Meet Lisa Congdon: Artist, Author, Activist

Meet Lisa Congdon: Artist, Author, Activist
Nerida Hansen
Nerida Hansen

Lisa Congdon has crammed a lot into her relatively short career as an artist. She has published over a dozen books, worked with clients such as the Museum of Modern Art (MoMa), maintained a blog, conduct classes and developed a line of ever-growing products.

We recently caught up with Lisa to chat about how it began, what inspires her and most importantly her latest collection for Nerida Hansen Fabrics.

Firstly, could you tell us a little bit about yourself? Where did you grow up?
I was born in 1968 in the state of New York in the US. When I was eight, my family moved to California, where I spent most of my life until five years ago. I moved to Portland, Oregon in 2015, where I live with my wife and two dogs. Outside of making art, I love cooking, reading, hiking, paddle boarding and riding my bike. I also love listening to podcasts while drawing or stitching.

When did you start work as an illustrator/designer?
I actually didn’t start my career as an illustrator until I was 39 years old. I used to work in education, first as a teacher and then eventually I went to work at an organisation that worked in public schools. When I was in my early 30s, I had just left classroom teaching, I had more time on my hands and I started taking art classes. I fell in love with the process of painting and drawing and collage. I never imagined at the time it would someday become my life and livelihood. But I became obsessed! And then I started a blog and started sharing my work online. The next thing I knew I was starting to sell work, and then signed with an illustration agent for a period of time early in my career. I worked very hard to improve my skills and learn the technology. Eventually I began making a decent living.

Could you tell us about your design style? Have you always had this style or has it evolved/changed over time?
I would say some core things have remained the same since the beginning: my colour palette is still very consistent, even after a decade. I have always been drawing to folk imagery, symbolism and nature (including animals), and those things have always been present in my work. But in the last seven years, my work has definitely become sharper, stronger and more graphic (as opposed to more painterly). I think as I’ve become more confident in my skills and style, my work has slowly evolved into something very distinct.

Talk us through your creative process.
I am a collector of ideas. I am constantly writing down things I want to make. Ideas come to me, and I make sure to record them. They tend to come to me at the weirdest times, like in the shower or on a long bike ride. I use a lot of those ideas in my personal work. I start drawing or sketching (or, when I am sewing or making ceramics, I am constructing) and then I continue to rework things until I get to something I am happy with. When I draw or do surface design, I work digitally much of the time, which speeds up that editing process a lot. When I do work for clients, my process is similar, except that the client is usually the one feeding me the initial ideas, and then I infuse my own and go from there.

What have been some challenges you have faced in this industry?
I have been really lucky to have had a thriving career, but there are always challenges. For me, the main challenge has been burnout. A lot of artists dream of the day when their work is in demand. And then that day comes, and they are overwhelmed. That’s basically what happened to me. I have had to learn to slow down, take time for myself, say no to projects I don’t have time for, and really create space in my life for having a life! It’s the rest of my life (the cycling, nature, reading, cooking) that gives me the energy for art. And if I am working all the time, that list of ideas and inspiration dries up. So, the challenge is balance and boundaries. And because I love working, it’s a tough challenge for me.

When and how did you meet Nerida Hansen?
Nerida reached out to me a couple of years ago wanting to collaborate. I love her aesthetic and I instantly said yes.

What is the title of your latest collection for Nerida Hansen Fabrics? Talk about what has inspired this range.

My latest collection is called Better Days Ahead. I love drawing shapes and symbols and making them fit together in interesting ways, almost like putting together a puzzle in my mind. I originally drew this collection in the dead of winter. The colour palette of this collection is new for me, and was inspired by my fantasies about being outside. I’m really drawn to earth tones like terracotta clay and aqua-hued water recently.

Talk us through your typical day.
None of my days are typical! I do get up early and eat breakfast and drink coffee every day. Then I work out – I either go for a bike ride or do some strength training. Then I work. Some days I have lots of Zoom meetings and some days are wide open and I draw or build ceramics all day. Some days are broken into chunks of writing for an hour, drawing for an hour, walking the dogs, a meeting, then more writing or drawing. I always stop working by 5:30, have a glass of wine with my wife, make dinner and spend the evening together. I think that’s what I like best about my life is that while some things are consistent, every day is different.

What would be your dream project?
I am really, really into cycling, swimming, soccer and other sports, and my dream projects has always been athletic wear for women. I have done a couple of cycling jerseys, but I’d love to do a racing swim suit or soccer jersey for a team or even workout gear.

What is in the pipeline for you?
Right now, I am on a sabbatical so I am mostly playing around with painting and drawing and ceramics and quilting just for fun. In January 2021 I will start illustrating my third children’s book, and I am really looking forward to getting started with that. I also have two books coming out next year which I am very excited about.

What is your mantra?
I have many but "Begin Anyhow" is one of my favourites. We are often afraid if we start something before we’re ready we’ll be reminded that we are not good enough. We don’t want to risk failing. We want to be comfortable. We want exactly the right skills, the right materials and supplies, the right knowledge, the perfect space in our busy schedule. Then we do nothing! The problem is that there is no perfect moment to begin anything. Life is messy, no matter how hard we try to make it clean and smooth. The things we take pains to avoid are actually an essential part of life. The hard and uncomfortable stuff helps us learn and strengthen our grit. And if there is one thing I’ve learned, it is that inside the messiness is also almost always where the magic happens. 

What advice would you offer to those that are starting out as designers/illustrators?
Understand that the creative process is messy. As women, in particular, we are socialised to keep things clean and neat and presentable. I think it’s important to embrace the mess – the lows, the failures, the moments of embarrassment, the frustration. They are all part of growing and learning. And then celebrate the diamonds, because if you look for them, they are everywhere.

Lisa's Grid Shapes are now available to shop online from Nerida Hansen Fabrics and Future Folk Designs.

Words by Jacqui Taylor


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