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Flying Colours: a Q&A with illustrator and writer Lisa Congdon

Oregon-based fine artist, illustrator and writer Lisa Congdon was asked by the American Museum & Gardens to produce a poster design for their Americana Fest in July – we asked Lisa about the commission and about her uplifting work.

What brief were you given from the American Museum & Gardens?
I was given a brilliant overview of the museum’s history, the wonderful collections displayed in the house, and the beautiful gardens – it sounds like the perfect setting for a festival! The American Museum is the only museum of Americana outside of the United States that brings American history and cultures to the people of Britain and Europe. I love this.

The Museum wanted stylish and modern branding. My work is centred on a ‘folk’ aesthetic, and it’s also very modern and bold. I seemed like the perfect fit! The team were really excited about me using my signature style in the poster, including my use of colour, symbols, icons and even quilt motifs, which I am known for. I’m also American, which was a bonus of course.

What is the significance of the motifs in the artwork?
The museum gave me a list of the kinds of imagery they’d like me to draw – I referenced all of these things in various ways, including some food items, a food truck, eating utensils, flowers, vines, and, of course, the fleur-de-lis from the gardens!

How did you decide on the colour balances?
I was asked to use my own palette which was prefect for me as I have a very strong point of view when it comes to colour. I use bright, very warm-toned primary colours as my starting place and then I balance those by adding softer pastels and give them an edge by using black.

How much do you work by hand when producing an artwork?
All of my work is done by hand, even the digital work. I do sometimes sketch using tools like a pencil in a sketchbook, but in this case, I sketched right on my iPad, which is where I draw most of the time. My practice involves many mediums such as ceramics, painting on panels, sewing quilts and drawing with pastels.

Your work is distinctive for its bold, flat colours and sharp outlines – how important is the digital process to this effect?
Digital work really allows me to dive deeply into this very crisp style that I am known for. I like to say that my work is equal parts wonky and imperfect, and clean and crisp. In many ways, this balance between imperfect and sharp is what defines my style. This really came to life when I began drawing digitally five years ago. Digital drawing allows me to have this style that is both flat and bold colour with clean edges, and still maintains my ‘hand’.

What is the appeal of combining images and text?
In 2010, I practised hand lettering something every day for a year. That helped me develop my lettering style, and the work really resonated with my audience, and I began doing more of it. I love finding ways for the lettering and the illustrations to speak to each other and live together. I am very picky about the phrases and quotes – some of them are my own words, and some are from other people. It’s important to me that they reflect my values and approach to life.

You achieved artistic success later in life. How did this come about?
Part of my success is due to the fact that I had another career outside of art in my 20s and much of my 30s. I learned so many valuable skills that helped me launch my career – project management, client relationships, communication, discipline, etc.

Above: Lisa’s artwork produced for the Americana Fest at the American Museum & Gardens

I also think my style evolved after being a person who loved art and design for so many years before I began making it myself. For example, I love Mid-Century design, and have since I was a young woman. After a decade of that interest under my belt, that was instantly a huge influence in my work. I think being self-taught has also helped me create this style on my own, for myself, based on how I like to draw and represent things.

How did you direct your artistic vision?
The only way to find your voice as an artist is to make a lot of art. And that’s exactly what I did. I drew and painted obsessively for years and years and years, every single day. It is ultimately a very solitary exercise – and takes enormous discipline.

Where do you get inspiration for your work?
I live and breathe art and design, from the clothes I wear to how I decorate my house, and so I live inside my artistic vision constantly, and surround myself with things that I find beautiful. I love fashion, textiles, interior design, the Mid-Century aesthetic, folk art. My favourite artist of all time is Alexander Girard – he is a huge influence on me. I also keep a notebook of ideas.

You come across as a very joyful person. What is the secret?
I do not take myself too seriously. I try to live in the present moment and not worry about the future too much. I spend my time doing the things I love with people I love. I know who I am and have accepted myself as imperfect. That is a gift of age!

Lisa Congdon’s art prints are available through her website: lisacongdon.com; Americana Fest at the American Museum & Gardens runs from 1–3 July: americanmuseum.org

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