First, Call Yourself An Artist: Career Advice From Artist Lisa Congdon
Lisa Congdon didn’t go to art school. She didn’t start painting until she was 31 or 32. Yet she’s built a professional career as a painter and illustrator, and can count The Museum of Modern Art, The Obama Campaign, and Urban Outfitters among her clients.
“I took a painting class with my brother for fun, just thinking I would do this with him for one semester. I had zero expectations, but I loved it,” she says.
For several years, art was a hobby she spread over the kitchen table after work and on the weekends. Around 2004, however, she started a blog, opened a Flickr account, and began to post her work online.
“I started meeting other people who were making art. Things started to happen in really small and incremental ways. I would be asked if I was interested in a group show or if I would consider selling,” says Lisa.
However, it wasn’t until three years into her online presence that she began to transform her hobby into a career.
“I had a few solo shows and was contacted by a few companies including Chronicle Books. I realized I could potentially become a full time professional artist. It still took several years before I was making a regular income. Over the next eight years until today, my career blossomed into what it is now.”
Although she found great success, it took years for Lisa to feel like she could call herself a “real” artist.
“I used to feel like everyone else knew what they were doing except me,” she says. “I shared a studio with people who all had their MFAs and were all doing amazing things. I would go to the studio and be afraid they were going to figure out that I didn’t know what I was doing. I thought for sure I was doing things wrong. I thought I would get kicked out for not being a ‘real’ artist. It wasn’t until I had fully launched my professional career, maybe five years ago, that I could own that title. What I learned in the process was that a lot of people, even those who go to art school or have technical training, also feel like impostors.”
Others shy away from an art career because they fear art will become work.
“Yes, art feels like work at times. It is my job,” says Lisa. “People imagine artists in their studios listening to classical music and drinking tea, and everything feels warm and fuzzy. It can actually be really frustrating; it’s a lot about changes and revisions. With personal work, you’re fighting your own demons. It can be a hard experience just like any other job. That said, I still love it enough to do it every day and the magical moments I have when I’m painting and drawing make up for the hard work.”
To care for herself as an artist and a person, Lisa intentionally sets boundaries.
“You have to find the right balance of work that you need to make a living, but not too much to burn out. You’ll have to make hard decisions of when to say yes and no. That means not taking advantage of every opportunity,” she says.
When she’s working, Lisa gets into her creative zone through audio books or music; Sigur Rós, Sleater-Kinney, and Bikini Kill are a few favorites depending on her mood.
“Sometimes the creative process isn’t about thinking, but about being in your own world. When I’m listening to words, I’m not in my own head judging how the work is going,” she says.
She works to pass on the inspiration she received from other artists to those who want art to be part of their lives.
“It feels really important to me to send the message that if you have a burning desire to be a more creative person (not even a professional), it isn’t ever too late and I’m living proof of that. I don’t believe in overnight success; for the most part you have to work really hard, but it is possible to do something amazing with your life.”
Lisa’s advice applies not simply to artists, but for all those who want to build their careers and do more with their lives.
“My early days were often very frustrating,” she says. “I would have a vision in my head, but didn’t have the skills to execute it, and sometimes I still don’t. It’s really important to stick with it and eventually I’ll be able to do it, even if it’s not exactly what was in my head. If I apply myself enough and practice developing skills, I can achieve so much more than I ever thought possible. That’s what separates prolific or successful artists from those who are not successful: the ability to push through discomfort and sit with the messiness. It’s important to move through messiness to create art that has depth and dimension and interestingness. That applies to everything in life really: the idea of pushing through discomfort and messiness to get to the other side, which is often very beautiful.”
See Lisa’s work and be inspired by her blog posts on her website.