Striking out; women crafting a life – Lisa

Posted February 6, 2014

Lisa Congdon
Iceberg by Lisa Congdon

When Sara and I were kicking around the idea of a blog that featured women doing amazing work in and outside of energy, Lisa was the first non-energy person I thought to include. Years ago, well before I started ILLUME with Sara, I went to breakfast with Lisa and her wife Clay. As we got to know each other, Lisa relayed how she came to be a full time artist and I found it absolutely inspiring. Lisa, in an objectively successful career, decided to pursue art. Of all professional risks, you might say this is one of the greatest. Creative work is hard, it can be thankless, and it is deeply subjective. I was in awe of her bravery and later her extraordinary success.

I resolved to be similarly brave someday. It took me five years to feel comfortable taking a similar leap, and I have to say, it’s stories like Lisa’s that inspired me to do it and to stay the course. I hope Lisa’s story, and others we post, inspire more women to muster their courage and confidently craft a fulfilling life.

Learn more about Lisa’s story below. You can also find links to her art and blog here.


How would you describe your current life’s work?

When I first saw this question I had to think about it for a very long time. I think I am still trying to figure out what is my life’s work! I am a work in progress. My career is a career in progress. Mostly, I want to wake up every day and feel happy and that I have some positive purpose. I feel so lucky that I get to draw and paint for a living now, and that some people find joy in looking at my work or reading the essays on my blog. I feel so grateful that publishers and cool companies pay me to illustrate things or that people want me to make a painting for their home. But aside from making art, I also want to be kind and generous thoughtful as a person, and for my work to emulate those values. It’s so hard sometimes to do, and I stumble, but I work at it.

Was there a particular moment when it was clear to you that you needed to pursue a different path? Where were you in life literally and metaphorically? Why did you need a change?

I worked in the world of education for many years, both as a teacher, and then at two different school improvement non-profit organizations who worked in low income schools. I loved that work very much, but in the background I was always making art or yearning to make art. I am self taught and art-making originally was an outlet from the stress of my job. At some point I realized I was spending almost every waking moment that I wasn’t working at my job either thinking about what I was going to draw or paint next or actually drawing or painting. I had a studio that was one block from my office and I’d go there every evening and on the weekends. Eventually my work began to sell, and I realized that I could make at least a portion of my living from it. So I asked the director at the non profit if I might work part time so I could test the waters of being a working artist. She was very supportive of my endeavors and agreed. So for awhile I transitioned to professional art making by working part time at my job, and then eventually I left my job completely. It was both the scariest and most exciting time in my life. But when you discover what you need to do, you do it, risk and all. I had the privilege of some savings and a supportive family. But it was risky because at the time I was single and supporting myself. I had a great career in education and worked with wonderful people doing stuff I was passionate about. And at 39 I gave it all up to become an artist.

Were there any key people in your life who inspired you to take the leap and/or supported you in doing so?

My family was wonderful. My mother and sister are artists (my mom is a textile artist and my sister a photographer), and I think they saw that I had found my calling, so to speak. I am sure my mom and dad were incredibly nervous about my leaving this stable, honorable, well-paying career to become an artist at 39. But, for the most part, they kept their worries to themselves, and lent me money more than once! I think they could see there was no stopping me. I remember the first year that I earned more as an artist than I did at my previous job (which happened about six years into my art career) my parents made a toast to me over dinner. It was a simple gesture, and it meant a lot to me. I was nervous for awhile there I wouldn’t make it. Part of my anxiety was that I would disappoint my parents. Sometimes anxiety about failure can also be a great motivator.

What would you say to other women who are considering a big professional change?

Take it slowly and in phases, especially if it’s a big change or one that involves risk or temporary financial instability. I kept my job for a long time and then went part time before striking out on my own. For a couple of years owned a store front with a friend to help pay the bills. I was very intentional about every step. I planned and plotted. I hired an accountant to help me manage my finances and make smart choices. Also, use your passion for your professional goals as your motivation. Adopt a positive orientation. Waking up every day and telling yourself I can do this sounds hokey but it works. Persevere through difficulty and setbacks and learn from them instead of allowing then to kill your goals. Big professional changes — especially those that involve eventual self-employment can be really hard and can take years. Understand that bumps are normal. In this day of technology, we want everything to happen quickly. We can become so impatient. But sometimes big professional changes can take time, effort and sacrifice — things like taking classes to learn new skills, or taking a pay cut in the beginning, or hiring someone to coach or mentor you.

You have an impressive social media presence and following. How did you build it? What tips do you have for others looking to create a meaningful social media presence?

I am sort of lucky that I came into the art word when I did — at a time when there were all of these burgeoning opportunities to share my work with people for free and with a click of the keyboard — first through blogging, Twitter and Facebook and then on Instagram. In the old days as an artist you had to have representation by a gallery or agent or have a lucky break to have your work seen by so many people. It’s so different now, and it’s both broadened and leveled the playing field. I started using social media early on, and then kept using it, even when I had a very small following. I was perseverant and steady, and eventually I gained a following. I didn’t give up in the beginning because no one was listening. I just kept at it. I am lucky that enough people find the content on my blog relevant and keep coming back to read more. I write about my own work and process, but I also write about my life and my struggles. And I think when you are willing to share your story, people connect with you. Not everyone connects, but some people do. And social media is a way to share with people and connect with people. That’s all it is. If you think of it like that, and not as a popularity contest, that’s helpful. I also write and tweet about what inspires me — other artists’ work, people I admire. And so it’s not just about me, it’s about being part of a community of artists and makers, supporting and lauding my colleagues. I feel there is a generosity amongst many artists to support one another. I like being part of that. In whatever you do, find a community online, and be a supportive, positive part of that community.

What I love most about your artwork is your use of color and your focus on the natural world. What inspires you to paint the natural world? Why do you choose to pair it with such vibrant colors?

I love the outdoors. I am my happiest when I am hiking or in a beautiful outdoor setting. I am so drawn to the structure in trees and flowers and the beauty of animals and insects more than just about anything. Recently I have begin painting abstracts, and even those are influenced by things like clouds, and the colors in the sky, and patterns in running water. I love bright color — even color that you don’t find in nature that often (neon pink, for example). So I combine bright color with nature in my work quite a bit — even in ways that don’t seem to make sense. I think when I paint ordinary things like a forest of trees, I like to add some quirky element in color or pattern. An old painting teacher of mine always encouraged us to add something to our paintings that didn’t make sense. That has stuck with me, and I think my use of color has become my signature.