San Francisco illustrator and fine artist Lisa Congdon was raised in both upstate New York and Northern California where she grew to love the trees and animals that surrounded her. That love is now expressed most intensely through her colorful and imaginative paintings, drawings and three-dimensional collages. Congdon’s vast catalog of work is primarily themed around her passion for nature, vintage imagery, geometrics and folk pattern. Congdon lives and works in the Mission District of San Francisco.
Lisa is energetic, playful, wise, fun—all of which are reflected in her work. We especially love her paintings and drawings of nature—like this little fox. There’s also her impressive Collection a Day project, which is now a beautiful book. And Lisa is full of surprises—she didn’t start drawing and painting until she was in her late 30’s. We were drawn in by Lisa’s honest and thoughtful storytelling of her journey from working at an education non-profit to becoming a full-time artist. She also shared candidly about her struggles along the way and how she’s grown more confident in the process, which was totally refreshing and encouraging. Thank you, Lisa, for sharing with us the wisdom you’ve collected in your journey. Here’s to many, many more years of making.
Interview date: January 11, 2012
Describe your path to becoming an illustrator and artist. I [Tina] read that you didn’t start drawing and painting until you were in your 30’s.
Yes and I didn’t actually become a professional artist until I was in my late 30’s. I turn 44 in a week, so it really hasn’t been that long. I’ve been making art since I was about 32, but I’ve been a really creative person my whole life.
My mom is an artist and I grew up in a household where creativity and exploration were encouraged. Oddly enough, throughout school and college, I never expressed an interest in taking art classes and never thought of myself as an artist.
It was interesting when I did start taking art classes. I had worked for years and years in the field of education. My first job out of college was as an elementary school teacher. Then I went to work at an education non-profit that worked with high-poverty students in the Bay Area. That job was really stressful and so to relax and focus on something positive outside of work, I started taking art classes. That was how I fell into making art.
At first, art was purely a hobby. If you’d have told me ten years ago that I’d be making my living as an illustrator, I would have said you were completely off your rocker. I didn’t have a very developed skill set at the time and I never could have imagined that this thing that I did that brought me joy would be something that I would someday do all the time, really well, and that people would pay money for it.
Was creativity a part of your childhood?
The main way that creativity was part of my childhood was through my mom. She was always making something, whether it was part of her art practice or she was fixing things up around the house. She was the quintessential 1970’s woman; she was a stay-at-home mom, but not in the traditional sense. She is a textile artist and what that meant when I was a kid was that she was a weaver. It was cool and a little bit hippie. She had a huge loom that she would weave on and she was also an great sewer. She got her Master’s degree in fashion and textiles from Penn State.
My mom was like the original Martha Stewart, except she wasn’t worried about things being perfect, so she was a good role model. She was all about us being messy and having fun. I remember everything from her setting up paints and crayons for us at the table to her taking us to art classes and museums. We got exposed to a lot when we were little.
What’s interesting is that my brother, who is two years older than I am, and my sister, who is two years younger—we all have ended up in a creative field, but none of us went to school for art or identified as a creative person until later in life. My brother is a landscape designer and my sister is an artist and a photographer. We all ended up following in my mom’s footsteps. My mom is 73 and still has a studio where she makes stuff every day. She no longer weaves, though. Now she’s into intricate art quilting.
So even before I became an artist, making stuff and art and craft were always a part of my life. I was sewing, decorating my house, making gifts for people. I always had the desire to be crafty, but I never would have called myself an artist until about five or six years ago.
Did you have an “aha” moment along the way when you knew that you wanted to do art as more than just a hobby?
I think there were many pivotal moments for me. When you discover that you love to do something, it might be challenging or even frustrating at first, but something keeps you going back to it for whatever reason. For me, drawing and painting and making collages was something that I knew I wasn’t super skilled at when I first started, but it brought me more joy than anything I had ever experienced in my life. I think there were a series of moments early on when I got in touch with the fact that I felt happier than I’d ever felt in 30+ years. I had spent a lot of time feeling really unhappy, and I thought, “This makes me feel really good; I want to do this all the time.” I still didn’t say, “Oh, this makes me so happy; I want to do this for a living.” I didn’t even think that was possible. I just wanted to spend all my time outside of work making stuff—so I did.
I started a blog in 2005, which no longer exists because I took it down, and the next “aha” moment was when I started sharing art on my blog. I had found intrinsic joy in what I was doing, but when other people like what you do, it sort of doubles the joy. People were saying to me, “Oh, I like what you do and I want to buy it.” I thought, “You want to pay money for this?” I started getting commissions and by 2006, I had my first show in a little shop in Seattle.
The next “aha” moment was when I realized this could be a paying hobby—I still didn’t think I was going to do it as a living. You have to remember that I was basically at the associate director level at one of the larger school-change organizations in California, if not the country. I had worked my way up through the years and was really passionate about what I did, so I didn’t imagine that I was ever going to leave that field to do something else. Now that I look back, I dreaded going to work in the morning and I was miserable compared to what my life is like now. However, I also made decent money, so why would I have given that up to be a starving artist?
It took me a long time to finally have my third “aha” moment, which was when I realized that not only can I make some extra money off of this, but I might actually be able to make a living at some point.
There was an interim between 2007 and 2011 when I owned a shop and gallery in San Francisco called Rare Device. I had opened the store with my friend, which was a great way for me to lead a more creative life and be self-employed, but not be completely reliant on art as my sole income. Ironically, after three and a half years, we ended up selling it because I was so busy with art commissions and illustration jobs that I didn’t need to own the store anymore—I didn’t have time to do it.
[Ryan] Was that the tipping point for you to transition into art full-time?
Yeah. People ask me a lot about what it’s like to move from being an artist on the side to making a full-time living from it. I think if you have all your ducks in a row, you can do it. People do it everyday.
I’m not a huge risk-taker when it comes to money so owning a creative side business (the store I referred to a minute ago) allowed me to be self-employed and was a great way to transition. I could get my feet wet being self-employed without relying only on my art to pay the bills. I own an apartment here in San Francisco; I have a mortgage; I had debt, so I couldn’t just quit my job. Having that side business was instrumental. Then, when it was time, my business partner was also ready to sell the shop, so it worked out perfectly. We were able to sell it instead of going out of business. Then, last year, I went full-time as an artist.
“I walked around in the world for a few years thinking, ‘This all happened so fast, I don’t know what I’m doing, and I have no legitimacy.’ I hadn’t gone to art school and hadn’t been doing art for very long. I had a lot of self-doubt about who I was and how I could identify myself as part of the art world.”
[Tina] How did you transition out of the non-profit you were working for?
I was working full-time there and they knew I was making art and having shows. Some of them had known me for a long time and had seen my career develop. I was starting to get press, so people were aware of what was happening in my life. The first thing I did was ask them if I could go down to part-time. That was about six months before my friend and I opened our shop. A few months after the shop opened, I continued to work part-time at the non-profit, had the store, and was making art so there was an overlap before I made the transition.
Did you or do you have a mentor?
Not in the traditional sense, but I was super fortunate to get connected with a woman named Jamie who was my studio-mate when I first decided that I needed to take my work outside my home. I found a space to sublet in a big collective housed in a giant warehouse and my studio was right next to Jamie’s so we became really good friends. She had just finished her MFA at California College of the Arts in San Francisco and she is now a very accomplished painter who is represented by a prestigious San Francisco gallery.
She was very influential in that she was one of the first people who helped me see myself as a “real” artist. I walked around in the world for a few years thinking, “This all happened so fast, I don’t know what I’m doing, and I have no legitimacy.” I hadn’t gone to art school and hadn’t been doing art for very long. I had a lot of self-doubt about who I was and how I could identify myself as part of the art world. She just treated me like an equal. She would be working on something and ask me for feedback. For someone who is so accomplished to ask you to help them is so great and it made me brave enough to ask her to help me. And she was so good at giving me clear, concise feedback in a way that I could hear. She even bought an early painting of mine.
We were in that space together for two years and then the people we were subletting from came back so we moved to another studio. We rented that studio for two years together and it was an amazing experience to watch her career develop and to interact with her as a peer. There’s nothing like making art in a room with other people who are making art, especially if they’re really talented. It’s really inspiring.
Was there a point in your life when you decided that you had to take a big risk to move forward?
Yes. I already touched on this a bit. I knew it was time to leave my job back in 2007 when I opened the shop with my friend. By 2010, I had so much art and illustration work coming my way, that I no longer had time to work at the store, much less manage it from afar. By early 2011, we took the leap and decided to try to sell the store. Since February 2011, I’ve been full-time doing illustration work, fine art shows, and some teaching. I also have my Etsy shop where I sell archival prints of my work and some small, more affordable originals. Illustration is my main source of income right now, but that is supplemented by fine art gallery shows, private fine art commissions, Etsy sales and occasional teaching gigs.
Are your family and friends supportive of what you do? Who has encouraged you the most?
My former co-workers and my extended group of friends have all been really wonderful. I’ve also felt really supported by my peers in the San Francisco art community.
My family—it’s been interesting. My mom was always supportive. I think that she may have been a little nervous about how I was going to support myself and what I was doing in my early 40’s giving up this amazing, stable career in education to take this chance, but I think she liked the idea of it because she’s a creative person. My siblings have also always been supportive.
My dad on the other hand—although he never would have said this to my face—was quite nervous, I think. He’s come around to my work and likes it now, but at the time, he was both worried for me and a little confused about what I was doing.
This past holiday I was at my parent’s house in Portland, Oregon. Earlier in the day, I shared with my mom how much money I had made this past year, which was a decent income for an artist. She said, “I can’t wait to tell your father this.” That night at dinner, we were sitting around eating spaghetti and my father said, “Your mother told me today about your accomplishments and I’m so proud of you.” My dad really has come around and fully supports what I do. In fact, my mom commissioned me to make a Christmas present for my dad because he had commented on a particular drawing I made that he really loved. I made one for him and he was really gushing when he opened it.
Do you feel a responsibility to contribute to something bigger than yourself?
Definitely. I went into teaching right out of college because I wanted to give something back to the world. My whole identity was wrapped up in what I gave back every day; that was how I felt good about myself. One of the hardest things for me to overcome when I made the decision to leave my career in education was this sense that I was abandoning my commitment to give back to the world and I felt so much guilt about it. For me, that was the hardest thing about becoming an artist.
I do think I still struggle with this a little because it is so important to me to feel like I’m doing something good in the world every day, but I’ve been able to realize that there are many ways for me to give back. I think when you’re doing something you love in the world every day—if you get up and you’re excited about what you do, it’s good for everyone. I do volunteer occasionally and I also sit on the Board of Directors for an arts non-profit here that supports artists and works with low-income youth to expose them to art.
Are you satisfied creatively?
Never! (laughs) I would say I am satisfied to the extent that I feel super-energized to make stuff every day and I get excited about what I do when I wake up. I never run out of ideas and maybe that’s because I started later in life and feel like I’m trying to play catch-up.
I feel so grateful that I’ve figured out that this is what I’m supposed to be doing. I spent the majority of my life not making art. Because I’ve been given this opportunity so late in life, I have so much gratitude that I might not have had if I had started twenty years ago. I might have felt entitled because I had never done anything else with my life or people always told me I was awesome. I’ve worked really hard for this and it didn’t come to me until I was 40, so I’m eating up every moment of it.
There are some days I might feel overwhelmed. In illustration, you’re getting paid to illustrate other people’s ideas. It’s still a really fun way to make a living, but it’s not like making your own personal work. I make most of my money doing illustration, so it takes up the largest portion of my day. While I do work on some really cool illustration projects, generally speaking it’s not quite as energizing to me as my fine art practice. There are days when I’m on a job that doesn’t feel very exciting or I’m illustrating a cookbook and have to draw a million vegetables. It’s still an awesome way to spend my time, but it can get boring. I do try to structure my day so that I make time to fit in my own personal work because I feel like that makes my work for the other jobs better.
So, in some ways, I do feel satisfied creatively, but every day there are new things I want to try or ways I want to push my work in new and different directions.
Along those lines, is there anything you want to be doing 5 to 10 years from now?
In 5 to 10 years, I hope that I can spend more time making personal work because that’s where I find the greatest amount of satisfaction. I work with a gallery here in San Francisco and I have shows at other galleries. I’m going to be in my first museum show at the Contemporary Jewish Museum here next month and I’m in a show called Abstract Fiction at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, so there are some prestigious things happening for me. For those shows, there might be a theme or direction, but you can pretty much do what you want. I’ve also been able to experiment with materials for some of the shows I’m in, which I love doing. I get so excited when I go to the studio to work on personal work and interesting commissions.
That said, I do love being an illustrator. I’ve fallen into this niche of being a book illustrator, which I’d like to continue to do. I’m also beginning to do book covers. Books are great fun, especially when you are working with a great author or book designer. I’m also hoping to do more pattern + surface design, whether fabric or wallpaper. I learned Illustrator a couple years ago and am now making repeats quite a bit.
If you could go back and do one thing differently, what would it be?
I think maybe I wouldn’t care so much about trying to fit into a certain mold or make certain kinds of work because I thought that’s what people expected of me. The illustration market is a commercial market, so a lot of emphasis is placed on what people are going to buy and what’s going to sell. I think that’s where I got tripped up in the beginning. I think there’s a bit of that in the fine art market too—what kind of imagery and work is hot right now?
In the first few years as a professional artist, I had some growing pains as I struggled to figure out where I fit into the art world and where I fit into the illustration world. I was experimenting with style, mediums, and colors palettes. I felt pressured to make work that I thought other people wanted from me. I wasn’t staying true to what felt unique for me.
In the last year or so, I had an “aha” moment when I realized that I need to be doing work I want to be doing. I think I finally figured out who I am and I’ve stopped worrying about what others think about my work or if it’s going to sell. The irony is that I’ve been more successful over the past year than I ever have.
Another thing I would change is how focused I was on productivity versus quality. I’m not sure if it’s because I came from a different world, but productivity was really important to me. It was about how much I could bang out in one day. I wasn’t taking as great of care early on to work on the details of a painting or work through issues and take my work to the next level and make it meticulous. I look back at some of my early work and think that it’s so messy or underdeveloped.
Now, I take a lot of time with each of my pieces, work hard, and don’t rush through them. I didn’t realize how important it was to sit with your art for a while, take a step back and think about it before you scan it and put it on your blog. I didn’t know that in the beginning and you can really see the difference in my earlier work.
“I think I finally figured out who I am and I’ve stopped worrying about what others think about my work or if it’s going to sell. The irony is that I’ve been more successful over the past year than I ever have.”
If you could give one piece of advice to another artist starting out, what would it be?
I think related to what I just said—stay true to yourself. I get asked for advice a lot and I think that if I could tell anyone two things, it would be stay true and take great care with your work.
If you want to be a great artist, use what you are passionate about internally. Draw from yourself, not from what other people are doing. That’s number one. And take great care with your work. Be meticulous, take the time, make it your best. The combination of that care, attention, work ethic, and authenticity is a really strong formula.
How does where you live impact your creativity?
San Francisco is an amazingly colorful, vibrant city with an enormous art and design culture. The whole Bay Area is amazing. I live in the Mission District, which has a large Latino population and culture and is also really vibrant, colorful, and musical. I’ve lived here for almost 22 years and I never get bored. There are always interesting people to look at, new art to see—the street art scene here is insane. In fact, sometimes the pressure is to go out when I’d rather stay home and do nothing.
Also, I’ve found the art community here to be supportive and encouraging. People have been amazing to me and supportive of what I do although I may not have the academic credentials. It definitely influences my work to be here. I think it was important for me to be here when I first started out in art.
With that said, I think it’s a sign that I’m getting older because I’m definitely craving a cottage in the woods or a house in the suburbs with a yard where there’s not a homeless guy yelling outside of my window.
Is it important to you to be part of a creative community of people?
Definitely. I think that being an artist can feel isolating even if you’re working in a studio. I work in a studio by myself and am kind of a hermit. I’m introverted so it’s a perfect fit for me, but it can feel hard and challenging. I’ve made several close friends who are also starting out in the art world and to be able to talk with them is so affirming.
What does a typical day look like for you?
Well, I’m an avid cyclist and swimmer. I get up, eat breakfast, and then most days I either go for a bike ride—anywhere from 12 to 30 miles—or I swim two miles. Occasionally, I train for some athletic event or race. I get up early to exercise because I often have eight or nine hours of work to do. The cool thing is that I can exercise in the middle of the day if I need to. I have a flexibility in deciding how I spend my time. I don’t think I would be able to have this lifestyle if I wasn’t self-employed. After cycling or swimming, I come home, take a shower, eat a second breakfast, and start work.
Most days I’m in the studio for at least five hours. My studio is less than a mile from where I live so I either ride my bike or walk. It’s this amazing light-filled space with skylights and old brick walls. I’m lucky that I have a studio space I want to go to.
Occasionally, I take a whole day at home to work on the computer since I don’t have one in my studio, but I try to get into the studio and get my hands dirty as often as I can. The stuff I do at home is mostly administrative: bookkeeping, responding to emails, posting to my blog, and scanning work into Photoshop to clean it up. Over the course of the week, I spend 20% of my time on administrative tasks and about 80% making stuff. Some weeks it’s more 50/50, but I like to have the majority of my week dedicated to making art.
After work, I come home and eat dinner with my partner, Clay. We’re very religious about cooking and eating together every night. In that way, I finally feel like a grown-up. I spent a lot of years working like a dog in an office and going out to eat a lot. I’ve settled down in the last few years and now I spend a lot of time at home in the evenings relaxing, watching a movie, or reading. Sometimes I’ll go out to a music show or an art opening, but that’s once or twice a week at the most.
(This is where we pause the interview so we can meet the charming Wilfredo who played shy.)
Since you’re in the studio most days, what albums are you listening to right now?
I actually spend most of my time listening to audiobooks. Not that I don’t love music—I do. I bought the new Beirut album a while ago and have just now had a chance to listen to it.
Right before Christmas, I had insane deadlines and a crazy amount of work that I had to finish before I left for my parent’s house. For two weeks, I was spending at least 8–12 hours in the studio drawing and painting. The only way I could power through was to listen to something that made the time pass. Somebody suggested listening to a good, riveting mystery novel. It totally worked. I just finished listening to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo series.
Favorite movie or T.V. show?
I love watching Top Chef or any cooking shows. I love Project Runway and I also got into that British series, Downton Abbey.
That’s a hard one for me because I like so many foods, but I would say Japanese food is my favorite and has been for a really long time. When I became vegan three years ago, I had to give up a lot of food. With most Asian food, I don’t have to give up a lot other than the meat. There are a lot of good places to get Japanese food around here and I like to make it too. I even figured out how to make vegetarian sushi.
What kind of legacy do you hope to leave?
I think that I would like people to remember me as someone who made a lot of beautiful and thought-provoking work.
I would also like people to remember me as someone who was kind. Kindness is something I value most in myself and other people. You can’t necessarily love everyone that you meet or come into contact with in this world—that requires time and effort and circumstance—but you certainly can be kind. That’s something I try to remember every day and make a part of how I live my life.
“Kindness is something I value most in myself and other people. You can’t necessarily love everyone that you meet or come into contact with in this world—that requires time and effort and circumstance—but you certainly can be kind.”