Design Matters: Lisa Congdon

Posted inDesign Matters With Debbie Millman
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From the briefest of glances, it’s apparent that the artist Lisa Congdon is wholly and profoundly her own.

There’s her work: the lively illustrations that dance across page, canvas and garment.

There’s her personal style: the striking haircuts and tattoos, the bold jewelry and color pairings.

There’s her obsessions and collections: everything from vintage airline tags and golf tees to midcentury paperbacks and antique Hungarian stamps.

There’s her story, and the power and possibility within that story: Congdon began her professional life teaching elementary school and doing nonprofit work … and did not pick up the tools of her future trade until she was in her 30s.

Lisa Congdon is, indeed, wholly her own. So this likely comes as a surprise: Growing up, she abided by the Official Preppy Handbook (yes—a real thing)—which today she dubs “the ultimate handbook for conforming.”

Luckily, when she was 22, she had a catharsis.

“In May of 1990, I graduated from [a] Catholic college and moved the next day, quite fortuitously, to the city of San Francisco, and my entire interior world exploded. I realized after only a week there what Ben Shahn once so eloquently expressed: Conformity was for the birds.”

In Congdon’s new book, Find Your Artistic Voice, she is the ultimate creative sherpa—perhaps because she holds no airs that her artistic brilliance emerged fully formed. Rather, she emerged as herself, and took things bird by bird from there. After all, as she details in her new book, it doesn’t matter who you are, how old you are, or what you do—anyone can find their artistic voice.

Here are some lessons from the book that are explored in this episode of Design Matters.

Lisa Congdon

“One of the things I learned when I began making art was that there was so much more to my story than I ever realized. In fact, once I started to make art, it was like a floodgate opened.”

“While in mainstream culture, idiosyncrasies and differences are often seen as flaws. In our world—the world of artists—they are your strength. They are part of what embody your artistic ‘voice’: all of the characteristics that make your artwork distinct from the artwork of other artists, like how you use colors or symbols, how you apply lines and patterns, your subject matter choices, and what your work communicates.”

“Many athletes set performance goals that are measurable and easily comparable to other athletes in the same sport based on set standards: number of goals scored, seconds or minutes it takes to complete a specific distance, or distance completed in a specific amount of time. As an artist, your goals are things like nonconformity and difference, neither of which is based on a shared set of measurable outcomes.”

“Spend periods of time off the internet and out of books. If you are someone who relies heavily on reference or inspiration to begin a piece of art, try spending an entire week (or more!) making art that uses no reference or inspiration. Notice what happens and how your work evolves.”

“Experimentation is where creativity comes to life.”

“Most artists are so busy simply attempting to produce satisfying work or make a living that they forget that, ultimately, they are making work to communicate their own version of the truth.”

“Sometimes when we bat around the term ‘skill,’ even the most experienced artists will cringe. And that’s because for hundreds of years in the art world, until the late nineteenth century, what it meant to be a skilled artist was wrapped up in something very particular: your ability to render something realistically, typically from life. Embedded in that notion of skill were years and years of painstaking practice and academic precision. That old notion is still woven into the fabric of our idea about what it means to have ‘skill,’ but it’s extremely antiquated.”

“Often, the word style is used interchangeably with voice. So it’s worth mentioning both of these facts: Style is one of the most significant aspects of your voice, and your voice is much more than your style, as you will see. Your artistic style is the look and feel of your work. It includes things like how neat and precise your work is or how loose and messy it is. It includes whether you make work that is representational or abstract, the marks you make in your work, and how those marks are repeated.”

“The consistency in your work is the ultimate expression of your voice. When you find that your work begins to use consistent media and subject matters and has a consistent style over time, this is evidence that your voice is emerging. Does consistency mean you’ll never experiment or try new things? Of course not!”

“One of the first tips my former agent, Lilla Rogers, gave to me was that I should give myself assignments when I didn’t have paid work; I should use the time I had to make the kind of work I wanted to get hired to do by clients. That notion—make the work you want to get as an illustrator—became a mantra that guided my career.”

“Once we’re in the messy, hard, or dark place we were trying to avoid, we realize that the messy, dark, hard part can also be the most interesting, and if we sit for a prolonged period in the discomfort of it, it’s often where our best work comes from. It’s always where we learn. Ultimately, it’s where the magic happens.”

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