If you don’t know illustrator and fine artist Lisa Congdon’s story, you’re in for a bit of treat.
In her early thirties, Congdon’s life looked a lot different to how it does today. Then employed in the not-for-profit education sector, Congdon started taking an art class to help alleviate the stress of her demanding job. It brought her joy, and that alone was her motivation to commit to making art outside of work hours.
What Congdon didn’t see coming, though, was her creative hobby growing into what is now a hugely lucrative career. It’s something she credits partially to the explosion of blogs and social media at the time, though Congdon is hardly an overnight success—it took seven years after first picking up a paintbrush for Congdon to quit her job to focus on art full time.
Now 49, Congdon has created her bright and colourful illustrations, lettering work and pattern designs for clients like MoMA, AirBnB, Urban Outfitters and Poketo. She’s also written a number of books including Art Inc: The Essential Guide to Building Your Career as an Artist (if you’re aspiring artist and haven’t read it yet, stop what you’re doing and get it now), pens her widely loved blog Today Is Going To Be Awesome, and shares her wisdom with others through platforms like Skillshare.
Based in Portland, Oregon, Congdon is a venerable icon of the creative world and we were thrilled to pick her brain on a range of topics, from what it’s like to start a creative career later in life to how the changing political climate has seeped into her art practice.
1. Your style is very distinctive—how did you develop it? Was it conscious?
Thank you for saying that! It’s funny—right now I am writing a book for artists who are just starting out about ’finding your artistic voice’. So I’ve been thinking about this question of finding your style a lot lately.
I think that while I did work hard for many years to find a style, I wasn’t purposefully going for the style I ended up finding. Finding your own style as an artist takes so many years, lots of experimentation, trial and failure, and working on making your style distinctive.
In many ways, finding your style is really just years and years of drawing and painting (or whatever your medium/process). And eventually, if you draw and paint enough, something distinctive will emerge.
But it’s really hard to plan where you will end up. Making art is a conscious act for me, but developing my style doesn’t feel entirely conscious because it involved so many factors.
2. How HAS the recent political climate, particularly the Trump administration, impacted your approach to your art? has it?
You know, I never really made much political art before. I did make work in the last several years about DOMA [the Defence of Marriage Act]—I got married to my wife the year it was struck down—and I also did work for both the Obama campaign and the Human Rights Campaign, but not really much more than that.
But after the election, and then after the inauguration, that all changed for me. I was so totally disheartened with the tone and policies of the current administration that I realised I had no choice but to use my talents and platform to talk about what I believe in and to spread messages of inclusion and social justice.
So, I began making politically-charged illustrations. Of course, I still do all the non-political stuff I used to do, but my work has definitely become more political. I see it as my responsibility to speak out as a person with a lot of privilege.
3. You started your career as an artist quite 'late' and without any formal training. How do you think this experience has impacted on your career trajectory?
Yes, I didn’t start drawing or painting until I was in my early 30s, and didn’t become a professional artist until I was 39 years old. I just celebrated my 10-year anniversary as a working artist, and I turn 50 in January.
In most ways, my age hasn’t negatively impacted my career. If anything, I think a big segment of my online audience supports my work and follows me because I offer them an alternative to what they previously might have thought possible as an ’older’ woman—and that’s inspiring to them.
Also, after years of working in a regular office job as a project manager, I’m super organised, good at communicating and understand how to juggle lots of projects at once! So, if anything, my experience and age have helped me. I feel very grateful that I fell into this when I did, and that I had the experiences I had before I became an artist.
4. Do you ever experience self-doubt in your work? How do you overcome it?
Yes, absolutely. Anyone who tells you they do not experience self-doubt either is a Buddha or is lying. It’s completely normal and human to experience self-doubt, especially when you are a creative person.
It’s hard right now because there are so many opportunities to compare ourselves to other people in the field—especially on social media. We are bombarded by beautiful images of people’s lives and work—day in and day out—on places like Instagram. Sure, what we see can also be very inspiring and motivating, but it can make us feel like we aren’t doing enough, or we aren’t doing the right stuff, or our work sucks.
I work really hard every day to focus on my own journey. Sometimes I have to literally envision myself putting blinders on. I also recently took up meditation about six months ago. And that has helped me get really good at taking deep breaths, and figure out some ways to stay centred and grounded when social media throws me off. But like for most people, it’s a struggle. And the struggle is real.
5. What advice would you have for someone wanting to pursue a creative career, particularly for those who might be starting out late?
I just wrote a book that comes out in October called A Glorious Freedom: Older Women Leading Extraordinary Lives. It’s a book of essays by, interviews with and profiles of women who either didn’t get started on their path until later in life (and also subsequently did amazing things) and/or reached the apex of their careers later in life.
Almost every woman I interviewed for the book gave similar advice as I would: let go of what other people think and do the thing you want to do. Period. That takes a lot of courage, but the alternative is regret. So what have you got to lose, really?