Colorful, playful forms are the calling card of Lisa Congdon, the Portland-based artist whose work has adorned everything from Method hand-soap bottles to Commedes Garçons apparel to the walls of collectors’ homes. But just two decades ago, the prolific creator didn’t consider herself an artist at all. “I didn’t start drawing or painting until I was about 32,” Congdon says. “I never nurtured that creative part of myself—or even knew it existed.”
In the early aughts, she started taking art classes just for fun. “Something lit up in me,” she says. “I wasn’t very good at it, but I loved it, so I got my basic chops down—how to draw, how to paint.” In 2006, she staged her first show in a Seattle shop and since then the Lisa Congdon brand has expanded to encompass 10 books, a podcast, online classes, apparel and homewares, as well as collaborations with clients including Target, Amazon, Crate & Barrel and MoMA.
Underpinning all that output is fine art, which Congdon makes in the studio behind her Portland storefront and displays in regular solo shows at the Stephanie Chefas Projects gallery. Whereas most of her commercial work is digitally drawn on an iPad, Congdon’s fine art comes to life in strokes of acrylic and gouache. “It’s this precious time when I’m focusing on a new color palette or style,” she explains. “For someone who does so much art-directed work, making fine art is such a gift because you have time to ask, ‘What is it that I want to say?’”
Her creations reveal a love for vibrant color, nature, midcentury design and the graphic shapes of folk art, as well as passions for mental health awareness and social justice, which Congdon addresses through hand-lettered messages embedded in her illustrations. “A lot of artists think they need to make work that’s going to be attractive to potential clients,” she notes. “But really what attracts anybody is your passion for the thing.”
Congdon’s non-commercial work often pushes her into fresh subject matter that leads to collaborations with new and unexpected clients. Her most recent solo show, “North Coast,” highlighted art inspired by her explorations of the flora, fauna and folklore of Oregon’s northern coast. “Nine times out of 10, the pieces I make for fun get licensed or inspire a product design,” she says. “It’s what leads me to the work that resonates the most.”