To continue with this idea of developing a life practice, recently I spoke with the artist, illustrator and blogger Lisa Congdon. We chatted about how she approaches her life as a maker, her relationship to blogging, and coming to terms, publicly, with a history of anxiety, amongst other things:
Let's start with this idea of how you approach your work. You have both an illustration and art practice. Do you see a split between the two or do you consider them part of the same sensibility?
I think in general I approach them with the same sensibility—by that I mean that I try to approach all my work with the same sense of passion and wonder. I know that might sounds sort of syrupy but if I didn't, I'd be bored and unmotivated. I do try to infuse my own creative spark or personal aesthetic into everything I do. Sometimes it's hard because some of the illustration work I do is repetitive and not exciting or not what I would make if left to my own devices. So there is a tension between what I do for money and what I do for pure creative expression. I'm always trying to work that out. I think many illustrators struggle with this.
I like the hand-drawn, personal and folk art aspects of your work and I’m wondering how you square this aesthetic with your subject matter? We’ve talked previously about how the singularity and the simplicity of your work can be real to yourself and strong in intention, even if sometimes it can be construed as feminine or used out of context.
Once someone told me my work was "cute"—and at that very moment my heart sank into my stomach. That is the last thing I am trying to convey. I actually think a lot of my work is rather dark and mysterious (at least my paintings and some of my drawings). I am certainly drawn to things that are perhaps feminine or sweet—folk pattern, textiles, flora and fauna, for example. I use lots of pink and soft colors in my work.
But that is not the whole of my work, obviously. There are many other dimensions. I am also drawn to the words of thinkers and writers and spend a lot of time hand lettering and sharing words that inspire me. Sometimes those quotes end up on "inspiration" blogs with other quotes (mostly in bad fonts laid out on sunrise photos).
So, yes, I am constantly walking this line of sweet and feminine, and that's hard for someone who doesn't want her work to come off that way, at least in any intentional way. In the end, I try to make work that speaks to me, and then put it out into the world. You can't really control what happens to it after that, how people perceive it, who your audience becomes. So you have to sort of let it go.
I have always been a seeker of wisdom and peace of mind. Maybe it's because I'm the kind of person who always feels just a little bit anxious or not quite grounded. Not in any extreme way—I'm just always feeling a little insecure about my life, my decisions, my path. Maybe we are all that way to a certain extent.
So looking for wisdom—about life, and love, and work, etc—is part of what keeps me as grounded as I am and gives me comfort. I began reading books and collecting inspirational sayings many years ago, some of an Eastern spiritual nature and some just from writers and thinkers I adore (Mary Oliver and Cheryl Strayed, for example). In 2011 I began a hand lettering practice in earnest, and much of what I chose to hand letter were statements (quotes or excerpts from poems) that I found comforting or challenged my preconceived notions about life—reminders for living a good life, being kind to yourself and others, taking risks, that kind of thing. I find them very helpful.
I’m interested in what the practice and process of making is to you. You came into a professional creative life late, but it seems that the act of making was something that you always had. How did you come to terms with your creative self?
Yes, I have been making things since I was a little girl. My mom is an artist, so I grew up in a home where making was always happening. My mother is 75 years old and she is still a working textile artist, showing and selling her work. So I've had a good influence.
That said, making (in any of its iterations) was never something I thought I was very good at or that I necessarily had the genes for, so I never pursued it as a young person. I remember when I started drawing in my mid-thirties, it was the first time in my life I drew, except when I was forced to in school. My sister, who had always been much more artistic than I had growing up (and who is also now a professional creative), said to me, "I always wonder where that comes from, that one day you can pick up a pen and just start drawing. Was that always inside of you? Or did it just appear?" I really don't know the answer to that question.
But what I do know is that once I started to draw and paint, I couldn't stop. Would that have happened earlier in life if I had been pushed or encouraged more? I am not sure. I think part of what drives my work is my life experience, so coming into it later is something I am actually grateful for.
At what point did you start self-identifying as an artist?
Only about eight years ago. I was about 37. I got my first show ever. A small and not prestigious gallery in Seattle contacted me. I had barely anything in my portfolio. My work was so crude at the time. I was still floundering and experimenting, I was so far from finding my voice or having much technical skill.
But somehow being asked to show my work made me feel like a legitimate artist, as opposed to a "hobby crafter" or something like that. Sometimes the cart has to come before the horse. I identified as an artist far before my work was solid or very sellable. But at the same time, if I had not gotten that gallery break and begun to identify as an artist, I may not have worked so hard to find my voice and solidify a body of work that would allow me to make a living from it.
You have annual projects: collections, hand-lettering, The Reconstructionists, and I’m interested in these as an organizing principle/structure, but you have also talked about them in terms of personal projects and 'lets find out about me' (I love that idea).
I think because I am a seeker of wisdom, I learned early on that knowing yourself, pushing outside your comfort zone, trying new things, is enormously important (while often very scary). So for the past several years, I have been embarking on these yearly projects around areas of interest so that I could get better at something, learn more about something I was interested in, or share parts of my life with others.
I find the discipline of daily or weekly projects really great structure for my right-brained tendencies to procrastinate or daydream. Also, because my blog has a large readership and so there is built-on accountability, when I embark on a project and post it on the Internet, I know people are paying attention, and that leads me to follow through. Think about how often we try things and don't follow through! Daily, right? So when you follow through and create something every day or every week, it feels good.
One area that I’m currently interested in is life practice, or in your blog, “Life Outside the Studio”. Could you share a little of your experience with anxiety, and how you had built coping strategies for this, ways to relax into your life and even out that work life balance.
One of the things I write about, or have begun to come out about on my blog over the last year, is how I've dealt with anxiety since I was a kid. The "Life Outside the Studio" section of my blog is really just stories about my life that have little to do with my work, or are not directly about my work, per se (my work and life are so linked that it's hard to separate them). And so in that section I talk about stuff like managing my workload and my anxious tendencies, and I also talk about other things like my relationship, friendships, family, pets, adventures. I write about these things as a form of release or a way to get my head around them.
So in a way, the blog is a strategy for coping and relaxing into my life. For example, this past Spring I had a nervous breakdown because I had taken on too much work. I got to process that on my blog. I don't worry too much about who is reading it, because I do it mostly to make sense of what is happening in my life and the choices I make. My blog has become this place for me to be public about mistakes I've made or things I wish I'd done differently, and changes I want to make as a result. Right now my focus is on work life balance. My career as an illustrator took off two years ago and I have burned out. So the focus now is: How can I learn from that? How can I continue to do what I love for a living but also create space for relaxing and not working? Writing about that is really helpful.
What is the practice of blogging for you? We’ve talked about it in terms of diaries and discipline, but also of blogging as your 'happy place'.
Yes, my blog is like my little heaven. It's this place where I get to talk about stuff that is on my mind (and who doesn't like to do that?!?), what inspires me, my work, projects I've spent a lot of time on, my life, people I love. I don't have comments or advertisers on my blog so that I can keep it about what I want, stuff that is important to me, without worrying about anything else.
And finally, we ask everyone that we talk to for their well list: the films, books, people, websites, blogs, etc., that they look at, find useful and which have resonated with them in some way. What are yours?