key note speeches, and writing a daily blog seen by thousands of adoring followers.  I was lucky enough to catch up with her at work in the studio and bugged her for a while hanging out, snapping pictures, and asking questions.  

Tell us a bit about you and your background.

I have been making art since the year 2000 or so (for about 14 years), but for many years, like until 2006, it was just a hobby. It was mostly something I did in my free time outside of my job for fun and relaxation. I took lots of painting and drawing classes during that time, but other than that, I am self taught. In around 2006 or 2007 I started having a few small shows of my work and in 2008 I started getting illustration work, which is mostly how I make my living as an artist now. Around that time, I left my job to become a full time artist. For the most part, my work has been representational (I paint and draw recognizable things) and much of it still is. But last year I really had the urge to play with abstract painting and drawing, and once I started, I couldn't stop! I love it so much, and it's a great creative outlet for me.


You inspire so many people with your work, books and blog, .  Who/what inspires you?

I am a really visual person. My whole life, even before I started painting and drawing, I have been a fan of art and design. I often refer to myself as a "visual junkie." I also love photography and played around with that for many years. I've always loved patterns and pattern design, Scandinavian design, graphic design, architecture, vintage packaging, typography, etc. So when I became an artist and started making things myself, I just drew inspiration from many of the things I loved already. For example, I love the work of Mary Blair. She worked for Disney in the mid-century and designed really cool "modern" fairy tale scenes, like you see in It's a Small World (one of her masterpieces). A lot of my work is inspired by her work, the lines and shapes and colors. I also love to travel and when I do I take lots of photos and share those things online with the people who follow my work. I think sometimes people think that artists just come up with inspiration out of thin air. But you actually have to put time and energy into making time to brainstorm, look for inspiration, and find new ideas for your work. It's all part of the process. 


As an illustrator do you make a shift in thinking when making your own "artwork" as opposed to say, making drawings for a publication? In other words, do you approach both projects in the same way or differently?  

I try to give 100% of myself to whatever I am working on and really give whatever I am doing my own unique spin, even when I am working with a client. That said, doing personal work is very different from doing work for an illustration client. At least it is for me. When you work for a client, you are usually drawing or painting their concept or book or a magazine article. It's really fun -- you work with an art director to determine the best way to illustrate the idea/concept and then you get to work making it happen. There are usually a lot of parameters and in many ways that's great -- I love brainstorming and executing ideas with clients. For example, I just designed another line of fabric with a great company called Cloud9. I designed all the repeat patterns, but I worked with the client to determine the overall look/feel of the fabric line, which patterns should go in the collection, and what color choices we should make. But in personal work, everything is totally open. Everything is 100% yours and your decision. There is no client. There is no negotiating any aspect of the work. So having both personal work and client work is a great balance, because as an artist you have to always be doing some work that is totally your own and based on your own inspiration. I think this balance is particularly challenging for illustrators, because so much of what we do is for other people (our clients). We need to make time to just make stuff for ourselves too. 


You recently moved from SF to Oakland, has this move across the Bay influenced your current work or working style at all? 

Someone else asked me that yesterday! And I hadn't really given that much thought until now. Last year when I moved here I was in the middle of a really stressful year. I had more illustration work than I could handle (or at least it felt that way!) and was also working on two books. And I was planning a wedding (I got married in June). I was so stressed out!! But I also realized at the same time, despite my work load, that living here was so much more peaceful in other ways. For example, where I live in Oakland is much, much quieter than where I lived in San Francisco. I can hear birds chirping all day long. And the weather is about 10 degrees warmer all the time, which I love. And everything around me is green. At the end of last year, I started to make a plan that I would take on less work this year in 2014 so that I could enjoy my life here more and all the things Oakland has to offer. And in deciding to take on less work I started to think about what kind of work I really wanted to make, what work mattered to me the most. And so I have really started to focus on the work that I enjoy the most, stuff like painting and surface design (like making the fabric I talked about earlier). I am also working on a new book. So I guess you could say the move has influenced my work a lot, at least indirectly. I am just doing more of what I love these days.


You have a very public presence with social media, do you find it to be helpful or hindering in your own creative process? Do you have any funny stories about meeting people in person who have followed you online?  

It's always a catch-22. Sharing my work and my process publicly helps me to sell it and builds an interest in what I do, which helps me make a living from it. And I enjoy sharing for the most part. At the same time, being a public person makes me feel vulnerable and exposed a lot of the time. It also opens you up to criticism or unsolicited advice from strangers. But it's not always terrible. Most of the time people are so kind, both online and in person. One time recently I was walking down 51st Street in Oakland and a woman I don't know rolled down her car window and shouted at me: "Lisa Congdon, I follow you online and love everything you do. Thank you!" I mean, you can't really top that! I was embarrassed, yes, but it also felt really nice. 


Can you share a couple of your favorite bloggers/ instagram users who you follow? 

I don't really read blogs too often. They are often a big time suck, even the most amazing ones. When I do, I read The Jealous Curator first and foremost. She posts about so many amazing artists. I also hop onto Design*Sponge periodically too, and other design blogs like Design Crush, Oh Happy Day, SF Girl by Bay, and Brain Pickings (which is a fantastic site about literary and music history, & other past and current arts and culture). I love Door Sixteen by Anna Dorfman. I know there are others I am forgetting! A few of my favorite instagram accounts are @troylitten (a visual treasure trove) @presentandcorrect (beautiful collections of things) and @elleluna (she is an amazing & prolific SF artist who posts her work and process and travels). 


As a creative person how do you balance the business and artistic aspects of your daily life?  

I used to think I would someday find some sense of balance. And that I would grow to enjoy the business parts of being an artist. But honestly I don't like the business aspects very much, so I am thinking more and more of hiring or partnering with someone who does. I want to spend most of my time making stuff or writing stuff. 


Do you have any advice for people wanting to get into your field of work? 

Make stuff everyday. Do personal projects that inspire you. And put everything you do, including your process and how you think about your work, into the world somehow. If you hide them, you will never make any money from your art. You must be willing to take risks, go outside your comfort zone, and share.


Anything you would like to add?

Find what you love to do, and do it. When that gets boring, find the next thing. Realize your journey will never be over and enjoy it.

Lisa's solo exhibit Lines & Circles opens May 2nd and runs through June 15th.

Join us for the artists' reception Saturday, May 10th 4-7pm. There will be music, treats (vegan friendly options) and fun times. 

kerri johnson


kerri johnson

Loved reading this! I’ve been an admirer of Lisa’s work and career for a few years, she’s so inspiring.

kerri johnson

Great interview and advice from Lisa. Thank you, Barb

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