The day I visit Lisa Congdon at her Northeast Portland studio, the 48-year-old artist has just returned from a complicated London-Iceland-Chicago journey. (She’d spoken at a London creative-industry conference.) She’s finishing her seventh book: interviews and essays celebrating late-blooming women. She’s planning her eighth: American First Ladies, from a feminist perspective, for kids. In the white-walled studio, Congdon’s charming, eclectic personal collections—vintage erasers, a library of art and design books like Graphis Annual: The Essential 1952–1986—flank the compact shipping-and-receiving center where the artist and her studio manager dispatch products ordered via Congdon’s online shop.
“In the old days, I think there was more pressure to choose between being a fine artist and being commercial,” Congdon says. “But if you want to make a living as an artist, it’s hard to do one thing. You have to do a lot of everything.”
A hardheaded maturity helps. Congdon didn’t start as an artist until her 30s, after a career in education and nonprofits. She tapped the Internet’s marketing power, achieving full professional liftoff in about 2011. Her style also happened to be of the times. She loves midcentury Scandinavian design; she also helped define that knowingly naive Portlandian aesthetic of cute animals and reverent flowers on everything.
For Congdon, paintings for New York gallery exhibits coexist with commissions like a series of notebooks for MoMA. She teaches online classes; she publishes adult coloring books. It’s not so much a “body of work” as a diversified portfolio—a business model, even, as much as art can ever have one, but still infused with passion. When she talks about a series of drawings she’d done based on her own quirky collecting habit, Congdon could be summing up her whole career: “Take the things you’re interested in, and turn them into part of your practice.”