Lisa Congdon On A Glorious Freedom And Being A Torchbearer For Women Over 40

"It didn't happen the minute I began making and sharing my work when I was in my thirties. Feeling braver and freer took awhile."
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"It didn't happen the minute I began making and sharing my work when I was in my thirties. Feeling braver and freer took awhile."
All Illustrations by Lisa Congdon

All Illustrations by Lisa Congdon

A Glorious Freedom: that's the electrifying title that artist, illustrator and author Lisa Congdon chose for her newest book, which highlights the extraordinary accomplishments and insights of remarkable women over the age of 40. As a team committed to informing and uplifting women beyond the Millennial set — ever-evolving individuals at all stages of life— we couldn't have been more eager to peruse the pages, which feature profiles, interviews and essays from so many of our role models, like Julia Child, Cheryl Strayed and more. 

But Lisa herself might be the most inspiring of all. For years, we've appreciated both the stunning artworks she creates and the smart, socially conscious messages she shares, and many of her prior publications have staked out permanent spots on our shelves of favorite rereads. We admire her for her savvy and prolific career, for her unique and engaging perspective and her honest, humanitarian perspective – for, in other words, the way she has blended her voice and vocation for the sake of greater good. 

And so, we were thrilled to sit down with Lisa to chat about her perspective on aging and impact and the impetus behind the book. We hope you find as much galvanizing wisdom in her insights as we have.

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You've described yourself as a "late bloomer" – you started making art at age 31 and launched your artistic career at age 40. You've also talked about feeling "freer and braver" as you've aged. Do you think the former shifts have been the result of the latter, or the other way around, or is it just coincidence that these things have happened in tandem? Do you see your extra years of life experience as key to your creative success?

I know that when I started my art-making path at 31 I did not feel brave or free at all, at least inside my own mind. I was terrified about what my future held and I didn't have a strong sense of who I was or what value I had. And that's partly why I started making art. It was a way for me to not just to push myself outside of my comfort zone (something I knew I needed to do), but I also found some solace in making art. So it was a safe place for me to explore all these existential questions about my life's meaning. 

As I dove into the creative process, I got hooked. The work I made helped me to know myself better, and that work of getting to know myself better started in my thirties, and also included therapy. Making art also gave me something to feel accomplished about. It motivated me in a way nothing ever had. It gave my life meaning. And so, as a result, I just started drawing and painting all the time. And then I got better and better at it. And then I made it my profession (which was never my plan to begin with). And eventually in my mid-forties I began to feel braver and freer. 

It didn't happen the minute I began making and sharing my work when I was in my thirties. Feeling braver and freer took awhile. Maybe that feeling was just a result of getting older and learning lessons? Maybe it came from finally spending my time doing something I loved deeply? Maybe that feeling came from practicing my craft for so many years that I finally felt a level of confidence I'd never experienced when I was younger? I am not sure. But I do see my age as a key ingredient to my success. By the time I decided to make art my livelihood, I had years of experience in the working world. I understood the importance of discipline and of hustling and of risk-taking and good communication.

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Your new book features women like you: inspiring ingenues over the age of forty who are "thriving" and "living life on their own terms." What exactly do those two things mean to you? How have the definitions shifted for you over the years?

I think this is changing with younger generations, but historically and across cultural divides, women have been told to be silent, to sit still, not to talk or disrupt or speak out. Women from my generation, as feminist as we might see ourselves, still often regard our ability to please others as a strength over following our own dreams. And we also believe that once we hit middle age we're done for in terms of our ability to make an impact, if we even allow ourselves to think about making an impact as a possibility at all. 

At one time, I was caught in the trap of those beliefs. And part of getting older has been realizing those are all socially constructed beliefs and attitudes and norms that hold women back, including me. Thriving is a rejection of all of that. It's pursuing stuff that people in your family might deem crazy or fool-hearty. It's throwing aside worry about what other people think of you and your decisions. It's following your own interests and professional goals despite how challenging they might be (alongside juggling a full time job or kids or taking care of an elderly parent). 

For many women, there is an opportunity later in life, because the things they were once responsible for are no longer there to occupy their time. Or many women develop a "what the hell do I have to lose" attitude as they get older. So finally, they begin to do the stuff they really want to do (not the stuff they have to do). There are so many examples of this in the book. And you see really great things happen as a result – older women doing really fantastic things at an older age.

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Let's talk more about how the experience of aging affects women in particular. Why do women especially need this book's insights?

We are the caretakers. Our job is to take care of other people before we take care of ourselves. We are less strong, less capable. We are the weaker sex. We are sexualized objects. Of course, I don't believe any of this is actually true, but it's still how we, as a society, see women. So women, even women who've had an successful career, often find themselves at 40 or 50 or 60 questioning whether they've actually ever done anything they wanted to do because they've been so busy keeping a family together, or working in a profession they hate to pay the family's bills or fulfilling the expectations of parents who are long dead. And there is this yearning to take their remaining years and make meaning from them. 

Older women often go through some kind of awakening and are using this awakening to do things like go back to school, push themselves athletically, write the book they always wanted to write, become that thing they always dreamed of becoming. And they are doing it with 20 or 30 years more of life experience than someone in their 20's. And so what happens is often remarkable.

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Why do you think our society struggles to celebrate aging as a gift rather than a curse? Do you ever catch yourself getting caught up in that common dialogue, and how do you stay grounded in your own honest truth?

A big part of that is that, aside from some of the societal stuff I've already mentioned, we are so focused on physical appearance as your main value. And for women, growing older often means your body changes shape. And you develop wrinkles. And the further away you grow from the physical ideal, the less value you have in our society. We put so much more value on external beauty in women than we put on men. 

I'm guilty of this too, of course! The other day I was listening to a podcast where the interviewer was talking to a brilliant female scientist. Based on their conversation I guessed the scientist was in her late 50's. For some reason I was curious about what she looked like, so I Googled her so I could see a photo of her. And I had that thought, "She is so attractive, not only for her age, but also for a scientist," as if scientists should not be attractive. And I literally caught myself perpetuating that narrative about beauty and age and intellect and value. And if I judge others one way or the other for beauty standards, how must I judge myself, and how will I continue to judge myself as I continue to age? So it's something I constantly have to work on. And from talking to friends my age, also in middle age, they are grappling with it too.

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You've mentioned before that your "favorite place in the world is a flea market" and you enjoy collecting "stuff, mostly old stuff." (In fact, your first book, published back in 2011, featured 365 of your collections.) Might that penchant reflect a deeper appreciation for the value of age and experience? Have you always harbored a particular respect for maturity and seasoned history?

That's an interesting connection. I don't know that there is a relationship there necessarily. I've been collecting old things since I was a little girl. I certainly have an interest in history (I majored in history in college!) and in obsolescence and the shifting of things over time. And I am a great lover of stories of overcoming difficulty and of "lessons learned" and wisdom gained. So maybe there is something there.

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You've said that success isn't so much about talent as it is about dedication – something you seem to have mastered. You're very intentional when it comes to your daily routines and your personal discipline, which we imagine explains how immensely productive and prolific you are! Has this always come naturally to you, or has it taken time and experimentation to instill these habits?

I've always been fairly balanced in terms of right- and left-brained sorts of activities, and I think since I've become an artist in the last 20 years I've used my left-brained tendencies to keep my right-brained tendencies corralled. In some ways, I think it was a good thing that I didn't pursue art until later in life, because by then I had developed a level of mastery at time management and organization and focus, stuff that was all really important in my former career as a teacher and then a project manager. 

That stuff takes time to learn just like anything else. And the early part of my adult life was spent on getting good at that stuff. So by the time I got around to creativity and being creative, I had a way to compartmentalize my projects, to shift gears from one thing to the next, set and meet goals, etc. I'm freed up to be creative because I manage to stay somewhat organized. So my mind can really have the space to think openly. 

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Do you have any tips for the rest of us, when it comes to building structures that support our success?

I am a big advocate of developing systems that keep your projects (and everything associated with them) organized. And you want to use those systems every day to guide your work (what you work on each day, for how long, etc). It doesn't matter how smart you are, your brain can only hold so much in it, so if you are a person who is trying to juggle a lot of projects, you have to have a system (or a set of interlocking systems) for keeping that all together.

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What's something you're still learning or working on right now? (This could be a practical skill, or it could be more of a general mindset shift. Or both!)

I turn 50 in January and I'm really focusing on this being the year I work on listening to my body. I work a lot – at the computer, drawing table, etc. I am also an avid athlete. I work out a lot at either the swimming pool or spin studio. From chronic overuse and repetitive motion, I've developed pretty bad tendinitis in my right arm and some back issues as a result of doing all those things and not spending enough time taking care of the wear and tear on my body. 

When I was younger I didn't feel all of that too much. Now, at 49, I feel EVERYTHING. So I am spending more time stretching, getting body work, slowing down, working more ergonomically, taking walking breaks, etc. I want to pay as much attention to taking care of myself physically as I've paid attention to working. My right arm is my livelihood! I have to protect it! In fact, after I finish this interview, I'm going for a massage.

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You're known for your colorful, playful and fun illustrations, but your work is so much more than aesthetically pleasing – you use your eye and your voice to make authentic meaning and even to drive social and political change. How do you think about the role of visual art in today's world and its intersections with activism? How do you navigate the balance between lightness and impact?

I think it's just that – a balance. Every artist's work is a reflection of what is important to them. I care very much about things like spreading good messages in my work about risk-taking and creativity, and I love making beautiful pictures or patterns that don't have any overt message. But I also care very much about social and political change, and I feel it's my responsibility to speak out about those things – not just through my work, but also because I have a large platform on social media. I feel it's my responsibility to speak about about my opinions, that complacency is a privilege. So I also use my work and platform to discuss and raise money for causes I believe in and to advocate for people who do not have a voice. A big part of that in the last year has been actively resisting damaging policies and ideology of the current administration in the U.S. It sucks energy, but it's necessary work. I am committed to it with every bone in my body for as long as it takes. 

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Seattle! Lisa will be at Elliot Bay Books SATURDAY (October 14th)! She will be talking about A Glorious Freedom on stage with Shauna Ahern (also an essay contributor to the book!) There will be an audience Q&A and a book signing to follow.  

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