written by Sheila G. Miller
Good things come to those who wait. We had to wait until Portland fine artist Lisa Congdon was in her early 30s to even pick up a paintbrush. But today, her work is all over the place. If it’s melancholy you seek, keep moving— Congdon’s colorful work is full of hand-lettered statements like “You be you. I’ll be me” and “Eyes forward. Heart open.” There’s a bit of whimsy, a slightly youthful vibe and a ton of color. Her clients are diverse, from Martha Stewart Living to Harvard University, and her Etsy shop is thriving
Congdon, 50, started out painting as a hobby. After working in education for twenty years and as a project manager for a nonprofit, she decided at age 40 to try to be a full-time, working artist. She’d never attended art school and was completely self taught. “In some ways, the fact that I was older and had some really great experience in the working world—my last job was as a project manager at a nonprofit—helped make that possible,” Congdon said. “I had years of experience with things like working with clients and managing my time to juggle multiple projects.”
“There was a lot about the worlds of art and illustration I didn’t understand in the beginning,” she said. “As an outsider, I worked really hard to try to learn as much about them as possible so I could make informed decisions about how to market and sell my work.” Congdon caught a break—as she started her full-time artist venture, social media was growing fast. She used social media strategically to share her work with everyone from customers to galleries. It worked. Today, Congdon works primarily in acrylic and gouache paints and draws in ink. She paints on wood panels and other three-dimensional objects, sometimes on paper. However, she took up digital drawing on her iPad with a program called Procreate, which she now uses for most of her commercial work.
And Congdon is always looking for ways to combine technology with traditional crafts. Though Congdon has had success in “going pro” as an artist, she’s happy to welcome others to the table. “I would not be where I am in my career without the generosity of other artists who helped me when I was starting out,” she said. “When I began having success, it felt important to me to give back, to share what I had learned with other artists who were beginning their paths.” To that end, Congdon wrote a book in 2014 called Art Inc: The Essential Guide to Building Your Career as an Artist. The book is a how-to of sorts, a blueprint for how Congdon was successful.
Congdon also teaches classes and gives talks on a regular basis about the intersection between business and creativity. “I feel called to share and teach what I know,” Congdon said. “Being a successful working artist is really, really hard. Sure, it’s also fun and exciting at times, but, like any freelance career, it takes enormous discipline and grit. I want to tell the real story of what it takes to make it as an artist. It’s not the romantic notion that so many people imagine,” she said. “And, yet, if you work at it and you are willing to diversify what you do, it is also possible to make a living. And I want to spread that gospel, as opposed to the starving artist gospel.”
With her success, Congdon is committed to trying to help other artists. She recently opened a new shop in the front of her studio in inner North Portland, where she currently sells her own art and products. Eventually, she wants to include other artists’ work as well and open it to the public for workshops—run by her or other artists. Congdon said one of the ways she’s avoided that “starving artist” stuff is by being open to possibilities. And she was proactive—opened an Etsy shop, licensed her work for products, showed work in galleries and took illustration jobs. There were the books and the classes and the speaking engagements.
“Together, eventually, all of those things added to a living,” she said. “Early on, I also made a concerted effort to build an audience for my work online. I kept a blog, posted on social media daily about all the stuff I was up to. If you do that enough, people will become interested in your work, and your story. It took years, but eventually I became known.” Now she can be a little picky about what projects she works on—though she wants to be a full-time freelance artist, “there are only so many hours in the day. You can’t do it all. You will burn out.”
Learn more about Lisa Congdon’s art.