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Literary Arts News, Readers

An Interview with Portland Book Festival Guest Artist Lisa Congdon

Artist Lisa Congdon, known for her modern, colorful, folk-art influenced illustrations and design, is our 2020 Portland Book Festival guest artist. We recently spoke with Lisa about her work and what she loves about living in Portland.

How long have you lived in Portland? What do you love about working and living in this city?

I moved to Portland in 2015. My parents and sister and her family have lived here for years, so it had been on my brain to move here for over a decade. I’ve always really loved it here. I had to convince my wife, who was terrified of the rain! I finally convinced her, and after about two years, she even began to LOVE the rain! We are true Portlanders now. I also feel like COVID has, if anything, highlighted the best of Portland. From an unrelenting dedication to protests for Black Lives to community-led, free things like outdoor roller skating events to outdoor restaurant seating, we are a city of innovation. I love that about Portland. I also love the access to nature. I am an avid road cyclist and paddle boarder, and we are at the epicenter of urban/outdoor living. Our mantra on weekends is usually, “Where shall we adventure today?”

You participated in a panel for the 2017 Portland Book Festival. Tell us about your experience.

I was on a panel for my book The Joy of Swimming. Geoff Norcross  interviewed three of us about how athletic obsession can both help us and hurt us.  I was joined by Karen Karbo on the experience of co-writing Hound of the Sea, with big wave surfer Garret McNamara and Jason Reynolds on the first book in his middle-grade series titled Track. It was a delight!

What about your experience as an attendee of the festival?

I absolutely love hearing authors talk about their research and writing process, their motivations and intentions. The opportunity to ask authors all the burning questions (and listening to others ask their questions) is really my favorite part. I mean, how many times do we have access to brilliant minds like this? For a reader, the Festival is like a holiday. 

 Your journey to being a working artist (and having books published) may seem non-traditional to some. Tell us about this path. Do you have any advice for others who may be beginning their journeys later in life?

I didn’t start drawing or painting until I was in my early 30’s. I am 52 now, so I’ve been making art for two decades, but I did get a “late” start compared to most. I never imagined when I started that it would ever become a career. In the beginning, I was doing it purely for fun and relaxation. But at the time, the internet was becoming a space for creative folks to share what they were making. And I started a blog in 2004 and joined Flickr so I could post photos of the stuff I was making and meet other aspiring creative people. And that was really the beginning for me. Within two years, I had my first art show at a tiny store in Seattle. And the next year I opened an Etsy shop. I was still working full time in the nonprofit world, but I realized that if I continued to work on honing my skills and putting my work out there in the right places, that I might be able to eek some kind of living out of my art. So I began slowly to work toward that goal. And all these years later, I am here. The internet and social media have really provided a place for folks like me who are self-taught to pave their own way without needing a degree or an agent or a gallery. I have an agent and a gallery now, but I got there in a different way than most. 

“We often look at starting later at something as an impediment. But my advice to people is to begin to understand that your age is actually your super power. The older we grow, the more perspective, wisdom, perseverance, and creativity we have. I owe so much of my success to my previous experience. And I encourage others to make that mind shift.”

Do you have any favorite authors? What about all time favorite books?

Ursula Hegi is my all time favorite author. Her books Salt Dancers and Stones from the River are two of my favorite books. Recently, her publicist sent me The Patron Saint of Pregnant Girls, which is next on my shelf to read. I was even thinking recently of re-reading her entire Burgdorf Series. 

What books have you read recently? Do you have any recommendations?

Recently I finished How to Be Anti-Racist by Ibram X Kendi. It broke me open in a way no other book had done in a long time. Two other books I read recently and loved were On Earth We Are Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong and Hidden Valley Road by Robert Kolker. 

Tell us about your next book!

I have a book coming out on September 29, via Beach Lane Books, which is an imprint of Simon & Schuster! It’s called Round and it’s a children’s book I illustrated, that was written by Jennifer Ward. It’s a sort of lyrical book that takes the young reader through all the round things we find in nature. It’s super colorful and I’m really excited about it!

This year’s Portland Book Festival will be held entirely online, November 5–21, 2020.

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