Fine artist, illustrator and author Lisa Congdon is best known for her colorful paintings, hand lettering and satisfying object arrangements. She works for clients around the world including MoMA, REI, Harvard University, Martha Stewart Living, Chronicle Books, and Random House Publishing, among many others. She was named one of 40 Women Over 40 to Watch in 2015 and she is featured in the 2017 book, 200 Women Who Will Change the Way you See the World.
How do you describe your work?
I’m sort of hard to pin down because I do so many things in several different mediums. I work in the worlds of fine art, commercial illustration and photography. Generally speaking, my work is very colorful, modern and graphic, very much influenced by midcentury and 1970’s design, folk art and a love for vintage type.
What’s your preferred medium to express yourself and you work? How did you come into working that way?
In my fine art practice I work mostly in acrylic paint on wood with very clean lines and bold flat color. I am starting paint on ceramics and three-dimensional wood forms as well. I have always painted in acrylic and gouache, mostly. I spend most of my time as a commercial and book illustrator, working for clients and publishers. Almost a year ago, I was forced to start drawing my illustrations digitally (instead of in gouache) because I was having really terrible tendinitis in my right arm. The doctor suggested that if I was able to work faster I might have fewer issues. So I began drawing in the program Procreate on my iPad Pro. I was very resistant at first because I really was attached to the analog process, even though it was causing me all kinds of problems. But quickly I fell in love with the speed and range of digital drawing and I would say 85% of my illustration work is digital now. I love it, and it's been a game changer for me.
Another smaller but significant part of my art practice is photography, focused specifically on photographing my collections of small things, which I do now with my iPhone. I started this in 2010, as part of a project I did for the entire year called “A Collection a Day.” Each day for the entire year I photographed one or all of my myriad of weird collections of small things like old school supplies, office supplies, old packaging, etc. I don’t do it as often anymore, but that practice has continued as a sort of hobby. They are the most popular images on my Instagram. I photograph things by color and play with color in those images as well. Over time the look and feel of my collections photos has morphed, and I am excited to see where it leads next.
Where did you grow up and do you think that’s affected, at all, your vision as an artist?
I was born in Upstate New York in 1968. I lived there until I was eight and then my family moved in 1976 to California. I have no doubt that growing up in the 1970’s and 80’s in the Bay Area of California influenced me. I grew up in surf culture (we lived close to Santa Cruz, California). I grew up with 1970’s graphic design posters in my home (which I’m now killing myself for not grabbing from my parents before they dumped them in the trash years later). My mom is an artist and so my siblings and I were exposed to a lot of cool things when we were growing up, and we've all ended up in creative careers. My family also spent a lot of time outside exploring the landscape, camping and hiking. In my early days, nature was a huge influence on my work.
What triggers your imagination?
I am an inspiration junkie. Mostly, I am really drawn to old things – old packaging, old folk pattern, old book cover design, old furniture. I spend a lot of my free time in bookstores and antique markets. I also scour books and the internet for inspiration that speaks to me and that influences my work – old posters and other graphic design and type.
What are some instagram accounts or artists that you particularly enjoy / are inspired from?
One of my favorite accounts is Julian Montague (@montagueprojects). He’s an artist whose work I love, but we are inspired by similar things, and he collects vintage books, magazines and albums and shares images of their covers. His feed is really spectacular.
One of my other favorite accounts are from Andreas Samuelsson, (@andreas.samuelson) who is one of my favorite illustrators and designers. I love the stripped down nature of his work, and the way he uses humor.
What was your dream growing up as a child?
Not surprisingly, I wanted to be an archaeologist. I wanted to have a job digging up old treasure. I ended up doing that in a way, because I am a collector of lots of old things that now fill my house and my two studios..
What has become most important to you or your work at this moment in your life?
Time and space to create freely. I spent most of my career working for clients under intense deadlines. I still do that, but not as much, because I have come to realize that the most important thing to me in the world is going to my painting studio and making paintings and ceramics and other things without being art directed by someone else. My career is entering a new phase where I do much more personal work, and more work on a large scale. I've never been so happy.
Is there any specific moment(s) or memory in your life that pushed you definitively towards the arts or to pursue your creative ambitions?
I actually did not begin painting or drawing until I was 31 years old, and I never went to art school or studied art in school. I was very bored in my job at the time and so I started to explore creative hobbies, and, of all the things I experimented with at the time, making art was the thing I loved the most. This was almost 20 years ago and somewhere a few years into that journey of exploration, I started posting photos of my projects on the Internet. Eventually in 2006, I was asked to have a show of my work at a small store in Seattle, Washington. I remember thinking, “Oh my gosh, I guess I’m an artist now.” And my heart was racing with excitement, as if I was entering a new dimension. Little did I know then that I had. My life was never the same.
What does your work mean to you? If anything at all?
Everything. I guess I am fairly prolific. People ask me all the time, “How do you work so much?” And my answer is that I have no choice. Besides the good people in my life, art is the one thing that makes me want to get out of bed in the morning. It feels as necessary as breathing. Even the brutal aspects of the creative process have taught me everything worth knowing and fighting for in my life. In the most life-affirming way, art is survival.
What is your definition of ‘art’, even if it’s total bullshit?
The tangible expression of your imagination.
Any upcoming projects or collaborations?
I have a solo show this August at Stephanie Chefas Projects, a gallery in Portland Oregon, where I live now. This summer I’m also opening my own brand new painting studio in a large industrial space, also here in Portland, and a few days a week it will be open to the public. I’ll have a retail portion and host workshops a couple times a month. I'm pretty giddy about this new venture!
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