If I had to describe Lisa Congdon in one word it would be badass. She proves that it’s never too late to pursue a creative career, and that to make your dreams happen, you have to put in the work. (Just look at her Instagram to see her many projects in progress.) I’m lucky to call her a friend, and we’re lucky to have her as a keynote speaker at Midwest Craft Con!
Grace: How would you describe your work to someone who isn’t familiar with it?
Lisa: I am a fine artist and illustrator, mostly. That means that I create both original works of art that sell in galleries and also illustrations — artwork that goes on published things like books and magazines or decorative things like wallpaper or fabric or practical things like journals and note cards. I am also an author, and now have created (written or illustrated) seven books, including Art Inc.: The Essential Guide to Building Your Career as an Artist. I teach lots of classes online, including both art classes, professional practice classes, and business classes.
How does it feel to be so successful after starting your art career relatively late in your life?
I didn’t start drawing or painting until I was 31 years old, and for many years it was all just a hobby — a way to relieve stress outside my job. I never went to school to study art, either. When I began to make a full time career of it around the time I was 40, it actually felt scary and mysterious! I had no idea what being a professional artist entailed or what was expected of me. I still hadn’t really fully developed my voice as an artist, either. But I didn’t let my fear or ignorance stop me, and I tried to figure out as much as I could on my own and asked a lot of advice of more experienced artists and illustrators. Eventually, I forged a path for myself, and all my hard work paid off. I started to make a decent living as an artist, and my career took off. At first I felt like an imposter in the art world. I felt like I didn’t belong and that eventually I would get kicked out for not being a “real” artist. (I think I felt this way because I was self-taught.) But then I sort of eased into it and began to embrace my new identity and career. I realized most people didn’t care if I had gone to school or not! In fact, I learned that many people who did go to school to study art didn’t know how to make a living at it, either. Now I have a good sense of accomplishment about where I have gone over the past 16 years. I eventually wrote a book about everything I learned, because I found out that many other people, some young and some older like me, also were confused and overwhelmed by the thought of making a living from their art or craft.
Have you been to the Midwest? What do you think of it and the makers who live there?
I have been to the Midwest quite a bit, and I love it! My father is from Indiana, and I used to go there regularly as a kid. I’ve spent lots of time in Milwaukee, Minneapolis and Chicago too. Three years ago I spoke at Moxie Con in Chicago, and two years ago I spoke at Weapons of Mass Creation in Cleveland. I have a love for every part of the country and for people in general — and the Midwest and its people are no different. One of my first great experiences as a maker and artist back in 2008 was showing my work at the former Paper Boat Gallery in Milwaukee, which was curated and run by artist, maker and writer Faythe Levine, who wrote Handmade Nation (and created the film of the same name). Faythe became a mentor and friend to me as well. Several years later, I was in a show at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee curated by Andrea Avery (who learned of my work through Faythe), and who now works at the John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan. At that show at the University of Wisconsin, I met sculptor Liz Miller (who was also in the show) who teaches at the Minnesota State University Mankato. We became friends, and in 2015 I did a teaching residency in Mankato! I have found that the connections I’ve made in the Midwest have led to really amazing opportunities! There is a spirit of generosity there that is unparalleled.
What are your favorite things about traveling to conferences?
Mostly I love seeing different parts of the country and world. I also love meeting new people, learning about what people are making, how they approach promoting and selling their work, what they are struggling with, what they are excited about, what inspires them.
Can you give us a little preview of your keynote talk?
I’ve been thinking and writing a lot about this idea that there are messages we tell ourselves about why something won’t work or why we might never be successful at what we do. Most of these messages come from decades of deeply ingrained cultural beliefs about what it means to be an artist or maker: that we are destined to be poor or that we aren’t smart business people. I believe those messages hold us back and prevent many people from even attempting to make a living at what they do. My goal right now is the turn those preconceived notions on their heads, and to help people, women in particular, to embrace not only their craft, but their aspirations for success — in whatever way they define it. And I also want to inspire women to begin to redefine what success can look like for them. Of course, none of that comes easily or without hard work, organization, strategic decision making. But reframing our mindsets about who we are and what we are capable of is where I like to start.
What three books would you recommend to makers who need some business inspiration?
Of course, I would be remiss not to recommend my own business book: Art Inc.! I also love Show Your Work by Austin Kleon and Uncertainty: Turning Fear and Doubt into Fuel for Brilliance by Jonathan Fields.
You can meet Lisa and many other creative entrepreneurs at Midwest Craft Con in February 2016 — tickets are on sale now!